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Moscow’s imperialism and the weakness of the West: Is freedom still valued in Europe?

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Freedom. How often we hear about it on a daily basis. Freedom from taxes. Freedom of feminists. Freedom at the Woodstock Festival. Freedom from Kaczynski. Freedom from Tusk. And where has the concern for freedom – which the older generation remembers as the dream of liberation – from communism gone? Of freedom as the right to self-determination of one’s fate?

Piotr Semka

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine forces us to reflect on the value of freedom as the right of individual states to territorial unity and freedom to determine their own authorities. This value has been violently challenged by Vladimir Putin. In theory, everyone (or almost everyone) in Europe is united in support of these two principles. The rejection of aggression and the recognition of the detachment of part of the territory of an attacked state and, finally, the right to choose the form of government the people want for themselves. In practice, however, such formal declarations translate into very different actions.

When President Ronald Reagan was replaced by another Republican, George W. Bush senior, in 1988, American columnist George F. Will described the political shift in the US in a very fitting manner: “Bushism is Reganism minus the passion for freedom”. Well, exactly how about this passion for freedom on our continent today?

Formally, most of the countries of Europe belong either to the North Atlantic pact or the European Union. Both of these political organizations condemn the attack on Ukraine, declaring solidarity with the attacked state, and accept far-reaching sanctions against Russia. Only that the naked eye can already see who in the EU and NATO considers the conflict over Ukraine’s freedom as a constitutive problem of our continent, and who is eagerly awaiting the quickest possible return to the European-Russian “business as usual”.

THIRTY WASTED YEARS

If we looked carefully through the various appeals, debates, and discussions of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament or even the North Atlantic Assembly, we would see that the declarations of these bodies dealt with a great many problems related to the threat of chauvinism, racism, gender inequality, xenophobia, and aversion to emigration. One would look with candor for references to the memory before the recidivism of neo-communism that was taking place in Putin’s state. Individual incidents in which German neo-Nazis attacked homes for asylum-seekers, or protests by black communities in America which sparked lively debates in the European Parliament.

What happened in Russia since Vladimir Putin took power in 2000 has usually been surrounded by tactful silence. Partly, one wanted to believe that Putin’s Russia was moving toward democracy, partly one believed that Russia already was a democratic country, and finally, no one wanted to irritate the Russian bear with which everyone was doing such successful business. In this situation, no one asked why monuments to Lenin still stood on Russian soil, no one proposed debates in the EU Parliament at a time when the red banner with the hammer and sickle had once again become the banner of the Russian army, and finally, no one, specifically supported countries like Estonia or Poland when they dismantled Stalinist monuments of glory under threats of retaliation from Russia.

All this meant that communism was spoken of only as a bad phenomenon of the past. It took the increasingly aggressive practices of Putin’s subordinate services, such as the extermination of Anna Politkovskaya, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and Andrei Navalny, for the parallels between the communist regime and what Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is doing to slowly become apparent. However, this is still not accompanied by the reflection that one of the elements of the current crisis is precisely the return to communist methods and the actual presence in power of people formed during the USSR era.

This discussion is not pointless. It has a bearing on discussions concerning the war. Lukasz Warzecha, my fellow colleague, wrote the following in the previous issue of Do Rzeczy weekly: “The debate in Poland over the war in Ukraine is primarily about a contest over who will slag off Russia and Vladimir Putin more”. Lukasz Warzecha points out that comparisons to Hitler and Stalin are very eagerly used, which, in Lukasz’s opinion, are exaggerated and distance us from understanding the situation. It is very easy to use terms like “a contest for the best insult against Putin”, because it is not clear to whom my colleague is referring. To the immensity of statements on the Internet, from where one can pull out literally anything, to the sharp journalistic writings of politicians or, finally, to the analyses of strategic or military centers.

All this does not change the fact that, somehow, we have to name the new type of Russian behavior and compare it to something. What comparison we make will determine the choice of further tactics against the aggressor. The issue has implications for many concrete solutions. Here is a discussion in Europe about whether Russians have the right to visit Western countries as tourists. Those on the side of “avoiding big words” have raised the accusation that any use of collective responsibility is a feature of totalitarian regimes. Meanwhile, allowing someone into one’s own country is a privilege, not a right, for those arriving, and each country is allowed to make its own policy in this regard. It can be debated, for example, whether Russian tennis players should be allowed into major tournaments, but this cannot be associated with the principle of collective responsibility, which can be objectionable when it concerns, for example, criminal liability, imprisonment, or execution.

An English association that organizes a tennis competition has the right to recognize that it does not want to be exposed to at least some pro-Russian demonstrations. To fear a situation in which a tennis player suddenly pulls out a sash with the letter Z or raises his or her hand in the air and shouts, “I salute you, boys in Donbass”. In addition, the more a given society has limited access to the opinions of Western countries, the greater the need for more visible signs of disapproval, which can, of course, cause perverse pro-Putinism, but can also make ordinary Russians realize that their country is sliding into a dead end of international isolation.

THE PRICE OF FREEDOM

In 1948, Stalin decided to push the Western Allies out of the half of Berlin that belonged to them as a result of the Yalta conference. All access roads between the western sectors and Berlin – rail and road – were blocked by Soviet patrols. The Russians were convinced that Berlin could not withstand the cold winter, and that the demonstrations of the East Berliners, who had been driven to extremes, could be used for a propaganda victory over the Allies.

