Saturday, April 9, 2016

Ukraine at the Hinge Point of a Struggle for Europe's Soul

Two years ago Timothy D. Snyder gave a talk at the National University in Kiev about the strong bonds between Ukrainian and European history. In important ways, said Snyder, Ukraine has been a hinge point in European history: between Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, between empire and nation state, between capitalism and communism, between Nazi and Stalinist designs on Europe, and now, between Brussels's European Union project and Moscow's Eurasian project. "The past is not over, it's not even past...." says Snyder quoting Faulkner. What's happening today in Ukraine is supremely important not only for the immediate history of Ukraine, but for the history of Europe in the 21st century. We should be paying attention.

Snyder teaches history at Yale, he has written many books on the region, and he is a dynamic and captivating speaker. If you find his talk above worthwhile, there's good news: a lot of his lectures can be found online.  He's a great stairmaster companion.

A Vast Right Wing Conspiracy?

Russia is undermining Ukraine's efforts to liberalize, become more European, less corrupt, says Snyder. It is doing so directly through its seizure of Crimea and its invasion of Eastern Ukraine, but also with propaganda painting Ukraine's leaders as European enemies of Russian Orthodox values.  They have loose morals, they are gay-lovers, say Putin's propagandists. This propaganda, of course, explicitly opposes European tolerance of essential human freedoms and civil rights. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, says Snyder, Europe has an enemy at its gates that wants to destroy the European project. Considering the European project is only half built, it's a critical time.

While portraying the new Ukrainian leaders as too much like Enlightenment Europeans on the one hand (decadent gay-loving libertines), Russian propaganda contradictorily paints the new EU-looking Ukrainian leaders as "fascists."  These are fascist Europeans, says Russian propaganda: remember the ravages of World War II in Ukraine! Ukraine's new leaders are portrayed as both "too good" Europeans (carrying forward human values, civil rights, and other decadent  Enlightenment values), and as "bad" Europeans: fascists!

Like propagandists everywhere, Russia is not troubled by the contradiction. We should be.

Snyder reminds us of the pact between Stalin and Hitler (Molotov-Ribbentrop pact 1939-1941). Stalin was strongly opposed to Fascism in his rhetoric--but this didn't lead to opposing actual fascists. Stalin's goal was that by entering into a non-aggression pact with Hitler, World War II would be a war between Germany-France-Britain. It would weaken these powers and hasten the end-stages of capitalism and lead to the triumph of the East.

Like Stalin in his day, Putin's incoherent propagandists manifest a coherent project: bring down the EU and replace it with a rival Eurasian project.

Here is Snyder's description of this Eurasian project in a New Republic article in May 2014:
By 2013 ... Moscow had ... a much grander vision 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. Putin’s goal was and remains eminently simple. His regime depends upon the sale of hydrocarbons that are piped to Europe. A united Europe could generate an actual policy of energy independence, under the pressures of Russian unpredictability or global warming—or both. But a disintegrated Europe would remain dependent on Russian hydrocarbons.
In support of this Eurasia project, Russia materially supports the far right in Europe. For example France's Marine Le Pen has taken loans from Russian banks to finance her party and is asking for more. "Many of the 'no' campaign’s themes, headlines and even photographs" for the Dutch referendum against the EU-Ukraine Association agreement held this week "were lifted directly from Russia Today and Sputnik, Russia’s state propaganda website," says Anne Applebaum.

The programs of right wing parties in Europe resonate with Russia's nihilistic Eurasia project. Thus Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 was carried out with the help of Putin's extremist allies throughout Europe, says Snyder. And some of this is finding echoes in American politics, as well:
The Russian annexation was carried out, tellingly, with the help of Putin’s extremist allies throughout Europe. No reputable organization would observe the electoral farce by which 97 percent 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 (the Left Party) were happy to come and endorse the results. The Germans who traveled to Crimea included four members of Die Linke and one member of Neue Rechte (New Right). This is a telling combination. 
Die Linke operates within the virtual reality created by Russian propaganda, in which the task of the European left (or rather “left”) is to criticize the Ukrainian right—but not the European right, and certainly not the Russian right. This is also an American phenomenon, visible for example in the otherwise surprising accord on the nature of the Ukrainian revolution and the reasonableness of the Russian counterrevolution expressed in Lyndon Larouche’s Executive Intelligence Review, the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, and The Nation.
Europe's extreme right wing parties are gaining strength on the back of terrorist attacks fueled by chaos in the Middle East, and Russia is supporting the rise of these parties as part of Putin's Eurasian project. The far right across Europe and Putin's Russia share a common interest in destroying the European project. As in World War II, Ukraine is at the hinge point of this struggle.

The stakes are very high.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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