Russia calls tune in crisis Europe hoped to wish away

Months of weakness and disunity among Ukraine’s allies have left it exposed to Kremlin aggression

Pro-Russian separatists walk towards a destroyed war memorial at Savur-Mohyla, a hill east of the city of Donetsk yesterday. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Pro-Russian separatists walk towards a destroyed war memorial at Savur-Mohyla, a hill east of the city of Donetsk yesterday. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters


Outside Ukraine’s presidential palace on Wednesday evening, an angry crowd waved flags and placards, denouncing the incompetence of officials and demanding changes to the way the war in the east was being fought.

“This is why we had a revolution, why people died on Maidan,” said Kiev student Marina, jabbing a hand toward the square that was the heart of protests which, just six months ago, ousted Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich.

“That’s why guys died there: so our leaders would listen to the people, so we could hold them to account,” she said.

“But we are trying to change Ukraine while being invaded by Russia – first in Crimea, now in Donetsk and Luhansk. Where next? Who will hold Putin to account? Will the European Union do it? America? Nato?”

Vladimir Putin shows no fear of a reckoning with the West, and Washington and Europe – for all their economic and military might – have given him good reason to feel bullish.

Regular visits to Maidan by senior US and EU officials infuriated Moscow, but convinced many Ukrainians that their guests were committed to helping rebuild the country as a modern liberal democracy with closer ties to the West than Russia.

Basking in the revolutionary glow last December, European Commission chief José Manuel Barroso said the EU had “the right and the duty to stand by the people of Ukraine… Those young people in the streets of Ukraine, with freezing temperatures, are writing the new narrative for Europe.”

Just days after Yanukovich fled to Russia, however, Ukraine realised the limit of western support.

As Moscow’s troops seized Crimea, it immediately became clear that a 1994 pact by which the US, Britain and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s security in return for its relinquishment of nuclear arms now meant absolutely nothing.


Timid sanctions then imposed by the West did nothing to stay Putin’s hand, and soon Moscow was fomenting separatism in eastern Ukraine and helping to organise and arm insurgents who seized swathes of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The sanctions were stiffened over time but did not deter Russia from seeking to cement rebel control over eastern Ukraine, with the probable aim of miring it in the kind of “frozen conflict” that Moscow has used to hamper the EU- and Nato-integration ambitions of Georgia and Moldova.

Putin showed his hand in Crimea, where his insistence that thousands of “little green men” were concerned locals rather than Russian troops stretched plausible deniability past breaking point. He even admitted his lie once he had annexed Crimea and minted medals for the soldiers who served there.

If anyone doubted the danger of Moscow’s covert war in eastern Ukraine, they were surely convinced last month, when a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people was apparently brought down by a rebel-fired Russian missile.

That was only six weeks ago, but international outrage again failed to be channelled into co-ordinated action that would hold those responsible to account.

The MH17 atrocity – like the annexation of Crimea – is now barely mentioned by major EU leaders in dealings with Russia, as if it would highlight the emptiness of their threats to Moscow and raise hard questions about their own role in Ukraine’s crisis.

After the fiasco of Crimea’s “little green men” and months during which fighters and arms have flowed freely across Russia’s border into Donetsk and Luhansk, European leaders cannot claim to have been duped by the Kremlin.

In fact, they have found it convenient to publicly pretend to believe Putin’s protestations of innocence, because to acknowledge Russia’s covert war with Ukraine would have obliged them to take action that they found unpalatable.

Politicians and business chiefs across Europe have effectively taken the line that it is not worth risking trade and energy ties with Russia for the sake of Ukraine, especially just before winter and just after a major economic crisis.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s premier, expressed an opinion widely held in Europe when he said the EU had “shot itself in the foot” with sanctions against Russia and should draw closer to Moscow regardless of its role in Ukraine.

Germany wants Kiev to compromise with the Kremlin, and the chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the conflict should be resolved in a way that “does not damage Russia”.

To Putin – a leader ready to take bold action and fight for what he believes are his nation’s interests – such comments may be appear to be a green light to do as he pleases in what Russia calls its “near abroad”.

“We are now evidently seeing fighting between regular Russian and regular Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine,” Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “There is a word for this.”

Ukrainians and Russians are dying in a war that Putin seems ready to wage.

The European Union, meanwhile, is unable to even say the word.

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