Russia fights for a nationhood of peoples, Ukraine for a nationhood of law. A conflict which brings these two differing concepts of legitimacy head to head, demanding on terms of one the defeat of the other, is a stalemate.
I first encountered refugees from Donbas in 2014, when artists and students settled near me in Italy. Like most Ukrainians from those areas, they consider themselves more or less Russian.
To put yourself in their shoes, imagine someone living in the Scottish Borders who considers himself culturally as English as he is Scottish. He does not speak Gaelic and possibly went to university in London, but has family in Scotland going back centuries. Without a poll on the matter,* the UK de-mutualises. Scotland and England are now independent from one another. Suddenly, our hypothetical Brit has to grapple with a being labelled a foreigner in what he had considered part of his own country. His children are taught in Gaelic at school (a language which wasn’t even historically spoken in his area), and his unionist views are rubbished in all parts of Scottish society and abroad. Unable to vote for re-unification because the new Scottish constitution forbids it, he votes instead for an English oriented party which is much disparaged by the rest of the world. When his party actually wins an election and forms a government in Holyrood, Scottish nationalists mobilise with full international support to oust the elected leadership (as happened in the Maidan Putsch). Eventually, he assents to an uprising in those areas of the borders where virtually everyone feels similarly put upon, for which he and his ilk are met with shellfire from Edinburgh. Maybe he emigrates to England or further abroad, leaving his property to be sequestered behind him. Abroad, he finds cafes and chancelleries hum with terrified speculation that England, for its abusive and exploitative imperial bent (ignoring this was when it was the UK, often governed by Scots), is bound to invade the Scottish borders. When, after much international provocation, an invasion finally does come (at terrific cost to young English lives), the conflict and its refugees suddenly enter international consciousness – but it is the government in Scotland who are held up as the heroic freedom fighters.
*The Crimea were actually polled at the breakup of the USSR. Their desire to remain within Russia was ignored
This is the situation many of my friends are in when they explain to the current-issue-lapel-pin brigade that they are refugees from the Ukraine.
‘Sláva Ukrayíni!‘ is not incompatible with a wish for ceasefire terms favourable to Moscow (or, in the case of one brave little Russian girl I met, to correct the spelling of a London teacher who demanded she repeat that slogan in front of her class on the whiteboard).
There is woefully little profit – and great political risk – in the ideas which follow. But here they are, laid out in a brief historical context (nevertheless spanning half of Ukrainian national existence), with a final description of the olive branch that Britain alone can offer Russia.
In 2004, the newspaper stand in my high school library was festooned with tidings of the Orange Revolution. One year into our Iraq campaign, it was still just about acceptable to join the enthusiasm of the broadsheet press: an election had been fixed in Kiev, an uprising successful, a corrupt president overthrown and an etherial lady with Heidi-braids was now the face of a western-oriented Ukraine.
In 2009, I was living in Vienna while a quarrel between the darlings of the Orange Revolution plunged central Europe into a gas crisis. Managerial, royal and emigre circles converged in the coffeehouse, their speculations gyring with cigar smoke between the enthusiasm of their youngest journalistic suppliant and the wisdom of their centenarian Oberkellner – to whom I lamely summarised our prevailing concern: ‘The Ukrainians have stopped the gas, and it’s very cold, Herr Hawelka!’ (His modest response: ‘it was worse in Stalingrad’).
Here’s a map I commissioned at that time of the Ukraine’s latest, 2006, presidential election results, broken down by region.
Remind you of anything?
As per my map, there was – and still is – a clear political division between ‘Russian Ukraine’ and Kiev. Those areas in red were still voting for the ‘pro Russian’ candidate after the Orange Revolution. Fraudulent as their momentary victory may have been in 2004, by 2009 some of their concerns had apparently been vindicated.
Mired in corruption, the revolution burnt out and Yanukovych won the 2010 election fair and square.
In November 2013, I travelled east out of Budapest to Transylvania in connection with efforts to prove my worth to Viktor Orban’s press team in Hungary. At some point during the night, my train slowly overtook another on the parallel tracks whose wagons each carried a tank, cannons inclined to the constellations. I remained woefully ignorant of events in Kiev, but it happens that this was the very moment protests were starting against Yanukovych, who had just refused to sign a trade treaty with the European Union.
