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Ukrainian extremists will only triumph if Russia invades

Ukraine has no future without Europe, but Europe also has no future without Ukraine.

“Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire”
by Ilya Repin (1891). Image: Wikimedia Commons

The history of statehood on the territory of Ukraine begins with two archetypically European encounters. Medieval statehood on the territory of today’s Ukraine, like that of France and England, includes an encounter with Vikings. The men from the north sought to establish a trade route between the Baltic and Black Seas, and used Kiev, on the Dnipro River, as a trading post. Their arrival coincided with the collapse of an earlier Khazar state, and their leaders soon intermarried with the local slavic-speaking population. Thus arose the entity known as Kievan Rus. Like all of the states of medieval eastern Europe, Rus was a pagan entity that did not so much convert to Christianity as choose between its western and eastern variants. Like all of its neighbours, it hesitated between Rome and Byzantine before its rulers chose the latter. Rus was seriously weakened by problems of succession before its destruction was ensured by the arrival of the Mongols in the first half of the thirteenth century. 

At this point the history of Rus fragments into parts. Most of the lands of Rus were gathered in by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, an enormous warrior state with a capital in Vilnius. Its grand dukes styled themselves the inheritors of Rus, and adapted many of the cultural achievements of Rus, such as its slavic court language and legal traditions. Although the grand dukes were pagan Lithuanians most of their subjects were eastern Christians. After the grand dukes of Lithuania became, by personal union, the kings of Poland, most of the lands of Ukraine were part of the largest European state. The constitutional reforms of 1569 established this state as a republic known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In this “republic of two nations”, the lands of Ukraine were part of the Polish crown, and the lands of Belarus part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In this way a new division was created within the old lands of Rus.

This was the first epoch of oligarchical pluralism in Ukraine. Ukrainian noblemen took part as equals in the representative institutions of the republic, but the vast majority of the population was colonised in large estates that produced grain for export. Local warlords were joined by Polish noblemen as well as Jews, who helped to establish a feudal order in the country. It was in this era that Jews helped to create the small cities remembered as shtetls.

This political system brought the Cossack rebellion of 1648, in which free men who had escaped the system challenged its logic. Fatefully, they allied with a rival state that had roots in ancient Rus, the Duchy of Muscovy. The city of Moscow had been on the eastern frontier of Rus, and unlike most of the territories of Rus it remained under direct Mongol control. Whereas the territories of today’s Belarus and Ukraine were in contact, through Vilnius and Warsaw, with the renaissance and the reformation, neither of these trends reached Moscow. Its break from Mongol rule is dated conventionally at 1480. The dukes of Moscow, like the grand dukes of Lithuania, styled themselves the inheritors of Kiev Rus. They did not, however, control Kiev for nearly half a millennium after the destruction of that medieval state. For most of the time Kiev was ruled from Vilnius and

The Cossack rebellions began the decline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and created the conditions for the shift of Kiev from Polish to Muscovite rule. In 1667 the lands of today’s Ukraine were divided between the Commonwealth and Muscovy, with Kiev on the Muscovite side. This permitted contact between Muscovy and Europe, and educated elites from Kiev’s university moved north to become professionals and officials in the growing empire. The pattern repeated itself when the Commonwealth was partitioned out of existence by Muscovy (by then known as the Russian Empire), Prussia, and the Habsburg monarchy at the end of the eighteenth century. The Russian Empire, which had no tradition of higher education, exploited literate men trained in Vilnius and Kiev.

In the nineteenth century, the Ukrainian national movement also followed rather typical European patterns. Some of these educated men, lay and clergy, began to rebel against their own biographies and present the subject of history not as the elites but as the masses. The trend began in Kharkiv, and then spread to Kiev and across the Russian-Habsburg border into Lviv. Ukrainian historians of the nineteenth century were leaders among the general European trend of romanticising the common people, known in Ukraine as populism. This intellectual move also allowed for the imagination of a common Ukrainian nation across the border of the Russian Empire (as Muscovy was now known) and the Habsburg monarchy (where a small territory known as eastern Galicia was home to speakers of the language we would call

As in the rest of eastern Europe, the Great War brought the end of traditional empire and attempts to establish a national state following the Wilsonian logic of self-determination. But in Ukraine the attempts were multiple, one on the Habsburg lands and one on the lands of the Russian Empire. The first was defeated by Poles, who succeeded in attaching eastern Galicia to their own new state. The second had to contend with both the Red Army and its White opponents, who even as they fought against each other agreed that Ukraine would be part of a larger political unit. Although the Ukrainian national movement was comparable to those of other east European territories, and although people fought and died in larger numbers for Ukraine than for most of the other emergent nation-states after 1918, the outcome was complete failure. After an enormously complicated series of events, in which Kiev was occupied a dozen times, the Red Army was victorious, and a Soviet Ukraine was established as part of the new Soviet Union.

