The Ukraine – The European Union’s Great Game of Risk
Updated: Jun 19
In this essay I will explain my view on the ongoing “crisis” in Ukraine, how I believe European expansionism is a significant factor lead by a powerful Social Democratic movement centred in Germany and eastwards throughout much of the old Warsaw Pact area, supported by Germany’s industrial might. I refer to the “Great Game of Risk” in my title because the comparisons with this board game are relevant. In the board game Risk you seek to control territory and expand the area you control. Success or failure depends on a combination of dice roll (luck) and the ability to control key areas of the board and defend them either by yourself or with the co-operation of another player.
I will also question the value of NATO as it is and whether the UK should seek a renewed alliance relevant to today’s world and seek to improve our relationship with Russia that respects our differences but enables co-operation on our areas of overlapping interest.
One thing that is clear to understand is that how people view Ukraine within different countries throughout the world is key as no country wishes to choose a War that its own people will not support. At the same time how people view themselves and their own nationalities is also key. This has become blurred in many countries, not least the UK where some people feel more European, Scottish, Welsh, English or Irish than they do British. This is not a situation unique to Britain.
One key thing to understand is that it is now only just outside living memory that the huge sacrifices that Russia made in the loss of life, sacrifices and economic losses when invaded by Nazi Germany and Russia is keen to keep this memory and the lessons from this alive. This is illustrated by the increasing number of rather well-made Russian language War films set in WW2 that we have seen in the last decade or so. It is no accident that Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Vladimir Putin were pictured in the press in 2016 watching the War film Panfilov’s 28 Men and a new Russian state History channel was launched in 2013. If we go back further in time the ambitions of Napoleon and his epic failure invading Russia being stopped by a combination of massive personal sacrifice of Russian people and the winter weather on the edge of Moscow is also a key event taught far more in Russian schools than in Britain. The image of a historically aggressive Europe invading Russia is clear in the Russian psyche and culture.
But is this fear, that President Putin prepared to play upon, justified? It is very easy for people to take a hard line countering such fears as propaganda, but such fears can be seen as fact when you look at the expansion of the two main co-operative organisations in Europe, NATO and the European Union.
Of the two organisations I would argue that the European Union is possibly the more pernicious. It is my belief that the European Union is following an underlying policy of European expansionism at the expense of the nation states. This belief was initially seeded in me as I read Noriko Hama’s “Disintegrating Europe” and Richard Body’s “The Breakdown of Europe”. Both these books paint a picture of a European Union where politics trumps business with a plan to reduce the constituent nation state’s to smaller democratic regions of roughly equal size that bypass the current national identities. If you are Welsh or Scottish it is possibly easier to dismiss this fear as both your countries are a size not to be affected by this change, whereas England would be carved up into regions that possibly matched the old European Parliament constituencies that did not have clear regional identities. Brexit has prevented this fate, but it may be at the future expense of our own British Union.
The desire for a unified Europe has been a long held and supported idea with the added attraction of guaranteeing Peace in Europe and many a rally and speech was delivered by none other than Oswald Mosley extolling the benefits of a unified Europe. When I discuss my fear of European expansionism many people, regardless of their own political beliefs do not believe this. However, that is because people do not look in detail at how it was founded and I often find their view changes after reading Noriko Hama’s book. However, even without this you only need to look at one particular office the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement – such an office can only exist in an expansionist organisation. The current commissioner, Oliver Vahley was placed into the European commissioner’s role by the Hungarian PM Viktor Orban a politician I would regard as a National Socialist wolf hiding in the sheep’s clothes of a Liberal.
It was this office that was responsible for the initial 2014 crisis when it sought the signing of the European Association agreement by Viktor Yanokovych in The Ukraine. He was a pro-Russian president with a pro-European Parliament. You need to understand two things: firstly what such an agreement is and secondly that the desire to join the European Union was not held throughout Ukraine with many preferring a Russian relationship, despite it possibly being a poorer relationship – it’s an issue of identity. Ukrainian European identity vs Russian Ukrainian identity. Such identity splits we have seen in the UK, for example a Scottish Nationalist not recognising the Union, or a person feeling more European than British.
