It’s time overdue for the West to make up with Russia. The contretemps over Ukraine, now played out over five years, is too long. As the world goes it doesn’t deserve so much attention. Ukraine in land mass may be a big country but it’s population is only 44 million and its national income per head a quarter of Russia’s. The Ukrainian puppy’s tail has been wagging the West’s dog. It’s part of the West’s human rights commitment to stand up for the little man, but the Ukraine government’s behavior at the time of its great upheavals didn’t deserve the large amount of support it was given.
Yes, it was bad that President Vladimir Putin sent his (disguised) troops into western and southern Ukraine. And equally wrong that Putin organized so fast a referendum in the Crimea on withdrawal from Ukraine that broke the norms of international law. (The way the Scots have handled the independence issue is how it should be done.)
But, as President Donald Trump said recently, the responsibility for Russia’s military action should be blamed on his predecessor, Barack Obama. (For once Trump is right.) I would add, on the EU too. It was the latter which mishandled Ukraine’s supposed future relationship with the EU in an attempt to steer the country away from Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. The US for its part ended up de facto on the side of Ukrainian fascists who with their resort to arms turned peaceful demonstrations into a war zone. This provoked Putin to intervene and his subsequent counterproductive steps. This in turn led to mammoth US and EU sanctions being imposed on Russia.
In geopolitical terms the West by continuing with sanctions is shooting itself in the foot. It’s alienated Russians who used to be, according to many polls, very pro Western. And it’s pushing Russia towards allying itself with China. It’s also cut itself off from a growing market.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere is changing. In June Russia was readmitted to the Council of Europe where the continent’s 47 states focus on human rights and democracy.
President Emmanuel Macron of France is urging a thaw with Russia. He wants a summit to negotiate an end to the Ukraine crisis, partly so that Europe can offer itself as an alternative pole of attraction to China. German companies are pushing Chancellor Angela Merkel to ease the pressure and to allow the building of a second big pipeline from Russia.
A number of well-placed Europeans all over the continent are also pushing in this direction. Trump has savaged the old alignments and commitments between the US and Europe and many believe that the alliance will never recover. Many sophisticated Europeans realize that Western Europe has more in common on the cultural and civilization front with Russia than it has with the US. These bonds go deep, much deeper, than the bonds between Europe and America. Peter the Great pulled medieval Russia into the modern age, emulating Europe in architecture, town planning including the founding of St Petersburg, education and learning and medical science. Voltaire and Diderot were the darlings of Empress Catherine 11 before America fought Britain in its War for Independence.
Very important has been the role of the Orthodox Church. Without it Islamic armies would have crushed Western European Christendom. There would have been no Enlightenment, no Scientific and Industrial Revolution and only a modest understanding of Human Rights.
Bolshevism and the Cold War lasted only 70 years. But it’s a thousand years since Prince Vladimir, its ruler, accepted Orthodox Christianity for his people. The moment the Cold War and Communism were over it quickly revived.
It’s over 500 years since Orthodox Byzantium handed over the torch of the Church’s leadership to Russia. Once the Emperor Constantine in 300 AD moved the throne of the Roman emperor to Constantinople and took his newly adopted Church with him Constantinople became the headquarters of the Christian faith. When it was overrun by the Ottomans in 1453 the only place for both the spirit and the headquarters of the Church to move was to Orthodox Ukraine, Russia and the Slavic lands. The “legitimate” Church was now the heritage of Russia. Moscow was called “The Third Rome”.
The consequences for Europe have been immense. The cushion of Orthodoxy in Russia saved Europe from the full impact of the eastern warrior nomads and of Islam. A Muslim Russia would have meant a very different history for the West.
Empress Catherine categorically stated that “Russia is a European state”. So did Lenin. So have ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and, at one time, Putin. Russia has produced some of Europe’s greatest literature- Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekov. Some of its greatest music- Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Stravinsky. Some of its greatest poetry- Pushkin and Akhmatova. The best of ballet- the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi. Very good art, sculpture and opera. Overall, when it comes to proficiency in all the arts, Russia has no peer.
In Vaclav Havel’s phrase, there must be for Russia a “Return to Europe”. Both sides have to work to make it happen.