Better Dead than Prisoners

Lucio Levi
Member of UEF Federal Committee, Former President of UEF Italy

Russian aggression against Ukraine marks the return of war to Europe. It is the first time since WWII that a European country has invaded another one for the purpose of territorial gain. Putin has broken a taboo: that states cannot resort to violence to shift borders. His goal is to assert the right to keep the unity of the Russian nation. For Putin the aggression in Ukraine is a domestic military operation aiming to keep control of a rebel province. This approach is a variant of the Soviet doctrine of limited sovereignty. In his vision, Ukraine does not have the right to exist. It is an illegitimate state, which, like Belarus, has always been part of the family of the Slavic peoples and the Russian nation. His design is to revive the myth of Holy Mother Russia. He uses nationalism as the political formula to keep the unity of a country of gigantic size made up of more than sixty nationalities. In fact, Russia waged this war in order to be recognized as a global actor. However, Putin’s plan to conquer Ukraine in a week and to replace Zelensky with a puppet government failed. He has renounced conquering Kyiv and seems to confine his ambitions to Donbas.

It is to be noted that the enlargement of NATO to the former Warsaw Pact states is perceived by Russia as a threat to its security. This is the basic reason for the decision to invade Ukraine, an element which is largely ignored in the Western debate on war. Moreover, the support of the Ukrainian government for democracy is vitiated by ambiguity, since it includes extreme-right ministries and glorifies as heroes persons who collaborated with Nazi Germany.  

What Putin fears most is the contagion of the European model of integration and international democracy which represent the alternative to Russia’s authoritarian regime. Actually, the EU is the region which has promoted the most serious attempt to replace power politics with the rule of law in international relations. Ukraine experienced two democratic revolutions, the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Euromaidan in 2014, which showed its will to get rid of the influence of Russia. Contrary to the Kremlin’s expectations, the military intervention against Ukraine has strengthened the cohesion of both NATO and the EU. Just three years after Macron’s declaration of the “brain death” of NATO, it is the fear of Russian imperialism that pushed Finland and Sweden to renounce neutrality and announce their application for NATO membership and Denmark to join EU’s defence policy after a referendum showing support of 67% of voters. On the other hand, the EU has never been so united behind a foreign policy option like the support to Kyiv. And in fact the EU has granted Ukraine the candidate status.

The aggression in Ukraine has revealed the weakness of Russia, but the apparent success of the US strategy cannot hide the decline of American power recently brought to full light by its precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia and the US, the former leaders of the old bipolar world order, are trying to keep their old dominant position and hamper the transition to a multipolar world order. There is a striking similarity between Putin’s and Trump’s neo-fascist attitudes and their common interest to undermine the rise of new protagonists in world politics and especially of the EU. In a short time span, mutual trust among the great world powers on which the Helsinki process rested has been destroyed.

In an interview given to The Financial Times in 2019, Putin declared that liberal democracy has become an “obsolete” idea. In other words, owing to its weak and unwarlike nature and being the expression of a decadent society, it is destined to fail. But the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people, ready to sacrifice their lives for the defence of the independence of their country and its democratic institutions, is the living contradiction to Putin’s convictions. Moreover, the application for EU membership shows that only the EU – not a nation-state, but a regional union of democratic states – can guarantee freedom and independence to the Ukrainian people. This is the reason why Putin perceives the EU as a more serious danger in comparison with NATO. It is well known that Putin, to undermine democratic institutions, supports sovereigntist, eurosceptic, far-right political parties such as the French Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen, Salvini’s Italian League, Strache’s Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Hungarian Jobbik, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and the Greek Golden Dawn. To sap democracies, Putin has resorted to interference in electoral processes, disinformation, corruption, cyber criminality and assassination of political enemies. It is noteworthy to recollect that there is a common interest of Russia as well as the US to undermine the international role of the EU. In fact, in the US there are economic and political circles which, profiting from the 2007-2008 financial and economic crisis, attempted (without success) to destroy the euro.

