Democracy and Putin’s obsession with a “nazi anti-Russia” Ukraine
The democratic and free world cannot stand idly by when one of their own is facing a war of destruction waged by a neo-imperialist authoritarian force under false pretences.
Russian Warship: “This is a military warship. This is a Russian military warship. I suggest you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise, you will be bombed.”
Ukrainian Soldier: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”
February 25th 2022
Putin accuses Ukraine of sins that are actually modern Russia’s making. First of all, a fascist-style nationalistic autocracy is the form of governance that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has enforced all over Russia during his twenty odd years in office. Second, Putin’s rule has seen forced Russification (or cultural genocide) gradually wipe out around 30 regional official languages spoken by the country’s ethnically non-Russian citizens. This group accounts for a fifth of the Russian Federation’s population, or almost 30 million people (including two million Ukrainians). Meanwhile, after the shock of Russia’s first war on Ukraine in 2014, Kyiv has become a vibrant democracy. Clear progress in the economy and rule of law has brought Ukraine tantalisingly close to achieving its constitutionally-enshrined goal of joining the European Union and NATO.
Because of these achievements, Ukrainians have enjoyed visa-free travel (BezViz) to the European Union since 2017. This much sought-after prize is still denied to Russians and Belarusians, who, at the whim of their own countries’ autocrats, are excluded from partaking in the cultural and socio-economic life of Europe and the broader free world. Ukraine’s comparative successes undermine the legitimacy of Putin’s rule in the eyes of young and liberal Russians. As a result, the Kremlin now demonises the Ukrainians and their state as a militarised “anti-Russia”, poised to attack at any moment. Curiously, the Russian president and his cabinet now often discuss politics in messianic terms, portraying Russia as a latter-day saviour of the modern world. In the Kremlin’s propaganda view, the West is weak and degenerate and only Russia can make it see the light. On the other hand, Putin’s rambling July 2021 essay maintains that Ukraine is not a state and that all Ukrainians are actually Russians who must realise this fact.
Going back to the dark past of war
The preparations for the Kremlin’s “special military operation” began way back in 2021, around the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union. At that time in 1941, the totalitarian alliance between Berlin and Moscow (1939-41) aimed against the West unraveled in dramatic fashion. In today’s neo-totalitarian Russia, it is prohibited to mention the fact that Stalin and Hitler cooperated with each other. Putin proved impatient to utilise the symbolism of the “Great Patriotic War” as part of his invasion. Yet, on China’s kind request, the Kremlin showed restraint and waited for four long days after the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. At dawn, on February 24th 2022, Putin in his capacity as commander-in-chief ordered the 240,000 Russian and Belarusian troops amassed along the Ukrainian frontier to attack the country. This led to the largest land invasion in post-war European history.
The onslaught’s official goal is to “de-nazify” Ukraine and stop the “ongoing genocide of Russophones” in the country. These are lies made for domestic consumption in Russia, where freedom of the press and expression were liquidated during Putin’s long rule. There has been no genocide orchestrated by neo-nazis in today’s Ukraine. No major far right party operates in this country, let alone governs Ukraine. Even more bizarrely, Putin described the Ukrainian government as a “gang of drug addicts and neo-nazis” during a later televised address. Incidentally, the valiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is of Jewish extraction. For sure, what irks Putin most is the fact that Zelenskyy won his post in a just, free and democratic presidential election, unlike the Russian autocrat holed up in the Kremlin.
Democracy never comes cheap
The West appreciates democratic Ukraine’s progress and clearly realises what the peaceful country is set against in this unprovoked confrontation with Moscow. We all can follow the war almost in real time, courtesy of online news services. Furthermore, the story of this tragedy foretold has been in the news for three months now. Heightened tension brought a string of western politicians to the Kremlin both in person and online. Much to the autocrat’s delight, these figures begged Putin to not start a war. The Kremlin promised that it was not planning any invasion. Despite this, the West was not duped as all of Russia’s actions on the ground pointed to the contrary.
Meanwhile, Kyiv enjoyed words of support, promises of financial aid and the arrival of some low-key defensive weaponry. Over the past two decades, Berlin has abetted Russia’s growing geopolitical stranglehold on itself and Europe by allowing the construction of the two Nord Stream gas pipelines across the Baltic Sea. Aware of the looming prospect of a Russian invasion, the German government finally offered Ukraine 5000 military helmets. Now, three days after the Russian attack, these helmets have just been delivered to the Polish-Ukrainian border in order to be collected by a Kyiv government now literally under fire. Berlin refused to fly these helmets into Ukraine in order not to irritate Moscow.
