“Russia is Behaving According to the Colonial Schemes of the Past”

On June 13, the Mohyla Academy in Kyiv awarded an honoris causa doctorate to Herman Van Rompuy. On this occasion, during the videoconference ceremony, the former President of the European Council (2009-2014) and former Belgian Prime Minister delivered a emblematic speech that we reproduce here.

It is the tragedy of war that brings us together. It is as if every one of my encounters with Ukraine is in some way tragic. In 2009, as President of the Belgian Parliament, I was in Kyiv to commemorate the Holodomor. The murder by famine of millions of people is far too little known in Western Europe. Those who are aware of this, look at the war differently today. When I returned three years later as President of the European Council of Heads of State and Government to work on the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, we did not know what would happen in 2013 and 2014 on Maidan Square and in the east of the country. From the summer of 2013, it was clear that Russia was at least as strongly opposed to your country’s European future as it was to membership of Nato. It led to the tragic deaths of more than a hundred people on Maidan and 13000 in the East, without taking into account everything that happened after the fatal date of 24 February 2022. I hope that one day we will be able to put the tragedy behind us and see each other again in a free, united, prosperous and democratic Ukraine, closely linked to the European Union.

What brought the EU and your country together ten years ago was not hostility to Russia, but a closeness to the community of values that is the Union. The closest bond between nations is not interests but values. The latter come and go but values remain. When two countries or entities share interests, they are allies. When they share both values and interests, I call them companions. They have a common destiny. The association agreement of 2014 was already an expression of this. But I said then that it would not be the last phase of our cooperation.

When it comes precisely to values, the first is humanity, the value of every human life. Man is not one million divided by one million. That is also one but it hides the uniqueness of each human person. War reduces people to objects that must be eliminated. The war waged by Putin’s Russia violates all principles of humanity. For them Ukraine is not a country and Ukrainians not brothers but enemies.

Alongside peace and humanity, democracy, a social market economy, a fair distribution of income and wealth and the rule of law are basic pillars of a state and a community. Authoritarianism and oligarchy are the opposite of the society we dream of or love. I know that many of you are already thinking what your country will look like after the war, in a sovereign and united country. Before 1945 some in Western Europe were thinking how Europe would be rebuilt after the victory over Hitler. They were building a new society based on prosperity and welfare for all, a strong political democracy and a unified Europe. That utopia was realised. Of course, that work is never finished and there are still disappointments today, but we succeeded in creating a new community of European nations, the like of which history has never known.

Ukraine must dream of and work for a renewed country. Then the suffering and death of so many will have been meaningful, no matter how senseless this war is in itself. “That these dead shall not have died in vain”, as President Lincoln said at Gettysburg in the midst of the Civil War 160 years ago. A dream does not have to be a utopia. Dreams can come true however much you live in nightmare today.

The European Union and the West as a whole will help to rebuild your country on the ruins of today. Resources are already being mobilized for this. It will largely be your own work but the friends of your country will assist you as they are already doing in this war. It will also be a unique opportunity to build a new economy and infrastructure that is technologically advanced, ecologically sustainable and that is established in an open and transparent way that benefits all and not enriching a few.

After the war, you can make an even stronger difference with Russia by resolutely choosing the future and not the past. Putin’s Russia is the prisoner of nostalgic nationalism: Make Russia great again. That kind of cult of the past is always dangerous. It has unfortunately been proven once again today. Our European Union have a per capita income five times higher than Russia’s. We have invested in our own people and not in a collective madness. Patriotism is different from radical nationalism. Love your country and above all your people: that patriotism is healthy because it is a tribute to where we come from. We must remain true to our roots but always with a sense of openness towards others, who are different in terms of language and culture but with whom we share the same values. One civilisation based on values with multiple cultures. The EU is not perfect, but you will not find a Frenchman, a German or an Italian who dreams of restoring his empire, however great it may have been. That nostalgia no longer exists in the EU so that peace can be lasting. Russia is behaving according to the colonial schemes of the past. It is tragic that there are large countries in the world that are still traumatized by the colonial yoke imposed on them at the time and do not have the courage today to condemn Russian neo-colonialism. It is incomprehensible. You cannot be the friend of the enemy of humanity.

