President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the participants of the Frankfurt Book Fair on Oct. 20. A very smart move.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is the most important gathering of publishers in the world. Each year, book industry gatekeepers gather and determine which stories and ideas will be promoted over the course of the next 12 months.

Zelensky knows his audience well. He knows that help from the West is indispensable if Ukraine is to continue fighting against Russia. He also knows that among the Western democracies, the large European states – mainly Germany, France and Italy – are the potential weak links in the alliance; especially as winter approaches with soaring energy costs and populations beginning to resent the sacrifices they are being asked to make.

In order to shore up support, Zelensky asked his audience of European intellectuals to remain united in the fight for freedom. But he also took the opportunity to warn Europe.

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“Let’s be frank,” Zelensky said, “in Europe there are still plenty of public figures who are calling for an ‘understanding’ with Russia and try to ignore terrorist politics… Why is this possible? What makes this happen? The only answer is: lack of knowledge.”

From there he rattles off a list of things about which Europeans might be ignorant. Of course, Zelensky is being diplomatic. He’s actually subtly warning the Europeans not to turn a blind eye to Russia’s crimes. But he couches it in the request for the literary gatekeepers to “do everything they can to let people know about those crimes.”

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The $61-billion military aid package from the United States, if passed as expected, will allow the Armed Forces of Ukraine to bomb troops and operations behind enemy lines.

At this point, there is almost no-one who explicitly supports Putin among Europe’s intelligentsia. What you hear is more a tepid critique of Russia, along the lines of “I condemn Putin’s war, but…” The “but” is usually followed by, at best, worries about escalation and calls for a diplomatic process that can lead to a ceasefire; or, at worst, a mea culpa regarding NATO expansion.

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Earlier in October a handful of prominent Italian intellectuals signed a declaration in support of “a credible negotiation to stop the war.” It contained six points: 1) Ukraine’s neutrality. Entry into the EU, yes, but no NATO membership. 2) Acceptance of the status quo in Crimea – i.e., let Russia have it. 3) Autonomy for the Russian-speaking areas of Donetsk and Luhansk within Ukraine as per the Minsk Accords signed in 2015. 4) (This one is so absurdly implausible that it deserves to be quoted verbatim and in its entirety) “Definition of the administrative status of the other disputed territories of the Donbas to manage the Russian-Ukrainian melting pot that has arisen in the history of those regions and possibly with the creation of an equal Russian-Ukrainian body to manage the mineral wealth of those areas in their mutual interest.” 5) Symmetrical de-escalation of sanctions on Russia and Russia’s military escalation. And 6) an international plan for rebuilding Ukraine.

Ukrainians, unsurprisingly, were gob-smacked by the proposal. Points 1, 2, 3, and 5 – apart from being non-starters at a moment when Ukraine is finally beginning to push back the invaders – would handsomely reward Russia for its aggression. Points 3 and 4 also reflect a profound ignorance of the linguistic situation in eastern Ukraine and echo Russian propaganda. To add to the insult, point 6 spinelessly avoids mentioning Russia perhaps having to pay for the damage it has done.

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In all fairness this “peace plan” was roundly criticized in many circles. But not enough.

The problem is that Russian propaganda has so thoroughly permeated European discourse on Ukraine that specious talking points are often combined with deft intellectual gymnastics to justify either the inherent admiration of Europeans for Russia and its culture, or their apprehension, or, in some cases, their craven bad faith.

So if Europeans (and the rest of the world) are to “know” what is really going on, as Zelensky implores, then it is important to recognize how those pro-Russian talking points manifest in intellectual discourse.

I’ll avoid dealing with the “pro-Nazi” slanders, since the Europeans are sharp enough to recognize the patent absurdity of a government led by a democratically elected Jewish man being labeled as such. Even the Russians have abandoned their search for Nazis (now they’re looking for Satan).

The most insidious talking point is the language issue. You can recognize it by the trigger word “Russophone,” or “Russian speaker,” particularly in a context that claims these poor souls are being discriminated against in Ukraine. Many well-meaning Europeans suggest Ukraine become something of a Switzerland in its linguistic approach, and they make all sorts of inappropriate analogies.

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The fact is that language is not a real issue. Russian has been the language of eastern and southern Ukraine for centuries. This is because the Ukrainian language was repeatedly banned and is still on the verge of extinction there. Successive Kyiv governments have been gradually trying to resuscitate it. The soldiers pushing back the Russians are predominately Russian speakers. The fight is not about language. Nor is it about ethnicity. There are plenty of ethnic Russians, many still carrying Russian passports, who are committed as volunteers and even combatants in Ukraine to ensure Putin’s defeat.

The real issue is about the choice of a political system. The Ukrainians refuse to be drawn into Moscow’s authoritarian mafia state and want to move toward a more democratic and liberal system, such as one finds throughout the rest of Europe. It’s really that clear-cut. To deny or dilute this reality is to be in bad faith, and Europe needs to know it.

A similar trigger word is ““civil war.” Make no mistake, this war would never have begun in 2014 had Russia not set foot into Ukrainian territory with its military.

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In a similar vein, describing the Revolution of Dignity on the Maidan as a “U.S.-backed coup d’état” is tantamount to the conspiratorial raving of someone who blames Georges Soros for all the world’s ills. Did the U.S. government and people support the will of Ukrainians to break away from Putinism? Yes. Did they express their support through various NGOs? Yes. But that support is absolutely dwarfed by the extent of Russia’s overt and covert manipulation of Ukrainian politics over many years.

Another term to watch out for is “proxy war.” Political analysts like to throw that word around because it makes the situation seem like a chess match that requires the skills of those very analysts to navigate. But one must first define what is meant by “proxy war.” All too often the term is brandished in a way to make it seem like Ukraine is a helpless puppet with no agency, manipulated by big bad America against Russia trying to regain its place on the world stage. From Ukraine’s perspective, nothing could be more in bad faith, since this view requires one to disregard their agency.

It is the Ukrainians who are fighting for the right to determine their own political system. They are the ones spilling blood and seeing their homes destroyed and families traumatized.

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As the war progresses, it becomes clear to anyone who may have been previously ignorant as to exactly why none of Moscow’s neighbors want to be part of their political system or sphere of influence. Because that system is based on violent oppression – the oppression of ideals, such as freedom and rule of law, that are the foundation of Western political systems. In Ukraine’s case specifically, Putinism is based on the oppression and destruction of the Ukrainian national identity – in other words, genocide, pure and simple.

This genocide is happening right now on all the Ukrainian territory still controlled by Moscow.

So Zelensky is right. Europeans need to know: that what they are watching next door is what nearly destroyed them less than a century ago. They need to know that any call for a ceasefire at this moment is to be unwittingly complicit in locking in this genocide in progress.

Any attempt to use intellectual acrobatics to mitigate such complicity should not be tolerated.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.  

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