JR Max Wheel & Graham Reid
18 Feb 2015
Where does Europe stop and start? This seems like a trivial question, but it is one which needs asking, most especially in view of the eastward drift of the European Union and the turmoil in the Ukraine. It is not easily answered. If one looks at how the European Environment Agency (EEA) tries to address it, it is a mix of geography, geology, ethnography and broadly includes the almost everything west of the Ural mountains, no doubt the Russians would disagree in any context beyond a purely geographical framework.
It is a truism of history that empires do not last, but they fade or are swept away by violent events; European history is littered with vanished kingdoms and states, brilliantly documented by British historian Norman Davies in his excellent “Vanished Kingdoms”- the half-forgotten Europe of near myth.
Unfortunately in today’s Europe the European Union itself is perceived as having its own “imperial” agenda, The Push to the East[Drang nach Osten], which has hit the buffers of political reality in Ukraine. The desire of [particularly West] Ukrainians to a closer arrangement with the EU has stirred a violent reaction in its Eastern borders. This is unsurprising; the slightest familiarity with Russian history reveals it paranoia over defensible borders, frequently secured via control of buffer states. Intriguingly it is suggested that even prior to the collapse of Berlin Wall in 1987 both Gorbachev and Kohl had discussed conditions for German reunification to be agreed, provided there was explicit recognition that the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine were excluded –i.e. recognized as being within the Russian “sphere of influence”. Clearly this was an attempt to avoid the stigma of a Germany remaining as an economic giant but a political pygmy: such notions did not play well with the French, as the Quai d’Orsay clearly feels it has a near monopoly over the requisite diplomatic skills. Whether this Russo-German policy actually was ever enshrined in document form, is irrelevant as events overran policy. What it does serve to show was that Gorbachev was very clear that the sphere of influence ideas were (and are) still significant and that encroachments eastwards were going to be looked upon with suspicion and quite probable interference. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union put history on temporary hold; it also opened up a historical opportunity. The old Yalta Accord had already begun to splinter, as Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics and the Baltic States all joined forces with the EU as members and are further extended to Romania and Bulgaria.
Ukraine declared its independence from the former USSR in 1991: by 1992 some 128 states recognized Ukraine as a sovereign state. The emerging Russian Federation was in no position to act contrarily because it too had recognized Ukrainian sovereignty and was economically weakened.
Amongst the hangovers remaining from Yalta are the enclave of Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg in East Prussia and the unreformed State of Belarus, still wedded to the old USSR both politically and economically. Little real progress politically was made in Ukraine until the Orange revolution 2004-5 although the stand-off between reformers and old style pro-Russians like Yanukovich was played out amidst a chaotic and massively corrupt system. By then it was clear that the path to a democratic and market economy was going to be far from easy. By the time of Yanukovich’s election in 2010 and the outbreak of protest in 2014, the essential divisions between a pro-Russian East and a pro European West would begin to tear the country apart. It has always been a policy for absolutist rulers to seek to destabilize in such circumstances by claiming that minority ethnic Russians or pro-Russian supporters were “at risk” and the rest is the history of infiltration, violence and compromise of Ukrainian sovereignty.
Prior to these events the EU had used its Partnership agreement of 1998 and Association agreements of 2007-11 to negotiate an ever closer rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU. Given that this went much further than trade but included energy security and the text for military and defence cooperation, virtually nothing was more likely to inflame passions on both sides. Such stumbling and toxic diplomacy engendered the current situation as much as Russian desires to keep Ukraine firmly in the orbit of the Russian Federation. Logic and a sense of history should have demanded caution by the EU. This is Eastern Europe proper and not occupied Central Europe and the cultural and political sensitivities are very different. In short the hard men like President Putin have made it clear, ” so far and no further”. Yet this is a sovereign state. Such is the degree of political naiveté that dogs EU foreign policy as well as the deals done behind closed doors the word incompetence is inadequate to describe this ineptitude. The same “fix it as we go along” stratagem is evident in the way the EU has dealt with its currency crisis, itself a monument to political manipulation and hubris
It is clear total overreach by the EU; whilst few would entertain for a second the destabilizing and revanchist behaviour of the Russians, it is broadly similar to the sensitivities of the US over Cuba too close for comfort. That this kind of “policy making on the hoof” is viewed as an innocent technocratic deal is acceptable in a Union of 28 nation states is itself highly questionable. The original 6 EU members were of course all Western European and thus at least shared some cultural identity and shared ambition, the 28 do not remotely fit that picture, the blood-soaked history of much of Europe is due to the subversion and not infrequent upsurge of tribal grievances amid Great Power Nation States. As such the EU would be far better engaged in assimilating the huge territorial mouthful it has already accumulated, than to risk dragging Super Power politics into another historical quagmire. This must be the lesson of Ukraine. For all its proud history, it has been attacked by Huns, a pawn in the wars of Poland and Lithuania, fell to Catherine the Great of Russia in the 18thC, overrun by the Nazis and temporarily freed in 1991: tragically it is hard to see without deep political changes in Russia, a safe and independent future. What a tragic irony for a country that gave its name to “all the Russias” and what a warning to the EU to beware its limitations.