The EU is an entity with the participation today of 27 countries. It was not and is not a closed club. We once started with six, including my country. Today we are provisionally 27. We always try to reach unanimous positions. Often a crisis brings us closer together. The end of the Union has been predicted countless times. We are used to that. Since the banking crisis of 2008, we have had to live through one crisis after another. The crisis of the banks, the euro, the economy, the refugees from the Middle East, terrorism, Covid, inflation and now the consequences of the war. We call it the multiple crisis, even the permanent crisis. Each time the Union came out stronger. Putin thought we would react weakly and be divided. He expected that from the decadent West! But the EU, the West and the G7 have rarely been so united. What is more decadent than war! That is the real decay.

EU-Ukraine summit on 25 February 2013. Herman Van Rompuy (centre), President of the European Council, José Manuel Barroso (left), President of the European Commission, and Viktor Yanukovych (right), Ukrainian President. // Flickr account of H. Van Rompuy

I spoke about the unity of the EU. I know that some of the international press likes to zoom in on the internal debate within the Union, but debate is normal. You have it even in unitary states like the UK and the US. Only dictatorships do not have internal discussions. By the way, in recent months it is only Hungary that has been causing real problems. But after all, that country represents less than 2 % of the European economy. Moreover, Hungary has approved the first five sanction packages without grumbling. This unanimity is required by the EU Treaty in many areas, including sanctions.

The days of “divide and rule” are gone. Until recently, China thought it had a privileged relationship with Central and Eastern European countries in the “16+1” format. That time, too, is over after 24 February. Their relationship “without limits” with Russia is at the root of it. Someone’s actions follow you or chase you.

The war in Ukraine has many geopolitical consequences even though Russia itself is no longer a geopolitical actor. Its economy is too weak for that even before the invasion. The war increased the already existing distrust between global actors. Who believes Russia anymore and who trusts its allies? The tendency not to depend too much on others has increased strongly by all geopolitical actors in the past four months. The EU, too, wants to be more sovereign on energy, the digital, migration, chips, batteries, rare earths, food, medicines and medical equipment, defence. There are limitations to globalisation. Of course it has an economic cost to less globalisation. Globalisation and competition normally lead to lower prices unless it creates monopolies and oligopolies, which it does. Globalisation has helped China enormously since they joined the WTO in 2000. Russia joined 10 years ago but missed the train of a modern economy. Today we know that security is more important than competitiveness. When it comes to security, politics takes precedence over the economy, over money. The Union has had to learn this hard lesson. That is why, today, European sovereignty or strategic autonomy has become the core concept of the Union. Not for the sake of power but to avoid powerlessness.

Of course, we first want to cooperate with like-minded countries, with whom we share interests but, above all, values. For us, these are the United States, Japan, Canada and a few others. But to be fair, the Union has also become cautious after the four disastrous years under President Trump who, by the way, at the beginning of this war called Putin “a smart guy” and even called the EU an “enemy” at the time. Imagine this war with Trump in the White House! You just can’t think about it. Fortunately, the Republican party itself takes a clear anti-Putin position.

In general, the world will not be the same since 24 February. Trust goes away on horseback and returns on foot. This is true for people but also for nations. Distrust kills and trust brings life. We will have normal relations with Russia one day when Russia itself becomes a normal country or finally becomes a normal country. That is why Western sanctions will remain in place until normality is restored, until the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine is restored.

The most scandalous geopolitical consequence of the war is the food shortage and high food prices. Without the war this would not have happened and it is clear who is responsible for the war. It is as simple as that. A kind of global Holodomor is still in the making. Hopefully it can still be avoided. One can tell “fake news” about food shortages or just lies. However, the truth is simple.