Precisely because the Ukrainian movement was difficult to suppress, and precisely because Soviet Ukraine was a western borderland of the USSR, the question of its European identity was central from the beginning of Soviet history. Within Soviet policy was an ambiguity about Europe: Soviet modernisation was to repeat European capitalist modernity, but only in order to surpass it. Europe might be either progressive or regressive in this scheme, depending upon the moment, the perspective, and the mood of the leader. In the 1920s Soviet policy favoured the development of a Ukrainian intellectual and political class, on the assumption that enlightened Ukrainians would align themselves with the Soviet future. In the 1930s Soviet policy sought to modernise the Ukrainian countryside, by collectivising the land and transforming the peasants into employees of the state. This brought massive resistance from a peasantry that believed in private property, as well as declining yields.

Joseph Stalin transformed these failures into a political victory by blaming them upon Ukrainian nationalists and their foreign supporters. He continued requisitions in Ukraine in the full knowledge that he was starving millions of human beings, and crushed the new Ukrainian intelligentsia. More than three million people were starved in Soviet Ukraine. The consequence was a new Soviet order of intimidation, where Europe was presented only as a threat. Stalin claimed, absurdly but effectively, that Ukrainians were deliberately starving themselves on orders from Warsaw. Later, Soviet propaganda maintained that anyone who mentioned the famine must be an agent of Nazi Germany. Thus began the politics of fascism and anti-fascism, where Moscow was the defender of all that was good, and its critics were fascists. This very effective rhetorical pose did not preclude an actual Soviet alliance with the actual Nazis in 1939. Given the return of Russian propaganda today to anti-fascism, this is an important point to remember: the whole grand moral Manichaeism was meant to serve the state, and as such did not limit it in any way. The embrace of anti-fascism as a strategy is quite different from opposing actual

Ukraine was at the centre of the policy that Stalin called “internal colonisation”; it was also at the centre of Hitler’s plans for an external colonisation. His Lebensraum was before all Ukraine. Its fertile soil was to be cleared of Soviet power and exploited for Germany. The plan was to continue the use of Stalin’s collective farms, but to divert the food from east to west. Along the way German planners expected that some 30 million inhabitants of the Soviet Union would starve to death. In this style of thinking, Ukrainians were of course subhumans, incapable of normal political life, fit only for colonisation. No European country was subject to such intense colonisation as Ukraine, and no European country suffered more: It was the deadliest place on earth between 1933 and 1945.

In the Germany of today, colonial assumptions remain unexamined. Germans are reflective about crimes against Jews and against the Soviet Union (falsely remembered as Russia), but almost no one in Germany recognises that the central object of German colonial thinking and practice was precisely Ukraine. German leaders as prominent as Helmut Schmidt do not hesitate, even today, to exclude Ukrainians from the normal precepts of international law. The idea that Ukrainians are not normal human beings persists, now with the vicious twist that Ukrainians are held responsible for the crimes in Ukraine that were in fact German policy and would never have taken place without a German war and German policies of colonisation.

Although Hitler’s main war aim was the destruction of the Soviet Union, he found himself needing an alliance with the Soviet Union to begin armed conflict. In 1939, after it became clear that Poland would fight, Hitler recruited Stalin for a double invasion. Stalin had been hoping for years for such an invitation. Soviet policy had been aiming at the destruction of Poland for years. Moreover, Stalin thought that an alliance with Hitler, in other words cooperation with the European far right, he thought, was the key to destroying Europe. A German-Soviet alliance would turn Germany, he expected, against its western neighbours, and lead to the weakening or even the destruction of European capitalism. This is not so different from a certain calculation made by Vladimir Putin today, as we shall see.

The result of the cooperative German-Soviet invasion was the defeat of Poland and the destruction of the Polish state, but also an important development in Ukrainian nationalism. There had been in the 1930s no Ukrainian national movement in the Soviet Union: Such a thing was impossible. There was, however, an underground terrorist movement in Poland known as the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). It was little more than an irritant in normal times, but with war its importance grew. The OUN opposed both Polish and Soviet rule of what it saw as Ukrainian territories, and thus saw a German invasion of the east as the only way that a Ukrainian statebuilding process could begin. Thus the OUN supported Germany in its invasion of Poland in 1939 and would again in 1941, when Germany betrayed its ally and invaded the USSR.

