When speaking of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, one cannot help the feeling of duality. In all its aspects, the conflict betrays the two faces of Janus: one side looking to the East, the other to the West. One clinging to its past, the other looking for a different future. One holding on to its roots and ancestral identity, the other seeking to uproot in search of a ‘better’ identity.
It is also a story of duplicity and betrayal. But who betrayed whom? And when, how, and where did it all start?
I began my reflection with the prevalent view that Ukraine is a victim. It has been the victim of aggression; no doubt about that. Territorial integrity is sacrosanct, as the UN Charter teaches us, and we must always respect it, no matter what. Hence, Ukraine cannot but be the victim in this story.
Betrayal entails that one party is the victim and the other the perpetrator—that one is somehow tricked into an unfortunate situation under false promises or assumptions. Betrayal presumes an unfair relationship, an unbalanced one. It implies concealed truths and devious plans to corral and taunt. Betrayal casts one party as the usurper and the other as an innocent, unsuspecting dupe. Betrayal is about broken promises and broken morality.
Except that none of this happened to Ukraine. We may argue that it has been lured into the sad scenario of planting a dagger in the back of its historic ally and organic associate; but unaware of what this all was leading to is something that it was not.
On the birth of Ukrainian national self-awareness and a few tropes
Since the inception of the nationalist movement in Ukraine at the end of the nineteenth century, with a temporary flaring-up during the Second World War and fast accelerating since 2014, the path of ideological extremism with violent tones that Ukraine was embarking upon was clear to its élites and consciously assumed. From Stepan Bandera’s ultra-nationalist movement selling its services to Nazi Germany in exchange for support to undermine the Soviets, to the current days’ Right Sector or Svoboda movement, the Ukrainians were neither cataleptic nor duped into running the path of self-radicalisation and self-weaponising.
Many say, “But the Ukrainian people have suffered so much at the hands of Russian and Soviet imperialists!” Let's just analyse the much-bandied-about concept of Soviet ‘imperialism’ for a moment. It is worth noting that being a constituent republic of the Soviet Union was not synonymous with being some sort of ‘Russian colony’, a trope too frequently heard in anti-Russian narrative. Most people take this assumption for granted, especially as many former communist-bloc countries (a much wider category than that of former USSR republics) figured they could use it as some beggars exhibit their burnt flesh before occasional viewers, to elicit excessive pity to make them empty their pockets of some good political capital. When so many—and for so long—have banged the drum of their historic suffering from ‘Russian expansionism’, little can be done to reverse the propaganda programming.
There are many sources and many individuals, like myself, who are old enough to remember those days and can witness to the fact that the Soviet Union was, much like today’s European Union, a confederation of nearly independent states that came together politically, economically and, to a certain extent, socially, in the name of a common ideology to work towards increased economic and political integration, to create a new form of polity. And in this polity, each nation was free to keep its national identity, language, customs, or religion—to the extent to which any form of religion was allowed.
How do we know that? Quite simply, because we would not have a Lithuanian or Georgian or Kyrgyz language and people today, each with a strong identity and sense of its national identity, if indeed there had been a strong suppression from the centre. National programmes such as the ones two centuries ago that created the centralised nations of France or Austria, or even the United Kingdom, with centrally-driven education programmes that imposed one language and one identity upon populations sometimes extremely diverse, did not exist in the Soviet Union. That did not make USSR a ‘nice’ place to live in; it simply means that we cannot automatically apportion it all the evil under the sun simply because we disliked it and disagreed with its driving ideology.
As much as we hated its tenets and disapproved of most of its institutions, the Soviet Union was not synonymous with a Russian empire. Although Russia (as the RSFSR) was by far the largest of the USSR’s fifteen constituent republics and had nominally more representatives in the Supreme Soviet (52 as compared with 20 for each of the other fourteen republics), all fifteen Soviet republics were ruling the country jointly through their representatives in the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet (Council) of Ministers and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The Ukrainians, the Latvians, the Azeris and the others were participating in the Soviet state’s supreme structures and had access to the highest functions of power running the country, no less so than their Russian ‘comrades’. Indeed, in proportional terms, this rule probably even favoured their smaller populations (just as Luxembourg or Malta are ‘over-represented’ in voting terms in the EU, both ministerially at the Council and in their representation in the European Parliament, proportional to their tiny populations).
Probably the best example showcasing this point comes in the figure of the most infamous General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Council of the Soviet Union, Ioseb Besarionis-dze Jughashvili, alias Joseph Stalin, an ethnic Georgian who arrived at the highest levels of absolute power in the Kremlin from humble beginnings in the Caucasus.
More importantly, today's Russia is not the heir of the Soviet Union, nor does it exhibit the features of a socialist state. Its political and ruling structures have retained nothing of the sort, while its current economy is based, with the exception of some strategic areas like armament, on purely capitalist principles. Whoever argues that Russia is currently a communist society probably has not seen Russia, nor has read any news from the country in the past thirty years.
A path to self-destruction
In reality, in almost any moment of modern history, Ukraine has been the weapon of choice for any great power that found itself at hegemonic odds with Russia: the Prussians, Kaiser Wilhelm, the Austro-Hungarians, or Nazi Germany. In recent times, the Ukrainian state has been on the payroll of the current hegemon, the United States, and the conditions leading up to the February 2022 conflict have been minutiously prepared for decades in advance, probably as soon as upon the fall of the Soviet Union.
Although the incremental pressure on Ukraine to become the weapon of choice against Russia came from the West as a whole, specifically American interference was notably more significant. The minor, almost paltry investment of the Europeans was acknowledged by the spiteful reaction of Victoria Nuland in the infamous intercepted conversation with the US Ambassador to Kiev during the Maidan events, by “f-ing” the EU, rather than involving it in the planning of the by then (February 2014) already-underway régime change in Ukraine.
Consumed by its internal identity contradictions, and incessantly fed by Western powers with wild ideas about a presumed Russian paranoia to expand and dominate the world out of a supposed Russian fear that the world would otherwise swallow it up and destroy it, Ukraine has been on a path of self-destruction for most of the period since 1991, and at an accelerated pace since 2014. Successive Ukrainian governments took increasingly dangerous and bellicose positions vis-à-vis Russia, allowing themselves to be convinced and seduced by promises of unparalleled glory, economic abundance and being ushered into the club of great Western civilised nations—an inferiority complex is always useful to exploit. Commencing with the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych through a Soros-sponsored, Maidan-mediated coup, the Kiev leadership took increasingly daring action, such as burning pro-Russian protesters alive in Odessa, followed by increasingly daring armed attacks on the Donbass, in a move which bore all the hallmarks of state-sponsored genocide and ethnic cleansing. Slowly but surely, in the decade commencing in 2014, Ukrainian political élites upped their game to prove to their sponsors their strong commitment and unabashed motive to destroy Russia.
With the Ukrainians having convinced themselves—and much of the Western world—that Russia had betrayed them in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum when they had given up nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees, as well as later on in the 2015 Minsk Accords, President Zelensky suggested in February 2022 that the move could be reversed. Addressing a closed-doors meeting at the Munich Security Conference on the eve of the outbreak of the current war, he added that he was “very grateful to the United States”, which had ramped up military aid to Ukraine in previous weeks, and had vowed to sanction Moscow should Russian President Vladimir Putin invade the country. Ukraine’s army, he added, was “defending all of Europe”.
History was in the making. The myth of the Ukrainian hero fighting for the liberty and democracy of the entire world was born. The “Ghost of Kiev”, the “Goat of Kiev”, the “defiant last stand of Ukraine’s Snake Island defenders”, and many other such stories, sprouting like mushrooms after heavy rain in the initial months of the war, easily found their way into the collective mind of a Western public well-groomed in advance to swallow the Russia bad rhetoric. They were mere variations on a set theme churned out by the genuinely prolific propaganda machine surrounding the ex-actor President Zelensky’s former stage crew.
The recklessness of Ukraine’s actions to aggravate Russia as a means of building its own, new, more glorious identity is one that vacillates between two cultural types: the metaphor of Icarus—flying too close to the Sun until it melts his wings, then plummeting and crushing his bones against the ground—and that of Cain and Abel, the two brothers receiving varying degrees of love from God, until one is driven to raise his hand and destroy the other in a futile attempt to wash away the differences of recognition and reward. But the former comparison is not fair towards Icarus, who was, after all, moved by high ideals and whose foolish desires harmed no-one but himself. Perhaps the Genesis idiom would give more justice to the matter, centring as it does on Cain’s feelings, albeit focusing on a darker side of the sentiment of brotherhood: jealousy.
An ideological base for hating Russia
The signal is everywhere to be found, sprinkled through the high-level statements of politicians of the past three decades and found in mainstream media information flows or state-sponsored think-tanks’ ‘strategic papers’. Starting, perhaps, with the Wolfowitz doctrine after the fall of the Soviet Union, the ideological line was promoted in practice by the US’ military arm disguised as a regional alliance: NATO. Posing as a defensive organisation founded on a holy crusade to protect the vulnerable and frail from an unpredictable and prickly Russia, NATO continued unabated its march east, while propping up the neoconservative view that what America wants, America gets, as a God-given right supported by its historic exceptionalism. The conviction that the US is and should be the ‘world policeman’ was thus well-rooted in the minds and hearts of people throughout the world.
The continuous expansion of NATO, despite the “not one inch to the East” promise by Secretary of State Baker to Gorbachev in 1990 (and much contested ever since, under the pretext that it was not delivered in black and white—what happened to the good old ‘gentlemen’s agreement’? probably nothing, in a world of no gentle men and of disagreements), and the economic destruction and plundering of Russia in the Nineties, alongside investments made in the gradual alienation of Ukraine from Russia and aggravating its attitude towards its former ally and main trading partner (by 2013, one year before the annexation of Crimea, the trade balance showed an excess of over $8 billion in Russia’s favour, falling to seventh place by 2020 as a result of systematic decoupling efforts), stand witness to the intention to diminish Russia come what may and at whatever cost, especially when the cost is to be paid by others.
After the year 2000 and the rise to power of former KGB director Vladimir Putin, surely an ominous sign—although the same path to office is perfectly acceptable in the US and even a sign of being an effective, true leader and a patriot—the Russia bad rhetoric started to be elevated to frenzy levels.
As of 2014, sanctions picked up pace: because of the annexation of Crimea, over Alexander Litvinenko’s death, for the alleged Skripal poisoning, over the matter of Alexei Navalny, and so on, the West seemed to have devoted itself to a punishment escalator with Russia. It all culminated with the 2022 ‘shock-and-awe’ sanctions packages by the US, the EU and the G7, which turned out to be not so much a set of economic deterrents by the war machine or swift penalties for individuals in key positions, as the plunder of a state’s central assets (‘seize and freeze’), or something akin to acts of licensed banditry perpetrated on rich individuals who happen to hold a Russian passport and who committed the imprudence of holding their assets, notably yachts, in Western ports. Most of these people have illusive, if any, proven ties to President Putin. Little matter. When the severity of the act concerned, i.e. ‘Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked full-scale invasion’, is of such gigantic gravity, double-checking the culpability of those targeted by sanctions apparently becomes irrelevant.
The sanctions escalator turned out to be a stairway to the total economic destruction of the Russian economy and, if possible, the bankruptcy of the Russian nation. The aim became increasingly obviously the total deprivation and impoverishment of the Russian population in the vain hope that they would turn against their leaders and that, with a bit of luck, some general would shove a sharp implement deep between Putin’s shoulder blades. Almost two years into the war, this envisaged outcome seems further than ever from reality.
About the same time, the anti-Putin rhetoric started to ramp up, portraying the Russian President as the essence of all evil on earth. Judging by the descriptions made in Western media and by Western politicians, one cannot help acknowledging that almighty and ubiquitous Mr Putin, who single-handedly planned, ordered and supervised the individual annihilations of political rivals and economic antagonists (oligarchs, i.e., the same high-net-worth individuals that the West is plundering under the assumption they are his staunchest supporters); manoeuvred troops over the battlefields; personally oversaw the botched rescue operation of the Moscow theatre hostage crisis with no other purpose than to kill hundreds of his own innocent civilians in cold blood; and more. All that conducted in the name of … unclear what. But then again, pure evil does not need a reason.
By 2019, the RAND Corporation (the Pentagon’s think tank) was openly articulating the aim of destroying Russia economically, socially, and—why not—as a unitary state, in its Extending Russia paper. Presented as a major foreign policy priority for the US, and involving Ukraine as an appointed proxy, this naked US policy against Russia—now gaining doctrinal status—was wrapped up in the politically salient and morally justifiable objective of eliminating a competitor. This strategy was the mirror image of George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’, which had set out the path to taking down the Soviet Union through containment. Now, the opposite direction of pressure was to be applied.
Consistent efforts over decades bore their fruits, and 2014 was the year in which the Ukrainians saw the lights of a ‘colour revolution’, skilfully steered into a coup d’état. The years that immediately followed saw the sinking of the Minsk Accords by the Western powers—a mere farce meant to distract Russia’s attention and gain time for Ukraine to arm until it could defeat the Russians, as now openly admitted by former Ukrainian President Poroshenko, former Chancellor Merkel and former French President François Hollande—and playing the NATO membership card to lure Ukraine into an ever more hostile attitude towards Russia. driving the final nails into the coffin of centuries-old Ukraine-Russia organic relations. The position imposed by the US at the 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit, where even America’s own allies were unconvinced of the pertinence and wisdom of such a move, and even more so at the 2022 Munich Conference, which gave high hopes to Zelensky that nuclear armaments would be placed in Ukraine, marked the final steps on the exacerbation escalator. Alea iacta fuit; the die was cast.
Against the background of saturation of the ideological space with demonising rhetoric, the stage was set for the public throughout the West to accept readily, when Russian tanks crossed the border into eastern Ukraine on 24 February 2022, that this was the whimsical decision of a sick and evil mind, and that the only fault the West had ever made in the region was to not have done more to arm Ukraine to enable it to withstand such an abominable eventuality. Not a word has ever been uttered about the unspeakable treatment of ethnic Russians in Donbass since 2014; about the 14,000 dead acknowledged by the international community; about the second-class treatment of ethnic and linguistic Russians—or indeed Romanians or Hungarians or other minorities—in Ukrainian society; about the systematic persecution on ethnic, social and religious grounds; about the burned churches and charred people; about the kidnapping of children from orphanages to be sent to the frontlines; or about the summary executions by rear “blocking units” of the poor unfortunate who, overwhelmed by the violence of the fights, might have wished to stay out of it.
The extreme-right factions of Ukrainian politics and militias do not exist either, you see. Or it is filthy Russian propaganda. In a postmodern world, the reality is not what real-life evidence shows, it is what the New York Times and BBC tell you it is.
The rise to power of Russia-whisperers
Like a carefully brewed poison, the coming into being of this historic quagmire would not have been possible without the concomitant rise to power of an entire generation of Russia-haters, individuals with a declared purpose to tear Russia apart, holding that only in its disunity and fragmentation could there be a hope for peace and prosperity in the West.
How the idea of hating Russia was fomented is anyone’s guess. Actual history teaches otherwise: centuries of cohabitation with Russia on the same European continent—rather, peninsula—indicated little appetite for conquest by the latter, except for small and temporary incursions into its neighbours’ territories when those neighbours seemed to have pledged themselves to its destruction (see, for example, the brief occupation of Galicia to avoid its use by the Nazi Germany on Russia’s back during the second world war).
Probably the most notable anti-Russian theorist is the late neoliberal political scientist and diplomat, Zbigniew Brzeziński. Born to the Polish aristocracy in a place located today in Ukraine, Brzeziński went on to become one of the most prolific and capable US foreign policy strategists of the twentieth century, but also one of the fiercest anti-Russian ideologues (Russia being for him, as always, equated with Soviet communism). In his famous 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, he warned, somewhat prophetically:
Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an 'antihegemonic' coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.
He was also among the first to put Ukraine at the centre of the project to contain and gradually reduce Russia (emphasis added):
Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire. Russia without Ukraine can still strive for imperial status, but it would then become a predominantly Asian imperial state, more likely to be drawn into debilitating conflicts with aroused Central Asians, who would then be resentful of the loss of their recent independence and would be supported by their fellow Islamic states to the south. China would also be likely to oppose any restoration of Russian domination over Central Asia, given its increasing interest in the newly independent states there. However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources as well as its access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia. Ukraine’s loss of independence would have immediate consequences for Central Europe, transforming Poland into the geopolitical pivot of the eastern frontier of a united Europe.
The idea that Ukraine can be used as the ideal battering ram against a Russia rising from the ashes of the Soviet Union received a new ideological impetus in the decade of the 2000s with the rise to office and influence of a new class of neoconservatives and neoliberals united in one doctrinal agreement: Russia is a threat and must be neutralised. Whether Russia is a greater threat to Western hegemony than China, and whether the two Eurasian giants work together or must be decoupled no matter what, are only nuances of the same obsession.
Key personalities setting the tone of foreign policy towards Ukraine and Russia are often of Eastern European origin, sometimes even of direct descent from followers of Stepan Bandera (such as Chrystia Freeland of Canada). Take the notorious power couple Robert Kagan and Victoria Nuland in the US: one, the brain of the neoconservative ideology; the other, the spearhead of the State Department’s action in Ukraine and Russia. Both of them have Eastern European roots—Kagan is the descendant of a Lithuanian Jewish family, Nuland from a Jewish family of Odessa, both nourishing an overtly acrimonious view of Russia and using all their influence to manoeuvre Western policies against it.
The European political landscape was none the brighter in recent years. Germany’s Annalena Baerbock, Sanna Marin of Finland, and the Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas have been but three women of the younger political generation making sure at continental level that the rhetorical hype is kept up and that it leads to concrete measures to hurt Russia. Once Germany managed to close its last nuclear power plant, it immediately moved to propose, in the eleventh EU sanctions package, that all imports of uranium from Russia be banned. Little consideration seems to be given to the fact that other European partners, some of which nations provide Germany with much-needed electricity which the Germans no longer have the capacity to produce, rely on the cheap commodity imported from Russia. But why should Germany care? Did partners care when Nord Stream was blown up, effectively turning Germany into an American colony?
To add ridicule to his country’s humiliation on the altar of Ukraine’s glorification, in an April 2023 visit to Kiev (the first since the beginning of the conflict over a year previously), Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck apologized almost in tears on behalf of the German nation—who were never asked—for not having provided more weapons, and sooner, to Ukraine. He added his pledge to continuous support for the war. In the neighbouring Netherlands, in a last hurrah before his departure as Prime Minister, Mark Rutte pledged in mid-December 2023 to ensure that the 17 billion euros of new European Commission subsidies for Ukraine be taken from fresh budgeting rather than the existing EU budgets even if the Dutch Parliament mandated him otherwise, defying parliamentarians to pass a motion of no confidence in him in order to stop him defying any such vote—even though he had already announced his departure from office beforehand and subsequently seen his party defeated heavily in a general election.
Interestingly enough, some of the rhetoric spurred by European leaders seems to find its sources directly in the American neoconservative movement promoted by the aforementioned ideologues. EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell’s ‘garden and jungle’ metaphor of the Old Continent resisting savagery catalysed much chatter around the globe and flustered the anti-neocolonial sensitivities of many African nations, but little did most people know that the notion was actually a Robert Kagan creation and the title of one of his more famous books, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.
Among the non-US personalities in Western tub-thumping, the figure of Jens Stoltenberg stands tall as a pillar of reliability in NATO’s undeclared war against Russia and as a staunch ally of American neoconservative thinking. Not noticing the damage done by the continuous drum-beating that more, rather than less, NATO is needed in order to becalm Russia, Stoltenberg defiantly declared in April 2023—after fifteen months of continuous defeat and destruction, and fifteen years after Angela Merkel said nein at Bucharest—that Ukraine’s place in the military alliance is de-facto guaranteed.
How exactly aggravating one’s neighbour’s security concerns by bringing two more countries into NATO—Sweden and Finland—and extending the length of the alliance’s frontier directly abutting Russia by several thousand miles is supposed to solve an already complicated political conundrum is beyond comprehension. Yet such seems to be the logic of many of the high-level officials that lead the charge and strategy against Russia.
Losing the propaganda war
If observing war propaganda were entertainment, then the spectacle afforded by the Western narrative and its evolution over the past two years would be a hilarious comedy worth watching. However, this is real, and people’s lives are being destroyed in the process. The final stage might unfold more like a Greek tragedy.
It remains unclear what objective the power establishment in Washington or London or Berlin wants to achieve when repeating in unison, on every opportunity that arises, the same tired slogans of “unprovoked and unjustified”, “Russia's full-scale invasion”, “Putin’s brutal war of aggression”. It is probably not even as much a well-thought-out strategy as it is a kneejerk reflex. When confronted with a crisis—actually of its own creation—the West responds in the same way it always has, the only way it knows how to handle other entities: with a narrative. For all that some, though few, clear-minded realists might see through its hollowness, the fact is that propaganda always works and wends its sinuous way into the hearts and minds of a subservient mass that decided to externalise the faculty of reasoning to a higher power, convincing themselves that the virtuous citizen is the one who lets the political establishment do whatever it considers appropriate without putting up any resistance, as the élites know best and have our best interests at heart.
While media streams in the West show daily broadcasts of scores of supposed human rights abuses by Russia, or China, or anyone in the world that is somewhat aligned with Russia or does not openly condemn it, each one meticulously documented—here a fifty-year-old man in Russia supposedly imprisoned because his five-year-old daughter made a drawing in school about peace with Ukraine, there one sentenced to nineteen years in prison for throwing Molotov cocktails at the town hall to protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—there is not a squeak about the journalists, activists or media pundits who are being persecuted for their opposition views in the West.
The Spanish journalist Pablo González has been in custody for over a year in Poland, in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison, on charges of spying for Russia, with no trial in sight. While all Western media outlets are outraged over Russia formally charging Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich with espionage, not a word was uttered when British journalist and long-term Donbass correspondent Graham Phillips was added, by his own country, to the sanctions list in July 2022 and saw his British bank accounts closed under the accusation that his work “supports and promotes actions and policies which destabilise Ukraine and undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, or independence of Ukraine”.
As Ukraine’s population is mown down and its economy destroyed, the Western propaganda is getting more blaring and shrill. The EU Council trumpets “unprecedented measures to support Ukraine and its people” and undertakes to “support Ukraine for as long as it takes”. When the Ukrainian state budget effectively ceased to exist, the EU, accompanied by BlackRock, Halliburton and a handful of other alleged goodwill investors, stumped up unprecedented economic and financial assistance. Once the energy infrastructure of Ukraine had been destroyed beyond reasonable prospects of repair, the EU provided civil protection and support and free energy. When nearly half the population fled, the EU announced unprecedented support to the reception of refugees through the EU’s temporary protection mechanism. With the Ukrainian army decimated, the US and EU constantly ramped up military support. Where Ukraine’s neo-Nazi militias are committing horrific crimes, the EU and US are elevating the rhetoric on ‘atrocities’ committed by Russia and are creating a sui generis international tribunal outside the existing treaty-based Hague structures, with the sole aim of prosecuting “President Putin’s war crimes”.
Somewhat amusingly, after 22 months of hysterical rhetoric on the massacres committed by the Russians (which would have left the Western public with the distinct feeling that millions might have been butchered on the Ukrainian plains), the United Nations informed the world, in late November 2023, that the Ukrainian civilian death toll from the fighting might have exceeded 10,000. A UN report published in April 2023 shows that Ethiopia, not Ukraine, is the bloodiest war of the year. As a brief comparison, over 600,000 people have died in the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia between 2020 and 2022, with little to no Western media attention. One might add Sudan and Yemen to that list of overlooked ongoing wars with high civilian death tolls.
Probably the one major propaganda move that outdid them all was the EU’s announcement of the decision on Ukrainian accession. In June 2022, when Mariupol and most of the southern littoral of the country was being lost to Russian occupation, and when many would have thought that the self-lampooning of Western rhetoric could not possibly go any further, the EU ostentatiously announced its granting Ukraine the status of candidate country. No-one in the commentariat seemed to wonder how a country immersed in battles, with an unclear future and even more uncertain borders—the certainty of which is a hard rule imposed by the EU Treaties as a precondition for opening accession negotiations—could even begin to consider negotiating accession to the most complex bureaucracy on the face of the planet, the European Union. Nor did any talking heads raise the minor matter of how the screening of tens of thousands of pages of legislation (the mammoth acquis communautaire), hundreds of technical meetings on a rolling annual schedule, and dozens of monitoring visits to take place in the candidate member state’s territory would be carried out in a country at war. Yet here we are, in December 2023, digesting a fresh major announcement that Brussels will start EU accession talks with the state accused of being one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Moreover, at a time when Russia has made it abundantly clear that it will never accept going back to a situation where its western neighbour could be used as a dagger under its ribs, nor can the prospect of Ukraine ever returning to its 1991 borders (including the Crimea and Donbass) serve as a reasonable starting-point for any peace negotiations; the West is intensely planning its “support in the reconstruction of a democratic Ukraine”.
Or is this sudden accession business only about the soundbites and not after all a genuine intention to integrate a war-ravaged, ideologically rotten Ukraine into a Union already labouring under severe self-doubt following Brexit, the Covid crisis with its follow-up economic downturn, and the failure of its founding principle, commonality of purpose? Never mind whether we have answers to the big questions; what keeps an entity alive is not its capacity to set itself existential objectives and the capacity to attain them, but the sheer stubbornness not to disappear. Such seems to be the strategy of Ukraine, as it is the strategy of the EU: there is no defeat of Ukraine as long as Kiev does not accept that there is a defeat. All it takes is more and more sophisticated weaponry, more money, and more sanctions against Russia. If the country is depleted down to the last Ukrainian, that means that no-one will be around to sign the capitulation. What could possibly go wrong with this approach?
And so the happy-go-lucky strategy on Ukraine is advancing and the European Commission, in a bid to showcase the increased integration of Ukraine into the European family, has endowed itself with an expanded Ukraine Directorate in its Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), a considerable upgrade from the mere Task Force that covered that remit just last year. This means more jobs; more managerial positions in Brussels; more funding; more eurocrats happily embarked on the cause of Ukraine which feeds them and promotes them.
Behind the fog of war and propaganda, the reality is dire: Ukraine is being whittled away with every day that passes. By September 2023, over four million refugees have been registered across Europe, with over 20 million supposed to have fled the country either to the east or to the west since February 2022, though many have possibly returned or are simply being waved through the border as they shuttle to and fro, just so as to cash in on social support from European countries and then go back to their relatively calm homes in western Ukraine. This could mean a dire future, if any at all, for a country whose population was set at around 42 million before the war according to some estimates, whereas even the more conservative estimates place it now at around 32 million—thus leaving the total figure of people currently in Ukraine, and who could work to reconstruct the country, at fewer than 18 million.
How about betraying Ukraine?
And yet all these ‘supporting’ nations and personalities, constantly notching up a hypocritical discourse of backing Kiev to the end, festooned with blue and yellow flags, have been doing nothing but constantly eroding the nation and notion of Ukraine.
Whether uttered by Secretary of State Blinken, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, the British doyenne of Beltway Russia pundits Fiona Hill, the Prime Minister of Finland or the Chancellor of Germany, the sentiment “We cannot stop supporting Ukraine in the war because Russia cannot be allowed to win” can only mean one thing: we do not care about Ukraine or the Ukrainians, they are only a tool for us to attain our goal. That goal is to destroy Russia beyond the point where it could pose any hegemonic challenge to the West, whether by coalescing with China and others or by exerting any influence in its own right on the Euro-Asian space.
The conflict in Ukraine, a proxy war, is not declaring its hand openly. Its protagonists are befuddling their real motives in order to whitewash that which is in fact morally untenable: that there is no noble cause, that the enormous sacrifice is not being made in the name of humanity, freedom or liberty. The Kiev régime is not a beacon of democracy and human rights in Eastern Europe pluckily engaging the forces of communist and imperialist darkness; it is an ultra-nationalist racket supported by a mélange of mafia-style groupings, by foreign-interference organisations and by a lot of unaccounted Western taxpayer money. The fight in Donbass is not, and has never been, about saving human lives. It has been about destroying lives, Russian and Ukrainian alike.
In this context, the pledge by US Secretary of State Blinken in September 2022 to “support the people of Ukraine for as long as it takes”, which made the rounds of the world’s media as some sort of outstanding war slogan, was probably the most scandalously callous expression used by any actor in the conflict in respect of dispensing with the lives of others. Ukraine’s leaders seem to think this limelight is glorious and their cause worthy of earning them a place on the world stage. In a perverse sort of way, maybe it is.
The hypocrisy and double-talk are only too obvious to those who know where to look. To most outside observers, the EU is on the one hand preaching to the world about democracy and human rights while on the other hand supporting ‘Putin’s war machine’, meanwhile not going far enough in cutting ties with Russia where that does not suit it. Amid its twelve rolling packages of sanctions and flamboyant speeches with zero impact on Putin and his hold on power, the EU is exerting high pressure on the European economy and the living standards of its own population while safely bankrolling the war machine on both sides of the line of control. When additionally throwing billions worth of armaments into the equation at a frantic pace, unseen since the Second World War, while making zero effort at peace talks, Europe cannot possibly pretend to be unaware that it is prolonging the conflagration, with many more deaths incurred on both sides than otherwise would have been, including on the side that it so vociferously claims to support.
On the other hand, Europe is still buying billions worth of Russian gas, rare metals, uranium and fertilisers. Between March 2022 and January 2023, the EU imported Russian goods to the value of $186 billion. None of the twelve sanction rounds imposed by Brussels touched gas imports from Russia. Europe’s liquid natural gas imports have actually increased since the beginning of the war in February 2022, from 16 billion cubic metres in 2021 to 22 billion cubic metres in 2022, and are forecast to fall to 15 billion cubic metres by 2026.
No wonder that the US and Norway, ‘strategic allies’ of the EU who also happen to be big fuel providers, bristled at the EU’s sluggish progress in reading the writing on the wall and decided to take the matter of upgrading the energy relationship into their own hands. The very day that the Nord Stream event happened, Norway became the biggest gas provider for Europe.
Europe also needs Russian supplies to sustain what is left of its nuclear industry: Russian enriched uranium worth $814 million was imported in 2022, but even the diamonds that make Belgium’s Antwerp the world centre of processing and trade depend on Russian trade, with $1.52 billion worth of imports in 2022. Fertiliser imports from Russia amounted to $2.82 billion in 2022, a stunning 40% increase from the previous year. None of these categories of goods fell under the EU sanctions.
To oil the international commodity supply machine, major Russian banks must not be touched by sanctions: Alrosa (diamonds), Rosatom (uranium) and Gazprombank are all on the short but critical list of sanctions-exempt Russian entities (along with, let it be said, some Western companies trading in oil and gas on whose boards certain high-level EU officials just happen to have family members).
But does Europe really have a choice when it comes to ensuring its strategic supplies? When you decide to unbury the hatchet of war with the world’s biggest commodity supplier, you might as well expect some unpleasant consequences in terms of running your vital industries. Then again, Europe has been deindustrialising for a while and had convinced itself before the outbreak of hostilities that in a postmodern ‘green’ economy, the milk comes from purple cows on TV and electricity materialises in your home appliances from sun, wind and, probably, photosynthesis. In Europe, we all invest in financial services and work for a digital economy, while ‘dirty’ products can just be imported from China, India or Brazil, whose competitiveness can, however, be kept on a leash by draconian limitations imposed by COP28-type events. Keep calm and maintain a steady green agenda, and everything will be just fine.
So when the message hit home that there might be some products that are essential to maintain the standards of living that we have become accustomed to, and which seem to depend mostly on rogue nations beyond our purview, the concept of “strategic autonomy” suddenly became the new Brussels buzzword.
However, that fresh catchphrase does not seem to have led to any realisation in Brussels or other European capitals that perhaps a rapprochement with the Global South would be desirable; nor that, whichever way you look at it, Russia is (figuratively, not geographically) already part of that meridional pole. While we were busy holding forth to the noncommittal nations our version of democracy and human rights, Russia was building strong economic and political bonds with those nations, and was—forbidden word, alas—making friends with them.
And so we found ourselves unduly flabbergasted to behold at the UN General Assembly how flags were not raised to support back-to-back resolutions excoriating Russia, except for a handful of vassal states in Africa and Latin America, too reliant on US or European aid to be able to sustain even the shiest notion of independence in decision-making, or who were simply too browbeaten with ruling-family or economic consequences to summon a word of dissent. The vast majority abstained each time, or voted an unenthusiastic ‘aye’ where the resolution in question bore no legal consequences.
Surprise struck again in April 2023 when, after over a year of the most draconian sanctions régime in human history, the economy of the “gas station masquerading as a country” (as Western regents teach us to think of Russia) was posed for a positive growth forecast, while Europe’s economic engine, Germany, was grappling with negative forecasts. The Western élite does not seem to want to acknowledge what the “R” in BRICS stands for and what that implies for the ongoing tectonic shift of power rearrangements in the world: Brazil, Russia, India and China are expected to contribute almost 40% of the whole world's growth through to 2028, far outstripping the G7 and the collective West.
Recent attempts to restore Europe’s independence and growth through proposals like Commission President von der Leyen’s European Chips Act and Critical Raw Materials Act, pompously announced as “securing and sustaining supply chains for the EU's green and digital future”—a slogan worth an Orwellian epithet—seem to combine delusion with wishful thinking. The rationale behind these initiatives appears to sidestep the reality that neither computing chips nor the raw materials needed to manufacture them grow on green trees or are churned out by the windmills dotted around Europe, and that no matter how many more regulations, strategies and action plans Europe may adopt, none of these pieces of paper can change the fact that silicon and gallium and germanium, and precious lithium for the much coveted chimera of ‘green cars’, are elements seldom, if ever, mined in Europe.
President Macron’s “strategic autonomy for Europe” utterance—possibly a clumsy attempt to appease the enraged hordes setting Paris on fire, about whose grievances I have written—came across as hollow and meaningless, and does not cater for the great need of strategic vision, a perspective that continues to be beyond the wit of EU leaders. All he managed to achieve with it was needlessly irking the American hegemon. Now, Europe is neither here nor there in terms of strategic alliances. Locked in a mortal grapple with the Russian bear, it is still not determined enough to soar with the American eagle.
The betrayal of us all
No-one denies that what the Ukrainian people have had to endure for nearly two years is horrific and should not be happening, especially in a generation when, in Europe, we considered ourselves historically protected from the horrors of war. The responsibility for this horror, however, is not unidirectional, nor is the charge of betrayal attributable to one side only.
Surely, the war is a racket.
Stand with Ukraine—a political fascist racket.
Arming Ukraine—a military-industrial complex racket.
Reconstructing Ukraine—a financial racket.
But there is another betrayal, a greater one yet, a civilisational one. The choice by Ukraine’s political class—for a conscious choice it was—for all of us to enter into a war with Russia was never consulted on or checked in any way against the wishes, expectations, aspirations, objectives or interests of any of the surrounding nations in Eastern Europe or of Europe in general. I deliberately raise the issue of Eastern Europe in view of the multitude of ties and interdependencies that the other regions of the world, even those as close as in Western Europe, do not share to such a dramatic extent with Russia. These are territorial ties, historic ties, social ties, linguistic ties, cultural ties, economic ties, religious ties, human ties. This ‘choice’ by those running Ukraine emanates eerie implications for the geostrategic physiognomy of the Eurasian continent.
The terrorist attacks on behalf of Ukraine inside Russia, the assassinations of public figures in the Russian-occupied territories or even inside Russia proper, the pogrom against the traditional Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the persecution of its faithful in Ukraine bear an uncanny resemblance to by-the-book persecution as defined in the Geneva Conventions, with harrowing scenes of harassment and mobbing of people suspected of collaborating with ‘the enemy’, torching of churches, torture and imprisonment of priests, summary arrests, and confiscation of assets. Evidence of widespread looting goes unseen, unacknowledged and most definitely unpunished by the Western ‘democratic’ institutions.
Who asked us whether we wanted to be a part of it?
If the war is further escalated—as the current rhetoric surely seems to indicate that it stands to be—then it is Eastern Europe that will be in the first line of fire of whatever happens next. If Ukraine’s armed forces fail, it will be Polish, Lithuanian and Romanian soldiers that will be called upon to move east and confront the Russian aggressor. If nuclear bombs—or even depleted uranium shells—are deployed, it will be Eastern Europeans who will be affected, not Washington or London. Even in the best-case scenario where none of that apocalypse happens, the deep scars of mistrust and disillusionment that the present conflict has engendered in the hearts and minds of Russians will run deep and for a long time. The chasm will assuredly persist beyond our lifetimes and those of our children.
The Nord Stream asset was measured not only in the billions of euros that it took to build it or the amount of time it took to get it done. Its greatest magnitude of worth was as an intangible measure of trust between two civilisations and of the commitment they had made to a long-term, trustworthy and mutually profitable relationship after decades of total enmity. When Nord Stream was shattered, so were hundreds of years of incrementally-built confidence.
The road back is not impossible to take, but not easy either. And when the culprits have not even finished planning the destruction, let alone starting to consider ways of rebuilding the lost ground, then we know that we are far from an atonement.