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In Europe, Plenty Of Outrage -- Just Not About Russia’s Actions In Ukraine

Daisy Sindelar

Bernard Grua, a financial auditor and amateur photographer from the Brittany region of northwest France, was never interested in activism. 

But that changed this year, when he watched with dismay as his government moved forward with plans to deliver two Mistral warships to Russia despite the Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine. 

Since then, Grua, 52, has helped organize global demonstrations against the Mistral sale -- including a fresh round of protests on September 7 that will proceed as planned despite a move by French President Francois Hollande to postpone a final decision on whether to deliver the ships.

"When you look at Putin’s politics, you understand that this man is really showing aggressive behavior, and we were going to deliver the best tool to support his new aggressions, " says Grua, a former naval officer with expert knowledge of the Mistrals, massive helicopter carriers built specifically for amphibious land invasions.   

"It’s a big issue not only for Ukraine but also for Georgia, Moldova, Romania, and the Baltic countries, " he says.

If Russia continues to build its naval capabilities, he adds, "it could also be very, very serious for Western European countries." 

In a summer of heated European protests, however, the conflict in eastern Ukraine -- where Russian troops have joined separatist rebels in fighting Ukrainian troops -- has attracted barely a flicker of public attention.
Thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators spilled onto the streets of England, France, and Germany to protest Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza, with a record 45, 000 people gathering for a single protest in London on August 26. More than 6, 000 demonstrators turned out in Berlin on August 30 to call for greater protection from federal surveillance. 

Grua’s anti-Mistral protests, by contrast, have drawn several dozen people at most. Individual protests against Russian actions in Ukraine have drawn even fewer. A demonstration held in Newport, Wales, to coincide with the September 4-5 NATO summit was sparsely attended, despite the summit’s focus on Ukraine.

Fear, Resentment 

Alina Polyakova, a sociologist and researcher with the University of Bern, says she’s been dismayed by the relative silence on Ukraine, a conflict that has coincided with a rise in European far-right politics as well as a resonant series of anniversaries tied to both World War I and World War II.

"It’s been to me very disappointing to see the lack of protests and the lack of outrage over Russian intervention in Ukraine, " says Polyakova,  who documents growing ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the European far right in the latest issue of "World Affairs" journal. "I think it comes from a fear -- given Europe’s history and the new wars of the 20th century -- of getting engaged in a long, drawn-out military conflict with a military power like Russia. We don’t see that kind of fear when it comes to the Israeli-Gaza conflict."

Other observers suggest that both the pro-Palestinian protests and the relative dearth of concern over Ukraine reflect a larger trend -- growing European disaffection with the United States. 

​​​​Dimitri Halby, a Normandy-born computer engineer helping to coordinate the Mistral protests, says he grew up listening to neighbors still embittered by the Allied bombing of his city in the waning days of World War II, when many Nazi occupiers had already withdrawn. Even now, he says, many French instinctually blame Washington for everything -- including the current conflict in Ukraine. 

"What’s happening in Ukraine, they don’t see it as something really Ukrainian, for some reason. Maybe because of Russian propaganda, " says Halby, 39, who now lives in Ireland with his Ukrainian-born wife. "But the thing is, they more or less see it as a big fight between the U.S. and Russia. So they forget that Ukrainian people and Ukraine are in the middle, and they forget that the country is fighting for itself and its survival. And when you talk about what’s happening, very often some French people will say the real aggressor in all the mess that’s going on in the world is the U.S."

Trump Card

Fear and memories aside, analysts admit it is Russia’s formidable hold over the European economy that keeps most objections at bay. Despite the strong anti-Russian rhetoric coming out of the Wales summit, most NATO leaders are ultimately driven by pragmatic concerns heightened by a sluggish economic recovery and Europe’s dependence on Russia for one-third of its gas supplies. 

​​Even the suggestion of Russian involvement in the July 17 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over rebel-held Ukraine may not be enough to raise a groundswell of opposition to the Kremlin. Former Dutch diplomat Barend ter Haar, whose country lost 193 of the 298 people killed in the crash, says "short-term" economic interests may continue to dominate decision-making in the Netherlands -- even if it has cooled many Dutch to Putin personally. 

"The disaster of the airplane has awakened many Dutch citizens to the fact that we cannot just take peace and stability for granted, " says ter Haar, who recently argued  that an emphasis on "economic diplomacy" had weakened the Netherlands’ influence over Russia.  

"Before the accident took place, there was some support for [Putin] because he is the type of the strong man, I would say, that some at least admire, " he added, in a reference to far-right groups like the Party for Freedom, founded by anti-immigration lawmaker Geert Wilders. "But now after the plane accident -- and also because it’s unclear, to say the least, to what extent he is responsible for what the [separatist] groups are doing -- nobody in the Netherlands would dare to defend him under the current political circumstances."  

​​In France, official criticism of Russia has been almost completely muted -- a silence many attribute to economic deals by powerful officials like far-right politician Philippe de Villiers,  who recently met with Putin to finalize plans for "historical" theme parks in Crimea and Moscow -- and whose brother, Pierre, is chief of staff of the French Army. (Philippe’s son, Guillaume, has sold and rented out luxury property on the French Riviera to more than two dozen Kremlin insiders.) 

Even Hollande’s headline-making decision to delay the Mistral deliveries until a cease-fire and a political settlement are in place in Ukraine appear little more than a stalling tactic. 

Grua and other protesters believe that the first of the vessels, the "Vladivostok, " may attempt to circumvent the delay and sail quietly to Russia this week during open-sea training exercises for the more than 400 Russian sailors currently based in the port of Saint-Nazaire.  

Protesters this weekend will call for the September 10 exercises to be canceled, for the $1.7 billion sale to be nullified, and for the Mistrals to be sold to a NATO member instead. Grua, who says his Saint-Nazaire protest will bring him face-to-face with the visiting Russian sailors, says he’ll be satisfied if even a small, international crowd of protesters stands with him. 

"Size is not the problem, " says Grua. "You can make a demonstration with 500 people in Paris; nobody will care. But to have European, Ukrainian, Georgian, Polish, French flags in front of Russian military people, well, you don’t need 1, 000 people. You just need a couple of people to say ’Yes, we are here.’"
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