Un viejo fantasma recorre Europa

An old ghost haunts Europe. The ambition for the Donbas, the Alsace of the East, was misinterpreted as a local affair.


26 | 02 | 2022


"For sanctions to be effective this time, they would have to affect not only Russia and its oligarchs, but also ordinary citizens to undermine Putin's social support".

In the picture

Moment of the impact of a shell on a residential building in Kiev recorded by a webcam [Twitter].

Europeans have become accustomed to talking about epidemics and wars in the past, even in the past tense. The coronavirus pandemic has shaken us out of this comfort zone. Events in Ukraine are unsettling us. And it is precisely the fact that the West is surprised by what is happening that is most surprising.

Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 should have been an alarm bell in the Euro-Atlantic bloc. However, despite statements to the contrary and some sanctions, it soon became clear that the West tacitly consented to the annexation. It seemed like a bad joke when a German tourist Wayside Cross visited Yalta shortly afterwards, but when some European companies joined in building the bridge across the Kerch Strait to connect Crimea to mainland Russia, it was clear that sanctions were a laughable measure.

Eastern Alsace

The hostilities that followed in eastern Ukraine were interpreted as a local affair. However, Donbas is not just any region. As a historical region, from the second half of the 19th century it experienced great economic growth as a result of the exploitation of its natural resources (coal) by Western companies. Soon, metallurgical plants and other heavy industries were established there. In the 1930s, Donbas was the epicentre of the Holodomor, the great famine orchestrated by the Soviet authorities to suppress the resistance of Ukrainian peasants. Later, its geohistorical name was re-used as an acronym for the Donetsk Mining Basin. As such, Donbas became a strategic location for the USSR and, after its disintegration in the 1990s, has retained this status for independent Ukraine.

Mutatis mutandis and bridging the gap, in order to understand the geopolitical importance of this area it would not be unreasonable to consider that, for bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine, Donbas - including Crimea - is what Alsace has been for those between France and Germany. The recognition of the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Lugansk and Donetsk decreed on 21 February by Russian President Vladimir Putin and announced in a lengthy speech full of historical allusions ("Ukraine is part of our history") was a clear sign that the Kremlin had already cast its lot in with the dice. Indeed, two days later, on the night of 23-24 February, the territory of Ukraine, a sovereign state, was attacked by the Russian army from different parts of Russia and its satellite, Belarus.

(No) news from the front

This time the West cannot afford to make the mistake of treating this war as a local affair on the eastern fringes of the European continent. The attacks are taking place 60 km from the Polish border, i.e. the border of NATO and the European Union. It is very worrying that no action and contingency plans seem to have been prepared that would allow for an immediate response, not only because the more time passes the more confident Russia will feel in Ukraine, but also because it would demonstrate the condition in which both organisations find themselves. It is to be hoped that the Western entropy reflected in the media on speech is in fact the beginning of a plan, if not a strategic one, then at least a tactical one.

With invasion imminent, diplomacy was a palliative measure. Hopefully, it has provided the time needed to temper the different scenarios. Ukraine's neighbours, Poland and the Baltic states have already mobilised their militaries and called on their Euro-Atlantic partners to act. They have also demonstrated their support for Ukraine and for Ukrainians forced to leave the country. Instructed by their own history, they are aware of the gravity of the issue and that what is at stake is not only Ukraine and its independence, but security and stability in the entire region. Indeed, they have been warning for years of the threat that Russian expansionism, based on historical sentimentality, poses to Europe.

The EU sanctions package C , though unprecedented, does not seem to be sufficiently discouraging for Russia. It is a coercive measure that has been widely criticised for its ineffectiveness and is also double-edged. All indications are that Russia has prepared itself to withstand the impact of sanctions, while Europe remains mired in the post-pandemic crisis, further aggravated by inflation spurred in part by high Russian gas prices. The EU is characterised by strong external energy dependence and Russia knows how to use this to its advantage. Although Germany has had to fail certify the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, European sanctions have not affected coal imports. As for the trade exchange , German and, ironically, Polish and Baltic companies will be particularly affected. Possible attempts by companies to evade sanctions should be condemned and punished.

Be that as it may, for sanctions to be effective this time, they would have to affect not only Russia and its oligarchs, but also ordinary citizens in order to undermine social support for the country's leadership. For its part, Europe needs to be prepared for the impact on its own Economics. With the present economic difficulties this will not be easy, but Ukraine deserves the sacrifice; not because it is Ukraine, but because it is a piece core topic on the international chessboard. Europe is staking its own future and that of the international security architecture.

In addition to economic sanctions, the EU must show firmness. While this may seem obvious, it is not, and as recent trips of several European leaders to Moscow have shown, the EU has not sufficiently matured its common foreign policy strategy, while the particular interests of some member states seemed to prevail over the common interest in the "Eastern question". Multilateralism, which the EU is so carefully promoting by encouraging member states to cede their state competences in foreign policy matters, requires moral principles, especially a sense of responsibility, strategic vision, geopolitical realism and, last but not least, consensual coordination. Like the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, the present security crisis is exposing the Union's weaknesses.

Seeing the ears of... the bear

So far the West, with few exceptions, has shown itself to be thinking too short deadline. This has come at a cost. Equally, Ukraine's procrastination in moving forward with Euro-Atlantic integration has left it vulnerable status . Let us hope that the price that societies have to pay for political mistakes will be as small as possible. That said, if the outcome of the conflict meets Russia's expectations, Ukraine may be lost to Europe for decades to come.

In this context, both NATO and the EU should accelerate Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans and the Caucasian republics, especially Georgia. The position of NATO member and EU candidate Turkey will be of paramount significance. It is equally important to watch closely status in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan where Russian troops intervened in January. Another core topic is the position of China, which may want to take advantage of the war situation in its own conflict against the United States.

According to a popular Russian saying, "tiše edešʹ, dalʹše budešʹ", which more or less means that the more unnoticed you are, the further you will go. While the West has been preaching the end of history, Russia has awoken from its post-Soviet lethargy with hunger and a charismatic and visionary leader eager to satiate it. The warning voices of countries that had already experienced the Russo-Soviet yoke on their own skin had gone unheeded. Now, it should not come as much of a surprise that an old and very real spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of war.