Originally published on Edge Left.
Before launching into my analysis of events in Ukraine, there are a few points which should be made for an American audience.
Commentators are engaged in a campaign to discredit Vladimir Putin, dismissing him as nothing more than the former head of the KGB. I hold no brief for Putin, whom I consider the head of a state dominated by oligarchs. But it is worth remembering Putin is the head of a state with which the US needs to deal. Poisoning the water with personal attacks does not move us toward a dialogue on Ukraine or on other matters where the US needs to work with Russia.
It is also worth remembering that Gorbachev, widely praised in the West (and in my view a major “good guy”) was actually the KGB candidate when he took office. It is in US interests to have a working relationship with Russia on matters such as Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan. And, beyond that, on issues of true nuclear and conventional disarmament.
How legitimate is the new Ukrainian government?
There is general agreement that the ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, was corrupt. The problem is he was elected by a clear margin. Dramatic as events on the Maidan were, it remains unclear what forces were involved, who “won,” and what they represent. I’ve read several eyewitness accounts of the dramatic actions in February – the problem is no two agree. The US insists the new government represents the people of Ukraine – but who makes that decision? (Younger readers need to remember that while Britain recognized the new Soviet government, which came to power in 1917, in 1924, the US did not recognize it until 1933. In the case of China, where the present Chinese government took power in 1949, the US did not recognize it until Richard Nixon’s term. The US is very selective as to when it recognizes new governments that come to power via a revolution).
How nonviolent were the events at the Maidan?
I was more than a little surprised to find that the Facebook page of the Nonviolent Action Research Network (widely read by American pacifists) termed the events in Kiev “nonviolent.” That is nonsense. One can support or oppose the shifts that occurred in Kiev, but one cannot call them nonviolent. Not only were a number of protestors killed, but so were a number of Ukrainian police. If people check the storming of the Winter Palace in Czarist Russia in October of 1917, when the Bolsheviks took power and the Russian Revolution became a reality, there were only a handful of people killed – far fewer than died in Kiev. I support the right of people to resist oppression by the methods they choose, but as a pacifist I will urge that resistance be nonviolent. For better or worse, Kiev was not nonviolent.
What happened at the Maidan?
The events in Kiev were turbulent. There have been reports – again, from eyewitnesses – that far right wing elements dominated the protesters, while other equally fervent eyewitnesses insist far right wing elements were marginal. Steve Erlanger, in a “memo from Kiev” in the New York Times of Sunday, March 2, noted that the new government has few representatives of “what was the country’s largest and most popular party, the Party of Regions, led by the ousted President, Viktor f. Yanukovych. Instead, the government is currently dominated by those associated with a former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, who is widely blamed for the failure of the 2004 Orange Revolution to change Ukraine’s corrupt political system.” Erlanger’s analysis suggests that Russian fears of the new government are valid – and, more important, that the fears of many Ukrainians, particularly in the Eastern Ukraine, are valid.
Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that an early “mistake” by the new government was the overturning of the 2012 law that allowed regions of Ukraine to make Russian a second official language, “needlessly offending Russian-dominated regions like the Donbass and Crimea.”
Commentators on events in Ukraine seem to break down into a kind of “left vs. right” pattern. William Blum, whose writing often makes good sense, argued in a recent piece that developments in Ukraine are part of the conscious pattern of the US to dominate the world, which has governed US actions for the last century. Much of what Blum has written has value, but this is nonsense – in 1914 it was Great Britain that ruled the world; WW I had just begun, and the US did not become conscious of its “new destiny” until after World War II.
Other figures – Secretary of State Kerry, President Obama, and Hillary Clinton – are so off base it would be funny if it were not serious. What is one to say of Obama, speaking at a press briefing in the White House, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu sitting beside him, when he spoke of international law, ignoring the fact that Israel has occupied the West Bank in violation of international law, with considerable brutality and violence, for more than 40 years.
And, of course, what can one say about any Russian actions in Crimea (on which I’ll comment in a moment) when they come from the leader of a nation that invaded Iraq, destroying it in the process, and has a bloody record of military interventions, some of which have never made rational sense (as in the case of Vietnam, where an estimated three million Vietnamese were killed).
There has been an almost complete lack of balance in media coverage. CNN has been happy to give extended time to interviews with John McCain, one of those rare veterans who seems to long for war, but little time to calmer voices.
To sum up what happened at Maidan, I’m fed up with some of the left telling me it was an anti-Semitic event, and everyone on the right saying it was entirely a democratic event. Clearly – if one can work through the reports – it was not just a “left vs right” event, but one in which many young Ukrainians, fed up with the corruption of the government, burst into a largely spontaneous and very exciting moment of revolt. However, there is no question that the political right was there, and no question at all that it has been given key posts in the new government.