Meanwhile, the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941 also favoured Ukrainian nationalism. The Polish ruling classes and the leaders of traditional Ukrainian political parties were deported or killed. Ukrainian nationalists, used to life underground, fared better. Ukrainian left-wing revolutionaries, who had been quite numerous before the war, often shifted to the radical right after experience with Soviet rule. In addition, the Soviets themselves assassinated the leader of the Organisation for Ukrainian Nationalists, which brought a struggle for power between two younger men, Stepan Bandera and Andrii Melnyk.

 Ukrainian nationalists tried political collaboration with Germany in 1941, and failed. Hundreds of Ukrainian nationalists joined in the German invasion of the USSR as scouts and translators, and some of them helped the Germans organise pogroms. Ukrainian nationalist politicians tried to collect their debt by declaring an independent Ukraine in June 1941. Hitler was completely uninterested in such a prospect. Much of the nationalist leadership was killed or incarcerated. Stepan Bandera himself spent most of the rest of the war in Sachsenhausen. Some Ukrainians continued to collaborate with the hope of gaining military experience or of some future political reversal when the Germans might need them. But in occupied Ukraine, as everywhere in Europe, the vast majority of practical collaboration had little to do with politics.

As the war continued many Ukrainian nationalists prepared themselves for a moment of revolt as Soviet power replaced German. They saw the USSR as the main enemy, partly for ideological reasons, but mainly because it was winning the war. In Volhynia Ukrainian nationalists established a Ukrainian Insurgent Army whose task was to somehow defeat the Soviets after the Soviets had defeated the Germans. Along the way it undertook a massive and murderous ethnic cleansing of Poles in 1943, killing at the same time a number of Jews who had been hiding with Poles. This was not in any sense collaboration with the Germans, but rather the murderous part of what its leaders saw as a national revolution. The Ukrainian nationalists did then fight the Soviets in a horrifying partisan war, in which the most brutal tactics were used by both sides. It was Khruschev who ordered that the Soviets exceed the nationalists in brutality to cow the local population.

The political collaboration and the uprising of Ukrainian nationalists were, all in all, a minor element in the history of the German occupation. As a result of the war something like six million people were killed on the territory of today’s Ukraine, including about 1.5 million Jews. The Germans developed the techniques of mass killing at Kamenets Podils’kyi and Babyi Iar, where more than 20,000 and then more than 30,000 Jews were killed by mass shooting. Throughout occupied Soviet Ukraine local people collaborated with the Germans, as they did throughout the occupied Soviet Union and indeed throughout occupied Europe.

But far, far more people in Ukraine were killed by the Germans than collaborated with them, something which is not true of any occupied country in western Europe. For that matter, far, far more people from Ukraine fought against the Germans than on the side of the Germans, which is again something which is not true of any west European country. The vast majority of Ukrainians who fought in the war did so in the uniform of the Red Army. More Ukrainians were killed fighting the Wehrmacht than American, British, and French soldiers–combined. In Germany these basic facts are invisible because the Red Army is seen falsely as a Russian army, an identification insisted upon by the propaganda of today’s Russia. If the Red Army is a Russian army, then Ukrainians must have been the enemy. This line of thinking was invented by Stalin himself at the end of the war. The idea of the Great Fatherland War had three purposes: It started the action in 1941 rather than 1939 so that the Nazi-Soviet alliance was forgotten, and it placed Russia at the centre of events even though Ukraine was much more at the centre of the war, and it ignored Jewish suffering completely.

It is the propaganda of the postwar much more than the experience of the war that counts in the memory politics of today. No one in power now remembers the Second World War, although some Russian leaders seem to believe the version that they were taught as children. The leading politicians of today in Russia are children of the 1970s, and thus of the Brezhnevian cult of the war. The Great Fatherland War became more simply Russian, without Ukrainians and Jews. The Jews suffered more than any other Soviet people, but the Holocaust as such had no place in Soviet history. It appeared mainly in propaganda directed to the West, in which the suffering of Jews was blamed entirely on Ukrainian and other nationalists–people who lived on the territories Stalin had conquered during the war as Hitler’s ally in 1939, and people who had resisted Soviet power when it returned in 1945. This is a tradition, to which Russian propagandists have returned in today’s Ukrainian crisis: total indifference to the Holocaust except as a political resource useful in manipulating people in the West.

