Liberal values are under attack by people happy to use violence to stop their advance. Two main groups of attackers have emerged: various flavours of Islamic extremism, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This onslaught is causing stress for traditional liberals.
We are used to dealing with constitutional opponents: from the collectivist ideas of the left to the social conservatism of the right. But these opponents play by a set of rules which, though they include some manipulation of the media, by and large do not involve killing people. The debate is engaged on liberal terms and settled democratically. But what happens when our opponents do not accept such rules? What happens somebody else has declared war on liberalism?
We have an ideal that we defend ourselves using the minimum level of force, while trying to move the dispute on, and into a liberal and democratic form. In particular we want to maintain peacetime rights and methods as far as possible – since the idealisation of war is itself a rejection of liberal values. This is largely appropriate as we confront Islamic extremism. This is guerilla activity from within our societies. But there are some types of threat where we have to accept something far from the peacetime ideal. Hitler was stopped in Stalingrad, by forces whose methods were no less ruthless than his own. Sanctions and a peace conference would not have liberated Germany. The problem arises when a state decides to project its military power to evil ends. In recent memory we have the appalling example of the former Yugoslavia. There the state power of Serbia was used to promote ethnic cleansing. Liberals in the West tried to step back, not takes sides, and talked of promoting dialogue. But to Serbia this was just weakness. It was not until the appalling massacre of Srebenica that Western countries realised that they had to take sides.
And now Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses a similar threat. Ethnic cleansing may not be on their agenda, though defence of Russian-speaking people is supposed be one of their motivators. The Russian aim seems to be to maintain the power of its ruling elite, not just in Russia, but across a broad sphere of influence outside. This involves a cordon-sanitaire of neighbouring client-states, and undermining the multinational organisations of NATO and the EU that represent opposing value systems. In this they are building on a deep sense of Russian otherness to the rest of Europe, and widespread suspicion, or outright hostility, to liberal values. Persecution of gays, for example, is something of a totem. The Economist this week has published an analysis, though some might doubtless it to be a little paranoid. Russia is prepared to use a projection of military power to secure its aims, and it is also projecting “soft power” of propaganda and sponsorship of extremist political parties, such as the National front in France. They are deploying great subtlety on both fronts, having learnt much from previous adventures, for example in Georgia.
And I worry about the reaction here in the West. I recently had a din-dong on Facebook after somebody started posting a series of stories (from respectable sources) to suggest that the Kiev government were a bunch of ruffians and that we should leave them to their fate. I will quote at length from this conversation, perhaps stretching Facebook etiquette a little (Facebook is regarded as “semi-private”, but the person publishing these views is using a political label rather than their own name, so I feel fewer scruples about quoting them here).
We are talking apples and oranges. You seem to be more concerned with the geo-political battle between Washington and Moscow. Liberals should be more interested in protecting the rights of minorities in Ukraine rather than standing up for a nationalist state who wants to crush opposition by violence. Very few people seem to be speaking up for the innocent civilians caught up in what is a classic proxy civil war, with the USA and most of the west supporting and funding one side and the Russians the other, no doubt with covert support. The constant blame game by both sides means little to people who have had their homes or family blown up.
There is no military solution for Kiev, Putin will increase his support for the rebels to match anything that we can provide. Even if Kiev could conquer the rebel territory, what then? Journalists who have been there report real anger by local people with the Kiev government. In the Ukrainian parliamentary elections last October in government held areas of the Donbass the turnout was less than a third and in those areas less than 20% of voters voted for government parties. There clearly needs to be proper political dialogue between Kiev and the rebels, anything less than this will prolong the misery for everyone. It was not a wise move for Kiev to declare war on their own people and call them terrorists. Kiev is very dependant on western financial support, we need to start pressuring Kiev to stop breaking international law on human rights and war crimes and start entering serious negotiations with the rebels as we did with the IRA. Russia needs to do the same with the rebels. Ultimately, this conflict needs to be resolved by the will of the people through a proper referendum not through violence.
This is interesting because it is largely accurate on the core facts. The people of the Donbass never trusted the Kiev government; the war has polarised their views against it; a projection of Russia’s military power means that a military reconquest by Kiev looks impractical. The Kiev government has been responsible for indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, and some fairly robust enforcement of its conscription laws, which can, of course, be described as violations of human rights.
But hang on. Moscow’s intervention is what prevented any kind of peaceful or constitutional solution. The “anti-terrorist operation” by the Kiev government was only started after the “little green men” had appeared to stiffen up the rebels, and persecute anybody that supported a united Ukraine. Russia was building on genuine discontent by the people of the Donbass, but ultimately it was and is a projection of Russian military power. It is not wrong to respond to such a projection of power by military means, and if the Ukrainian government had not, the “rebels” would control a much broader area of territory – to say nothing of encouraging the Russians to push their luck elsewhere. And when wars start, things get messy – especially when the Ukrainian military is not the fully modern, professional and well-equipped forced force that we are used to seeing in the West. They have not, so far as I know, bombarded civilian areas that were not part of a military conflict zone (i.e. containing Russian weapons) – unlike the indiscriminate recent attack by Russian rockets on Mariupol, or, indeed, the attack on MH17. Finally, the Ukrainian government has the backing of its citizens in the areas it controls, even Russian speaking ones, as Kiron Reid’s article in the current edition of Liberator makes clear (and also my limited personal contacts in the country).
The best chance of promoting liberal values in Ukraine remains a strong government in Kiev that is aligned to the West in outlook, if not formally a member of NATO or the EU. The current government is the best prospect so far of achieving the sort of reforms that will push back the influence of the malign oligarchs and security aparatchiks that are the hallmark of the Putin way. It is clear that the sort of peaceful settlement that Russia would allow in Ukraine would fatally undermine such a government and give it (or its puppets) a veto over any serious effort at reform. Liberals in the West can’t use the familiar formula from Yugoslavia that there is bad on both sides, and wash their hands of it. We must take sides. This does not necessarily mean supplying arms, still less military assistance, though we should not rule out such support on principle.
It is not just the people of Ukraine that would suffer if Ukraine is humiliated further. There is no reason to think that Russia’s adventurism will end there. The Russian elite has never accepted the loss of the Baltic states, all of whom have large Russian-speaking minorities. Russian adventurism there could involve Western, and British, troops.
At its best liberalism means the defence of the weak and the promotion of universal human dignity. At its worst it can be camouflage for avoiding difficult choices. In the face of the lethal threat posed by Mr Putin, please let it be the former.