MOSCOW BLOG: West's policy of supporting liberals and moderates lies in tatters

MOSCOW BLOG: West's policy of supporting liberals and moderates lies in tatters
Kremlin calls the bluff of West's tough talk on Ukraine and Syria.
By Ben Aris in Moscow February 18, 2016

The West's policy of supporting "moderates" and "liberals" in Eurasia is in tatters and events of the last 24 hours show it needs to take a reality check.

On February 17, a large car bomb went off in Ankara outside an army barracks killing at least 28 people and injuring more than 60. This is the second powerful and deadly bomb attack in Turkey in five months. In October, two suicide bombers killed some 100 people when they detonated suicide vests in the middle of a crowd of anti-government demonstrators. Turkey was supposed to be the "moderate" Muslim state in the region and the base and key ally for Western influence in the region.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is showing increasingly obvious dictatorial tendencies and his single-minded campaign against the Kurdish minority both in the southeast of the country and across the border has become impossible to ignore any more. The military barracks bomb could mean that Erdogan has actually sparked a second terrorist campaign that will run in parallel with the fight against Islamic State (IS), this one a fight between Turkey and the Kurds that will only destabilise the region further.

The second event was the farce in Ukraine following an attempt to force its Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and General Prosecutor Viktor Shokin to resign after the abject failure of both men to do their jobs. There has been no implementation of key reforms, in Yatsenyuk's care, nor any important arrests made in Shokin's case, in what Transparency International has deemed the most corrupt country in Europe.

Here too the West was hoping that the "western leaning" Ukraine would embrace liberalism and adopt "western values", thus making the country a bulkhead against an increasingly revanchist Russia. According to media reports, it appears that President Petro Poroshenko cut a backroom deal with the leading oligarchs in the country to scupper the no confidence vote.

Deputies in the Rada aligned with the top oligarchs walked out of the chamber just before the vote and those from the president's own eponymous block voted against the no-confidence motion, leaving it with 194 votes less than the 226 needed to unseat Yatsenyuk the premier and his cabinet.

Even the resignation of Shokin was fluffed. Media reports say Shokin either reported in sick the day before or had gone on holiday, casting doubt on the veracity of reports that he handed in a resignation letter on February 16. In any case, even if he has stepped down, his job is now being done by his fiercely loyal deputy.

If the reports are correct – and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party quit the ruling coalition on February 17 in protest for these reasons – then Ukraine is now openly an oligopoly where the oligarchs, including Poroshenko, still one of the country's richest businessmen, are fully in charge and have no intention of upsetting the status quo, which is to all of their material advantage.

In both situations the West has put too much store in its own belief that "liberals" in Ukraine and "moderate rebels" in Syria will deliver the results it desires. Digging into the profiles of both groups quickly shows that neither are cracked up to be what they are supposed to be. The reality on the ground is much more messy, but the polemical attitude the West has adopted and the ongoing deterioration in journalistic standards means these stories are increasingly framed in "them or us" terms, which steamrolls over the subtleties but leads to compounding policy mistakes.

The Kremlin's line is that it is not the aggressor but is reacting to Western policy that ignores its interests. The criticism of Putin is that he is the aggressor in Ukraine and now Syria, which is true. But at the same time, another criticism of his policies is they are all tactical reactions and he has no long-term strategy, which actually backs up the Kremlin's argument that it is only reacting to Western policy.

So the whole question comes down to whether the Western strategy of supporting Ukraine or ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is sound. And the black and white spin that has been put on both these fights is the problem that was highlighted so clearly in the last day.

Sandcastle policies

Ukraine now looks worse than Russia, which is at least grappling with some areas of corruption as part of Putin's deoffshorisation drive, according to Transparency International, and at least has a functional state, albeit with some big problems of its own. Neither of these things can be said of Ukraine.

In Turkey the story is very similar. Erdogan's trampling over press freedoms, jailing of journalists or indeed anyone who publically criticises him and the full-blown military operations against Kurds in the southeast of the country all run diametrically opposed to  European freedoms. All this has been ignored, but now his obsession with changing the constitution to give himself dictatorial presidential powers is become increasingly blatant and embarrassing for a country that is supposed to be a responsible member of Nato. 

The West's policy is looking increasingly naïve. The assumption that Ukraine was a genuine partner in the project to bring it into the Europe sphere is crumbling like a sandcastle in the rising tide. The frustration of its erstwhile partners and sponsors is publicly fading and what little credibility it has left can't last long.

The irony here is that Poroshenko should have taken a leaf out of Russian President Vladimir Putin's playbook and quickly and aggressively swept the oligarchs from the corridors of power as soon as he took office. However, in the last elections the two proxy parties of Ukraine's uber-oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky now have a bigger share of Rada seats that Poroshenko's Bloc.

In Russia, the pendulum swung too far and the other way and the private oligarchs have been replaced with state oligarchs. But another irony here is if Poroshenko did sweep the oligarchs from power and throw them in jail, which is the cause of the corruption that everyone is so focused on now, there would be a ringing hurrah from the West. Putin's oligarchs, who are as bad as anything Ukraine has and stole far more money, are for the most part living in luxury in London where many have been given political asylum to prevent them facing tax evasion and fraud charges. What ever you think of Putin, these men are not liberal political opponents of Putin and do not have any traction with the people of Russia, who universally see them as the crooks they are.

Talk and no trousers

But more than anything else it is a matter of the West's failure to commit to this fight. Its preferred policy of acting through proxy - spend a little money, make a few speeches, pump out some propaganda on its own state-controlled media - that is the biggest mistake.

Putin has made a fine and penetrating call in assuming that the West will not actually engage in any of the rows it has taken on because public opinion at home won't allow it. There is no appetite (or money) for a Western ground offensive in Syria and no one in Brussels or Washington would be stupid enough to start a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. Nato would clearly win an open fight with Russia, but it would come at such an enormous cost in lives and destruction that no one is even contemplating this as an option.

The West has also underestimated the determination with which Putin is chasing his geo-political goals. Unlike the West, he has been prepared to commit troops to both fights in Ukraine and Syria. Unlike the West, he has committed money in the amount that it is crushing the Russian economy and starting to do real political danger to his own position at home as incomes fall.

It's time the West woke up from this wooly naivity. Neither Turkey nor Ukraine are "special" as neither one is following the values that guide the West. Both have played a rhetorical game to win advantage for themselves in their regional contexts. While there is no doubt that the people of both countries would like the stability and prosperity that comes with European values - and the Ukrainian people in particular have thrown out not one, but two, corrupt governments in the last decade - their leaderships do not share the same values. The stirring images of crowds on Maidan or Gezi squares are indicative of a desire for change but this is not shared by the leadership of the country.

This must be incredible frustrating as the West wants to capitalise on the modernising aspirations of the people. But in practice there is very little an outside power can do to accelerate that process.

It is a very old problem. You can't change a country from the outside. Indeed, trying to force change with sanctions and proxy wars only makes the entrenched leadership dig their heels in further. Even invasion and wholesale change of government at the point of a gun fails, as the Iraq war so spectacularly showed - a failure of epic proportions. That leaves only engagement and patience. You can show them, promote prosperity through trade and financing and let them get on with it in their own messy and unpredictable way.