In the 1970s the Soviet Union itself was russified, in a certain special way. The ideological conclusion was drawn that classes exist within the Soviet Union itself and not within individual nations. Thus the USSR needed only one thinking class, and not multiple national ones. As a result the Ukrainian language was driven from schools, and especially from higher education. It remained as a language of low culture and, paradoxically, of very high culture, as even at this point no one in the USSR denied the existence of a distinct Ukrainian tradition in the arts and humanities. In this atmosphere Ukrainian patriots, and even Ukrainian nationalists, embraced a civic understanding of Ukrainian identity. They were aided in this by Polish émigré intellectuals, who in the 1970s and 1980s were defining a future foreign policy for a period after communism.

These thinkers, grouped around Jerzy Giedroyc and the journal Kultura in Paris, argued that Ukraine was a nation in the same sense as Poland, and that a future independent Poland should recognise a future independent Ukraine – without challenging its borders. This was controversial at the time, because Poland lost the lands now known as western Ukraine as a result of the war. In retrospect it was a first step, for both Ukraine and Poland, towards the legal and intuitional norms of postwar Europe. The pre-emptive recognition of Ukraine within its existing borders became the basis for a Polish foreign policy of “European standards” in 1989. In the crucial period between 1989 and 1991, and for the first time in history, Ukrainian national activists only had one opponent: the Soviet Union. In December 1991, more than 90 per cent of the inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine voted for independence (including a majority in all regions of Ukraine).

Russia and Ukraine then went their separate ways. Privatisation and lawlessness led to oligarchy in both countries. In Russia the oligarchs were subdued by a centralised state, whereas in Ukraine they generated their own sort of pluralism. Until very recently all presidents in Ukraine oscillated between east and west in the foreign policy and among oligarchical clans in their domestic loyalties. What was unusual about Viktor Yanukovych is that he tried to end all pluralism, not only the popular sort but the oligarchical sort as well. In domestic policy he generated a fake democracy, in which his favoured opponent was the far right party Svoboda. In so doing he created a situation in which he could win elections and in which he could tell foreign observers that he was at least better than the nationalist alternative. In foreign policy he found himself pushed towards the Russia of Vladimir Putin, not so much because he desired this as such, but because the way in which he ruled made substantial cooperation with the European Union difficult. Yanukovych seems to have stolen so much from state coffers that the state itself was on the point of bankruptcy in 2013, which also made him vulnerable to Russia.

Oscillating between Russia and the West was no longer possible. By 2013, however, Moscow no longer represented simply a Russian state with more or less calculable interests, but rather a much grander project of Eurasian integration. The Eurasian project had two parts: the creation of a free trade bloc of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; and the destruction of the European Union through the support of the European far right. Imperial social conservatism provided the ideological cover for a goal that was eminently simple. The Putin regime depends upon the sale of hydrocarbons that are piped to Europe. A united Europe could generate an energy policy, under the pressures of Russian unpredictability or global warming or both. But a disintegrated Europe would remain dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. Individual nation-states would be more pliable than the EU. Throughout 2013 media close to the Kremlin returned obsessively to the theme of European decadence, usually expressed in sexual terms. But the decay of Europe is not so much the reality perceived by the Putin regime as the goal of its policy.

Just as soon as these vaulting ambitions were formulated, the proud Eurasian posture crashed upon the reality of Ukrainian society. In late 2013 and early 2014, the attempt to bring Ukraine within the Eurasian orbit produced exactly the opposite result. First, Russia publically dissuaded Yanukovych from signing a trade agreement with the EU. This brought protests in Ukraine. Then Russia offered a large loan and favourable gas prices in exchange for crushing the protests. Russian-style laws introduced in January transformed the protests into a mass movement. Millions of people who had joined in peaceful protests were suddenly transformed into criminals, and some of them began to defend themselves against the police. Finally, Russia made clear, both privately and publically, that Yanukovych had to clear Kiev of protestors in order to receive the money. Then followed the sniper massacre of February, which gave the revolutionaries a clear moral and political victory, and forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia. The Eurasian Union could only be a club of dictatorships, but the attempt to create dictatorship in Ukraine led to an outcome exactly the opposite of what was desired: the return of parliamentary rule, the announcement of presidential elections, and a foreign policy oriented to Europe. None of this would have happened without the spontaneous self-organisation of millions of Ukrainians on the Maidan in Kiev and throughout the country.

