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.

Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 608.

    Just a thought: what is the difference between maggie thatcher and putin? I mean she fought a colonial war, had a policy against homosexuality cracked down on dissent but made her nation stronger. Certainly she had a more vocal opposition and was less popular, but she was also more heavy handed.

  • Comment number 607.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 606.

    It's best Britain stayed out of other countries' business.

    Britain is the second most violent country in the world after America.

  • rate this

    Comment number 605.

    @600. ATNotts

    I am one of your UKIP brigade and if you actually bothered to read the posts you would see that many in response to assertions with no footing in fact about the EU involvement, capability or intent.

    BTW your attempt to connect UKIP with the BNP is typical of your ilk. Have a read about the ex BNP members of a Labour counsel

  • rate this

    Comment number 604.

    Sorry. I don't get you lot. Russia is about to cause potentially the biggest conflict since WW2 and all you lot can moan about is how it's the EU's fault? This isn't some pathetic childrens' playground game of one-upmanship.

    To those advocating 'stay out' - you'd no doubt have said the same 75 years ago. 'Splendid isolation' doesn't work with thugs. Sorry, meant dictatorial ex-KGB colonels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 603.

    If by Europe you mean the toothless, unaccountable, unelected, corrupt, interfereing body that is the EU then no of course not, the sooner we are out of it the better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 602.

    You can't say European borders didn't change: split of Yugoslavia, forceful split of Serbia.
    Every time it was a special case. Now Putin took advantage of disorder in Ukraine and arranged his own special case in Crimea. Just a fixing historical error and at the same time strategic move to secure Russia’s naval base in Black Sea. Anyway Putin calculated that it’s worth the trouble with EU and USA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 601.

    Dear BBC, in the areas controlled by anti-maidan insugents there is a noticable lack of people being burnt alive in buildings as an angry crowd shouts courses at those trying to get out and murdering some of those that succeed. When are you going to call maidan what it is? A bloody movement with no respect for human life or dignity represented by thugs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 600.

    It is a shame that a sensible discussion point - the serious situation in Ukraine - has to be hijacked by the usual UKIP / BNP supporting "get Britain out of the EU" brigade that undermine just about every serious international HYS topic.

    Britain in or out has nothing to do with it. If the USA wanted us to engage ourselves in Ukraine, then we would do as we're told - as usual - EU or no EU.

  • Comment number 599.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 598.

    to Silvia 513

    Why the cynical US attitude?
    Because the White House becomes vacant in 2016 and the Political Military complex is desperate to get somebody who in the best Reaganomic terms put National Defence above a balanced budget and who will stop the military spending cuts.

    Bashing the Russian Bogey Man is returning centre stage to US politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 597.

    There is violence in Ukraine BECAUSE of the EU poking their nose in. The Russians were never going to stand for it, now look whats happened.

    Like it or not, you have to have a border between East and West, and Ukrain is East.

    The way they are still intereferring will lead to full scale war. Then where is Europes gas supply going to be?

    Another reason to gete exit the EU

  • rate this

    Comment number 596.

    @591. Little_Old_Me


    There is a fundamental difference in what it means to be a UK MP and a MEP. That difference is the ability of UK MPs to change the laws of the UK. MEPs are just a veneer of respectability applied to the EU monolith.

  • rate this

    Comment number 595.

    It's as lie that European borders didn't change since WW2.
    1st it was split of USSR. Internationally recognized borders were redrawn. Not all was happy. A lot of conflicts erupted.
    What we witness now in Ukraine is one of those timebombs set up at that time.
    Why USSR couldn't stay as a federal state where republics had high level of freedom? Seems it was a greed and wish of power of local leaders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 594.

    The EU/US sphere of influance ends at the border of the former USSR. It is a fact of life. Now our stupid politicians will be made to accept this fact. This is a good thing. Anyway the aggressors are we: we wanted to take ukr away from russia. EU meddling is the original cause for all the pople dying as i write.

  • rate this

    Comment number 593.

    It is very sad to see the cynicism with which US continues to push their interest in Ukraine.
    Just think why US cares at all about Ukraine? What are US interests there? May be it is about introducing unrest in Russia and Europe, while benefiting from their weakness? May be selling more weapons to Europe is the aim? Or selling the gas? Stronger dollar?
    US is a real aggressor. Divide and conquer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 592.

    So, rather than keeping the peace in Europe, it seems that the EU with its inept meddling might actually bring one about. They should have kept out of the Ukraine totally, instead of encouraging the Ukrainians into believing they could become part of the EU. Why do countries that have just recently won their political freedom from the oppressive Soviet Union want to squander that hard won freedom?

  • rate this

    Comment number 591.

    587.EUprisoner209456731 - ".....The "EU" is a dictatorship because it exists."

    Member states join, then we elect Euro MPs & send our elected Govt. to Brussels, who in turn appoint Commissioners... the UK we elect MPs, who we send to Westminster, who there appoint some of their number to PM, Chancellor, Home Sec etc... your "logic" the UK is a DICTATORSHIP...!!!!!!

  • Comment number 590.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 589.

    The German economic lobby, during the recent economic crisis, already betrayed the "Ich bin ein Berliner" ideals that once helped Germany . The only way to bring it to its senses and stop thinking only in its own benefits is for the US and its closer allies to threaten it with freezing German companies out of all government contracts. The lessons of history have not been remotely learned.


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