Firstly, the Association agreement that Yanckovych refused to sign is often painted as a rather boring agreement that is all about free trade conditions between a country and the European union. This is the “grand lie” that is used every single time a country starts the process of EU membership – indeed it was at the heart of our own UK membership in the 1970’s. The Association agreement is a political and economic agreement. It commits to convergence of economic policy, legislation, regulation, equal rights and steps towards visa free movement. Russia at the same time offered the Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, this was rejected by the Ukrainian Parliament. The offering of the Association agreement by the EU to Ukraine was seen as, and in fact was, an act of European expansionism to a country with close personal and cultural ties to Russia let alone an extensive shared border.
I do not wish to paint a picture of mother Russia being a jolly benefactor to The Ukraine. But it does have many ties caused by shared pain and oppression under Stalin and the post War shaping of Europe. Even centuries before that we see ties recognised by the Russian President Nikita Khrushev in 1954 when he “gifted” Crimea to the Ukraine to celebrate its 300 year anniversary of “reunification” with Russia. If we go back further the Russian orthodox church had its earliest beginnings in Kiev. These are so entwined that you only have to look back at the Crimean War of the 1850’s where the rights of Christian minorities in Palestine, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox Christians and the Ottoman empire were all in the melting pot resulting in the Russian loss of the Danube Delta and southern Bessarabia and making the Black Sea neutral in the subsequent Treaty of Paris. This returned Sevastopol and south Crimea to Russian control. The hope was that a neutral Black Sea would improve European trade and Russia needed to maintain the strategically important Crimea. The French/British/Ottoman alliance against Russia was politically weak with great distrust amongst the allies. This may be important in understanding current Russian thinking. The British and French fear was that a declining Ottoman Empire would see a growing German Confederation and Russian Empire that could interfere and threaten British and French interests, especially in trade. Whilst some may see it a great leap to compare to today, the reality is that history can shape how people feel and help mould the propaganda of today. In this case the Russian identity of Crimea and Ukraine.
But, many do not believe that the European Union has an expansionist policy. Its history does not show this. Indeed the European Union has a record of bending its criteria to welcome weaker economies such as the Ukraine into its fold. Such a “bending” of the rules to enable the expansion of the European Union and the single currency has been seen to be costly in the case of Greece, where without the ability to adjust its economy using its own currency exchange it had to effectively subjugate its fiscal policy to a European, or perhaps more noticeably, a German official, albeit tactfully under a weak Greek government for appearances sake. The simple fact is that if Greece had not agreed to the single currency it could have devalued its currency to stimulate exports and its economy and inflate its way out of crisis. France and Germany together held 39% of Greek sovereign debt in its Banks and Greece had a history of defaulting on its sovereign debt (five times in 200 years). If you follow the money of any Greek industry it tends to go back to Germany.
This is important to note, because European expansion Eastward is largely driven by German industry and business. If you look at the funding of Social Democratic parties and Green parties in the old Warsaw Pact countries, where it can be found, you again see a paper trail back to German interests. In Germany itself we see a Social Democrat/Green Party coalition holding power. This is important to remember when I look at the formation and development of NATO later.
Why am I focusing on Germany? Well this is important and its reunification was a key event that automatically increased the weighting of German democratic power in the European Union. The stated principle in the founding of the European Union is that member states voting rights be weighted in line with its population. The application of this can give Germany a massive advantage. But if you view your nationality as European then this may not be an issue. Currently decisions are voted on and decided depending upon the issue and this can be a pragmatic approach, but as to whether it is democratic is another issue:
There are three ways that decisions are made: simple majority (14 member states vote in favour); qualified majority (55% of member states representing 65% of EU population vote in favour ) – a clear German advantage; and unanimous vote. The rules on which method is used are, in my opinion, too flexible.
