When the Soviet Union dissolved some 24 years ago, the Cold War supposedly ended with it, and yet looking at European politics today, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s business as usual. Anybody who doubts that the ideological tête–à-tête still rages on need only look at the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, born directly out of internal struggle over whether to move closer to the West (the U.S., NATO, and the EU), or East (Russia and Co.).
As we’ve seen, this internal struggle metastasised into something not unlike a civil war, complete with militias, secessions, accusations of war crimes, and dodgy referendums. Predictably, Ukraine has become something of a proxy war between East and West, not totally unlike how Afghanistan was in the 1980’s, with Russia now sending in troops to protect ethnic Russians and vital ports in Crimea, and the U.S. musing over whether to train and arm the Ukrainian army.
Although Putin’s public reasons for military intervention is to protect ethnic Russians living in Eastern Ukraine, the real reasons for his invasion of Crimea and the Donbass region are far more political. Having experienced a dramatic loss of hegemonic influence since 1991, Russia now hopes to get back on its feet, imperialistically speaking. Having violated its verbal promises to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand to Russia’s door, the West has poked the bear consistently since the Cold War ended, slowly chipping away at its influence and isolating it on the European stage. While most of its former satellite states and neighbours have joined NATO in recent years, Ukraine had at least been neutral during this ideological struggle.
Putin is not about to give up one of his last chances to restore the balance of ideological power in Europe, and recognizes that Russia will be starkly isolated without its former Soviet sister. No imperialist power likes feeling isolated. So when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to scrap a trade deal with the EU, the ensuing civil unrest and violent protests gave Putin the perfect reason to reclaim its lost sister, or at least the Eastern part of it.
Now, U.S. President Barack Obama is being urged by NATO officials and the Pentagon to send lethal aid to Ukrainian troops, in order to deter “further Russian aggression”. Recognizing that an outright win for the Ukrainian side is impossible, the report nevertheless argues that sufficient weaponry will allow Ukrainian forces to degrade the Russian-backed militias’ power to the point where a stalemate will result in proper negotiations. In other words, we now face another proxy war with Russia (You can read more about the ongoing Ukrainian crisis in a post I wrote here).
Enter Greece, in the warm embrace of a peaceful, fair revolution that seeks to reverse EU-imposed austerity measures and shake the neoliberal monkey off its back. SYRIZA’s victory in the polls drove fear into the hearts of Merkelites, EU plutocrats, and neoliberalists all across Western Europe, but has provided hope to the millions of Greek people left disenfranchised and impoverished as a result of the post-Eurozone crisis bailout measures. SYRIZA has also further galvanized anti-globalization and anti-capitalist movements throughout Europe, inspiring the Green Party of England and Wales and Podemos in Spain to further their message and deliver real change. The neoliberal tide may finally be turning, much to the ire of big business.
The IMF, the EU and various other plutocratic organizations may not need Greece from a financial or business standpoint (apart from recovering the money they claim Greece owes), but given the troubles in Ukraine, they need Greece from an ideological perspective. If the EU doesn’t embrace SYRIZA and its message of populism, it will lose Greece for a generation, probably to Russia.
And the odds do not exactly begin in the EU’s favour. Their bailout measures came at enormous cost to the Greek people, who languished under the ensuing austerity measures and experienced a depression the likes of which are comparable to the Great Depression. A haemorrhaging economy, a soaring unemployment rate, an out of control debt-to-GDP ratio, and the liquidation of over 100,000 Greek businesses are the legacy of the so-called “recovery”. The Greek people are angry, and know who to blame for their suffering.
SYRIZA has promised them a restoration of public sector jobs, a reinstatement of the minimum wage, an end to the circling privatization vultures, and a renegotiation of the debt, but Europe has not ceded to any of these demands, calling on Tsipras’ government to respect previous terms and warning him not to default on its imaginary debt. For the EU, Tsipras’ coalition ought to keep business as usual.
It won’t, and if Europe continues to pursue these demands, Russia will not hesitate to seize the opportunity for a new partner. For one thing, Russia is not urging Tsipras to honour the fantastical debt agreements, and nor is it inflicting upon Greece a highly damaging neoliberal fantasy project that leaves ordinary people homeless, impoverished, and without any opportunities. Although Putin’s homophobic, expansionist, and oligarchal Russia resembles a rogue state with each passing day, and would make for a poor ally, as far as Greece is concerned it’s one of the few European voices not demanding that it remain under crippling austerity measures.
The EU is losing Greece fast. Tsipras is already urging Germany to hand over as much as $667 billion in outstanding reparations, owed to Greece in the aftermath of the WWII occupation in 1941 (around 81% of Greece’s total Jewish population were exterminated during the occupation), and at a time when Tsipras affirmed his opposition to further sanctions on Russia. If the Eurozone leaders do not play fair, and continue to insist that SYRIZA break the promises that got it elected, Russia stands at the ready to make Greece a much-needed ally.
An ideal outcome to this tiresome ideological struggle would surely be a fully sovereign Greece with a renegotiated debt plan, one that honours the promises and obligations SYRIZA made during the election campaign. SYRIZA is the first truly left-wing government to be elected in Europe in living memory, putting it in the unique position not only of rolling back crippling austerity, but of providing a potential springboard from which other grassroots and leftist movements across Europe may leap. But if it falls back into the clasp of EU plutocrats, or plunges into the sinister world of Russian geopolitics, Greece will lose some of its sovereignty for a long, long time.
SYRIZA describes its approach to organizations like NATO as a desire for “the re-foundation of Europe away from artificial divisions and Cold War alliances”. What it ought to realize – and realize fast – is that artificial divisions will only worsen if it escapes one hegemonic camp only to fall into the grasp of another. Neither Russia nor the EU have the Greek people’s best interests at heart, and I hope Tsipras restores Greek sovereignty without signing up for another overlord.