I have spoken repeatedly about trust. Well, the basis of trust is respect for the rules of law that govern the international order, starting with the borders of a country. Anyone who does not recognise the latter turns everything upside down. There are almost no border disputes in the Union except for a few minor ones in the former Yugoslavia. Germany recognised the Oder-Neisse border between Poland and Germany years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Recognising borders is the basis of peace. The reverse can lead to war. It is almost a law of any living together. For today’s authoritarian states, international agreements and conventions do not count. The given word does not exist for them. Everything is controlled by power. One just takes what one can have. Thus Hong Kong lost its separate status within China despite international agreements. Useless to refer to the Crimea. Power replaces ethics. In geopolitical terms, we are once again living in a time of not only ethical deficit but ethical vacuum. It is not the first time in the last hundred years. But many of us thought we were definitely living in a new era but we are back in “yesterday’s world” (Stefan Zweig, 1941).

Some will say that I present things in black and white, that the West is not always consistent either. We cooperate, for example, with some authoritarian regimes in the world. The difference is that Russia is a real threat to you and to us. Most other countries are not.

Just as it is hypocritical to say that “there must be peace as soon as possible”. Who is against peace? Such gratuitous statements about peace ignore the question of guilt. In this way both warring parties are kept at an equal distance in a kind of neutrality that is supposed to pass for wisdom and balance but is simply wrong. Peace will return when the aggression stops.

Another statement of the same kind is “Russia must not be humiliated”. But who is trying to humiliate whom in this armed conflict? To ask the question is to answer it!

A pinnacle of cynicism is the assertion that attacks on Russian territory lead to an escalation of the war as if Russia itself has the moral right to invade another sovereign country.

Another argument is that NATO threatens Russia’s security. No one in Europe or the West thought of invading Russia after 1945 or after 1989. The Soviet Union disintegrated without so much as a shot being fired and without any action from Nato.

Even in the tragedy of the moment, we have to distinguish between appearance and reality, between lies and truth, between values and un-values. One must never give up clear thinking! Nor should we ever give up values.

You can sense from the tone of my words how incredible this situation is for us too. We did not know that such a potential for barbarism was still possible. Nobody in my part of Europe understands the meaning of this suffering inflicted by one human being on another. Nobody understands why fathers have to bury their sons or parents their children? What for? Why?

The war in your country has triggered a global debate on whether the Cold War is back. History sometimes repeats itself, but never in the same way. Today there are similarities and differences with the times of the Cold War. The balance of power between China and Russia is different from what it was at the time of the Cold War. Today, the Chinese economy is ten times stronger than the Russian economy. This war will forever reduce Russia to an economic colony for China. The political relationship between China and Russia is the opposite of what it was before 1989.

Back then, the global contrast was ideological between communism and freedom. Today it would be between authoritarianism and democracy. But is it? Is that right? The camp that does not support sanctions against Russia includes democracies, among them the world’s largest democracy, India, and another democratic state, Indonesia, a country of 270 million people. I admit that both belonged to the group of non-aligned countries already during the Cold War. In that sense, there is a similarity with the Cold War times.

However, the dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy is not primarily an issue in the current war. What is at stake here is a country’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity. A people is denied the right to have its own state. Moreover, Russia does not allow that state to choose who its friends and who its enemies or opponents are.

I mentioned at the beginning of this speech how in 2013 Russia did everything it could to prevent the then President of Ukraine from signing the Association Agreement and the Free Trade Agreement with the EU. Russia offered your country a place in the so-called customs union with Russia itself, Belarus and Kazakhstan. But it is impossible to be a member of that group and have an FTA with the EU at the same time. Those who are locked in a customs union lose their sovereign right to have their own tariffs on the external borders and thus cannot have an FTA with the Union. The then government of Ukraine at one point wanted to have both at the same time but that was impossible. Ukraine had to choose. The people of Maidan chose.

