Ukraine and Europe's Sleepwalkers

Ukrainian national guard checkpoint outside Sloviansk, 4 May 14 Sloviansk: The Ukrainian national guard is trying to rein in pro-Russian separatists

In Europe it is a time of remembering. In Russia, 9 May marks the anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis. Elsewhere it is marked as Europe Day.

Later this summer Europe's leaders will stand together to recall the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One. It is 75 years since the start of World War Two.

Until recently Europeans assumed the weight of its history had lifted, that new alliances and institutions had made war impossible. It assumed that borders would never again be altered by force.

Russia had been brought in from the cold. It became an important trading partner for Europe. It occupied a seat at the global economy's top table, the G20. Europe scaled back its defence spending, believing it inhabited a benign neighbourhood.

Careless of history, it foresaw the European Union's expansion east almost as a technical exercise.

And then came Ukraine and, with the deployment of the Russian military, many of the assumptions of the past 20 years are being discarded.

Europe's leaders, however, still struggle to accept the new reality. They act as if the dream will pass and their familiar world will return. It is why commentators have cited the book The Sleepwalkers, which charted how Europe stumbled into World War One.

Where's the strategy?

Gradually Europe's leaders have realised what is at stake. "If the wrong decisions are made now," says the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, "they could nullify decades of work, threatening the freedom and security of Europe".

And yet Europe's leaders have failed to influence the crisis. They are reactors to events, not shapers. Not once have they acted in a way that would give Russia's President Putin pause for thought. Every step they have taken towards freezing assets or banning visas has been agonising and unconvincing.

So in a relatively short space of time eastern and southern Ukraine has been destabilised. Ukraine no longer functions as a state in charge of its own territory.

Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, 4 May 14 Pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk region have defied Kiev by seizing key buildings

The Kremlin's strategy has been to make the scheduled Ukrainian presidential elections on 25 May meaningless. Vladimir Putin's spokesman said it would be "absurd" to proceed with the polls.

The operation to seize and occupy Ukrainian government buildings has been orchestrated. Certainly the view in Washington and most of Europe is that these events have been carefully calibrated by Russia.

Europe's much-repeated threat of "serious consequences" has had no impact on the ground.

The Geneva accords were still-born. Moscow never called for pro-Russian protesters to evacuate buildings in the east and to start talking with Kiev. Protesters remained in Independence Square (the Maidan) in the capital Kiev.

Economic imperatives

Europe only had one card to influence events and that was far-reaching economic sanctions.

Gazprom HQ in Moscow - file pic Russian energy giant Gazprom is a key gas supplier for Germany

Germany's business lobby has essentially blocked that. More than 6,000 German companies do business in Russia and have argued fiercely against tougher sanctions. They want the business world to continue unruffled by events in Ukraine.

The chief executive of Siemens visited President Putin and spoke of "temporary turbulence". The former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder - and currently on the Gazprom board - saw no reason to forego a public embrace with Putin on his 70th birthday.

Other countries like Spain and Italy, struggling to escape the legacy of the eurozone crisis, show no appetite for meaningful sanctions.

Which brings us back to history. Events develop their own momentum. They do not necessarily reward sitting on the sidelines. One round of killings prompts revenge. Ordinary people are drawn to the extremes. Neighbours who only a few weeks ago lived peacefully together now take up nationalistic slogans.

In Syria the protests against the Assad regime very rapidly were taken over by more extreme groups, after regime forces opened fire at pro-democracy demonstrators.

In the Balkans, too, inaction led to the conflict spreading and massacres followed.

The Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has warned that, in the worst case, Ukraine will descend into civil war with refugees fleeing into neighbouring countries. The history of other conflicts suggests that outside countries would be drawn into the conflict and Europe could hardly sit on its hands in the face of a refugee crisis.

Germany remains the key. It is putting all its diplomatic muscle into arranging another international conference to try and negotiate a breakthrough, but the crisis is increasingly being driven by events on the ground. German business continues to argue for its interests, but Ulrich Speck, writing in Die Zeit, said "the attack on Ukraine is an attack on the very order that underpins Germany's freedom, security and prosperity". The risk is a new war in Europe.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    It is not EU or Russia,it is home-grown racism,that destabilizes Ukraine and us in Europe

    Freedom for the East Ukraine and prison for the right-sector is the answer to this conflict.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    Putin is leading Russia towards disaster. What a shame, such a great country with so much potential hitting the self-destruct button.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    139.Alex King - I suspect you don't believe in true democracy. Minus the armed thugs/armies on both sides would you support the people of east Ukraine having the right to form their own country? It's a yes or no answer, but you will do your best to avoid.

    145.It_s yerself - give the trolling a rest please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    Most posters on here only started following events after February 22nd so why they think they're entitled to an opinion is a mystery.

