What Orwell would make of the Ukraine crisis

Moscow may end up controlling Ukraine in one way or another, but it has probably lost the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people of the 21st century.  

If George Orwell were alive today, he would probably point out, cigarette in mouth, that “political language [in the matter of the Ukraine crisis] is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell would see much of the first part of that sentence in the effective strategy of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, with its use of political language as a central element. This language denies the existence of facts, such as the Russian military presence in Ukraine – something that was confirmed for the umpteenth time on Tuesday, by Russian activists, in a report advocated by the assassinated Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. And when Putin brazenly admits to facts (remember the “green men” in Crimea?), the reality is distorted to create an entirely parallel dimension.  Added to this is a nationalist rhetoric that mixes Kyivan Rus’, Russian World (Russkiy Mir), and a spirit of fraternity with Ukrainian “brothers” (who lack the right to control their own destiny) with “fascist threat” propaganda about Kyiv and the West. This is a language that also carries tints of historical revisionism; it now turns out that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the deal under which Eastern Europe was carved up between the USSR and Nazi Germany (and which effectively initiated the Second World War), was a peace accord. Diplomacy becomes an executive tool with which to implement this script made up of lies, self-deception, and half-truths.    

Orwell would also see inconsistencies in the European Union’s discourse about the so-called “European perspective” for Ukraine and its messages of “toughness” towards Russia. There is no consensus over the European integration of Ukraine. This “constructive ambiguity” towards Kyiv (and misgivings with the Arseniy Yatsenyuk government’s actual commitment to reforms) underlines the clash of visions between those who insist that the European Neighbourhood Policy for the East is a precursor to enlargement to countries such as Ukraine and Moldova, and those who are against such a move in the short or mid-term. Truth be told, nor is there any point in recalling 1938 and the Sudeten Germans if the willingness, desirability, and/or feasibility for the logical consequences is wanting.

There is palpable frustration in Kiyv over the handling of the crisis from our side, felt especially towards Western Europe and its apparent lack of empathy even when faced with 6,000 dead and somewhere in the region of a million displaced people. Many pro-Europeans are sceptical. Today’s Europe hardly ever lives up to its own “European Hour” incarnation, be it in Sarajevo, the Mediterranean, or the Maidan. The key concepts are those of self-help (Samopomich) and self-defence that sparked the Maidan protests and which inspire civil society as it fights another forgotten war, that of reform. Let’s be clear, however: faced with the Kremlin’s Russia or European models, a majority in Ukrainian society embrace the latter, its hypocrisies notwithstanding. Moscow may end up controlling Ukraine in one way or another, but it has probably lost the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people of the 21st century.   

In this context, there are few chances that a post-Maidan Ukraine will truly triumph and real possibilities that the dismemberment of the country will continue. Comparisons are odious, but it is worth wondering what would have happened to our own Spanish transition to democracy in Spain if it had been faced with continual aggression from a more powerful neighbour, the infiltration of groups armed as mini-states, and without real military allies or a clear path towards Europe. Despite all this, the civic commitment of some of Ukraine’s reformist forces is way ahead of other EU candidate countries, not to mention some member states nowadays. 

We are stuck in a European self-referential quagmire: a mixture of indifference, confusion, insincere grandiloquence, the paternalism of those who give lectures about Ukraine without having set foot in the country even to change planes, and simplistic arguments from Kremlin apologists. Yet, it is in Europe’s interests to prevent Ukraine from becoming a failed state and to contribute to its democratic normalisation, without lowering our guard with respect to the Old Guard. This would also serve the interests of Russia and its peoples, in terms of good governance, stability and, well, democracy, but clearly not its current system. Perhaps a great part of any attempt to revive the fading European Utopia of the 21st century is not to be found in Brussels or our other comfortable European capitals, but rather in approaching those – cursed by the geopolitics of no-man’s land – who dream of entering it one day.     

This article was originally published in Spanish by El Mundo on 12/5/2015

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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