I remember the dramatic Eastern Partnership meeting in Vilnius in November 2013 when the Maidan uprising had already erupted and where the Ukrainian President refused to sign the Association Agreement even against part of his own government. Eventually, a few weeks later, his position had become untenable and he fled the country. I arranged for the association agreement to be solemnly signed by the new prime minister of Ukraine and the newly elected president at two sessions of the European Council. All this together with the 28 EU heads of state and government. The people of Maidan eventually triumphed. Meanwhile, Russia annexed Crimea and started a war in the East. After the downing of the MH17 in the summer of 2014 where more than two hundred innocent civilians were killed, economic sanctions against Russia came into effect. A few weeks before, Russia had been thrown out of the G8. Russia said then that the G7 was the past and the G20 the future. Today the G7 is more important than the G20. On each occasion, the EU managed to adopt a unified position. Of course, there were different sensitivities towards Russia within the Union, be it in relation to history or economics. In a dictatorship, there is only one position. In a union of states with 27 democratic participants, there is always a debate. I would add that the war has erased many of these sensitivities. But keeping the club together is a perpetual task. In the years 2013-2015, France and Germany played a prominent role in Ukraine policy, alongside European institutions such as the European Commission. That is much less the case today. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe now play a more leading role. The fear of Russia there runs deep. I would also remind you of the Nato candidatures of Sweden and Finland, which represent an almost tectonic shift in their strategy.

The war has therefore also brought about shifts in the balance of power within the Union. An additional aspect is that the group of four central European countries, the Visegrad, has disintegrated as a result of the deep differences of opinion between the most important country in the region, Poland, and Hungary. Poland’s economy is four times larger than that of Hungary.

The first task today is to restore the country’s overall sovereignty. But, as I said, we must also deal with the new post-war Ukraine. I hope that your country will soon become a candidate member of the Union. Everyone knows that there will be no miracles in the further course of the negotiations, but in the meantime we can also work on the reconstruction, on strengthened political and economic cooperation in a new edition of the association agreement (including security). The one does not exclude the other. In the meantime, we could work towards “an ever closer association between our peoples” by analogy with what the EU Treaty says about “an ever closer union of peoples”. If work continues in your country on strengthening political democracy and a genuine social market economy, support for this “one heart, one mind” cooperation with the EU will only increase.

In the Union itself and in Ukraine, old prejudices and taboos must fall in order to build a new future. We know that today we can say this enthusiastically but that internal and external reforms will be difficult to achieve and that established powers will cling to power, but “change” is inevitable and necessary. History does not come about by itself. History is the work of man. The young generation in particular must play a role in this and bridge the old divisions. As I said, that is what had to happen in my country and in Western Europe after 1945. Who will be the architects? was the title of a successful political manifesto at the time. We succeeded then in creating a new society on the ruins of the old world. So there is hope. It requires determination, orientation, unionism and leadership.

Once the war is over, one must not fall back into the “business as usual”, into the mistakes of the past, into the old divisions and feuds. It need not be a pious hope. We owe it to the tens of thousands who lost and will lose their lives for their homeland. President Zelensky said that on countless occasions. May I quote President Lincoln again from his brief address on 19 November 1863: “It is for us, the living to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced. We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Many in the world pay tribute and admire the courage of the Ukrainian people and its army. Of course, that does not help you to go through the problems and suffering of every day, but I hope it helps in some invisible way. You are not alone in the full knowledge that the battle is being fought here. The difference between dictatorships and democracies is that we do not resort to empty words and slogans aimed at the masses, but that we say them calmly or with bated breath, but all the more sincerely and humanly. Humanity must prevail while crimes against humanity are being committed.

We see each other now virtually but that is also a form of meeting. I hope to come to Kyiv at the beginning of October. It reminds me of the famous song of Vera Lynn during WWII:

“We’ll meet again
We’ll meet again,
Don’t know where,
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day
Keep smiling through,
Just like you always do
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away”

Herman Van Rompuy is a Belgian statesman, former President of the European Council, and former Belgian Prime Minister.

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