    The Russian propaganda machine is much poorer than it used to be, but then people are far more gullible these days, maybe also blinded by Putin's homo-erotic appeal, but it's sad to see too many falling for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Stop accusing Russian people and government for the mistakes of Kiev.Stop label anti Kiev as pro-Russian,they are citizens of Ukraine,that want to be federalized.
    According to BBC all protests,all corruption is coming form Russia,when in fact it is made in UKraine.
    They are so deep in their debts and lies,that blaming Russia is the best they can do,however people will not forget their actions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.


    If our No 1 ally, the old US of A, sends in a professional team to destabilise the Ukraine Government .... and install a puppet regime ... what do you expect.

    The locals there had a Government that they elected.

    And the EU / US overthrew it.

    So they are not happy.

    Now we talk about stopping the violence.

    Well - we started the violence.


  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    @137 two world wars, it has been Russians help who put a stop to them at enormous costs

    Napoleon and Hitler yes, Russians beaten and out of WW1 by 1917.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    There is nothing the west can do about it and it's largely our own fault.
    Probably Russia will annex eastern Ukraine shortly, whilst the west looks on, whinges about it and makes empty threats about sanctions etc. The west talks while Russia acts.
    There's no effective sanctions that wouldn't hurt us economically as bad as it hurts Russia.... and Putin knows the west will always put money first!

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Stop it? They were there enciting it at the beginning - all taking a photo oppourtunity at every turn.

    Wheres your nobel proze for peace now eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Re 132

    Call me old fashioned and English, but I've always found any democratic campaigning and voting is best done when there are rather less men with guns running around and a country is peaceful.

    War tends to disrupt democracy, but you may think differently.

    RE - 134 - That's because butch armed Russian separatists wearing balaclavas tend not to look that good with flowers in their hair

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    131.Alex King - that's just pure nonsense. Unfortunately most Russians love Putin. I don't consider ourselves to be democrats, how can we be when govt represents vested interests and not the people? And the Russians are even less democratic.The only line I agree with you on is the anti-EU nonsense of the UKIPers on here.
    135.It_s yerself - that post is trolling bait.
    134.maya - spot on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Europe owes Russia its freedom. Every time there is some continental EU like Empire from Napoleon and two world wars, it has been Russians help who put a stop to them at enormous costs. Each time we were allied with Russia! Now they have freed themselves from another evil ideology we should help, ally with them not the new evil European Empire. Russia backed by votes, the EU by a coup. Good guys?

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    Why does every news report on the BBC assume that the Russians are wrong and we should automatically be on the Ukrainian side? I don't know enough about the subject to know which side, if any, is right or wrong, but the UK media reporting seems extremely biased to me. I have no wish for my country to be drawn into a conflict on one side or the other. Why should we be?

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    I trust that all those who think Russia are the good guys in this are packing their bags to go and fight along their "brothers" in Ukraine.

    I for one think the EU should just march into Russia, kick Vlad "Barechest Mountain" Putin out and restore order once and for all. We can't have little megalomaniacs threaten the status quo on our doorstep.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Review the BBC reporting of the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in February and compare them to how the BBC reports events in the east now.
    Opponents of the old regime are 'protesters' & 'activists' but opponents of the new Kiev regime are 'militants' - always pictured in their sinister looking balaclavas, in contrast to the shots the BBC they chose to depict the Euromaiden protesters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    Where is NATO?
    Any peacekeepers around?
    Where is the Ukrainian vote/referendum?
    Why has the new Kiev coup govt sending in new reservists of the Ukrainian army to either shoot or maim their own people in Ukrainian city's?
    what is the new Ukrainian coup Govt hiding from their own people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    120.EmersonV - I suggest you read up on the history of Crimea. It has been Russian for centuries.
    123.Alex King - you have so many posts on here repeating the same drivel over and over that it can only be an agenda.If you supported a democratic solution you would be in favour of east Ukrainians deciding their own fate through the ballot box, but you won't.You support actions of Svoboda fascists

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Re - 124 "Who knows we might encourage Russians to be democrats!"

    The Russians are already "democrats". Its just unlike here in the UK, Putin controls all the Russian media and severely represses all free speech, and so the Russian people do not have a free and fair voice.

    Give them a voice and he would be out within the year.

    Putin is scared of the people of Russia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Europe's only
    influence WAS money, it poured multi billions into poor countries like Spain,Portugal Greece etc then had to turn off the tap as the tank emptied leaving those non industrialised Third World type economies bereft and it's people hungry and isolated,only a fool would expect it to have any type of influence anywhere let alone in the tragedy that's evolved in poor old Ukraine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    @ 80. Alex King
    "There's always a pattern to Ukraine comments.
    So are the pro Putin comments orchestrated?"

    They surely are. By rationality and knowledge of facts.

    Anyway, just because you are anti-war doesn't mean you are pro putin.

    There are just as many lobbyists in Russia who would love nothing more than to fire up the war factories again.

    This is win-win for NATO and Putin.


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