In recent months, a number of journalists and a number of opinion leaders have tried – for the umpteenth time – to belittle Malta’s constitutional obligation as a neutral and non-aligned country. Aided and abetted by a couple of academics, the message being interpolated in these months was simple really: that neutrality and non-alignment is an anachronistic non-sequitur due to the end of the cold war and that we should be as Westernised as possible since that is the sexy thing to be, not non-aligned.
And then came the Ukrainian conflict. I choose the word ‘conflict’ on purpose. The United Nations itself refers to it as the Ukrainian conflict. Not the Ukrainian war. This article will underline just why this is a conflict and not a war. So the Speaker of the House and the Prime Minister were both correct in how they referred to the issue when our Parliament was being virtually addressed by the Ukrainian Premier Zelensky. Naturally, the latter disagreed. In fact, in the mentioned address, Zelensky stated to our Maltese parliamentarians that ‘the future of Europe will be decided on the battlefield.’
But before we indulge in the sorry business of conflicts, weapons and death, let me be clear on one point. Armed conflict is not something that one agrees with. Or supports. Or instigates. Russia’s violent and deadly methodology being used to sort out this geopolitical thorny issue in this part of the world is condemnable and all efforts should be made to stop the killings of innocent people, including civilians, women and children. For all those who follow international events such as the Ukrainian conflict, it has been very evident from the start that the art of diplomacy was not availed of by all and sundry to ensure a peaceful solution to this thorny issue. We witnessed instead an accumulation of gung-ho, hot-headed, confrontational tactics being urged by many a third party in this subject matter which certainly did not give diplomacy justice or a good name.
The Speaker of the House and the PM were both correct in how they referred to the issue when our Parliament was being virtually addressed by the Ukrainian Premier.
The world, including Malta, is now subjected to a war which has, on one side, the bad and devilish Russians led by the mad Putin and on, the other hand, the good and angelic Ukrainians led by the stoic and brave Zelensky. There has been a concerted effort to portray the country not only as a victim of brutal Russian aggression, but as a plucky and noble bulwark of freedom and democracy. Conventional narrative would have us believe that Ukraine is an Eastern European version of Denmark.
The promoters of that narrative contend that the ongoing war is not just a quarrel between Russia and Ukraine over Kiev’s ambitions to join NATO and Moscow’s territorial claims in Crimea and the Donbas. No, they insist—the war is part of a global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a leader worthy of nothing less than Winston Churchill’s legacy. President Biden, in his March 26 remarks on the war, said the conflict was “a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules‐based order and one governed by brute force.” Keep in mind that the Biden family have a declared commercial interest in Ukraine and such interest instigated the first impeachment of Donald Trump.
John M. Bridgeland, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush, similarly expressed fawning admiration for Zelensky and Ukraine’s alleged commitment to democracy. “The world is seeing the bravery of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, who are willing to die to defend their democracy and freedom,” he wrote. Indeed, Bridgeland said, “No cost is too high [for Ukrainians] to defend their democracy and beloved Ukraine.”
Fox News contributor and former CIA station chief Dan Hoffman contended that “What scares Vladimir Putin at the heart of this conflict is democracy. It’s not that NATO represents a threat.” He added that “Putin couldn’t stomach a democracy on his border with a Russian‐speaking population and commercial links to Europe. That’s why he launched this brutal attack which has caused so many Ukrainian civilians, innocent civilians, to die.”
I have visited Ukraine. I have dealt with a number of business prospects who hailed from this country. I have friends who live, or lived in the Ukraine. The notion that Ukraine was such an appealing democratic model in Eastern Europe that the country’s mere existence terrified Putin may be a comforting myth to U.S. politicians and pundits, but it is a myth.
Ukraine is far from being a democratic‐capitalist model and an irresistible magnet for Russia’s groaning masses. The reality is murkier and troubling: Ukraine has long been considered as one of the more corrupt countries in the international system. In its annual report published in January 2022, Transparency International ranked Ukraine 123rd of the 180 countries it examined, with a score of 32 on a one to 100 point scale.
