There’s been no real progress on the Ukrainian crisis since my piece in Crikey on Monday, in which I looked at some of the details of language and ethnicity in the country. Russia’s deputy defence minister has told the BBC that the withdrawal of Russian troops from border regions has already commenced and will be completed within “a few days”, but that hasn’t yet been confirmed – and in any case it’s a simple matter to send them back if they’re needed.
Since then, however, I’ve read an article by Timothy Snyder in last week’s New Republic, “The Battle in Ukraine Means Everything,” which is well worth looking at. Not so much for what it says about Ukraine, as for its relevance to another current topic, the elections for the European parliament being conducted over the next few days.
Snyder, a history professor at Yale, has been a prolific commenter on Ukrainian happenings. His “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine,” published in the New York Review of Books two months ago, was particularly influential in giving the lie to Russian claims that the Ukrainian revolution was driven by the extreme right.
Most of what Snyder says rings true to me, although he probably errs on the side of rosiness in observing the interim Ukrainian government. But it’s his interpretation of Vladimir Putin that is perhaps the most significant. Here he is in this most recent piece:
The authoritarian right in Russia is infinitely more dangerous than the authoritarian right in Ukraine. It is in power, for one thing. It has no meaningful rivals, for another. It does not have to accommodate itself to domestic elections or international expectations, for a third. And it is now pursuing a foreign policy that is based openly upon the ethnicization of the world. It does not matter who an individual is according to law or his own preferences: The fact that he speaks Russian makes him a Volksgenosse [German for fellow-countryman, a Nazi-era term] requiring Russian protection, which is to say invasion. … On popular Russian television, Jews are blamed for the Holocaust; in the major newspaper Izvestia, Hitler is rehabilitated as a reasonable statesman responding to unfair Western pressure; on May Day, Russian neo-Nazis march.
As a description of Putin’s Russia that’s certainly one-sided, but there’s enough of the truth in it to be disturbing. More interesting still is the way he highlights Putin’s relationship with the far right in the rest of Europe, citing links with Greece’s Golden Dawn, Austria’s Freedom Party and Britain’s UKIP, among others.
And so to the European elections: “A vote for Strache in Austria or Le Pen in France or even Farage in Britain is now a vote for Putin, and a defeat for Europe is a victory for Eurasia.”
Snyder is fully aware of the contradiction here: “Russian propaganda insists to Westerners that the problem with Ukraine is that its government is too far to the right, even as Russia builds a coalition with the European far right.” The moral is that any description of Putin’s position in left/right terms is to some extent arbitrary. Like many authoritarian rulers, he is fundamentally an opportunist.
Although Snyder doesn’t acknowledge the point, it seems to me that sympathy for Putin in the west is still more associated with the far left than the far right. But in terms of organised political forces within the European Union the reverse now seems to be the case. The EU as an institution is an obstacle to Putin’s plans, and it’s the far-right parties that are hostile in principle to that institution. Most of the far-left parties, although strongly opposed to current EU policies, are not anti-EU in principle.
I don’t actually think that the fracturing of the EU would lead to the absorption of western Europe into a Russian sphere of influence. But you can see why some of the wilder ideologues around Putin might indulge such a hope.
The other point to note is that while parties of the far left have at least a theoretical commitment to internationalism, parties of the far right do not. (Recall the discussion last year about the Wilders/Le Pen alliance.) There’s nothing at all strange in the idea that fascist or neo-fascist forces in different countries can be deadly enemies. If the argument is about whether Putin counts as a fascist, his hostility towards Ukrainian fascists provides no evidence either way.
The EU has had a difficult few years, so it’s not surprising that everyone expects a strong performance by the anti-establishment parties. (I’ll preview the elections more fully over the weekend.) But before voters choose to go down the Europhobic road, they might want to reflect on whether Putin’s Russia is really the sort of place they want to emulate.