EU Fatigue, Populist Rebellion and War on Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has suddenly disturbed general European order. European union was caught unprepared, tired of its own expansion and weakened by the growth of populism and corruptive gas arrangements. Russian aggression finally uncovered populists in a network of Putin’s collaborators. As Germany traded democracy and freedoms with cheap Russian energy, populists emerged in the governments of the member states, and in EU institutions. The fatigue of enlargement policy has become a cynical barrier imposed to strategic needs of the EU, as the EU underestimated the need to further promote freedoms, democracy and values as trajectories to its strategic framework. The weakness of foreign and security policy and enlargement fatigue were challenging the essence and the very meaning of the European project.
From the EU perspective, Russia’s strategic pressures on the Baltic, Ukraine and the Western Balkans were challenges on peripheries, but the transcendent influences were felt in all European governments, while Putinism divided European societies itself, inciting the extreme right and left by rejection of the values disruptive propaganda in the media and social networks. While they sought to resort to relativization, or to diminish the scale and power of Putin and new Russian imperialism, European leaders were also deprived of the ability to oppose corruption and define strategic priorities.
The first Russian aggression on Ukraine from 2014 revealed a worrying circumstance that the EU missed political consensus and the power to respond. The enlargement fatigue has become a disregard for the neighborhood. From the EU perspective, NATO has almost ceased to exist. In the Baltic, the populist Poland, and neutral Sweden and Finland were becoming the basis of Western strategic weakness. Russia annexed Crimea and occupied Ukraine’s eastern provinces. Russian strategic presence and Chinese corruption have become dominant in the Western Balkans public and secret policies, mainly along the axis formed by Hungary, the EU member, and Serbia, the EU candidate in the negotiation process. The enlargement fatigue, based mainly on rejection of European budget solidarity and the fear of immigration, was rendered meaningless during the migration wave fueled by 2015 Russian intervention in Syria. Brexit emerged as the hardest blow ever to European unity, with the Kremlin’s obvious sympathies. The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016 deprived the EU of the strategic support and the malignant influences of Russia and China continued to undermine democracy, leadership and the essence of values.
And then, almost suddenly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, although expected, abruptly transformed international relations, and contributed to the establishment of political cohesion and defense unity in the Western world, based on deeply ethical empathy and solidarity. The EU also had to leave a zone of fatigue and populism.
Current Russian aggression has even deeper historical roots than the internal turmoil and state of insignificance in international relations that Russia has been trying to abandon since the late nineties. The World War II did not end with total defeat of totalitarianism. Russia never accepted the Soviet Cold War failure and 1991 collapse. As relations between Russia and the West strained since the 1999 NATO intervention in former Yugoslavia and the succeeding Putin’s rise to power, the past that preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has almost suddenly become clearer, in its basic outlines and essential details. The lack of historical distance did not interfere with clear insights into the dynamics of the recent events, thanks to the abundance of facts produced, preserved, processed, interpreted, thanks to digital computing and communication technologies (as contrary to the entire previous human experience).
During the very first hours of invasion of Ukraine Putin actually became what he has always been. If his character changed over time, his transformation was never substantial. A minor violent psychology, the cult of personality, obsession with Soviet power and the tsarist empire, reliance on secret services, contempt for Western culture and Western mentalities, rejection of any pluralism, in Ukraine Putin only repeated himself, in the meanwhile neglected from a general European perspective in a somewhat intentional oblivion.
Putin was Yeltsin’s choice. Yeltsin needed Putin to become a cover for his family corruption and the atrocities committed in the First Chechen War. That is why the Second Chechen War was needed. Putin also ensured continuity with Yeltsin in his gradual tightening of relations with the West, starting already with late 1995. The second NATO intervention in 1999 served this purpose. By establishing the follow-up, rather than coup, overturn, Putin repeated the patterns of Russian and Soviet history. Stalin’s purges, Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s interventions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, Gorbachev’s attack on Lithuania, or Yeltsin’s First Chechen War, including the model of seeing the others that encouraged Nicholas II to anti-Semitic pogroms.