Ukraine’s track record of protecting democracy and civil liberties is not much better than its performance on corruption. In Freedom House’s 2022 report, Ukraine is listed in the “partly free” category, with a score of 61 out of a possible 100. Other countries in that category include such bastions of liberal democracy as Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines (55), Serbia (62), Hungary (59), and Singapore (47). Interestingly, Hungary—which has been a target of vitriolic criticism among progressives in the West because of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s conservative social policy—ranks eight points higher than Ukraine, which is the recipient of uncritical praise from the same Western ideological factions.
Even before the ‘war’ erupted, there were ugly examples of authoritarianism in Ukraine’s political governance. Just months after the 2014 Maidan revolution, there were efforts to smother domestic critics, which increased as years passed. Ukrainian officials also harassed political dissidents, adopted censorship measures, and barred foreign journalists whom they regarded as critics of the Ukrainian government and its policies. Such offensive actions were criticized by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other independent observers. The neo‐Nazi Azov Battalion was an integral part of President Petro Poroshenko’s military and security apparatus, and it has retained that role during Zelensky’s presidency.
Indeed, some repressive measures deepened under Zelensky even before the outbreak of war with Russia. In February 2021, the Ukrainian government closed several (mostly, but not entirely pro‐Russia) independent media outlets. They did so on the basis of utterly vague, open‐ended standards. Zelensky has now used the war as a justification for outlawing 11 opposition parties and nationalising several media outlets. Those are hardly appropriate measures in a democracy, even in wartime.
It is entirely appropriate to sympathise with Ukrainians who are experiencing terrible suffering as a result of Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a war. Whatever the level of provocations from the United States and its NATO allies, and Ukraine’s willingness to collaborate in those provocations, Russia’s response was over‐the‐top. It created a dangerous breach of the peace in Europe and a humanitarian catastrophe. However, one can condemn Putin’s actions and even cheer on Ukraine’s military resistance without fostering a false image of Ukraine’s political system. The country is not a symbol of freedom and liberal democracy, and the war is not an existential struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
It is precisely for this reason that Pope Francis said that NATO “barking” at Russia’s door may have led to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — and said he has offered to meet the Russian president in Moscow. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Francis reflected on Russia’s lethal aggression toward its neighbour and said while he might not go as far as saying NATO’s presence in nearby countries “provoked” Moscow, it “perhaps facilitated” the invasion.
Immediately after Zelensky’s address to our Parliament, our Foreign Minister unequivocally underlined Malta’s commitment to aid and assist the civilian population of Ukraine but equally clearly recommitted Malta’s neutrality and non-alignment. Zelensky wanted us to give him arms and weapons. Which will inevitably induce more deaths of innocent civilians. Irrespective of what other EU countries do on this subject matter, we certainly will not entertain his wishes.
There is one final point I wish to address in this piece: we are now witnessing the European Union promising Ukraine a quick entry into the European Union. It is being seen as the good thing to do; to aid the underdog of Russian imperialism by bringing him into the EU fold. This is nothing short of crazy short-term thinking by politicians who should know better. We are still today witnessing in a number of Eastern European countries who have joined the EU their continuous daily challenge to adhere to EU norms and mores which are markedly different than what they were accustomed to.
Irrespective of the Ukrainian – Russian conflict, one cannot close an eye on Ukraine’s track record on corruption, itsnon-functioning civil service, the funding of neo-Nazi battalions operating not just as independent para-military volunteers but as an integral part of Ukraine’s military. The abuse, the jailing and murdering of political activists and the confiscation of TV and media stations. This is the second biggest country in Europe. Fast-tracking Ukraine into the EU is not just completely upsetting the apple cart but creating a monster whose master would not be able to exert control ever again. Can we risk all this just so that we spite the bad Russians?
Kiev is the capital of Ukraine. It was also the first capital of the Russian State, which at that time was known as Kiev Russ. This is an internal and localised conflict which needs a localised diplomatic solution. International and European bigwigs should be singularly focused to engage in diplomacy with both sides and get them, by hook or by crook, to sit down together and hammer a mutually beneficial deal.
In the meantime, Malta will remain neutral and non-aligned, thank you very much, just as Mintoff chiselled our country’s position in our constitution for all to comply with.