This made the revolution in Ukraine not only a disaster for Russian foreign policy, but a challenge to the Russian regime at home. The weakness of Putin’s policy is that it cannot account for the actions of free human beings who choose to organise themselves in response to unpredictable historical events. Its strength is its tactical dexterity and ideological shamelessness. Thus Eurasia was very quickly modified: It was no longer a dictators’ club and an attempt to destroy the EU, but rather an attempt to destabilise the Ukrainian state and the EU at the same time. Russian propaganda presented the Ukrainian revolution as a Nazi coup, and blamed Europeans for supporting these supposed Nazis. This version, although ridiculous, was much more comfortable in Putin’s mental world, since it removed from view the debacle of Russian foreign policy in Ukraine, and replaced spontaneous action by Ukrainians with foreign conspiracies.

The Russian invasion and occupation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea was a frontal challenge to the European security order as well as to the Ukrainian state. It created the temptation for Germans and others to return to the traditional world of colonial thinking, ignoring decades of law and regarding the Ukrainians as unworthy of statehood. The Russian annexation was carried out, tellingly, with the help of Putin’s extremist allies throughout Europe. No reputable organisation would observe the electoral farce by which 97 per cent of Crimeans supposedly voted to be annexed. But a ragtag delegation of right-wing populists, neo-Nazis, and members of the German party Die Linke were happy to come and endorse the results. The German delegation to Crimea was composed of four members of Die Linke and one member of Neue Rechte. This is a telling combination.

Die Linke operates within a certain virtual reality created by Russian propaganda, in which the task of the European Left is now, from Moscow’s perspective, to criticise the Ukrainian right–but not the European right, and certainly not the Russian right. Now, there is some basis for such criticism. Ukraine does have a far right, and its members do have some influence. Svoboda, which was Yanukovych’s house opposition, liberated itself from this role during the revolution. In the current Ukrainian government it holds four of 20 portfolios. This overstates both its electoral support, which is about 3 per cent, and its representation in parliament. Some of the people who fought the police during the revolution, although by no means a majority were from a new group called Right Sector, some of whose members are radical nationalists. Its presidential candidate is polling at under 2 per cent, and the group itself has something like 300 members. There is support for the far right in Ukraine, although less than in most members of the European Union.

A revolutionary situation always favours extremists, and watchfulness is certainly in order. It is quite striking, however, that Kiev and Ukraine returned to order immediately after the revolution, and that the new government has taken an almost unbelievably calm stance in the face of Russian invasion. The only scenario in which Ukrainian extremists actually come to the fore is one in which Russia actually tries to invade the rest of the country. If presidential elections proceed as planned in May, then the unpopularity and weakness of the Ukrainian far right will be revealed. This is why Moscow opposes those elections.

People who criticise only the Ukrainian right often fail to notice two very important things. The first is that the revolution in Ukraine came from the Left. Its enemy was an authoritarian kleptocrat, and its central program was social justice and the rule of law. It was initiated by a journalist of Afghan background, its first two mortal casualties were an Armenian and a Belarusian, and it was supported by the Muslim Crimean Tatar community as well as many Ukrainian Jews. A Jewish Red Army veteran was among those killed in the sniper massacre. Multiple IDF veterans returned from Israel to Ukraine to fight for freedom.

The Maidan functioned in two languages simultaneously, Ukrainian and Russian, because Kiev is a bilingual city and Ukraine is a bilingual country and Ukrainians are bilingual people. Indeed, the motor of the revolution was the Russian-speaking middle class of Kiev. The current government is unselfconsciously multiethnic and multilingual. Ukraine is a cosmopolitan place where considerations of language and ethnicity count for less then we think. In fact, Ukraine is now the site of the largest and most important free media in the Russian language, since all important media in Ukraine appear in Russian, and since freedom of speech prevails. Putin’s idea of defending Russian speakers in Ukraine is absurd on many levels, but one of them is this: People can say what they like in Russian in Ukraine, but they cannot do so in Russia itself.

