With more than 70 Ukrainian protesters dead and Kiev in flames, many Western observers are fantasising that it was all in a good cause. They’re depicting the violent clashes as a rerun of the Cold War, a coming-back-to-life of that conflict over values that split the world between West and East, between the democratic and the autocratic, for most of the postwar period. On the blood-stained streets of Ukraine we have youth fighting for ‘fundamental European values’ and ‘defying the post-Soviet order imposed by Russia’, we are told. This is apparently a battle to create a Western-style ‘free, sovereign, democratic country’ and to wriggle free of Russia’s baleful illiberal influence. It’s a war between Western principles and Eastern authoritarianism.
Such a reading of the streetfighting in Ukraine gets two things spectacularly – and tragically – wrong. Its assumption that the old Western values of liberal democracy and freedom are not only alive and thriving but spreading Eastwards runs counter to every fact of recent times, when, in Brussels in particular, which is doing most of the Cold War talk over Ukraine, democracy has become a dirty word and our new rulers have lost the ability even to spell the word freedom. And its suggestion that Western leaders are (or most certainly should be) influencing Ukrainian events in the right direction, by supporting those who are on ‘the right side of history’, imbues Western foreign policy with a sentience and purpose it simply does not possess. It gives the impression that the West worked out what is best for Ukraine and then set about making it happen. In truth, the violent instability in Ukraine speaks to the lethal illiteracy of Western foreign policy today, to the inability of Western politicians to behave in a geopolitically grown-up fashion, to the deadly impact that dumb diplomacy can have on those nations who find themselves on the receiving end of its diktats.
The West is not engaged in any clear, conscious project to export democratic values or anything else to Ukraine. Rather, it has meddled thoughtlessly in that divided country, being guided more by fleeting PR needs than by age-old Enlightenment principles, and the consequences have been disastrous. Over the past three months, Western politicians have continually upped the ante in the Ukrainian theatre, through conferring moral authority on to the protest camps (without giving a moment’s thought to the political nature or quality of said camps) and through isolating and finally delegitimising President Viktor Yanukovich. This has had the terrible impact of deepening the divide between the two blocs, making compromise all but impossible, and violence inevitable.
What started as a fairly minor spat over an EU agreement on trade, which Yanukovich refused to sign, making EU-leaning Ukrainians angry, has been transformed by the infantile interference of Western politicians into a fiercely violent clash between various sections of Ukrainian society. In essence, Western politicians made the protest camps into the legitimate government of Ukraine, handing them a moral mandate to behave as they pleased. Both American and German politicians took the extraordinary step of visiting the camps and imploring their inhabitants to continue fighting for a more European Ukraine. In December, the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, told the protesters it was clear ‘the hearts of the people of Ukraine beat for the EU’. American Republican senator John McCain also visited the camps. ‘We are here to support your just cause’, he said.
In January, various Western leaders started to talk about the protesters as if they were the true embodiment of the Ukrainian popular will. German chancellor Angela Merkel told her parliament that the protesters are ‘fighting for the same values that guide the European Union and that is why they must be supported’. US secretary of state John Kerry declared that ‘the United States stands with [the protesters]’. In the wake of such statements from global leaders, the protesters started to storm and claim authority over institutions such as Kiev’s City Hall and the Ministry of Justice. That wasn’t surprising - having effectively been handed the status of Ukraine’s true rulers by powerful outside forces, they were assuming their positions of Merkel-mandated governorship.