The West's Illusions About Ukraine

March 11, 2014 Topic: MediaSociety Region: Ukraine

The West's Illusions About Ukraine

Western ignorance is leaving Ukraine's problems—and paths to a solution—overlooked.


It has yet to be reported in major western newspapers that the new government installed in Ukraine on February 26, after the deposition and flight of Viktor Yanukovych, includes eight figures associated with Ukraine’s far right. The positions they have filled are not insignificant. They include deputy prime minister, chief prosecutor, defense minister and head of the national-security council, portfolios where the coercive power of the state resides. Svoboda, the main nationalist party, has made some attempt to shed its fascist lineage, but the World Jewish Congress last year asked the EU to consider banning it, and there is much in its history and outlook that should be deeply troubling to westerners. Dmytro Yarosh, head of the “Right Sector,” is Deputy Secretary of National Security in the interim government; among his comrades are men who joined in fighting the Russians in Chechnya, and who see the Chechens as their allies. Right Sector is a paramilitary organization, like Greece’s Golden Dawn; their entry into a European government is an important milestone, and not of the celebratory sort.

The amazing thing is that the composition of the new government has attracted no attention. None of the major newspapers—I checked the FT, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal—had seen fit to report it (as of Saturday, March 8, two weeks after the announcements). On March 5, Justin Raimondo of published a full investigation; Raimando’s column was itself partially based on a March 5 story by Britain’s Channel 4. But it is still not news in mainstream media land.


Incredibly, the Times’ stories of February 26 and 27, reporting the composition of the government, made no mention of the success of Svoboda and Right Sector in gaining key government portfolios; instead, the gist of the stories was on the order of “previously obscure citizens gain government posts, after having led demonstrations.” It was difficult to see the transition as anything other than a wholesome tribute to civil society, with ordinary people seizing control of their own affairs: here a doctor helping out with field hospitals, now made the minister of health, there a protest organizer, now crowned minister of youth and sports. One guy, whom the Times called the Ryan Seacrest of the civic uprising, gets the culture ministry; another, a female journalist, lands the leadership of an anti-corruption bureau that doesn’t yet exist. David Herszenhorn of the Times did mention, at the end of his piece, that “Andrew Parubiy, a member of Parliament and leader of the protest movement, was chosen as the head of the national security council.” But he did not mention that Parubiy, in Channel 4’s summary, was the founder of the Social National Party of Ukraine, a fascist party styled on Hitler's Nazis, with membership restricted to ethnic Ukrainians. The Social National Party would go on to become Svoboda, the far-right nationalist party whose leader Oleh Tyahnybok was one of the three most high profile leaders of the Euromaidan protests—negotiating directly with the Yanukovych regime.

The Economist has also not seen fit to mention the presence of Svoboda and Right Sector in the government. In its latest briefing it writes, cryptically: “Right wing extremists and nationalists did take part in the revolution, but they do not control the government.” In other words, it’s a non-issue and not worth reporting.

The ideological outlook of Svoboda and other elements of the Ukrainian far-right are explored by Per Anders Rudling, a professor at Lund University in Sweden, who was interviewed by Channel 4. In a 2013 book chapter available on his personal website, “The Return of the Ukrainian Far Right: The Case of VO Svoboda,” he traces the efforts of the preceding Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, to revise historical understanding by rehabilitating “perpetrators of mass ethnic violence against national minorities.” By glorifying Stepan Bandera and other OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) leaders as national heroes, “Yushchenko and his legitimizing historians helped mobilize the neo-fascist hard right. With few exceptions, democratic Ukrainian politicians and intellectuals failed to speak up or quietly went along with a cult of the OUN that celebrated [its leaders] out of context and treated them as the persons they would have liked them to be, rather than the ideologues and political activists they actually were.”

Propaganda and Diplomacy

While the important fact that the Ukrainian far right got vital portfolios in the new government received no notice in the West, it surely caught Moscow’s attention. It probably played a role in the ill-conceived mobilization of the army in Russian precincts bordering Ukraine, as also in its actions in Crimea. Raimando points out that in Victoria Nuland’s celebrated phone call released two weeks before the Revolution (wherein she plugged away at the EU), she had correctly anticipated the choice of the new prime minister—“Yats”—but thought that the U.S. could keep Svoboda out of office (through consulting with the new PM three or four times a week). Now that it’s in the government, in important portfolios, there has been not a peep from Washington regarding Svoboda’s and Right Sector’s role.

Nuland’s interlocutor in that phone call, Geoffrey Pyatt, US ambassador to Ukraine, noted that what to do about Svoboda was likely to prove the biggest headache in putting together a coalition. In public, however, the State Department is now migraine-free. Its chief theme since the new government was formed is that everything the Russians have said about Ukraine is a lie; it even published a top ten list of Russian whoppers, Letterman-style, but neglected to mention that the Russians might have a point about right-wing extremists. State didn’t even bother to answer that charge in its oh-so-witty ten point presentation.

The State Department insisted, in one of its remonstrances to Russia, that it was Yanukovych who deserted the February 21 agreement. “Under the terms of the agreement,” State says, “Yanukovych was to sign the enacting legislation within 24 hours and bring the crisis to a peaceful conclusion. Yanukovych refused to keep his end of the bargain. Instead, he packed up his home and fled, leaving behind evidence of wide-scale corruption.” The State Department account does not accord with that offered by the Economist or the FT, who stress that the demonstrators vetoed the February 21 agreement emphatically and that Yanukovych, facing a threat to his person, fled the capital. The agreement, mediated by German, French and Polish foreign ministers, provided that Yanukovych would stay in office till December, when elections were scheduled. The Americans say that his flight from the capital shows that he broke his end of “the bargain.” Really? He didn’t want to stay as president?

This is just one instance of how the State Department has gone into the propaganda business. When did that happen? About the time it got out of the diplomacy business, one should judge. The former, not the latter, is today its characteristic modus operandi. John Kerry’s conduct in the crisis is living proof of that proposition. It’s a shame, for it was not always so. Contrast it with the advice that Henry Kissinger has offered in the Ukraine crisis, and you will discover the difference between an ideologue and a statesman. Kissinger takes it for granted that a peaceful resolution must respect the vital interests of all parties; Kerry is basically blind to the need to find a diplomatic solution. He seems a prisoner of his rhetoric. He has taken to the sacred principle of territorial integrity as avidly as Lyndon Johnson, retailing it as the only thing you need to know about the crisis.

Our Swedish expert, professor Risland, was astonished by the arrival into power of parties that he thought (and hoped) would be relegated to the fringe. He didn’t think it was possible before the revolution. He condemns Russian actions, but says the arrival in power of extreme right-wing groups should not be swept under the rug.

The regional and ideological imbalance in the new government must be seen against the background of Ukraine’s electoral patterns in the twenty-three years since independence. As Anatol Lieven summarizes the record, the “one absolutely undeniable fact about Ukraine, which screams from every election and every opinion poll since its independence . . . is that the country’s population is deeply divided between pro-Russian and pro-western sentiments. Every election victory for one side or another has been by a narrow margin, and has subsequently been reversed by an electoral victory for an opposing coalition.” Given this history, how can a government that owes its life to one region be christened as representative of the whole?

It is notable that local militias were taking over government buildings in western Ukraine before the old government fell; what is happening in Crimea in large part previously happened in western Ukraine. The State Department cannot suppress its rage about the former, while it blithely ignored the latter.

In a torn country, any resolution that looks toward total domination is a formula for war. The State Department says that the government is inclusive, but all the new coalition has to show from the East is the acquiescence of two great oligarchs who had previously stood as symbolic of the previous regime’s corruption.