Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, one of the most prominent academic representatives of the Western establishment, describes in the September issue of the American magazine Foreign Affairs what he thinks the war in Ukraine is all about. The assessment is interesting because it exemplifies the discourse that Western politicians and media have been serving us since 24 February. It is therefore worth quoting a longer section.
Snyder writes: “Russia, an aging tyranny, seeks to destroy Ukraine, a defiant democracy. A Ukrainian victory would confirm the principle of self-rule, allow the integration of Europe to proceed, and empower people of goodwill to return reinvigorated to other global challenges. A Russian victory, by contrast, would extend genocidal policies in Ukraine, subordinate Europeans, and render any vision of a geopolitical European Union obsolete. Should Russia continue its illegal blockade of the Black Sea, it could starve Africans and Asians, who depend on Ukrainian grain, precipitating a durable international crisis that will make it all but impossible to deal with common threats such as climate change. A Russian victory would strengthen fascists and other tyrants, as well as nihilists who see politics as nothing more than a spectacle designed by oligarchs to distract ordinary citizens from the destruction of the world. This war, in other words, is about establishing principles for the twenty-first century. It is about policies of mass death and about the meaning of life in politics. It is about the possibility of a democratic future.”
Wars against international law
These are the front lines Snyder draws: Defence of European values versus barbarism; democracy versus dictatorship; heroic virtues versus war crimes. But how do we know that this view of things is at least close to the truth? That this war is a battle of the good against the evil? That Europe’s much-cited values stand the test of reality? A stocktaking is urgently needed. My conclusions differ from those of Timothy Snyder. In my view, we are witnessing a collapse of European values, and I believe many people outside Europe see it similarly.
Let’s start with “peace”, the very founding value of the European Union. If you read newspapers and listen to politicians these days, you will hardly come across the much-vaunted term anymore. Instead, the demands are: more arms deliveries, more sanctions, more energy-saving measures, in short, more escalation. With the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen leading the path (“Now is the time for determination, not appeasement”). This yawning gap between aspiration and reality undermines the entire discourse on European values.
To be sure, the beautiful ideal of peace has been losing its lustre for some time, especially with the gradual transformation of NATO into an offensive alliance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the late 1990s onwards, European states began to intervene militarily halfway around the world (Serbia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan), mostly in violation of international law. Nevertheless, peace remained, at least rhetorically, a fundamental value of European policy.
As late as the end of March, an understanding between the warring parties seemed within the realm of possibility and also desired by European governments. The inflamed reporting on Bucha and the visit of the then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Kiev then put an end to all negotiation efforts on the Western side. Since then, the word “peace” has practically disappeared from the vocabulary of European politicians and journalists.
Instead, opinion leaders never tire of describing the rise of nationalism as a threat to peace in Europe, whether in Germany, France, Austria, Serbia or, most recently, in Italy, where the right-wing politician Giorgia Meloni became the new prime minister. These admonishers and alerters would be more credible, however, if they did not turn a blind eye to the bloody deeds of the Ukrainian nationalists. Besides, many of them were immediately ready to accept Kosovo’s independence in 2008, while now they castigate separatism in eastern Ukraine as a crime. How does that go together?
Politicians disregard the will of the people
Another value that is often used in our newspapers is “democracy”. Day after day we read that Europe’s democratic traditions are being defended in Ukraine. But is that really true? On this point, too, the contradictions are obvious.
The Ukrainian government has banned all opposition parties, closed all non-governmental news channels, banned all minority languages (in the east of the country, Russian is even the majority language), murdered dozens of journalists and opposition members, given free rein to rampant corruption, sold off seventeen million hectares of good agricultural land to three American companies despite resistance from the population, recruited the male population forcibly, executed prisoners of war, abused as a shield the country’s own civilian population, peppered the army and administration with notorious neo-Nazis, to name just a few examples. Is this really the democracy we want to defend?
