Show Hide image

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

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain