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D-Day plus 1: will Europe stand up for its ideals in Ukraine or not?


“Pro-Russian” protesters in Luhansk, 8 April

Tonight Europe’s relations with Russia are again at a height of tension as a result of Russian provocations in east Ukraine. Of that there is little doubt, despite the BBC’s and other western news organisations’ bland descriptions of events as “pro-Russian protests”. Destabilisation phase 2 – President Putin’s pretext for invading eastern Ukraine – is continuing. Co-ordinated attempts by “pro-Russian activists” to take over strategic buildings in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk have take place: the “protesters” are men armed with baseball bats, stun grenades, allegedly explosives and firearms, and liberal amounts of razor wire and vodka. Some of these assaults have been successful, some not. Some “activists” have been arrested, and among those taken into custody are many Russians, some apparently Russian special forces, others paid-up agitators and mercenaries. There is not much evidence that ordinary Ukrainian citizens are involved in these initiatives.

At the same time there continues in Europe to be an unwillingness to examine Russian motives in Ukraine, which may spring from a general western perplexity about what Russia wants or is entitled to in terms of possession and influence in eastern Europe. So let’s back up here and get some historical perspective.

In a BBC broadcast from London on 1 October 1939 Winston Churchill told his listeners, “cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

The national interest he was talking about was Hitler’s Germany planting itself on the shores of the Black Sea. Let’s compare that to today. Then, Russia rightly did not want Hitler’s armies marching into Soviet territory that abutted the Black Sea. Well, today those Black Sea shores are Ukrainian, just as those eastern cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk are Ukrainian. Because Ukraine is today an independent nation, whose activities in friendly times might very well have been heavily influenced by Russia and its historical ties with Russia. But the role of a historical ally is not the role Russia is now playing towards Ukraine. Instead it is playing another role, that of a ghostly empire, reverting to a strategy that made sense 75 years ago but now leaves it not as a defender of its imperial borders but an oppressor of its former neighbour. The nation of Russia in short – playing the role of a ghostly USSR – has turned into Hitler’s Germany. It wants an Anschluss. It wants more Lebensraum for its prestige and power. It wants a “push to the west” as Hitler wanted a “push to the east” and to plant itself on the shores of another country’s Black Sea territory. There is no way around this. Everything that Putin has done in the last month – in Crimea, massing on the eastern borders of Ukraine, kicking off Monday’s new phase of destabilisation – however justified his poor opinion of the temporary government in Kyiv may be – amounts to this: he is behaving like Hitler in 1939.

And the only key to solving this problem is to repeat the lesson of 1939 and this time to safeguard Ukraine’s national interest, with every possible means means at our disposal, including eventually military means. That is the answer to the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Because if Ukraine’s interest is not safeguarded, one of the calamities that will follow is that other interests will fall in sequence: Moldova’s, Latvia’s, Estonia’s. The devil is in the detail. Aid, assistance, advice, loans, observers are all vital to Ukraine. But Putin’s actions have shouted loud and clear, and the devil is also in how loud the EU and NATO shout back. In my view NATO owes it to its partners in Poland and the Baltic states, as well as to Ukraine whose sovereignty it pledged to uphold in 1997, as well as to all its other European partners, to turn Ukraine’s national interest into a common cause. Because another calamity waiting in the wings is the fate of Europe itself. I cannot forecast to you what that fate will be – but if we do not act decisively against Putin’s actions, Europe from west to east will for decades to come be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma – a continent that suddenly ceased fighting for its ideals, and nobody knows why.

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