The Russian army’s attacks under Vladimir Putin’s leadership on a sovereign European state as well as the talk of Europe, Russia and Ukraine should be taken as an opportunity to address some common and treasured narratives, images and taboos.
For example, there is the narrative of a widespread NATO that provokes Russian reactions: it follows the popular (how often undisputed) assumption of NATO as the military arm of an American-led Western capitalist imperialism unjustifiably placed in the former Soviet sphere of expansion Although one can really not deny the imperial claims of the West – this story ignores the development that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union: namely, the flight and evacuation movement of former Soviet republics and satellite states from the trauma of the Soviet regime. As long as there was a window of opportunity, the Baltic states or Poland, for example, rushed of their own free will to perceive NATO as a protective shield and the EU as an area of integration.
Crucial to the war in Ukraine is a political change in Russia under President Putin towards an authoritarian-nationalist-fascist system. Related to this is the trauma of losing former imperialist greatness, combined with the vision of restoring the “Russian world”. Above all, this system includes a policy of a permanent state of emergency and associated threat scenarios (from within: NGOs such as Memorial, from outside: Europe and the United States).
Looking back at developments in the 2010s, the current attack on Ukraine is not an unpredictable event, but rather the consequence of alienation from a liberal-democratic Europe to active opposition. Western former Soviet republics, and Ukraine has been increasingly so since 2004, must be brought under control from Putin’s perspective. The cyber attacks of recent years, the troll factories to influence public opinion, Putin’s favorite candidate Donald Trump’s victory in the United States in 2016, the influence on elections and votes (Brexit), the corruption of European elites and the financing of right-wing extremist and nationalist parties in Europe with one purpose: to destabilize and weaken the EU.
Defense and neutrality as taboos?
I grew up with images of pacifism and neutrality, which in this situation seem to turn into “salon pacifism” and a “lie of life”. For although we assume that the avoidance of conflicts, the establishment of just relations, the creation of a just distribution and diplomacy should take precedence over military defense – one need not think of the capacity for a common military defense of Europe and the like. while taking precautions?
From this perspective, Austria’s neutrality must be questioned, especially in its current comfortable and sloppy practice. Is our sovereignty not guaranteed by EU membership rather than by our state treaty? Do we not enjoy a geographical and political constellation surrounded by friendly NATO countries? But how do we contribute to this? If we are committed to a world of the rule of law, individual freedom and liberal democracy, what kind of neutrality do we want to practice – against a conflict between authoritarian rule and democracy?
Central and Eastern Europe as a blind spot
The formation of new nation-states from the collapse processes of empires has followed Europe since 1918. In some cases, nation-state development as “products of decay” is quite problematic. But Ukraine’s existence was almost ignored until the Orange Revolution in 2004. And in many conversations since then, this country has been primarily associated with nationalism and corruption. This narrative ignores the fact that Ukraine is more than others characterized by multilingualism and multiculturalism and above all by the efforts to escape the recurring threat of autocratic rule and vassal state status, and is therefore oriented towards Europe.
Our usual Austrian perspective and also that of Western Europe as a whole does not correspond to that of our Central and Eastern European neighbors. The gap between affluent Western and poor Eastern Europe has not narrowed. After 1989, people naively adopted the healing powers of the market, which were to replace politics and lead to a wonderful democratic transformation based on Western European models and to the much-cited “end of history”. This development resulted not only in flourishing landscapes but also in problematic upheavals.
The belief in such an “automatic transformation”, but above all a widespread ignorance and lack of interest in our eastern neighborhood, has ultimately led to two categories of EU members who also have the former dynamics (keywords: Visegrad) – the creation of winners and losers and the formation of nationalist and populist parties – seems to have influence. Central Eastern and Eastern Europe seem to be the zones where people do not normally go on holiday and where people do not know the history of the countries that are also usually perceived as poorer and more backward.
It was not good for the mutual relationship. But above all, we all underestimated the relationship with Russia. At a time when this successor state of the Soviet Union was reorienting itself, and where there were certainly opportunities and timeframes for this, it was neglected to do more for a common European development and security architecture instead of doing more. for more than 20 years with ex- running business and maintaining relationships with KGB networks and oligarchs.
The story of the decadent West
The abundance of consumer goods and a resource-intensive lifestyle make many of us fear for our own society. We rightly believe that our social model is not sustainable from a social and ecological point of view. This is accompanied by a critical attitude towards Western culture. We are all too prone, like Michel Houellebecq in some of his novels, to paint a dystopian picture of a decadent West that has buried its own roots and values in the waste of the consumer and entertainment industry. However, this image serves Western culture, above all the extent of individual freedom, radical right-wing and Islamist purity laws and also the ideas of autocratic regimes like Putin’s Russia as a true enemy.
In a remarkable essay (Abenteuer Freiheit), Carlo Strenger pointed out that we are losing the cultural basis of a free and modern society that fundamentally constitutes the West: namely, individual freedom from restrictions (religion, tradition, authorities), the liberal -Democratic constitution and the possibility of autonomous shaping of a lifestyle. It is not only about the freedom to consume everything and to be able to have fun, but also about freedom as a “discipline”, as a culture of life.
It seems that many of us are no longer able to defend these values with confidence because the majority of them (still) are hardly aware of them. Freedom is understood solely as the freedom to consume and as an opportunity to retire in one’s private life: as the freedom to be left alone and not to have to take responsibility for others or obligations. So the Ukrainians who stood up for “European values” at Maidan 2014 and now at full personal risk seem a bit like embarrassing romantics. But maybe we are displacing something because we can not stand that they appeal to something we can barely notice anymore.
The official self-image of Europe and reality
With their longing for Europe as a counterpoint to life under authoritarian conditions, the Ukrainians show us what they expect from Europe. They seem to show us that Europe may be little more than a machine for consumption and growth. The official Europe appears formally and in Sunday speeches in truth as paradise. But not only the Ukrainians, but many other people in Africa and Asia perceive the gap between claims and reality on a continent that speaks of universally understood values such as freedom, democracy and human rights on the one hand and on the other in the postcolonial tradition compared to its African and Asian neighbors do not behave like that at all.
If we are talking about a “turning point in time”, then it should above all be a question of how capable Europe and the West are of meeting their own demands. Last but not least, Europe’s face in the mirror of human rights will be reflected in the failure to distinguish between the numerous Ukrainian refugees and the other refugees of African and Asian descent and to enforce the right to asylum and assistance for all.
Especially for a European Union that, as a political-institutional system, represents something new and unique worldwide and at the same time transports universal demands, it would probably be appropriate to go beyond the development of a security and military architecture to do more for creation. of an overall peace order and other political “innovations” and not, as in previous years, behave like an anxious group of chariots. You can now see that this is probably not an option.