How far will liberals go to defend their values? Putin poses the question.

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.

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4 thoughts on “How far will liberals go to defend their values? Putin poses the question.”

  1. Thank you for this, perceptive as ever.

    You use the word ‘evil’ to describe the ends to which a non-liberal state might use its military power. I imagine that you are using the term colourfully, but it highlights my issue with the argument presented. Ruling elites remain established in all societies, liberal and non-liberal, and that establishment is always underpinned ultimately by force.

    If the people of Bristol held an unofficial referendum and with it declared that 95% of them were in favour of forming an independant state, their request would not be granted. If they started protesting violently, the police would be called in. Why should the people of Bristol not be allowed to be a separate state, like Monaco, if they want it? Is that fair? Well, they aren’t, we all accept it, so we can get on with our lives, thank God.

    We accept such things because they are the status quo. The status quo of the ruling elite in Eastern Europe of the last 50 years is changing rapidly, and that ruling elite is not happy about it. Would the western ruling elite accept a similar rapid change without resistance?

    Am I condoning Putin? No. But let us not be smug about the way power is distributed in the West. We don’t resort to naked violence, thank God, but our liberal means of redressing the deep unfairness of our society is strictly limited. Better a peaceful than a violent society, certainly, but isn’t the cost of that always that the ruling elite remains in place?

    1. Yes I think what we have boils down to a messy compromise rather than a wonderful ideal. But I think the use of military power must be subject to particularly high ethical constraints – which is why the disregard for such ethics (in my eyes) makes the Russian leaders evil in my eyes. Whether they themselves are as cynical we portray them is another question though. They might well see themselves as on a sacred mission to promote Russian otherness.

  2. allow me to add this piece about recent Russia/West political history with you:
    The Arithmetic of Alleged Aggression – Peter Hitchens

    Phoney outrage over Russia rumbles on. So I thought I would set out some facts on the issue:
    Bear in mind that before it lost huge portions of its contiguous land empire, Moscow was not defeated in war, and in fact (with some small exceptions probably inspired from within the KGB) barely lifted a finger to retain its control.
    Compare this with the Chinese People’s Republic, which engaged in a severe massacre in its own capital, followed by widespread repression, rather than relax its rule, in the same period, and which despite this still enjoys warm diplomatic relations with the NATO powers. China could also be accused of severe aggression in Tibet.
    Such an enormous transfer of territory from one power to another as took place between Russia and the EU after 1989 is, as far as I know, unknown in history, except as the result of humiliating defeat in actual war. I simply cannot think of another example of such an event having taken place without such a defeat.
    I might add that both Manfred Woerner, then in charge of NATO, and James Baker, then US Secretary of State and spokesman for the entire Western alliance, gave undoubted assurances to Mikhail Gorbachev, at the time that NATO would *not* extend its jurisdiction eastwards. I think it fair to say that it was on that understanding that Mr Gorbachev peacefully dismantled the Soviet empire. Without those guarantees, it would not have been so peaceful. Yet they have been utterly broken.”
    The sequence of events was: On January 31, 1990, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher publicly declared that there would be “no expansion of NATO territory eastward” after reunification. Two days later, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker met with Genscher to discuss the plan. Although Baker did not endorse publicly Genscher’s plan, it served as the basis for subsequent meetings between Baker, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. During these discussions, Baker repeatedly underlined the informal deal on the table, first telling Shevardnadze that NATO’s jurisdiction “would not move eastward” and later offering Gorbachev “assurances that there would be no extension of NATO’s current jurisdiction eastward.” When Gorbachev argued that “a broadening of the NATO zone” was “not acceptable,” Baker replied, “We agree with that.” Most explicit was a meeting with Shevardnadze on February 9, in which Baker, according to the declassified State Department transcript, promised “iron-clad guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward.” Hammering home the point, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl advanced an identical pledge during meetings in Moscow the next day.

    …………………………………………So, we must keep the USA out!

    1. Thanks John! I think it helps to get into the way the Russians view the situation, and their sense of grievance. And it is interesting to observe that has been no loss dismemberment of a sovereign state without a war before the breakup of the Soviet Union, certainly in Europe. There was some violence, i believe, in some of the Baltic states. There has been the breakup of Czechoslovakia since, and we in the UK have come quite close to losing Scotland. And not all de-colonisations were preceded by violent liberation movements (Jamaica immediately springs to mind). Perhaps a precedent was set by the independence from Britain of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

      I don’t think the West is being inconsistent – it is that the principle of self-determination has trumped the idea of empire. I think this is something that modern liberals can sign up to.

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