Was this some kind of joke? How is this defensive gift supposed to help the Ukrainians? What kind of a signal does it send to the Kremlin? Business as usual? US President Joe Biden has been more vocal in his criticism of Russia. However, he also stated that no NATO troops would be dispatched to Ukraine to help in the defence of this democratic country against autocratic Russia’s invading armies. Is this really an appropriate strategy for the US, which styles itself as the leader of the free and democratic world? Incredulously, Biden offered to evacuate Zelenskyy, his family and the Ukrainian government from a besieged Kyiv. Zelenskyy lambasted the US president by curtly replying that what he “needs [is] ammunition, not a ride”. Such an abandonment of duty would have put Ukraine’s defence in disarray. Zelenskyy is not like the last Afghan president, who escaped when his country needed him most as the Taliban approached Kabul.
It should be remembered that Biden and the Americans owe Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians. Have they already forgotten how in 2020 Zelenskyy refused to help then US President Donald Trump fabricate compromising material against Biden? The disgraced former president can now be found praising Putin amidst the ongoing invasion. This illustrates not only Trump’s admiration for the Russian dictator but also his thinly-disguised desire to turn the US into an autocracy much like Moscow.
In return for this help, western diplomats and embassies abandoned Kyiv ten days prior to the Russian invasion. Why could they not stay in order to add to the overall international pressure on Moscow? What has changed between now and 2008, when their predecessors refused to leave Tbilisi when Georgia found itself under Russian attack? How come the then leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine made the point of visiting the Georgian capital in the face of imminent Russian invasion? They put their lives in danger’s path. Such a principled stance is the difference between mere politicians and genuine statesmen. These leaders’ visit most probably saved Tbilisi from a Russian attack. Is Kyiv, with its three times larger population, not worthy of similar treatment?
A dystopia that is coming true
The Belarusian-language novelist Alhierd Bacharevič perhaps best prefigured the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine in his sprawling 2017 novel Dogs of Europe. After the rigged presidential election and subsequent protests in Belarus in 2020, the writer went into exile in Austria. The plotline of his book proposes that Russia would annex Belarus in 2025. This quickly led to wars against Ukraine and the neighbouring NATO countries and ultimately a Third World War fought with the limited use of nuclear weapons. China stayed neutral and facilitated the negotiation of an armistice in 2027, signed in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. Moscow subsequently declared the founding of a Eurasian empire, officially dubbed the “Russian Reich”. This state was composed of the Russian Federation, Finland, the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. In addition, thanks to successful military operations in Asia, the Russian Reich also gained Central Asia, Afghanistan and Korea. The following year, in 2028, Putin was crowned emperor of the Russian Reich.
Of course, this is a rather fantastic take on political fiction but it is nonetheless prescient. What Bacharevič saw in his mind’s eye has started to happen almost a decade earlier than he predicted. In real life, Russia de facto annexed Belarus in 2021 and attacked Ukraine in 2022. The West’s current resolve is limited to sanctions. Even more sanctions may finally hit the Russian economy but only in the future. In reality, this policy is appeasement without mentioning this ugly term. Appeasement at the cost of giving up on Ukraine, a country the size of France with a population equal to that of Spain. Can Europe truly allow itself to sustain such a loss?
What would this mean for democracy? In 1993, the short-lived democratic experiment came to an end in the Russian Federation. Then President Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to subdue the Russian parliament. The country was again set on the way to dictatorship. Out of all the post-Soviet states, only the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania embarked on the democratic path that ultimately led them to join the EU and NATO in 2004. Much to the Kremlin’s pleasure, the Asian post-Soviet states chose autocracy and mostly bow to Russia’s guidance when it comes to economics and security. Russia gradually dominated and now de facto absorbed Belarus without the need to overthrow the country’s dictator of almost three decades. Meanwhile, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine chose to emulate the example of the Baltic states. As a result, an enraged Kremlin has launched attacks against these three states that so carelessly rejected the kind gift of Russian-style autocracy. A succession of Russian invasions created a string of de facto states on Georgian, Moldovan and Ukrainian territory. Naturally, this has hindered the three states’ efforts at democratisation, reform and accession to Euro-Atlantic organisations.
Now, from the perspective of its land frontier, almost all of autocratic Russia is safely insulated from the free and democratic world by neighbouring states that are either autocratic (Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Kazakhstan and North Korea), neutral (Finland) or quietly pro-Russian (Mongolia). The only exceptions are Russia’s very short borders with the NATO and/or EU member states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Poland. Despite this, the dictatorially-minded Russian president still obsesses most about Russia’s frontiers with Georgia and Ukraine. Both states are still democracies and aspire to join the EU and NATO.