Putin is a kleptocrat who runs an authoritarian mafia order. His Russian empire demands a new security system on its western borders. His obsession is to deter the Western strategic vicinity, and undermine Western impacts, as democracy, freedom, popular culture. Aware of the seductiveness of consumerism, and the corruptive essence of human nature, Putin has built a seemingly pleasant system that implies individual lack of freedom but also a release of civic responsibility. His personal vicinity became a source of corruption, starting point for the new boyar class of moguls and oligarchs. He projected his personal power on idea and reality of a sovereign imperial leverage, a coalition of political power and subordinate ecclesiastical influence that governs all public and secret services. Putin tried to reaffirm the legitimacy of state sovereignty unlimited by the rules of the liberal world. Russia, as during Soviet era, intervenes only in states that are strategic allies, wherever forces appear that demand more Western influence, freedom and democracy. But Putin does not raise the Soviet empire from an irreversible past. Russian system is not a command economy, but monopolistic. Putin is a preacher of “traditional values”, while he himself does not respect the orthodox Puritanism intimately, especially not his associates and regime profiteers. Putin is a powerful barrier against the flood of European agnosticism, moral and cultural decadence, depravity, self-indulgence, cosmopolitanism, materialism, and finally post-national “globalism”, while Russia, with China, considers itself primarily as a global power.
Looking back allows the assumption that Putin spent a huge amount of time for Russia and Europe. From the first conflict between Russia and the West, becoming permanent, from 1999, until the second attack on Ukraine 2022, the same amount of time has passed as from the end of World War II in 1945, until the revolutionary 1968. Since the 2004 EU great enlargement, following the NATO expansion, European integration directly threatened new Russian order, democracy, freedoms, transparency, pluralism, secularism. In return, Russian secret services, oligarchs, diplomacy, have corrupted European political leaders, parties, media, intellectuals. European banks, football clubs, universities, were flooded with Russian filthy, sometimes bloody capital. The leftist legacy of benevolence towards the Soviet experiment was becoming an intellectual basis of Putin’s normalization, while neglecting the crimes of the Second Chechen War, murders of journalists and political opponents, suppression of freedoms in Russia, and the export of populism to the EU and the EU periphery.
The EU did not include strategic plans for the 2004 enlargement, neither for the integration of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia in 2013. The last three integrated states are still not included in the Schengen area. That’s how the EU remained open to malignant influences as a territory that has not established a geographical unity in strategic terms. The Western Balkans are not integrated, despite the 2003 promise. Two important strategic directions are still vulnerable, the Adriatic Sea and the Danube Basin. Moreover, the EU did not have the strength to impose sanctions on Putin’s partners, in 2014 or 2022, when Ukrainian victims of gas and political arrangements flooded the world media.
Russian invasion of Ukraine is an attack on a potential EU member state, designed to destroy its general identity, political and cultural uniqueness, the right to join NATO, its baroque and urban civilization. Ukraine was more successful than Russia, relatively richer, although deprived of energy resources, freer and more open. Unlike Putin’s Russia, the government was regularly changed on free elections. One of Putin’s goals was to change the government in Ukraine, so that it would not change anymore.
In Ukraine, the EU was left without a common foreign and security policy already in 2014. The energy transition narrative has become a question of strategic commitment, while alternative energy sources are not yet technologically available. However, it is still early to assume whether Putin defeated himself by invading Ukraine, as he personally contributed to the establishment of a new European and Euro-Atlantic unity, increasingly powerful Western sanctions, and moral condemnation of aggression and atrocities. Previously, his soft power was more convincing, and more successful as he encouraged populism fed on the fatigue of enlargement and systematic deceptions. Resolute to block further NATO and EU enlargement, Putin set up vassal regimes along the EU periphery, in Serbia, Montenegro and in Serbian half of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and kept Hungary on the edge of European consensus.
The author is a researcher on the POPREBEL project. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 822682.