Yes to security in Europe

The choice that Dutch citizens will make on 6 April is not only about a trade agreement between the European Union and Ukraine. It is about the future of the European way of life to which the Netherlands contributes so much. Russia has adopted an open policy of dividing the European Union and undermining the security of its members, of which the referendum questioning the Association Agreement is simply a small part. Since the faked Russian parliamentary elections of 2011 and the protests by Russian citizens that followed, Russian leaders have defined pluralism and civil society as alien to Russia, treating them instead as implants from Europe that must be suppressed. Rather than simply oppressing Russian citizens at home, the Putin regime identifies the European Union as the source of these values, and seeks to destroy it.

In 2013, Russians proposed a Eurasian Union as an alternative to the European Union. “Eurasia” sounds bland in Dutch, but in Russian it refers to a tradition of presenting the West as decadent and Russia as the source of all true values. The founder of the contemporary Eurasian movement, Alexander Dugin, is a self-proclaimed advocate of fascism. Eurasianism as politics began with the attempt to coerce Ukraine into joining the Eurasian Economic Union. When this failed, Russian invaded Ukraine, first from the south in spring 2014, and then from the southeast in summer 2014. In violating the territorial integrity of a sovereign state and annexing some of its territory, and in supporting terrorist activity within Ukraine, Russia violated essentially every major element of the European security order. Aside from bringing about some ten thousand deaths and two million internally displaced people, the Russian intervention in Ukraine involved other war crimes, one of which directly affected Dutch citizens. According to the investigations carried out by Bellingcat and Correctiv, one of the numerous Russian military convoys to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border in 2014 was a detachment of the Russian 53rd Air Defense Brigade, which brought a BUK anti-aircraft missile launcher for use inside Ukraine against Ukrainian forces. On 17 July 2014, this BUK launcher evidently targeted and destroyed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

The ongoing Russian war in Ukraine, horrifying as it is, is simply a part of President Putin’s campaign against the European Union and its moral and political traditions.

The Europe of today depends upon historical lessons drawn from the wars and the totalitarianisms of the past. Putin has rehabilitated the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Nazi-Soviet alliance of 1939 that began the Second World War. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union jointly invaded Poland that September, and, after a joint victory march, divided its territory between them. The Soviet Union was still Nazi Germany’s ally when Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. In rehabilitating the Hitler-Stalin alliance of those years, Putin presents both Stalinism and National Socialism as normal political systems, and the Second World War as normal European politics.

This should give pause for thought, not least because so much of Russia’s current attempt to destabilize Europe involves alliances with the far right. Russia has organized meetings of European fascists and funds the Front National in France. Its media support separatism in the UK and elsewhere, and Putin and Dugin both support Donald Drumpf for president of the United States of America. The Russian bombing of Syria drives Muslim refugees into Europe, where Russian proxies can then organize religious conflict — as in the entirely fake “Our Lisa” scandal in Germany earlier this year.

In the past two years, Russia has crossed lines that seemed impregnable, and violated taboos that seemed permanent. That one European country would invade another? That the 1930s would be presented as a useful model for the future? The next line to be crossed is the manipulation of democratic societies so that they choose the path towards weakness and poverty. This involves the massive deployment of cleverly prepared lies, the handiwork of people who seek to export the permanent confusion of the Russian media to Europe itself. When a Russian weapon apparently downed MH17 during a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian television had the audacity to claim that what had transpired was a failed attempt by Ukrainians to assassinate President Putin. Even as the bodies of the true victims were scattered across fifty square kilometers of countryside, Russians were instructed that their leader, and by extension Russia itself, was the true victim.

The people who manufacture such lies are now at work in Europe, targeting similar lies at the Dutch public, in the hope of generating an atmosphere of confusion and fear. The referendum of 6 April will not be the first. In November 2013, Ukrainian students, young men and women, went out to the streets to protest in favor of the Association Agreement. Ukrainian protestors knew full well that Ukraine was not about to become a member of the European Union. They simply regarded, and quite understandably, an Association Agreement as a step towards the kind of life that Europeans take for granted. They could see the point of the institutions that their Dutch counterparts value: an open society, the rule of law, free trade.