The opposite happened. The Americans, surprising Soviet analysts, were technologically ready to create an air bridge that carried millions of tons of goods, including the most valuable commodity – coal fuel. But a passing test of the Berlin blockade was not possible without the self-organization of the residents of the German capital, who understood perfectly well what was at stake.

A popular saying from those days proclaimed: “It’s cold in Berlin … but it’s even colder in Siberia”. It can be said that this mobilization around the Americans was not difficult in a situation where almost every German had encountered examples of the Krasno-Army’s animalization just after the war, and almost everyone had some relative or acquaintance who had been in the gulags in Siberia.

Today the problem is more complex. A resident of Hamburg or Munich is afraid of the cold winter and does not know the behavior of Russian soldiers very well. Lo and behold, demonstrations will soon take to the streets of Germany, patronized by forces that are theoretically very far apart. The AFD, or Alternative for Germany, and Germany’s Die Linke, or the post-communist left. These marches will be protests against rising energy prices, but it’s not hard to figure out that the rallies may include slogans demanding non-disengagement with Russian oil and gas.

Two very different perspectives on the issue of independence from Russian energy sources are evident. Estonia, which feels the threat of Russian attack on its territory, intends to propose another package of sanctions at the EU level. It is already clear that this will be protested by Hungary, which argues that, “sanctions hit Europe more than Russia, so further limitations would be against common sense”. Hungarian diplomatic chief Péter Szijjártó said he had made a special phone call to Estonia’s diplomatic chief Urmas Reinsalu on the issue.

In the case of Germany, the secretary general of the co-ruling FPD party Wolfgang Kubicki announced, as if nothing had ever happened, that Nord Stream 2 should restart. The head of the Liberals, Christian Lindner, made no real gesture showing that such words were against the party line.

The discussion of whether sanctions are damaging or not is difficult insofar as we are talking about a phenomenon that will only be judged in the long run. But the success of any action requires determination and discipline. Especially since Russia is a country that is known for its highly developed propaganda warfare apparatus, which has been convincing Western societies for months that sanctions are running down Russia like water off a duck’s back.

UNCLE SAM’S SHADOW

Nor has the war that Russia has launched against Ukraine resulted in an attempt to answer questions about whether Europe recognizes that the continent’s freedom and security are inextricably linked to the presence of the US military on our continent.

Let us recall that only a year and a half ago, many German and French politicians and analysts quite seriously proclaimed that, for example, in view of President Trump’s presidency, Europe should prepare to abandon military cooperation with the US and create its own European army. Putin’s attack on Kiev showed how unpunished Russia would be in a Europe from which the Americans would be pushed out and in which the operation of any European troops would depend on the consent of all EU countries. That Russia would use its influence in orthodox countries like Cyprus and Greece to block joint military action would be very likely.

Besides, all the talk of a European army was glaring in its lunar nature in a situation where America, Russia or China were bearing incomparably more money for their armies than most EU countries. And it was the parallel to EU or even NATO ties that the “special” relationship with the US proved its effectiveness in the face of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. For this reason, an unexpectedly high level of commitment has been shown by the UK, which has taken aid to Ukraine seriously if only against the background of French aid, not to mention pretended German aid.

Of course, it is not surprising that the slogan of defending freedom by supporting Ukraine was best understood by the Baltic countries – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Romania. But the problem is that the sense of the importance of the conflict in Ukraine is incomparably weaker in France, Spain, Portugal, or Italy. This is somewhat reminiscent of Pope John XXIII’s famous answer to the question of how many people are working in the Vatican. Pontifex reportedly smiled virulently at the time and said: “Half”. In the same way, today only “half” of Europe is determined to act in defense of freedom against Russia.

Therefore, we have a really high-stakes struggle in Europe against a new state mutation combining the worst features of Czarist Russia with the Soviet state, and this is not accompanied by any leap in the consciousness of the people of our continent. Somehow there is a lack of imagination to understand that Putin is a politician of a completely different kind than EU leaders. During the years of the Cold War, there were at least initiatives of freedom congresses, in which European and émigré intellectuals gathered with American money to define in the name of what the West should resist Stalin. Today we have a great deal of official declarations, but in quite a number of European countries it is just a ritual that covers the reluctance to make sacrifices and the actual willingness to pressure Ukraine to end the war even at the price of far-reaching territorial concessions. The argument is always the same. Those who want to help Ukraine are partisans of war, while those who want peace at any cost are the epitome of responsibility. It is seldom pointed out that Putin’s Russia, which will retain a sizable chunk of power and keep its post-KGB czar in power, will return as another threat in a few years.

And one more thing. The argument that continuing the war increases the likelihood of some incident that could lead to a nuclear war. The generation of our parents and grandparents lived in a geo-political environment dominated by the threat of a nuclear holocaust for more than 40 years. They too had a right to be concerned. These fears were directly demonstrated by the European left’s tribute to utopian plans for the unilateral disarmament of the West. And yet the West somehow survived four decades of living in the shadow of Soviet missiles and won the race.

In Poland, this victory is tied to Ronald Reagan. Now it is worth to reach for the symbol of the figure of the American president again to find inspiration for how to deal with Moscow’s imperialism.

This article was published in September 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.