Now Germany is the largest benefactor of looking eastward. Even if we had remained in the European Union we would only gain benefit after Germany and France with Germany having geographical and historical advantage. The benefits of giving European Union membership to the old Eastern Bloc countries are great. They have the greatest potential for economic growth as they benefit from economic and mercantile reform with greater investment opportunities presenting themselves to European manufacturers, especially German, let alone the subsequent purchasing power of those populations as they experience new found riches and economic growth. All this is done whilst stating the now tired words, “ensuring the lasting peace and stability of the European continent and neighbouring regions” . As Germany reunified it increased industrial development in the old East Germany, as countries further East joined the European Union this expansion of German industry and investment spread into those countries a well known example being Volkswagen’s investment in the old, successful Czech car brand Skoda. Much of this investment tends to follow a pattern. In engineering you see the highest paid, highest quality operations based in Germany, with a historic bias to old West German territory. These jobs also pay the highest tax burden. You then see the lower paid and lower skilled parts of industry spread across Eastern Europe with the ability of people and tasks to migrate across border easily. This means that a Polish worker can benefit from working in Germany and return with those skills. German industry gains from an increased availability of cheap labour plus some of the massive natural resources and raw materials that are available in some of these countries. Whilst everyone benefits those at the top of the pile in Germany are the main beneficiaries. This feeds through to other services, especially Banking where you see greater and growing shares of sovereign debt held by German Banks. So you see Germany as an ever increasing power in terms of industrial, economic, financial and democratic power (in terms of numbers of people). This machine has a massive need for people, food and energy and looks East to get these, whether it be grain, coal and wood from Poland, gas from Russia and Ukraine, or people from anywhere to its east. It can use this might to gain great influence over these countries, something that Russia finds much harder to do with its smaller Bank balances. Aggression is more often economic and just as devastating as military aggression as we are seeing in an isolated Afghanistan at the moment.
At the same time as wielding economic and industrial power Germany does not match this with military power, relying greatly on the NATO umbrella without putting in the same investment as other NATO members. Whether as a measure of military expenditure per capita or as a percentage of GDP Germany spends less than Britain, France, Denmark, Holland, Norway and, of course, the United States who shoulders much of the defence cost. This is shown in the ageing nature of some of its military equipment. But military ability is not just what you hold today, but your ability to tap into industry, technology and people to build military growth. Stalin realised in WW2 that if he could build more tanks and munitions quicker than Germany he would win. Hence he ensured production was protected by geography. Britain had a similar experience and either tapped into US production or dissipated its production over different sites to give it some resilience. Modern mechanical warfare is won by energy, manufacturing supply and a supply of people. The same tools that win economic warfare.
It is because of this that offering of an Association agreement to the Ukraine by the European Union can be seen as an aggressive expansionist act. It would bring European borders to the Russian heartland. It would enable migration away from The Ukraine and even threaten the stability of Russia if people choose to cross the border into Ukraine in search of gold. It also hits at cultural roots and identity. Stalin took great pains to remove non-Russians from the Ukraine. The result is a Russian speaking legacy that has staved off the English speaking and American culture that dissipate throughout Western Europe from Disneyland Paris to McDonalds in Berlin. Furthermore Russia does not wish to lose the people, crops and energy that Ukraine has. Russia’s grab of Crimea was a military necessity to protect its bases in that strategic site, but it also was a shot across the bows of an expanding Europe.
But so far I have only looked at the expansionist European Union, but what is my view of NATO. Afterall, NATO is a fundamentally defensive organisation with no expansionist ambition. Before I examine this in detail, it does need to be considered that there is a great movement within the European Union for a European defence force under the control of the Union to help free Europe from the whims of American policy. Donald Trump possibly added to this desire. This adds a further concern to Ukraine signing and Association agreement with the European Union.
In 1949 against the fear of communist expansion throughout Europe the US and 11 other countries formed NATO with the aim of mutual assured protection. Attacking one member country meant attacking all. In the post War period US money poured into a devastated Europe to rebuild and to prevent communism spreading, this was the Marshall Plan. What many do not realise that a condition of Marshall aid was that all communists were removed from government. This meant that in some countries communists were disenfranchised and followed a route of violence and terrorism such as Italy’s Red Brigade in the “years of lead”. Similar communist militants can be found forming in Sweden, Germany and Spain. What happened is that many former communists became socialists so you see the Social Democrat movement (sometimes called Christian Democrats depending on time and place) of socialist politicians. What many do not realise that the Marshall Plan was supported with underlying military might with US bases throughout Europe with strong presence in both the United Kingdom and West Germany. As part of the Marshall Plan package of aid the US maintained the right to intervene with economic, diplomatic and low grade military operations in the event of any “political change favourable to an aggressor.”