Bohdan Solchanyk, a young scholar whom I knew, was indistinguishable from young Dutch or German or French peers in outlook, in appearance, in references. He read poetry and worked on local history and read Tony Judt. With his beard, his earring, his beautiful girlfriend, his multiple languages, his habit of thoughtful deliberation, he was unmistakably a European of his generation. Unlike his peers in the EU, he believed that he had to protest for a normal and decent future. In late 2013 and early 2014, under Russian pressure, the government of Ukraine had many of the protestors beaten, or kidnapped, or tortured, or finally shot. Bohdan Solchanyk was killed by a bullet to the brain from a sniper. In his referendum, the votes were counted in blood. Yet people persevered. After the mass murder that claimed the life of Bohdan Solchanyk and a hundred other protestors, the Ukrainian president fled in panic to Russia. A new government, legitimated by free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, and with the support of the vast majority of the population, did sign the Association Agreement. The protestors’ cause, from the first, was nothing more than the normality that Dutch citizens can take for granted.

Dutch citizens are fortunate that they can still vote for European freedoms in the ballot boxes, rather than having to risk their lives on the streets. May it remain so.

In the difficult task of reforming Ukraine, the hard-won Association Agreement is one of the major victories. What might appear to be a local Dutch question now has general significance. To vote “no” is to endorse the Russian effort to destabilize the European Union from within, and to encourage the continuation of Russia’s wars in the EU’s neighborhood. Dutch citizens are fortunate that they can still vote for European freedoms in the ballot boxes, rather than having to risk their lives on the streets. May it remain so.

Putin’s Strategy: Involve West in undermining Ukraine so Ukrainians will despise it too

Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea and continuing aggression against Ukraine means that Ukrainians will never again accept ethnic Russians as “a fraternal people” or be prepared to defer to Moscow unless they are compelled to by forces beyond the capacity of today’s Russia to field. Instead, they will continue to pursue their European choice.

That puts Putin in a difficult position, but he appears to have found a way out, one whose implications some leaders in the West have ignored or may not even understand. By involving them in talks about undermining the integrity of Ukraine, Putin is laying the groundwork for Ukrainian hostility to Europe as well.

Such antagonism to Europe will not mean that Ukrainians will want to turn to Russia instead, at least not anytime soon. But any such hostility will mean that Ukraine will remain caught between Moscow and the West, not taken in by either and thus ever weaker, more divided, and more subject to manipulation by various means overt and covert from Moscow.

That Western leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Hollande should have fallen for this trap laid by Putin is appalling not only in terms of its immediate impact but even more because of its long-term consequences, but that the Kremlin leader should set it makes perfect sense from his point of view.

Those conclusions are suggested by Moskovsky komsomolets which notes that not Russia alone, but it together with France and Germany are now involved with Kyiv in the beginning of “the decentralization of Ukraine,” something the Moscow outlet clearly celebrates.

The paper reports that the three countries, along with Ukraine, have “discussed the beginning of the work of a special group in Minsk which will be concerned with the preparation of local elections in special regions of the Donbas,” thus giving to Putin yet another victory over Ukraine through the involvement of Western pressure.

It notes happily that yesterday “it became known that Poroshenko had signed a decree about the creation of a Constitutional Commission which is needed for “the development of agreed upon proposals for the perfecting of the Constitution of Ukraine taking into account contemporary challenges and requirements of society.”

And it concludes with the words of Mikhail Pogrebinsky, head of the Kyiv Center for Political Research and Conflict Studies, that Poroshenko is moving in this direction because “foreign players including the European Union want this,” again a source of influence Putin may be glad to get but that the EU should not be giving to an aggressor.

Russia Sanctions Lithuania for Supporting Ukraine

Russia has imposed sanctions against Lithuania and embargoed the port of Klaipeda in response to its foreign policy with Ukraine

On Thursday morning the Lithuanian parliament condemned the military aggression of the Russian Federation in Ukraine and its occupation of the territory of a sovereign country. The parliament said that it strongly supports the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine and expressed political solidarity with the new Ukrainian authorities; they also supported sanctions against Russia, while favoring visa liberalization and the early signing of the European Union Association Agreement with Ukraine slated for next week.

In response, Russia has temporarily suspended the import of food products into the Customs Union. If a Western (specifically, American) company wants to deliver goods through Lithuania to Russia or a Customs Union state, Russian officials will order it to go “through other ports which do not belong to Lithuania [or] to certain other countries,” according to Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius. Russian media calls Lithuania’s pro-Ukrainian policy “anti-Russian.”

[one_fourth]Lithuania’s exports to Russia amount for a fifth of its total exports and remain an integral part of its economy.[/one_fourth]

“This is a way for Russia to show that having political positions which do not meet their interests are punished in some way,” said Robertas Dargis, president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists. “In Lithuania’s case, punishment is usually through economic means, which we saw many times previously.”

