The European chessboard has grown complicated. The hostile regime in Moscow is exploiting any opportunity to damage the cohesion of both the European Union and NATO. The Kremlin continues to spread black propaganda against any state that annoys it in some way. Indeed the perceived enemies of the Putin regime have often come under attack- whether in the realms of cyberspace, as Russian hackers launch attacks designed to shut down most of the apparatus of the modern state, or quite literally, with state sponsored assassination and physical intimidation of diplomats. The straight theft of foreign owned assets in Russia is also routine- as the latest twists in the campaign against BP in Russia makes quite plain.
It is not a surprise that polls in the UK now show that Putin's Russia is considered the greatest threat to the country after Al-Qaida and Iran. After all, Russia- unlike Iran- has actually used a nuclear weapon on the streets of London.
Other states are much more sanguine about the influence of Russia- but then the leaders of several European states have been the recipients of considerable Russian largess. The questionable relationship of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder with the Russian state has led many to conclude that Germany has been effectively penetrated by the Russian secret services. The reliability of several NATO states has also been questioned: Italy and Greece, for example, seem to have warmer relationships with Moscow than with most of their NATO partners. Some- especially in Washington- have grown to despair of much of what NATO is supposed to be working for.
Yet such despair is, I think, somewhat premature.
Firstly, the new member states of the EU and NATO are by no means the passengers that hey have been represented as being. Poland has shouldered a considerable burden in several NATO operations and the Baltic countries too have contributed in radar and cyber-defence and also, more seriously, in blood, with the deaths of their servicemen in NATO operations in Afghanistan. More to the point, the fact of their recently having escaped from the terrors of the Soviet Empire gives them unique insights into the mindset and the agenda of the former KGB (and other security service) officers- the siloviki- who largely comprise the ruling elite in Moscow.
Despite the confidence that the petro-wealth has created in Moscow consumers, the image that is most powerful is the sense of fear amongst the siloviki. They- even if the West does not- at least understand their own vulnerability. While they remain determined to impose their will upon as much of the former Soviet Empire as they can- by force, persuasion or bribery as necessary- they have found they have not been anything like as successful as they had hoped.
The creation of a pro-Western regime in Georgia was a direct challenge to the Kremlin, since the Russian army has intervened to maintain the frozen conflicts in two Georgian territories: South Ossetia and Abhazia. Despite substantial efforts to eject Mikheil Saakashvili, and despite several mis-steps from Tbilisi, Russia has not brought to heel the defiant Georgians. Meanwhile the radical liberal economic policies that Saakashvili has enacted has seen a gigantic improvement in the economic position of Georgia, despite the Russian boycott. Russia watches with impotent fury as Tbilisi maintains a strongly independent line.
Despite the heat of the relationship between Georgia and Moscow, the most annoying country for the siloviki is Ukraine.
For many Russians- and especially the siloviki-, the idea of Ukrainian independence is still an unpleasant shock. Russians see a continuation between the ancient state of Kiev and the Grand Duchy of Moscow. They do not understand the differences that have create a separate Ukrainian consciousness, preferring to regard these as of minor, even provincial significance.
What is happening in Ukraine now is becoming central to the whole future of Europe.
Unlike in Russia, the relatively even split of economic power between different economic groups has helped to ensure that the political system has remained pluralistic. While this has created corruption, it has also ensured that no one group can take control of the state. The upheavals of the orange revolution have created a democratic sensibility in adition to the economically inspired pluralism. The impact of this has been to pemit considerable freedom of speech and an increasingly open cultural scene. Ukraine is becoming known as a country with a considerable sense of humour. One particular butt of Ukrainian jokes are the Russians who permit themselves to be ruled by the authoritarian regime of the siloviki.
Ukraine then is emerging as a very European country.
Yet both NATO and the European Union have hesitated to embrace Ukraine as prospective member of either organisation. Indeed at the Bucharest summit in April, the German delegation were openly saying that NATO "should not offend Russia".
This is dangerous nonsense. Ukraine is not a Trojan horse for Russian influence in NATO, but it could prove to be the Trojan horse to demonstrate the power of Western values to the wavering Russians.
It is time to put Ukraine firmly on the road to EU an NATO membership. The UK should play a part in this by progressively easing travel restrictions on Ukraine- particularly in the lead up to the 2012 UEFA Soccer tournament that will be jointly staged by Ukraine and Poland.
The Ukrainian people have repeatedly made it clear that they wish to join with the rest of Europe. If Russia objects, then it only serves to underline the threat that the siloviki pose to free Ukraine. Ultimately, Russia too may choose to recover its European identity, but if it chooses to maintain its hostility, while at the same time collaborating with China to undermine attempts by the West to solve problems like Darfur and Zimbabwe, then it should be treated as an opponent, expelled from G-8 and lose its largely illusory role as a great power.
For the West, Ukraine is now a litmus test- and Ukrainian freedom should be none negotiable.