So a political and military cat and mouse game developed between Russia and America with Europe the prize on the great “Risk” playing board. The 1961 Berlin crisis was perhaps one of the most significant events as it led to the building of the Wall. Berlin was effectively an enclave. Khrushchev in 1958 considered it , “the testicles of the West…every time I want to make the West scream I squeeze on Berlin.” As he threatened to sign a treaty with East Germany giving it control of access to West Berlin. However, this changed to Berlin becoming, “ the bone in my throat” as it became a soviet liability since discontented East Germans could leave by crossing from East to West Berlin and West Germany and more and more were beginning to do so threatening to become an uncontrollable flood of people. The fear was the subsequent collapse of communist East Germany and a reunified Germany could pose a threat to Russia. The border saw US and Russian tanks facing each other with loaded guns pointing directly at each other. Diplomacy won with President Kennedy recognizing, “the Soviet Union’s historical concerns about their security in central and Eastern Europe.” The tanks withdrew, peace ensued and a wall was built. Khrushchev’s fears were proved valid in November 1989 when the fall of the Berlin wall, preceded by large migrations out of East Germany, heralded the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe.
The Ukraine has become a similar flashpoint in the defence of Communist Russia. It is relatively simple for Ukrainian’s to enter Europe. It is when you talk to people from the Ukraine or Russia that you realise it has become a gateway to the West. I chatted to a young Russian after I had seen him fight off a potential mugger at a cash point and asked him whether he had done military service. He had, in the Russian army. He accessed Europe thanks to “buying” a German passport in the Ukraine.
You have to remember that the original membership of NATO was 12 countries and it is now 30, with many of the newer members being from the former Warsaw Pact or Soviet Union. Even if you view NATO as simply defensive, it is clearly expansionist within the European continent just by virtue of its increased membership. Within the history of NATO we have seen it reach beyond Europe or its equipment used to suite what was then European colonial interests, when in reality it was US anti-communist regime sentiments that drove its support. Portugal’s sub-Saharan Wars of the 1960’s was met by objections from Scandinavian NATO members because NATO equipment was being used. In 1970 it was even argued in Parliament that NATO should extend its reach to prevent the spread of communism in Africa. America’s NATO air bases provide support for attacks in North Africa, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Should NATO extend its reach beyond its frontiers – I believe there is an argument supporting this, and that is to prevent failed states becoming a refuge and a source of criminality, terrorism and extremism. But it is very difficult for NATO to do that and claim to be a defensive organisation. The United Nations would be better equipped for such a policy…… if only it could reach a consensus. Neither Russia, Britain or America has a good track record regarding this when you look at Iraq and Afghanistan, but all three have a shared interest in the stability of the region. The reality is that maintaining peace and order requires many times more troops than to fight a war. To understand this read, “Swords and Ploughshares” by Paddy Ashdown. Ultimately peace is about capturing people’s minds and doing this whilst pointing a gun is difficult.
The reality is that Russia can over-run the Ukraine with troops very quickly if it so desired. But the troop build up is also about testing NATO’s resolve in a classic cat and mouse Cold War approach. This appears to be paying off. A German admiral is sacked for speaking his mind that Putin only needs “respect”. Germany has gone very mute on threatening sanctions with its clear desire to preserve energy pipelines. America and Britain stand together. Whilst American troops entering the Ukraine to deliver weapon systems and training would be totally unacceptable, British troops may be tolerated briefly on a small scale. Russia has increased its Cold War tactics of coming close to Britain as a reminder of its hard power. But substantial real power is held in Bank accounts. London is awash with Russian money, “At what point does black money become white money?” as John Le Carre said in a BBC interview. Would British business be affected by sanctions? So NATO does go into a legitimate defensive role reassuring its newer Eastern members with a greater presence. But the desire to protect the Ukraine is not there – it is not a member and there are issues with perception and identity that come into play in Russia, Ukraine, Britain and America. Meanwhile Germany’s priority is protecting business, industry and the economy without committing too greatly to the messy and costly military necessities. All sides have a desire for a peaceful and stable Ukraine, but in Russia’s eyes this is not “at any price.”
