The Wrong Side of History

If there is one sentence that rings true in all the coverage of Ukraine, it is President Obama’s statement that Russia’s President Putin is on the wrong side of history. The ostensible reason for the Russian invasion – there can be no other term – is to rescue ethnic Russians who have lived in Ukraine for generations.

This is the tragedy of Europe. Hitler invaded Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia for precisely the same reason. He exploited the fact that ethnic Germans were a minority in a Slavic country.

Putin should know that no good can come of following a path that Europe has walked over and over. Focusing on ethnic and linguistic divisions is the ultimate old-think. The former Czechoslovakia broke up in 1992-93 because its inhabitants succumbed to the temptation to look inward rather than outward. While Czechs, led by Vaclav Havel, wanted to wrap themselves around every Western institution as fast as possible, Slovaks weren’t so sure. Under Vladimir Meciar they steered eastward, but within a decade they had made a course correction. Slovaks soon saw that they could define themselves not only as Slovaks, but as Europeans, and today the world celebrates the legacy of Havel rather than Meciar. By 2004 Slovaks were members of NATO and the European Union, and by 2009 they had adopted the Euro as their currency, having comfortably asserted their separateness from their Czech cousins while affirming their place in Europe.

Europe is a map sprinkled with pockets of ethnic peoples. In Spain alone there are Basques, Catalans, and Galicians. Belgium is an uneasy alliance of Flems and Walloons. The Sami people migrate across the northern reaches of Scandinavia while the Roma wander through a Central Europe that is also home to forgotten tribes of Moravians, Ruthenians, and Pomeranians, not to mention large numbers of immigrant populations – Turks in Germany, North Africans in France.

The nightmare of ethnic cleaning in Bosnia should have answered for all time the idea that it is wise or possible to live in ethnically pure states. By giving primacy to ethnicity above all, Putin displays archaic credentials. The triumph of Europe is that, ever so slowly, unity has overcome ethnicity. Europeans have learned the bitter lesson that what they hold in common is more important than they ways in which they are different.

For all its flaws and bureaucratic red tape, the EU has slowly moved forward with its concept of a Europe larger and stronger than its component states. NATO, too, has played a role, by providing the security to allow member states to concentrate on perfecting an economic union.

Ideally, the inhabitants of Ukraine should be given the chance to sort out their best option without external interference. It is indeed possible that for a time, some ethnic Russians hungry for nostalgia might want to be part of Russia. But it is hard to imagine that subsequent generations, when comparing the overwhelming stability, good governance, educational and economic opportunities, would not conclude they have far more to gain in a European future than a Russian past.  

They may ultimately discover one of the best reasons for being European: that it is possible to cherish ethnicity while preventing it from defining their politics. One would think the world offers ample examples to show Putin that, without a doubt, he is indeed on the wrong side of history.

Mary Thompson-Jones is the Faculty Director of Northeastern University College of Professional Studies Master’s in Global Studies and International Affairs program.