The attack on Ukraine has had tragic consequences for all Ukrainians and many Russians. The horror of families being killed and divided is a spectacle that nearly all Europeans believed had been banished forever from our Continent. Even most of the attacking troops and the Ukrainian population refused to believe it might happen. But the physical carnage which has been unleashed by what British – American Russia expert Fiona Hill calls ‘the History Man’, Vladimir Putin with his KGB schoolboy reading of Russia’s history, is also an attack on liberal principles much more widely. It seems unexceptional to most people in Britain to claim that Russia has embarked on an almost 19th Century, even old-fashioned, war of territorial conquest. They usually agree that this is a conscious effort to undermine the hitherto widely accepted concept of relations between states since 1945 that Europe has come to respect almost universally, in direct contradiction with its bloody past of invasions and annexations.
In April 2022 the Kremlin loyalist Konstantin Malofeev asked rhetorically what characterises a Western (or indeed any other sort of) liberal. For him, liberalism is a belief system that recognises ‘no borders between countries and no distinction between men and women’. This stance has found favour with many on the conservative right in Europe and the United States, who profess themselves shocked by ‘woke’ attitudes on gender and the alleged cultural decadence of LGBTQ policies that are supposedly undermining the West. Hence it is that the war between Ukraine and Russia is not just being fought on the battlefield, but also online in a new version of influencing ‘hearts and minds’. The Kremlin has been at pains to assert that Russia is not ‘at war’ with Ukraine, but rather trying to protect itself from NATO attacks and to ‘de-Nazify’ its neighbour. If it is at ‘war’, then it is with the USA which has allegedly encouraged Ukrainian nationalist ‘Nazis’. Most of Ukraine therefore really longs to be liberated from US influence and to be ‘re-united’ with its ‘Slav brothers and sisters’. How can we explain these diametrically opposed worldviews?
Analogies always help I find. In Britain, the history of relations between England and Scotland was somewhat similar to that of present-day Russia and Ukraine until the union of the two Crowns in 1603 and the two parliaments in 1705. The interrelationship was close, especially between the elites who often had land and other interests on both sides of the border. The English had a tendency to bully the Scots who retaliated with cross-border incursions that continued after 1705. The Russian state has often bullied, and far worse, the Ukrainian population, as we now know they did in the famine of 1932-33. Bonny Prince Charlie invaded England in 1745 on his way to claim the English throne. Before then the English embarked on regular attempts to influence Scottish politics by force, by which I mean the kind of behaviour we have seen so widely used by Russian (and mercenary) troops in Ukraine; war, plunder, and rapine. This process was dubbed by Sir Walter Scott as ‘rough wooing’, roughly translating as marriage by right of war (Wiki has a good page on the concept). Russia is using similar techniques and justifications.
In point of fact the aim in England’s relations was as geopolitical as Russia’s in Ukraine, to stop the Scots/ Ukrainians from allying with the French/USA against English/ Russian interests. But in a sudden and welcome change of tone, the joining of the two Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603 was by mutual consent and in many ways a ‘reverse takeover’. This was not a pact forced on the weak by the strong, for it was England, the much stronger partner that invited Scotland to send its King James VI of Scotland to become James I of the ‘United Kingdom’. He proceeded to design a new flag, the ‘Union Jack’, and a new prayerbook and Bible, the ‘King James version’, seen today as one of the greatest literary products in the English language.
The setting up of what is now known as the EU (previously known under different initials from 1956 onwards) was a similar attempt to prevent the mutual ‘rough wooing’ of Germans and French over many centuries and replace geopolitical strife with economic and political harmony, freely agreed, in a process that many see as serviceable if rather cumbersome. But importantly it is done in a peaceful manner. Even leaving it is done peacefully. The British people decided to do so in 2016 and the only result has been what might be called ‘leavers’ remorse’ but has in no way disrupted Anglo-European cooperation in many areas, including defense. There was no ‘Maidan’, no Prime Minister had to flee to Brussels and not a single riot took place in Britain, although views on EU membership continue to be very divided. No one was sent to the (non-existent) British Gulag.
In the context of Britain or the EU in 2023, borders can only be changed by common consent, to do so by war is not only illegal but seen as deeply shocking. Russians who believe that a proper Rule of Law should apply so that they can call a war a ‘war’ face imprisonment for ten years or a tragic encounter with a window frame anywhere they try to speak their mind. To challenge Putin’s ‘existential’ belief that Peter the Great had the right idea when he punished anyone who disagreed with him is very dangerous indeed. In most peoples’ view stopping another world war or an invasion to enforce one state’s dominance over the other is indeed an existential threat to peace and prosperity. Many Russians agree but are too scared to say so openly. They cannot challenge the Newspeak, as Orwell put it, or ‘Big Brother’ will find out and silence them. Legality, truth, and basic humanity, these are the liberal norms that Russia has so egregiously breached. It seems obvious to me that anyone who agrees with their actions is by definition agreeing with their motives. This is to support a direct attack on the most important global norm of not using war to further geopolitical ends.
Putin and his colleagues might argue that the US did that in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and I would not disagree, though the Ukrainian regime has never persecuted anyone the way that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein did. As for the future in the liberal states that I inhabit, Scotland and England might well become ‘independent’ of each other once more; England, Britain, or Scotland might well ask to rejoin the EU. But they will do so without sending regiments over the border with murderous intent. To do so would be literally criminal. I and many others agree with the liberal dictum ‘I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. By resisting Putin’s armies the Ukrainians are defending the rights of us all.