Again, the west were on alert for a civil convolution in The Ukraine. This time, however, it was personal. And this time (if not the last), it seems that western forces were willing to lend support to a putsch to oust an undisputed, democratically elected, president – triggering the chain of events which led to the succession of the eastern parts of the Ukraine.
Whether or not Russia put boots on the ground during the initial stages of the Crimea and Donbas succession doesn’t matter to this author. Frankly, why shouldn’t they?
Britain was not forced to take sides, but ignoring referenda results comes naturally to some and joining the Washington bandwagon to others.
Starting with our approach to Donbas, Luhansk, Zaparozhia and the Crimea – all of which contain a majority in favour of Russian patronage – this is what the UK’s Prime Minister Alexander Johnson (Nato callsign: ‘Boris’), had to say:
No country can acquire territory or change borders by force of arms… and it so follows that we will never recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea or any other Ukrainian territory.Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson
Johnson’s confusion between ‘can’ and ‘may’ drives at the central issue of this conflict. You may conjure a state from law, but it can not be a nation without the nationality of its people.
Which, then, is the higher objective of the modern, enlightened, west? Consent of their own to be governed or the imposition of constitutional idolatry even when – as in this particular case – the adversary may well have a popular mandate whereas your side does not?
His Majesty’s ministers will go to fantastic lengths to avoid facing this can of worms. The position that we fought to protect from Hitler and Napoleon remains offensive to our NATO allies.
Strictly speaking, our recognition of any post-Napoleonic European republic is a concession of realpolitik. If, between violent bouts of genocide and civil war, London judges them according to their own enlightened principles, that is not to be taken as an acknowledgment that those principles are well founded. Occasionally we acknowledge our differences with mealy-mouthed references to ‘sovereign territory’ and ‘nation states’ where a word like ‘country’ might seem a little contrived to the British public.
Surely, the British position is that territories in the Eastern Ukraine are not Russian out of democratic assent (although that alone should be good enough for the stated values of our western neighbours). They are Russian because they were once part of the Russian Empire, whose peoples even today are bound to that ancient and holy nation by their church or by ancient warlords’ oaths – sometimes sworn on the Holy Quran to a Christian emperor with whom they barely shared a language.
The loss of the Ukraine is obviously the result of destroying the empire; a shattering blow akin to Catalonia seceding from Spain or Scotland from England – but one which we must accept just as we accept the Fifth French Republic.
Had Russia not lost sight of her divinely ordained sovereignty, this would never have happened (Europe take note: real countries are accountable to their pasts). Any British patriot may lament this with, among others, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Putin. There is nothing deranged about that position, and it does not preclude our recognition of an independent Ukrainian state.
What is left to modern Russia is some ability to protect the welfare of kith and kin at the cost of a conceptual legitimacy underpinning Nato’s western allies. Prominent Eurocrats are not above testing Britain’s constitution, attempting to drive a wedge between our political and national interests and even blaming Putin’s actions on Brexit.
So Let them.
The European Union shoulders an understandable chip about nations which predate its republics. The UN snubs the fonts of liberty, sovereignty and justice which existed before their charter. Indeed, these enlightened conventions are often fit to broker goodwill by reaffirming their mutual contempt for the ancien regime whose pulse they yet sense beneath the freshly poured foundations of their world order.
Yet, a hundred years hence there will be a Russia, governed by Russians in the interest of Russians. There will be something of a sovereign British state, a Spain and – in some absolved form – a France. But a NATO? A European Union? You can only ignore the transience of all they fight for by collapsing your sense of historical proportion to the moment, (as media sensationalism and state education syllabuses strive to do). Some things are made to last regardless of the values attached to them for the PR purposes of their day. Others are doomed to go the way of the League of Nations and the Thousand Year Reich.
The west as it stands will never agree to a Ukrainian ceasefire which isn’t also a PR victory for their leaders.
