7 min read — Opinion | Italy | Ukraine
Neutralism Through Indifference: A Blade Lodged in Europe’s Soft Belly
By Stefano Siclari
January 2, 2023 | 17:55
It’s February 20, 2014. As protests in Ukraine spiral into violent clashes against Yanukovich’s Berkut, the man in the Kremlin greenlights the invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea. While the conflict accelerates into a war, the world leaders try their best to look away.
Wars far away from the public eye
When the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine began, most ordinary Europeans and better part of the world simply chose to shrug off the news. A distant war, fought by brother against brother in a poor, corrupt, and unwelcoming country, many thought. Or, at least, this is what we wanted to believe as Vladimir Putin’s government annexed Crimea with his “little green men” under the orders of former FSB colonel Igor Girkin (nicknamed “Strelkov”). Unconvinced? Look at Georgia. We had gladly believed the same during the much shorter and relatively more obscure 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia which had ended with the annexation of Georgia’s regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – constituting a fifth of the country’s original territory – into the Russian Federation. And just the following year we would see an end to the Second Chechen War (1999-2009).
Three very different conflicts under any criteria: motives, location, duration, participants, number of casualties, results. Something, however, never changes: the world quickly glanced at these “small and far away” conflicts, and soon moved on after a few words of condemnations and, at best, a disproportionately light sanctions package to go with it (as was the case with the Crimean annexation). Indeed, some diplomats might have issued a protest, and highbrows were surely raised, but then they too quickly forgot. So quickly, in fact, that some politicians went as far as accepting such illegal annexations and declaring them “legitimate”. Others, like former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi even visiting occupied Crimea under the pretext of a visit to the monument commemorating the victims of the 1853 Crimean War, only to promise an end to those aforementioned “sanctions”.
After all, when most voters barely care to learn where Georgia or Ukraine are on the map, why would politicians behave any differently?
The rise of European neutralism (the Italian case-study)
In Italy, my country of origin, news of the incoming 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine was met with scepticism and mistrust. So much in fact that some prominent Italian newspaper openly called the incoming invasion “American fake news”. And once war truly arrived, everyone expected it to be short. Bloody, perhaps, but short and easy to ignore nonetheless. “Better to look the other way and keep doing business like usual”, many argued. And to most people, that sounded like the better, more pragmatic choice. Italians quickly decided they did not want to send their own men to Ukraine, and neither did most want to suffer financially for a war they cared little about. Worse still, they said they did not want to send their own men to die for the United States. Nobody expected Ukraine to last longer than a few days anyways, so why bother? But days soon turned into weeks and then into months. Before we knew it, it was Christmas for the second time in this expectedly three-days long war. Still, as the war raged, the same thoughts lingered in the minds of the population. Indeed, as shown in an Ipsos survey published in January 2023, the vast majority of Italians see the conflict as far away (excluding young people).
Everything can be forgotten, everything can be given up, everything can be sacrificed as long as the problems stay away from us – or so they say.
A House divided against itself
Politics is a confusing matter, and simple things often become complex for apparently no reason. So complex, in fact, that they prove the old horseshoe theory true: the far right and far left reach around and meet in the middle, and their militants join the Russian Vostok Battalion together. In Italy, extremist politicians such as Marco Rizzo from the former Communist Party and Simone Di Stefano (former leader of the neofascist party CasaPound), set aside their differences and joined their efforts in Gianni Alemanno’s far right party Indipendenza!, based solely on their unwavering support for Russia’s war on Ukraine..
Anything to the left or to the right of the centre parties Azione and Italia Viva also failed to properly respond to the invasion. The Democratic Party is as divided as ever, busy as it is in its attempt at securing whatever votes it can; the populist party Five Stars Movement can boast about having been the first party to call for more weapons to Ukraine, but also the first to have called for the cessation of weapons deliveries to Ukraine and for a ceasefire. The right-wing party League, with the uncomfortable shadow of Russian connections looming over its shoulders, similarly opted for a ceasefire. The aforementioned Marco Rizzo even went as far as to say on live TV that he wishes for Ukraine to quickly lose its freedom so that he can have “cheap gas from Russia”.
As reflected by their politicians, the people are tired of war. They are tired today as they were tired back when it started, and long before. Italy would bend over backwards for a chance to surrender, without even being involved in the war. Indeed, war fatigue struck not so much the countries at war as those who have been spectating through their TVs.