A Note on Crimea
Crimea is historically Russian. It does not have the independent history of Ukraine. It also has Russia’s only warm water port. It was inevitable, once the events in Kiev took the turn they did, that Russia would move into Crimea, and it is not going to leave. Think back to our own actions – when Fidel Castro took power in Havana in 1960 he posed no threat to the US – only to US control in Central and South America. Yet the US was so disturbed it launched a military attack (the Bay of Pigs), and has spent much of the past half century trying to assassinate Fidel, and imposing severe sanctions. And we are surprised that Russia took steps to protect what had historically been part of Russia?
The Trigger for Russian Actions
Early in February, as events at the Maidan has created a crisis, with the death toll rising, Polish and German diplomats met with both the Ukrainian government and with the rebels, working out a series of compromises which would have left Yanukovych in power but would also have met many of the demands of those in the Maidan. It is probable that Putin would have lived with that, but we will never know, since the rioters continued the uprising, which had by then become a revolution, and Yanukovych was forced to flee.
The Context of the Ukrainian Crisis
Here I want to step back from the immediate crisis of Ukraine, for a look at the history that dictates much of Russian policy – under Putin as it did under Stalin.
Russia has no natural barrier – no river, no mountain range – to guard it on its Western border. It has suffered invasion from the West three times in recent memory – under Napoleon and then twice under the Germans. In the last invasion, under Hitler, between 25 and 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. All the factories, dams, railroads, towns and cities West of a line from Leningrad in the North to Moscow to Stalingrad in the South were destroyed. Americans make much of 9/11 (and I don’t make light of it), but for Russia it was not just a handful of buildings in one city that were destroyed — it was entire cities, leveled — and the wounded to care for, the orphans, the widows.
Americans have never understood what the war meant to Russia and why, after the war, the Soviets sought to build a “protective band” of territory between itself and Germany. This was Eastern Europe, which under the iron boot of Stalin became “people’s democracies” or “presently existing socialism.”
Something Americans (perhaps including our President and the Secretary of State) have forgotten was that Russia wanted to make a deal with the West. It had made peace with Finland, which (again, memories are short and we have forgotten this) fought on the side of the Nazis. The Soviets withdrew from Austria after the West agreed that Austria, like Finland, would be neutral. The Soviets very much wanted a Germany united, disarmed, and neutral. Stalin did not integrate the East Germany into the Eastern European economic plans for some time, hoping he could strike that deal. But the West wanted West Germany as part of NATO, and so the division of Germany lasted until Gorbachev came to power.
I would have urged radical actions by the West in 1956 when the Hungarian Revolution broke out — it was obvious that if the Soviets could not rule Eastern Europe without sending in tanks (as they had already had to do in East Germany in 1953), they posed no real threat of a military strike at the West.
What if we had said to Moscow, “withdraw your tanks from Hungary, and we will dissolve NATO, while you dissolve the Warsaw Pact”?
But of course the West didn’t do that. The US in particular (but I would not exempt the Europeans from a share of the blame) wanted to edge their military bases to the East. When the USSR gave up control of Eastern Europe, the US pressed for pushing NATO farther East, into Poland and up to the borders of Ukraine.
Pause for a moment and assume that revolutionary events in Canada had meant Canada was about to withdraw from NATO and invite in Russian military advisers.
What do you think US response would be? Why are we surprised that Putin has said, very clearly, “no closer – back off”?
In this case, Moscow holds the high cards. Europe is not going to war over Crimea. And it needs Russian gas. Sanctions will cut both ways: Europe is very cautious and, irony of ironies, it is Germany that is behaving with the greatest diplomacy.
If, out of all this, US planners accept the fact that there are real limits to how far East NATO can push, then the crisis will have helped us come to terms with reality. It may even lead us to consider dissolving NATO!
The Importance of Civil Society
All states act in their own interests. States do not have moral values. What we need to count on is the civil society — and Russia has one — which will modify state behavior, just as civil society here can sometimes modify state behavior. We — folks in the American civil society — need to reach out to the folks in Ukrainian and Russian civil society. There have been anti-war actions in Russia at this time; great, let’s try to link with them. We need to worry when, as in Nazi Germany, civil society is silenced. (To a great extent that has happened here, in the US.) Of course, we should hope for a fair referendum in Crimea — but I think the fairest possible referendum will still see Crimea returned to Russia.
Meanwhile, we need to tamp down the talk of military action, of sanctions, and of efforts to humiliate Putin. He isn’t my hero, but most Russians are happy with him. He has restored to Russia some of the pride it lost with the dissolution of the old Soviet Union. Americans, of all people, should understand this, with our endless (and tiresome) insistence we are the great nation in the world.