I examined the EU's role in this piece for the Canberra Times on Saturday . . .
You can safely ignore the BMP’s (armoured vehicles) doing wheelies and the militia parading patriotic Russian WW2 flags: that’s just colour for the cameras. The real decisions on Ukraine’s future are being plotted, at this very moment, in the Kremlin. One man, and one man alone, will decide what happens next. Vladimir Putin’s the new Tsar and everything that’s happening - and most particularly those ‘spontaneous demonstrations of support’ for reintegration with the motherland - can be traced back to him.
He is the one, critical factor complicating the situation in the Eastern Ukraine. No one can be certain if Putin is still in lingering touch with reality - or if he’s gone completely, barking, mad. The problem is that the Russian leader’s unleashing a force that he can’t control. Nationalism is working for him at the moment, because large numbers of ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s East are prepared to come out and demand reintegration to the motherland. It’s still too early to be confident about what will occur on the ground in the eastern oblosts and just how far Putin will be prepared to push this destabilisation, but there’s every indication the decision’s already been made to seize the chance to extend Moscow’s reach. That’s why he’s glorying in a tactical victory.
But the decision to unleash the genie of nationalism represents a strategic defeat for the Kremlin. Putin pretends he’s upholding the rights of individuals, yet the model for his empire is oligarchic. He’s sowing the seeds of his own, eventual, strategic defeat. His problem is the contradictions located deep within his own psyche.
Putin yearns to restore the glory of mother Russia - and yet he wants to do so as an autocrat, driving and directing this change from the centre. The entire twentieth century has borne witness to the barren nature of this model. The failed attempts of Lenin and Stalin to create a workers paradise in Russia; the inability of Hitler to forge a thousand year Reich in Germany; everything from the disaster of Mao’s revolution in China through to the tragedy of Castro in Cuba has demonstrated the centrifugal forces in modern society are too great. Putin may think he can control the centre, but central planning will inevitably fail. The challenge now is how to contain the sudden, temporary burst of energy that the Russian autocrat’s unleashed until it dissipates under its own momentum.
Institutions only use words from the languages they have available. NATO, for example, is a cold war military alliance. Its rhetoric is confined to vocabulary comprising the deployment of planes and troops, or providing intelligence of the Russian military buildup on the borders of the Ukraine. But such words are sterile, because no treaty demands armed intervention, even if there were a full-blown invasion (which remains highly unlikely). The Supreme Commander isn’t, it seems, quite so omnipotent after all.
Similarly the language coming from Washington is, at best, equivocal and at worst unhelpful. A fierce beast backed into a corner is more likely to strike, instead of docilely curling up and retreating. President Obama’s urging action without any levers that can give power to his words. America’s a superpower in retreat, pivoting towards Asia. Any ultimatums to Putin will act as provocations, simply because they can’t be enforced.
For once it’s the quiet, subtle diplomacy of the European Union that’s offering a way out of the mess the children have created. As they urge in the playground, “use your words” and the natural language of the EU consists of vital concepts for the future: expressions like “self-determination” and “legitimacy”. Because it’s these words, in conjunction, that will determine the eventual future of the Ukraine, not the edicts of strong-men, whether they’re based in Kiev or the Kremlin.
Brussels has been acting quietly throughout this crisis. The EU’s presenting a united face. This is demonstrating to Russia that there will be consequences - hard, economic ones - if it continues flouting the norms of civilised behavior. Because the northern hemisphere’s moving into summer, Putin’s threat to cut off gas supplies has limited resonance at the moment. The west’s confident alternatives can be put in place, if needed, by winter. And this is giving the EU power to influence events in Moscow by wielding understated pressure, not directly on Putin, but through his cronies.
The Union’s also been active in Kiev. The ultimate key to resolving the situation in the country’s east will be self-determination. This is the idea at the heart of the EU model. Instead of the traditional model of ruling-from-the-centre, the diplomats have been urging Ukraine to loosen the bonds and adopt a federated system. This is a breakthrough. It addresses Putin’s professed concerns about the Russian minorities in Ukraine’s east, and Kiev’s desire for territorial integrity. Most importantly, it addresses the needs of the ordinary people whose lives and futures have been ignored by the posturing coming from the world capitals.
Solutions for the future can no longer be handed down by edict. The world has changed radically over the past century and yet the force of nationalism remains just as virulent as it did when a young radical shot an Austrian Archduke in Sareyvo one hundred years ago. The vital need is not to suppress these desires, but find a way of accommodating them within a broader project. This is the danger for Moscow. Putin’s proclaiming himself the defender of a specific ethnic group, the Russians, yet within his borders there are large numbers of other peoples who don’t share his vision for their future.
A real, long-lasting solution to this emerging situation won’t be found from dipping into history books, no matter how accommodating the analogies between Putin and Hitler seem to be. New forces are at work. They demand new responses.