Eurasian Heartland or Atlantic Civilization: The Ukrainian War of Cultures

Ludger Kühnhardt

Center for European Integration Studies

Ludger Kühnhardt is director at the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI) at Bonn.

The Road to the Present

Why was the West surprised about the escalation in Ukraine? What went wrong on our side? And what conclusions do we need to draw from a sober analysis?

Over many years we did not sufficiently support the pro-Western oriented social forces in Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, we were focusing on Central Europe and the Baltic republics—rightly so—without admitting that the differences between these regions and the other western republics of the former Soviet Union were fundamental. We simply believed in the gradual and natural permeation of ideas and norms from west to east. In reality, political cultures were—and mostly still are—different between those societies we can call “the East of the West” and those who are struggling with their identity, whether Atlantic or Eurasian.

Over the years, we simply forgot the division of Moldova as a consequence of the factual secession of Transnistria in the period 1990-1992. Today we must realize that this still ongoing constellation in Moldova may well be the blueprint for Putin’s neo-imperialism toward Ukraine.

We also forgot that a similar separation followed from the Russia-Georgia War in 2008, ending with the factual occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, thus rendering Georgia factually incapable of exercising its internal self-determination and international sovereignty.

The Ukraine-Russia crisis will come to end—at best—after Putin has achieved a similar factual separation of Ukraine by bringing a large part of eastern and southern Ukraine into his sphere of influence—directly or indirectly does not really matter.

Motivations for Our Ukraine Involvement

What is the objective of this strategy? What is the Ukrainian war really about?

This strategy is a modernization and reactivation of the Russian Empire by coercion and, if necessary, by force. Former empires used secret services as a tool to advance their glory. In Putin’s Russia, the secret services and their weird methods are both tool and objective at the same time. In fact, the Russian secret services and their methods are the only guarantee for Putin to maintain power and dominance over the system. This is why the global propaganda war Russia has started on many fronts is as important as the real confrontation on the ground in Ukraine.

The current conflict is about the boundaries between the West—that is, the Atlantic world, defined by individual human dignity, respect for diversity, and rule of law—and Eurasia, based on coercion, intimidation, state primacy over the individual, national/ethnic cohesion, and centralized decision-making. Putin understands a renewed Russian Empire as his contribution to modernization. He is revisionist and does not accept the results of history. Most importantly, for him, the use of force is politics by others means, while for the Atlantic civilization the use of force is understood as the ultimate failure and hence the end of politics.

Ukraine has become the new battlefield of the clash between the Atlantic view of the world and the Eurasian notion of world order and social evolution. A similar cultural conflict has happened also in other parts of Europe and elsewhere. Germany, for instance, was struggling between a Western notion of its political culture and an anti-Western notion of society and politics—autochthonous, ethnic, nationalistic—between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century. Hitler’s defeat opened the door for the Germans to fully embrace Western political culture.

Ukraine, in this sense, is the new Germany: culturally divided, economically weak, socially split, and strategically more subject than object. In the German case of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the inability of German elites and society to exercise self-determination in line with the Western political culture eventually led to two world wars of aggression, to full defeat, and the formal split of the country, turning its capital into a city with four zones dominated by external forces, as elsewhere in the age of colonialism (think of the European “possessions” in Shanghai or the different zones for different external settlers struggling for dominance in a city such as Stone Town in Zanzibar under the Omani sultan).

The Future of the Ukraine Conflict

Will Ukraine end up being controlled by different national and foreign powers, including the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or EU or UN peacekeepers, in carefully split zones? May this affect even the city of Kiev? Has the old East-West divide, in terms of a clash of political cultures, moved from Germany to Ukraine? And how long will this situation last?

One thing is sure: the quest for freedom, which is the promise of the Western political culture, is based in anthropological truth. It is man’s nature wanting to be free. Therefore, Ukraine in a Putin Empire might end up being split, paralyzed, semi-occupied, and incapable of acting as a self-determined player—but this stage will not last forever. In fact, it will always be questioned by many friends of freedom now and eventually destroyed by even more friends of freedom. Maybe by then, a Euromaidan movement will also take place on Moscow’s Red Square to truly challenge the domestic root causes of the emerging second Russian empire, the Putin Empire.

For now, Western policymakers can only draw one conclusion in light of this situation: Get priorities straight and act coherently, consistently, and honestly; be self-critical and humble as far as the alleged superiority of Western values is concerned; expect a long and dire confrontation as long as Russia resorts to a secret police-driven imperialism; support the Ukrainian people’s right to define their own social and political system and their foreign policy orientation; do not provoke Russia unnecessarily and continue to explore, for the time being at least, the option of a neutralized but territorially coherent Ukraine (including Crimea); and defend the Ukrainian right to internal self-determination and its exclusive right to choose its foreign policy orientation.

The Atlantic civilization has to find appropriate answers to cope with the new twenty-first century confrontation with a secret police-driven Russian imperialism. NATO is revitalized and EU foreign and security policies will get sharpened. But most importantly for the Atlantic civilization, it must remain a credible magnetic power—in a sociological and cultural sense—for all those social forces and individuals in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, and Armenia that want to join the Atlantic sphere of political culture—a political culture of individual dignity, respect, choice, justice, and rule of law.

For the time being, the idea of a “Europe whole and free” has been replaced by a split between an Atlantic Europe and a Eurasian empire. Coercion, violence, state primacy, ethno-nationalism, and hegemonic autocracy are not genetic attitudes anywhere in the world. Therefore it is true in a universal sense, wherever people have to live under such a system, they are enslaved. Yet, their time to rise will come. Now, we are witnessing the quest for freedom in Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine. At some point in time, we will witness it in Moscow, too. Change must come from within, especially in empires whose time has come to disappear in the archives of history. For us, the United States and the EU, the main challenge is to remain credible and to stand together as one Atlantic civilization.

Ludger Kühnhardt is director at the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI) at Bonn.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.