Prime Minister Butkevicius said that because of Russia’s actions, all the terminals of the Klaipeda port can neither “export nor re-export or import.”

On Friday, a cooperation and partnership agreement was signed between the Klaipeda State Seaport and the Port of Houston, Texas.

“Although these Russian commentators do not say so, what Moscow is doing in Klaipeda is not only an act of revenge against Lithuania but a test of Western and especially NATO resolve.  In the absence of a clear and forceful response, more such testing of the alliance is unfortunately likely in the coming days.” said political analyst Paul Goble.

Pifer: ‘The EU and the US have leverage’

DW recently conducted an interview with the former US ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer. In it he provides his recommendations to the current crisis and discusses the prospects of Euro-American involvement.

DW: An aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sergei Glazyev, accused the United States last week of not only financing the Ukrainian opposition, but went so far as to say that Washington was arming “rebels.” Is there truth to these claims or is this hyperbole?

The idea that the US government is financing the protests is utter nonsense. There’s no evidence that I have seen of it. And the idea that Mr. Glazyev says it’s providing weapons is also nonsense. If you go back and look at what Mr. Glazyev has said, he’s been the point person in Russia to try and do everything he can to undermine Ukraine’s effort to do the association agreement with the European Union. And he’s said some things in the past that have had very little credibility.

DW: How would you characterize the US relationship with the Ukrainian opposition and the protest movement?

The US government has reached out and has contacts with the opposition, which I think is appropriate for the embassy and for visiting officials to do. I think the US government would like to find a way to encourage the opposition and President Yanukovych to get a meaningful political dialogue underway. That would be the best way out of the current political situation.

DW: In January, Arizona Senator John McCain met with several Ukrainian opposition leaders, including Svoboda party leader Oleh Tyahnybok, who’s made anti-Semitic remarks in the past. What’s Washington’s relationship with the right-wing groups that are participating in the protests?

I think there actually have been conversations with Tyahnybok since his party became a political force. And I know for a fact that the American embassy has been pretty direct with Mr. Tyahnybok and the Svoboda party about some concerns about some things they have said, including handing over several pages of quotes of things that were seen as anti-Semitic and such.

DW: When we talk about Yanukovych’s inner circle are we talking about people in government or people in the business sector?

The people who have the control of levers of force are in government. You want them to know this. But I think also when you’re talking about the inner circle, you’re talking about business people. Rinat Akhmetov, the wealthiest oligarch, has been fairly close to Mr. Yanukovych. I think it would be useful if Mr. Akhmetov was using his influence with President Yanukovych to encourage him to negotiate in a serious way to find a solution. And if there was some threat that there might be financial or travel sanctions on Mr. Akhmetov, that could be a useful lever.

DW: In the leaked conversation between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, the two US diplomats discuss the roles of the opposition leaders. Is the US laying out a roadmap here for a political transition?

I read that as a conversation between two American diplomats, how they thought things ought to play out from an analytical sense. I did not read that conversation as them saying, “and this is now the roadmap that we will give to the opposition.” First of all, it would be awfully presumptuous for them to assume that they could dictate and provide that kind of roadmap. And there’s no indication that Vitali Klitschko or Arseniy Yatsenyuk or Oleh Tyahnybok are open to that kind of influence.

DW: Why are there conflicting interests between Russia on the one side and the US and the EU on the other side in Ukraine?

For Vladimir Putin, I think that this is a hugely important question. It’s important for his view of Russia as a great power having a sphere of influence in the post- Soviet space. Ukraine is a big piece of that and if Ukraine is not part of it, that leaves a big hole. Second, I think it’s also important to Mr. Putin domestically because he wants to be shown as taking a tough line and bringing Ukraine closer.I don’t think the West – particularly the European Union – has engaged in this in a geopolitical sense. The EU could have had a signed association agreement two years ago, except they said, “no, we want Mr. Yanukovych to demonstrate his commitment to moving toward a more democratic path first.” The European Union put in that case democracy ahead of geopolitics, which was the right decision.The United States for most of the last five years has come to a conclusion that in terms of Ukraine’s engagement with the West, the logical path for Ukraine to proceed is down the path of doing the association agreement with the European Union. So the United States, I think, has been quite comfortable letting the European Union take the lead for most of the past several years.

Read the full interview