Does the free and democratic world really need to look on idly by and follow the Kremlin’s authoritarian and neo-imperial wishes? It is oft-repeated that unlike authoritarian states, democracies do not fight one another. The question now is whether democracies should help one another when one of them is facing a military invasion launched by an autocracy.
The West proposes that its barrage of economic sanctions will stop Russia and save Ukraine. But is this really true? In the past, the previous packages of sanctions imposed on Russia after the Kremlin’s wars and attacks on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 (including the annexation of Crimea) did not deter or hinder its neo-imperial and autocratic designs. In the mean time, western companies have found creative ways to circumnavigate these sanctions in order to once again do lucrative business with Russia. In 2019, even the US agreed that Germany could deepen its dependence on Russian oil and gas by giving the green light to the construction of Nord Stream 2. Can any western leader now be surprised that the Kremlin weaponised this dependency? Moscow has used this reality against the EU so that neither Brussels nor NATO would dare come to the aid of democratic Ukraine.
Whilst some commentators in the free and democratic world still believe it, capitalism is not democratic in itself or a precursor to democracy. Actually, this economic system is ideologically neutral. This is made clear by China’s unprecedented success at using capitalism to simultaneously grow the country’s economy and strengthen its totalitarian political system. Beijing’s successful dismantling of democracy in still capitalist Hong Kong in 2020 is a clear example of this reality.
It is invariably leaders, politicians and citizens who decide on how capitalism should be used in their respective countries. At present, the world’s authoritarian states, led by China and Russia in a tentative alliance, seem determined to spread autocracy worldwide at the expense of democracy. Over the past decade, both powers have made sure to roll back fledgling and even established democracies in their immediate geopolitical neighbourhoods. Such unsung cooperation is exemplified by the Kremlin’s aforementioned coordination of its attack on Ukraine with the end of Beijing’s Winter Olympics. Overall, autocracies also tend to help each other. What is more, in expectation of the West’s forthcoming economic sanctions, Moscow already secured monumental oil and gas deals with China with an eye to offsetting this economic cost. Beijing loyally plays its role as a fellow autocracy.
At the same time, Russian money continues to influence politics and economics in the West, gradually opening the gates for a broader acceptance of autocracy there too. By bowing to China or Russia, some leaders of EU member states have shown that they are ready to undermine democracy in order to stay in power or enrich themselves. Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia’s current drift toward autocracy is clear proof that democracy is never a given and must be supported and cultivated to last.
The time to act is now. While the autocrats of the world unite, the free and democratic world cannot afford to stand by and do nothing. On its own, Ukraine, a fellow democratic country, keeps repelling autocratic Russia’s unprovoked attacks. No democracy is ready to help Kyiv directly in this unequal struggle. Meanwhile, China remains supportive of Russia, even if in a transactional manner. Should Ukraine fall, future generations will blame the complacent West for this catastrophe foretold. In the aftermath, no western leader will have the right to complain that democracy is now rolled back even more in Europe and around the world.
Just a historical reminder. During the early 1920s, practically all of Central Europe’s states were democracies. Yet, after nazi Germany’s partition of democratic Czechoslovakia in 1939, not a single democratic state remained in this region prior to the outbreak of World War II. Together, democracies stand and thrive, and divided they fall. Let us make no mistake about it: the future of Europe and the world is now being decided in Ukraine.
Stop press: No-fly zone
During the first week of the Russian attack, the Ukrainian government has repeatedly asked the West to secure a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The US and Britain say “no,” fearing a Russian-NATO confrontation that could escalate to nuclear war. But no NATO would be involved if Moscow’s own Crimea-style tactics of “little green men” without insignia were followed. Deniability is the key. NATO countries’ planes could operate with Ukrainian colours painted on them and under Ukrainian command. The same is true of advanced missiles and anti-missile systems that can be overnight installed in western Ukraine. After all, the Ukrainian government and army are permitted to defend their country with whatever means they may secure from friendly and anonymous states.
It is their right. The right to defend their own land. Only the Ukrainians stand now between autocratic Russia and the European Union. If the West is serious about democracy and human rights, it needs to protect the Ukrainian by enabling Ukraine to fight effectively against Russia’s overwhelming forces. How about a bit more of perfidious Albion’s infamous and deniable subterfuge?
Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Dear Readers - New Eastern Europe is a not-for-profit publication that has been publishing online and in print since 2011. Our mission is to shape the debate, enhance understanding, and further the dialogue surrounding issues facing the states that were once a part of the Soviet Union or under its influence. But we can only achieve this mission with the support of our donors. If you appreciate our work please consider making a donation.