And while we are on the subject of double standards: Western journalists are verbose in their condemnation of alleged Russian interference in the affairs of democratic countries. But what do they report when two American special prosecutors (Robert Mueller and John Durham) find no such interference in the US case? Little to nothing. At the same time, most of them approve of Western interference in the politics of other countries. If, for example, a democratically legitimised pro-Russian government is overthrown in Ukraine, as happened in 2014, with the active help of the Americans, then very few see a problem.
And finally, what are we to think of our own democracy when European governments support a war without consulting their citizens? Let us recall the survey conducted in Germany and published on 30 August by the German Stern Magazine. The figures speak for themselves: 87 percent of the Germans surveyed think one should talk to Putin; 77 percent of them are in favour of peace negotiations; 62 percent reject the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine. A survey in Austria came to similar results. Shouldn’t that give us pause for thought?
Suppression of freedom of expression
The third category of values we claim to defend in Ukraine are fundamental rights. This includes freedom of expression. Europe likes to present itself as a role model on this point, compared to a Russia that shamelessly disregards freedom of expression. But how can it be explained that our media trample all the criteria for objective reporting by unanimously taking sides with Ukraine without even taking note of the arguments of the other side? Audiatur et altera pars – hear the other side too – is what journalism textbooks say. This important maxim no longer seems to apply.
Politics is in no way inferior to the media. What we usually only know from dictatorships – the closure of unpopular editorial offices – is now also the political means of choice in the supposedly value-oriented EU. In spring, the European Commission summarily banned the Russian media RT and Sputnik. Isn’t this a blatant attack on freedom of expression, even if one tries to justify it with the pretext of countering “Russian propaganda”? Since when is censorship democratic and representative of freedom of expression?
One could add many items to this list of fundamental rights violations by the EU and Western states. Let us just mention another particularly disturbing example: the blatant violation of the right to private property. Western states have confiscated the assets of the Russian Central Bank and the private property of oligarchs. Those affected were denied a legal hearing. What does this have to do with the defence of human rights? Europe is gambling away what has made it strong for centuries: the credibility of its rule of law.
Coal-fired power plants against Putin
The fourth and final category of values betrayed in the Ukraine war is ecology and the fight against climate change. Since the Rio summit in 1992, the West – not without difficulty and with fierce internal debates – has posed as a champion in the fight to “preserve the planet” and develop green technologies. Above all, war has been declared on CO2 emissions.
And today? Coal-fired power plants that were considered a “scandal” just twelve months ago are being reopened in Europe with the blessing of environment ministers. European politicians are courting autocrats and dictators around the world in the hope of being allowed to buy a bit of gas or oil, which is then transported to Europe using polluting oil tankers and bulk carriers. Shale gas and shale oil, just the devil’s own, are all the rage. And all this in order to boycott Vladimir Putin, who as President of Russia was always willing to provide us with more environmentally friendly gas and oil for little money?
I started this article with a quote from Timothy Snyder, the keyword giver of this wrong policy. The final word belongs to George F. Kennan, the great diplomat and Cold War theorist. As he wrote in 1951, “The message we try to convey to others, whatever it may be, will be effective only if it is consistent with our own conduct.” •
First published in Weltwoche of 1 October 2022; reprinted with kind permission of the author and publisher.
(Translation Current Convcerns)
* Guy Mettan is a journalist and member of the Grand Council of the Canton of Geneva, which he presided in 2010. He began his journalistic career while studying political science; he then worked for the “Journal de Genève”, Le Temps stratégique, Bilan, “Le Nouveau Quotidien” and later as director and editor-in-chief of the “Tribune de Genève”.
He has been President of the Union of Swiss-Russian & CIS Chambers of Commerce since 2005. He was President of the Geneva Red Cross from 2006 to 2014 and a member of the Council of the Swiss Red Cross until 2019. In 1996, he founded the Swiss Press Club, of which he was President and later Director from 1998 to 2019.
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