If, for the sake of constitutional idolatry, it takes a vote at the UN to redraw the Ukraine’s Eastern border, then this is where Britain should spend its efforts in the west. The victory of turning the Ukraine into a nation of democratic consent becomes all the easier to proclaim if London is seen to be close with Moscow, pressing on with the issue of how we intend to stand for the re-emerging Old World Order.
What’s to lose? The era of expansion of legalistically defined states against the buffers of ancient nations is coming to an end anyway.
It is nobler for us to stick to the terms we share with Russia than to go down bleating from the western hymnbook. Neither option involves getting our hands particularly dirty, but to throw away this opportunity for honest antagonism just to be seen posing with the latest American arms shipments (our degradingly low stakes yoked to our degradingly high ambitions), betrays the numerous victories we have won, often with Russia, over continental utopianism.
However the Ukrainian situation is settled, Europe faces a denouement a millennium in the making.
In 1066, just after the great schism, the ailing King Edward the Confessor (a saint in both Eastern and Western churches) dreamed that a tree was rent asunder by a lighting bolt, and that peace would not be restored in the kingdom until the two halves grew back together. A foul-weather friendship was forged on the ramparts of Constantinople in 1204 as English Saxon refugees fought with slavs from Kiev, Novgorod and Muscovy to defend what remained of classical antiquity against the marauding Franks, Venetians, and Holy Roman forces of the Fourth Crusade. Many of our Varangians had settled on the coast of the Black Sea following the Norman invasion. It was, if you like, a brotherhood between peoples which predated any concept of their states’ own existence and has continued through most major European conflicts since. If ‘my foe’s foe is my friend’ was sometimes the operational ethos, it does not diminish that Russia and the UK remain in the only two nations in Europe which roundly fought off the Napoleonic contagion and the French Enlightenment ideas which are its modern symptoms.
By 2013, while I was involved in the ascending movement for the UK’s independence, it was obvious that the EU’s pretensions were proving a poor substitute for any national identity in their own right and were at breaking point. Real nationalism – the type connected to real nations – was condemned is places like Hungary and Poland as strongly as fake nationalism was applauded in Brussels. Western media whitewashed our existence, but we knew where to go for air time. The time difference between UKIP’s Brussels offices and RT’s press offices in Moscow demanded a prompt and sober press team. I would arrive daily to a grey corridor already humming with Russian voices.
It is a Eurocrat’s errand to get involved in the territorial dispute of fiat nations a long way away about which we know very little. Now that British outrage over that snub – originally relating to Czechoslovakia – has far outlasted Czechoslovakia’s own pretence of nationhood, it seems as good a time as any to remind ourselves that the radical notion of holding all sovereign territory equal under international law becomes downright dangerous while we also assent to ‘all for one and one for all’ conditions of international allegiance.
It is virtually guaranteed that the first partner to test such conditions will be that with the least to lose, which is how the west now finds itself in a struggle to regain occupied territory whose population does not assent to rule from the government we support in attempting to reconquer it.
If we British have the courage to admit our extraordinary position of natural alignment with Russia, a sense emerges of some success being possible on our mutual terms even as the enlightened west celebrates victory on theirs.
I’ll leave it to others to grieve over the expansion of Nato, the presence of Baroness Ashton in Kiev during the Maidan Putsch and so forth. I know nothing about military logistics and, for the information of those who think they can predict what will happen on the battlefield, this conflict won’t be resolved by military force.
I do know about the hubbub of western media campaigns surrounding the present situation but, like the economic arguments for and against Brexit or the efficacy of facemarks, this is the arena of establishment experts, recruited to glean approval, post-hoc vindication, and public money from the fringes of a more central issue which their handlers daren’t touch.
We whose states are made of more than bits of paper may be antagonists for a while – but this is a small price to pay. Together with Holy Russia, Britain can help end a war and aspire to the full, ecclesiastical and monarchial Christendom of the Symphonia which, however imperfect on Earth, will bury the utopianism of technocrats, spin-doctors, and scribes of the godless enlightenment.
READ NEXT: Mr. Putin, Who is Your King?