When it comes to identity we need to look at international law. In determining the legal status of someone international law draws a distinction between nationality, residence and domicile. Domicile, in simple terms, means “home”. We all begin life with a domicile of origin, which is the domicile of our parents, or at the very least our mother. This remains our country of domicile until there is clear evidence that it changes by choice. By going to live in another country you can change your country of residence. In this case residence is “the fact of living in a particular place” but this does not necessarily change your country of domicile. The test of nationality is whether one wishes to settle in another country. Everyone has a domicile, but no-one can have two. Domicile signifies a connection with a single system of territorial law – hence a French footballer playing for West Ham can be prosecuted by a French court for kicking a dog whilst residing in the UK. If someone resides in a new country they are still presumed to be domiciled in their old country until they decide to settle permanently in a new one. English law recognises this; thus a Scotsman may reside in England for many years and have a British nationality, but still be domiciled in Scotland until he feels at home in England. This is problematic for people that are living in Britain post- Brexit but feel European as they are effectively being forced to chose settled status. Home is literally where the heart is and people are torn. However, Britain has a very special exception as a by-product of its old empire and that is dual nationality where you may legitimately hold a British passport and still hold the passport of another country. The British legacy of empire and immigration give it a confidence to allow this without restraint with most other countries restricting the ability for dual citizens to hold federal office. It has to be noted that Ukraine has a no tolerance policy towards dual citizenship, Russia only allows it “by application” that is you have to notify the state and get permission before acquiring the citizenship of another country. Citizenship is different to nationality in that it has a responsibility of allegiance to that state in return you benefit from its protection.
So ultimately nationality, if not determined by domicile, is determined by a feeling – where you feel you are at home. This means that Lord Tebbit’s reasoning of nationality being determined by which cricket team you support, whilst ridiculous, does have an element of sense behind the reasoning. Personally I dislike cricket. So what of Ukrainians. Do they feel Russian, Ukrainian or European? The same discussion can be had with a Welshman, does he feel Welsh, British or European. It is easy to accept that you can feel at least two of these. I imagine the issue in the Ukraine is possibly similar to that in my family, my father sees himself as British and English; I see myself as English living in Britain; my daughter sees herself as European. A clear difference in world view depending upon feelings. Ukraine will contain people with a similar mix of feelings depending upon age, location and how they feel. Identity and nationality are key. It is not unreasonable if you feel Russian, or Ukrainian Russian, that you look to Russia, equally it is not unreasonable if you feel Ukrainian European that you look to Europe. But the two cultures are different.
What is harder is how other people view the Ukraine. This is important as it determines how governments respond to the crisis. In the case of the United States of America most regular Americans will view the Ukraine as part of Russia. This is because most Americans do not travel far from their home. 64% of Americans have never been abroad compared to eight percent British. So their world view is diminished. This makes the political willingness amongst Americans to “defend” the Ukraine much weaker. Also, the “America First” movement is strong and there is a tiredness of seeing American blood spilled abroad.
I would argue that the sentiment is possibly similar in the UK. My favourite piece of classical music is Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and when I listen to “At the gates of Kiev” I have an image of Russian orthodox Cathedral towers and men in fur coats with Russian hats, even though this is far removed from reality having spoken to people that have lived and travelled there. I cannot help but fee the Ukraine is Russian. The identity that I chose to give that region is Russian. This is possibly because I am not well travelled and am influenced by American movies, TV and culture. Yet I look at Instagram pictures in Kiev and I see a European city that looks European in many ways. Yet I would not wish to see British blood spilt defending the Ukraine.
I imagine the view would be substantially different for a Romanian or Pole. Both British PM and the American President are politically weak and not able to go against how they gauge public sentiment. Putin is aware of this and of the differing reactions from different countries. We confirm how politically weak we are by sending our political Joker Liz Truss who shows her ignorance of Russia, its geography and is regarded by the Russian minister with very low regard, and justifiably so. We need politicians with capability and intelligence when dealing with Russia, not a show person who believes they can stand at a podium, smile, utter nonsense and still command respect.
France and Germany are happy to appease Russia and play a long game. My guess is that neither country would jump whole heartedly to impose sanctions as they would not deem it in their interest.
So President Putin is playing a strategic and dangerous game of testing resolve of both Europe, America and most importantly of all NATO. His desire to show the cracks in the NATO alliance and undermine it is not hidden. However, is it time to review whether NATO is fit for purpose. Certainly an alliance has its value, but uneven partnerships are often destined to fail and a successor is in the interests of us all.