Historian Alfredas Bumblauskas agrees. He says that Ukraine has always been somewhat of a puzzle in Europe’s conceptual map: neither East, nor West, a vacuum of political power. Which is why Moscow is so eager to claim it, while Western Europe is not sure how to respond to attacks on a land it does not know how to conceptualize.
Donskis and Bumblauskas discussed war in Ukraine and its geopolitical and civilizational implications in LRT show “Focus of Attention” on Monday night.
Mr Donskis, why do you think all the steps made by Western countries have so far failed to achieve the desired effect?
Donskis: Because, in a way, they are modelled after a scenario devised by Moscow. Because Moscow’s initiatives came to fill up the vacuum of power and will – I have little doubt that, essentially, both French President François Hollande and [German] Chancellor Angela Merkel were not playing by their own scenario in Minsk. They are late and the initiative falls into Moscow’s hands, which makes further developments rather predictable.
Moscow simply feels that the Western powers do not care about Ukraine enough to take initiative into their own hands. They react rather than act. Moscow is the active player. Only when they see that the international system is being upset before their very eyes, will the Western powers, I believe, do something.
The West cares little about Ukraine. Do you think it’s a fair assessment, Mr Bumblauskas?
Bumblauskas: In part, yes. European geocivilizational map still needs to be worked out. Ukraine has always been a vacuum of political power and a conceptually indeterminate land in terms of its civilization. Neither West, nor East. [Russian President] Vladimir Putin also once said that Ukraine was not a proper state. In Russian historiography, Ukraine is a vacuum; in Western historiography, it is an indeterminate land.
Mr Donskis, maybe the problem is not that the West doesn’t care about Ukraine. Maybe you agree with those who say that the western societies are simply too weary of war? Can their passive position be explained thus?
Donskis: I am afraid we would fall into our own trap if we thought of the Western powers as a group of naive softies with little idea of what war and peace are. Everyone realizes well enough that if you engage with an aggressive power in a game that it has already started, you won’t achieve peace. And no one will repeat these lessons. I do not believe that [US President] Barack Obama and Merkel are so hopelessly naive.
True, one factor does make things complicated. With all my respect for President Obama, he is an isolationist. Obama is a domestic president. If some other president had been at the helm in Washington during this international crisis, I think the situation would have been different. Obama is quite reactive. He reacts, but does not take initiative.
I do not think it has to do with fear of war. Especially since everyone realizes that Russia should have been shown its proper place long ago. I think the key problem is that we still haven’t conclusively agreed on how to play this game: are we talking about the classic “carrots and sticks” game – with America playing the stick and Europe the carrot – or should there be something else?
Another bad thing, I believe, is that everyone is increasingly turning their eyes towards America, having apparently realized that Europe is the soft power, while the hard power is exercised by NATO with the US at its vanguard. Europe only proposes diplomatic initiatives. I do not think that no one understands what is going on. What’s at issue here is who will take the plunge first. It is a matter of political will.
When it comes to political power and hard power, Russia and its separatists have crossed all possible red lines: they ignore agreements, knocked down a civilian airliner, the terrorist attack in Kharkiv this Sunday. What other arguments does one need, it would seem. But there is still no active action. Any ideas why this is so, Mr Bumblauskas?
Bumblauskas: Leonidas made a good point – NATO and the US are the hard power players. But America is distant. Moreover, Obama is different from other US presidents. They used to always take on the role of world presidents. It doesn’t work in Ukraine’s case, because, as I’ve said, Ukraine is a civilizational vacuum.
Donskis: True, not all options have been exhausted yet. Sanctions must be punitive and I believe that this option is in the works. Just like the SWIFT card has not been played yet. Cutting Russia off from the SWIFT payment system could spell collapse to Russian banking. In that case, Moscow will not be able to go on with its current policies. They will not be able to fund their military. I have a sense, however, that there is much reluctance to play this card.
How would you explain pro-Russian sentiments among many Europeans? Our representatives at the European Parliament say there is a big and influential group there that defends Russia’s interests.
Bumblauskas: If someone had told us five years ago that Merkel would be going to Budapest to convince local leaders to support sanctions on Russia, we wouldn’t have believed. It’s Hungary and the 1956 Budapest Autumn we are talking about. The main reason, I believe, is corruption.
Donskis: I agree completely. I think that is the only answer. What we have now is a farce: of gas, oil, money. Moreover, the West had naively believed that Lithuania and the Baltic states were the weak link. It turned out that the opposite is true – we stand today as quite strong countries. The explanation is big money. There are three problems: money, more money, and huge money. Why does Moscow despise the EU and its soft power? Only because Brussels has disrupted its direct access to bully Vilnius, Tallinn and Riga. Today they have to talk to us via Brussels, which is unacceptable to Moscow. I see one good outcome in all this – we have become normal countries. The Baltic states are not eurosceptics today, they are not Trojan horses. They are countries standing firm for the EU and NATO.
And what can happen next in Ukraine?
Donskis: I see only one solution – Russia must feel the cost of its actions. And the cost must be punishing. In other words, if Ukraine were at least supplied with defensive weapons, so that separatists weren’t able to march right ahead, that would be step one. There would be more casualties and the Russian society would be made to feel it. Second, economic sanctions on Russia. And, of course, support to Ukraine. If the West allows the Ukrainian state to collapse, this will be a huge victory for Putin’s regime and a huge defeat for the West. In that case, the vacuum would be very real.
Bumblauskas: There is one small silver lining – the birth of the Ukrainian nation. It is obvious. A hundred people died in the Maidan with pro-European slogans. Today, Ukraine is a stage of war for the European idea. This means that the idea of Europe is alive.
Donskis: I think that the Euromaidan is the historic event marking the birth of a nation. The path ahead is going to be very tough. I am certain that Russia will do all it can to undermine the people’s trust in the current political leadership – [President Petro] Poroshenko, [Prime Minister Anrseny] Yatsenyuk. They will also try to play the extreme nationalist card.
One thing is clear, though. The threat is to the Ukrainian state, not the Ukrainian nation. We are indeed witnessing its birth. Tell me, are there many capitals in Europe where people are ready to die for Europe? In Ukraine, people did. It is a proof that we are witnessing history.