Nonetheless, we have to recognize that the thesis of the crisis of democracy is not wrong. In November 2020 we have titled our editorial “Democracy in Danger”; in it, we pointed out a relation between the retreat of democracy all over the world and the erosion of state sovereignty due to the unregulated globalization process. The most recent data show that this trend is continuing without interruption since 2005. But the emergency of war has captured the attention of the public and the media. Therefore, the debate on the decline of democracy has been relegated to the background. The world political scene is occupied by the escalation of violence, which does not even exclude the use of the nuclear weapon, threatened by Putin. The first problem to address is how to stop the war, taking into account that the supply of arms to Ukraine and sanctions to Russia are not sufficient. Since the EU pays every day around one billion euros for oil and gas imports, an embargo on these fuels, as requested by the European Parliament, would deprive Russia from the resources needed to continue the war. This is the necessary step to oblige Russia to sit at the negotiations table. At the same time, this decision would accelerate Europe’s transition toward renewable energy and lead it towards energy independence of Russian fossil fuels. It is senseless to help Ukraine’s resistance with weapons and economic sanctions and continue to finance Russia’s war effort. For the moment, the EU has confined itself, after exhausting negotiations with Hungary, to cut 90% of Russian oil imports by the end of the year. According to economists, a full energy embargo would cost the EU around 2-2.5% of GDP. All things considered, it is a tolerable cost in comparison with the price already paid by the Ukrainians and the price of the continuation of war for a long time, which would be higher and much higher. But the adoption of this provision has been so far prevented by the veto of the Hungarian government, which depicts a case of dictatorship by a minority. Only two solutions seem possible: the diplomatic one within the European Council, similar to that achieved with the deal on oil, or the isolation of Hungary and the decision to proceed without Orban.

In a speech delivered at the European Parliament on 9 May 2022, Macron, in his capacity of President of the rotating Presidency of the EU, proposed to summon a constitutional Convention to revise the Treaties in keeping with the recommendation of the Conference on the Future of Europe. It is clear to the mind of the French President that the institutions which helped Europe to face the challenges met along the march towards a closer union have become inadequate to address the problems raised by the war, lacking first of all a union on defence and energy. To address these challenges, it is urgent to end the use of the veto power, which too often crippled the wheels of the EU institutions, and to generalize the qualified majority voting. Therefore, we can assert that because of the problems raised by Orban’s vetoes, the knot has come to the comb.

In order for the EU to move swiftly toward a stronger union, Macron suggested the formation of a multi-speed Europe or a Europe of concentric circles. He outlined the establishment, around the hard-core of the eurozone (19 countries), the Schengen area of free movement of persons (26 countries), the EU (27 countries), and a wider constellation of states, a “European political community”, a new space for political and security cooperation among democratic countries that proceeds at a slower pace. According to the formula used by Mitterrand after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the institutional nature of this group of countries (36) was defined as a confederation, which would allow Ukraine – but also Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova, Georgia, as well as the United Kingdom – to partially integrate into the EU without granting them full membership. It is evident that the outlines of this institution have a clear relation with the structure of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Helsinki process with its three baskets (security, economic cooperation and human rights).

Now Russia has departed from the community of democratic states and the pursuit of common security with Europe and the US. But history and geography push the EU to seek cooperation with Russia. Macron invited Ukraine’s allies to avoid the temptation to humiliate Russia. The US and the EU should learn the lesson of the Versailles Treaty’s war reparations imposed on Germany after WWI, which led to an increase in nationalist sentiments, to growing international tensions and ultimately to WWII.

The future is dark and uncertain. For the moment we have disappointing news. We cannot rely upon those subjects that we were used to consider as pillars of the architecture of world peace: the UN, as shown by the failure of the mission of Secretary-General Guterres to Ukraine, and the peace movement which is so silent that it seems dead.

I wish to conclude on a note of hope. We are used to assigning our political commitment a sense and a goal, i.e., the construction of a society in which all conflicts are peacefully settled by law and violence is banned from all social relations. This society is the World Federation. Politics in the highest sense of the word is the activity that aims to improve the human condition. In other words, politics is the vehicle of the process of civilization through which, with the help of the automatic mechanisms of political institutions, man can govern his instincts and allows his second nature – the rational one – to prevail. Values are reference points that highlight history in the making. This means that reason is a faculty that orders and guides history, which has a course and a purpose. Reason, Kant argued, requires men to act in order “so to influence posterity that it becomes always better”. In other words, there exists a form of uninterrupted communication and dialogue between the generations, past, present and future, whose aim is to advance towards that which is better. Kant enhanced this principle, giving it the status of a true postulate of practical reason. However, the idea of progress in history does not exclude the possibility of regression. The progress is not linear, but dialectical.

Therefore, it is reasonable to think that Russia will draw the lesson from the defeat of its imperialist adventure and choose the way of peaceful coexistence and democracy. 

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