This is the second thing that goes unnoticed. The authoritarian far right in Russia is infinitely more dangerous than the authoritarian far right in Ukraine. It is in power, for one thing. It has no meaningful rivals, for another. It does not have to accommodate itself to international expectations, for a third. And it is now pursuing a foreign policy that is based openly upon the ethnicisation of the world. It does not matter who an individual is according to law or his own preferences: The fact that he speaks Russian makes him a Volksgenosse requiring Russian protection, which is to say invasion. The Russian parliament granted Putin the authority to invade the entirety of Ukraine and to transform its social and political structure, which is an extraordinarily radical goal. It also sent a missive to the Polish foreign ministry proposing a partition of Ukraine. On popular Russian television Jews are blamed for the Holocaust; in the major newspaper Izvestiia Hitler is rehabilitated as a reasonable statesman responding to unreasonable western pressure. The pro-war demonstrations supporting the invasion of Ukraine are composed of people who wear monochrome uniforms and march in formation. The Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine involves generating ethnic violence, not suppressing it. The man who raised the Russian flag in Donetsk was a member of a neo-Nazi party.

All of this is consistent with the fundamental ideological premise of Eurasia. Whereas European integration begins from the premise that National Socialism and Stalinism were negative examples, Eurasian integration begins from the more jaded and postmodern premise that history is a sort of grab bag of useful ideas. Whereas European integration presumes liberal democracy, Eurasian ideology explicitly rejects it. The main Eurasian ideologist, Alexander Dugin, who once called for a fascism “as red as our blood,” receives more attention now than ever before. His three basic political ideas – the  need to colonise Ukraine, the decadence of the European Union, and the desirability of an alternative Eurasian project from Lisbon to Vladivostok–are now all officially enunciated, in less wild forms than his to be sure, as Russian foreign policy. President Putin presents Russia today as an encircled homeland, not of the revolution as the communists used to say, but of the counter-revolution. He portrays Russia is a special civilisation which must be defended at all costs, even though it generates power in Europe and the world through its rather generic collection of reactionary mantras and its accidental possession of hydrocarbons.

More than anything else, what unites the Russian leadership with the European far right is a certain basic dishonesty, a lie so fundamental and self-delusive that it has the potential to destroy an entire peaceful order. Even as Russian leaders pour scorn on a Europe they present as a gay fleshpot, Russia’s elite is dependent upon the European Union at every conceivable level. Without European predictability, law, and culture, Russians would have nowhere to launder their money, establish their front companies, send their children to school, or spend their vacations. Europe is both the basis of the Russian system and its safety valve. Likewise, the average Strache or Le Pen voter takes for granted countless elements of peace and prosperity that were achieved as a result of European integration. The archetypical example is the possibility, on May 25, to use free and fair democratic elections to the European parliament to vote for people who claim to oppose the existence of the European parliament.

Like Putin, Strache and Le Pen propose an obvious contradiction: all of the benefits of European peace and prosperity will somehow remain, even as Europeans return to some form of national state. But this, of course, is a utopia as stupid as it is colourless. There is no nation state to which anyone can return. The only alternatives in a globalised world are various forms of interaction. For countries like France or Austria, or for that matter Greece, Bulgaria, and Hungary, the rejection of the European Union is the embrace of Eurasia. This is the simple objective reality: A united Europe can and most likely will respond adequately to an aggressive Russian petrostate, whereas a collection of quarrelling nation-states will not. The leaders of Europe’s right-wing parties no longer even attempt to hide that their escape from Brussels leads them into the arms of Putin. Their party members go to Crimea and praise the electoral farce as a model for Europe. Their allegiance, in almost single case, is to Putin rather than to the supposedly far right Ukrainian government. Even the leader of UKIP now shares Putin’s propaganda on Ukraine with millions of British viewers in a televised debate.

Presidential elections in Ukraine are to be held on May 25, which by no coincidence is also the day of elections to the European parliament. The ongoing Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine is meant to prevent these elections from taking place. In the next few weeks, Eurasia means the collaboration of the Kremlin and the European far right as Russia tries to prevent the Ukrainian elections from happening at all, and as European nationalists try to win European elections. A vote for Strache or Le Pen or even Farage is now a vote for Putin, and a defeat for Europe is a victory for Eurasia. The return to the nation-state is impossible, so integration will continue in one form or another: All that can be decided is the form. Politicians and intellectuals used to say that there was no alternative to the European project, but now there is: Eurasia.

Ukraine has no future without Europe, but Europe also has no future without Ukraine. Throughout the centuries, the history of Ukraine has revealed the turning points in the history of Europe. This seems still to be true today. Of course, which way things will turn still depends, at least for the next six weeks, on the Europeans.

Timothy Snyder is Housum Professor of History at Yale University, permanent fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, and the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

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Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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