Ignorance breeds indifference… and more ignorance
When asked about their stance, Italians give plenty of reasons as to why one should choose neutrality. Most of them, however, seem to be born out of a combination of ignorance and blind faith in Russian misinformation and propaganda. Many will recite the same old stories of “the children of Donbas” and “the nine years of Zelensky’s war in Donbas” – ignoring that not a single piece of news exists about any Ukrainian bomb against the people of Donbas prior to the Russian invasion of February 2014, and of course paying no attention to the fact that Zelensky was not in charge when the war started, having been elected only five years into the war. They tell the tale of the Russian language having been banned in Ukraine in 2014 (even though Zelensky himself only spoke Ukrainian until the very recent years) and quote by heart the “14,000 civilian deaths” of the 2014-2022 war, ignoring of course that the numbers tell a very different story.
“Ukraine is a nazi state” some will say pointing their finger at a country led by a Jewish man and with a Muslim as at the helm of the Ministry of Defence, while ignoring the abysmal results achieved by the far right in Ukraine and turning a blind eye to Russian neonazi formations such as the Wagner Private Military Company (which, as a side note, is illegal under Russian law), the Rusich group led by Aleksey Milchakov and Yan Petrovsky, or the Sparta Battalion led by Artyom Zhoga.
“Ukraine is the most corrupt country in the world” others will say, regardless of how statistics always show Russia in a worse light than Ukraine.
Some will shout about the Minsk accords which Zelensky supposedly violated, regardless of the fact that he was still just an actor when Russia violated the Minsk I Protocols in September 2014 and the Minsk II Protocols in February 2015, a mere three days after signing them. No mention is ever made, however, of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum or the 1997 Russian–Ukrainian Friendship Treaty. Similarly, people will mention the Kremlin’s fear of NATO expansion and a supposed violation of a secret promise someone made to Gorbachev in regards to NATO expansion to the east. A promise so secret, in fact, that both Gorbachev and Putin have long denied its existence.
But why neutrality?
Most Italian politicians, just like their voters, aren’t really fond of commitment. In fact, they shy away from it as much as possible. Neutrality, however, sounds like the perfect solution as it pushes back the problem to another time a few years into the future – and usually makes it some other government’s responsibility. Even though we all expected Ukraine to lose spectacularly within the first few days, the war continued. On several occasions, it even seemed like Russia was about to collapse. Then, the roles reversed once again.
Such fluctuations are terribly scary to politicians so afraid of commitment. “What if we bet on Ukraine, and Ukraine loses? Or what if we bet on Russia, and Ukraine wins?”. Neutrality, on the other hand, solves the problem. According to article 11 of the Italian Constitution, Italy “rejects war as an instrument of aggression against the freedom of other peoples and as a means for the settlement of international disputes”. Such a statement, which originally meant Italy refuses to start new offensive wars (which is exactly what Russia did on February 20, 2014), can easily be misrepresented to mean Italy rejects all forms of war, including participating in defensive wars and providing foreign countries with military aid. Thus, neutrality and neutralism become the perfect, impenetrable shield behind which politicians can comfortably hide as they wait for the war to fade away – regardless of how it ends, regardless of how many innocent civilians are sacrificed at the altar of Russian imperialism.
Ultimately, their supporters will cheer on a job well done and then vote for whoever promises to keep the incoming refugees out of the Country’s borders.
Like a rotten corpse poisoning the stream – an infected Europe
Of course, Italy is not the only Western country suffering from “sympathetic war fatigue” and afflicted by cunning politicians waiting for the right opportunity to appeal to the masses’ heart and curtail military aid to Ukraine. The same behaviour is slowly but surely seeping through the border, poisoning countries such as Austria, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, and of course Germany.
Everyone far away from Russia is ready and willing to look the other way as imperialism swallows a country whole. To be precise, everyone is ready and willing as long as there are free countries to act as a buffer zone between themselves and Russia. Meanwhile, the true neutral countries of the old days, such as Sweden or Finland, are looking at NATO while Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are quietly loading their guns.
Only time will tell Europe’s final verdict on Ukraine’s fate. Meanwhile, Europe must choose: are we Neville Chamberlain or Winston Churchill?