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.

Mobocracy on the Maidan

Even if we put to one side the reservations about the composition of the new Ukrainian government, there was much to condemn in manner of its birth. It’s okay to have one revolution, but two in ten years is not an auspicious development. Victoria Nuland recently let slip that the United States had invested $5 billion in building democratic institutions in Ukraine over the past two decades; one would suppose that part of our civics instruction included the lesson that in modern democracies, governments are changed via elections, not through street demonstrations. But perhaps not. She ought to be pressed to give an accounting of how those funds were spent and what lessons were inculcated to our eager pupils with respect to proper democratic procedures. Jefferson taught “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism.” Of course, the State Department fully adheres to that doctrine—except when it doesn’t, as in the instant case.

To be legitimate, democracy must be constitutional. The timid as well as the brave get to have a say, the old as well as the young. The system is not perfect, just better than all the alternatives. The transfer of power through free and fair elections is its most sacred ritual. The revolution in Ukraine did not observe this ritual. It did not even pretend to. That is a mark against it, not a mark in its favor.

The coup de grace for Yanukovych was the sniper fire on Maidan square that killed over eighty people on February 21. In its aftermath, Maidan demanded the government’s immediate abdication, Yanukovych’s supporters deserted him, and he fled the capital. Since the reaction of the entire world to the sniper fire (and indeed, it seems, of his own cadre) was that this constituted proof that Yanukovych was unfit to govern, there is some room for doubt whether he ordered it. Most rulers are not suicidal. But even if we accept that Yanukovych was more out of touch than Ceausescu, and a bigger thief than Mobutu, there are still some unanswered questions about how he went down.

The government that succeeded him ought to have been accorded no more than a provisional legitimacy, and it ought now to be under international inspection. But far from claiming the latter right, the western powers seem determined to avert their eyes and to glory in the Revolution.

It was the people—er, the demonstrators, a fraction of Ukraine’s electorate—who put paid to the February 21 agreement; and it was the people—er, those of them in the square—to which the new ministry presented its choices. This occurred before the names for the new government were submitted to the Ukrainian parliament, just to show who was first among the legitimators of the new regime. The paramilitary groups that have now entered the interim government supplied the muscle in clashes with the police. The interim government remains under scrutiny by the demonstrators, who arrogate to themselves the role of “the surveillance of the people.” No one in the West thinks it anomalous that the mob claims a veto.

In democracies, people have a right to demonstrate, but a fraction of the people does not have the right to bring down a government. The western leaders who sanctioned such a principle in Ukraine would never allow it in their own jurisdictions.

Russia Blunders

These big missteps on the U.S. side (now being weirdly celebrated as a great success for democracy) are matched by some pretty poor calculations on Russia’s part. “Worse than a crime” is the only reasonable judgment on the mobilization of its forces and its use of Russian soldiers and equipment to secure the Crimea (a fact which it denies but which has been well established by numerous sources). These actions diverted attention from the manner in which the new government was formed in Kiev and put the focus squarely on Russia’s illegal actions in Crimea. By playing cards that everybody already knew he had, Putin seemed to act as if it were incumbent on him to put Russia in a bad position.

The move into Crimea and talk of its secession is frightening for one basic reason. By itself, the addition of the Crimea is really a poor compensation for Russia’s loss of Ukraine, but the secession of the Crimea would make the loss of the whole more likely and more durable. Given the razor sharp divisions at the national level, the loss of Crimea’s voters could easily tip the balance against a pro-Russian slate in national elections. If the secession goes forward, it signals that Russia would have essentially given up the quest to exercise influence in Ukraine through electoral means. The secession of Crimea points toward the secession of the rest of eastern Ukraine. It doesn’t add up by itself. A first step in this direction leads on to a second and a third.

The Russians are reputed to be masters at chess, but their initial responses to the revolution in Kiev were inept. They were in a position where they could play for time, considering certain basic factors:

● The package likely to be offered by the EU and IMF will include painful austerity measures.

● The boost given to Ukrainian nationalism could also strain relations with the EU; many of Ukraine’s nationalists do not like Brussels any better than other far-right European parties.

● The expected loss of gas subsidies as a condition of EU (and IMF) restructuring would also be unpopular. Yats himself described his interim administration as a kamikaze government, destined to blow up on arrival.

● With estimates of a needed package at around $25 billion, the $1 billion in loan guarantees the United States put on the table was risibly below expectations.

● The Germans did not appear especially keen to step up to the plate; on the contrary, German leaders were reportedly angry that the leaders of Maidan had held out hope of ultimate EU membership. Chancellor Angela Merkel was not likely to be willing to do for Ukraine what she had proved unwilling to do for Greece.

The voices coming from Ukraine, indeed, indicate a whole slew of very optimistic expectations of what they are likely to get from the West in the form of tangible aid, both economic and military. Nicely fitting the bill for disappointed expectations and bitter recriminations, in short, was the disjunction between the popular expectations generated by Ukraine’s revolution and the West’s reluctance to take on grave new financial burdens. The Russians might have waited until these disappointed expectations induced rancor in the opposing coalition; instead, they managed to convert the crisis into one centered on their own misbehavior.

It is true that whatever the Russians did in response to the extraconstitutional removal of Yanukovych would likely have found harsh critics in the West, but they did not have to hand their enemies a propaganda victory. Former NSC staffer Thomas Graham notes that “While we should be humble about our ability to read [Putin’s] mind, the goal behind his recent actions is not likely slicing off a bit of Ukraine in a neoimperialist fit, but rather using control of the Crimea as a bargaining chip to gain a government in Kiev that satisfies his minimal goal, that is, one that does not decide in favor of Europe but keeps open the option of a future closer alignment with Russia.” If that was his objective, his step accomplished the precise opposite of what he intended.

Escalation vs. De-escalation

The potential for escalation of the crisis into a military encounter remains real. That it would be a disaster for all sides is pretty nearly self-evident. There is a huge gulf in perceptions: America does not hear Russia; Russia does not hear America. A civil war between eastern and western Ukraine is not likely to escalate into another military confrontation between Washington and Moscow, but it would recall the dark days of the Cold War and lead to punishing economic costs on both sides. The Russians do have the capability to match the West tit for tat on a whole range of issues. Even if we can escape a civil war in Ukraine, with all the dangerous instabilities it would cause, a prolonged standoff that does not issue in a settlement will provide plenty of opportunity for the sanctioners on either side to exhaust their ingenuity in making life difficult for the enemy.

In theory, the West holds more cards than the Russians do, as its economic weight and resilience is undoubtedly greater; but the disparity of interest that exists between the two sides makes up for this imbalance of power. Because deepening conflict would be a greater disaster for Russia, it might seem to follow that Russia will concede the issue rather than face these consequences. But it is doubtful the Russians will see it that way. Both the Russians and the Americans need to be reminded of Hans Morgenthau’s dictum to “never put yourself in a position from which you cannot retreat without losing face.” At least, they ought to have been reminded two weeks ago. Now it may be too late.

But perhaps not. There is a road to deescalation. It does not consist in showing Putin “who’s boss,” as the US Russophobes (a majority of the commentariat and political class) wish to do, but rather in acknowledging certain basic principles. The framework for a settlement has been set forth by Henry Kissinger, writing in The Washington Post, and Thomas E. Graham, in The National Interest. Kissinger’s contribution was especially welcome; he has retreated from the hawkish stance he adopted after 9/11. He has come, it seems, to a greater appreciation of the limits of military force: “In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.”

Kissinger rebukes all the main external players: Russia must understand that it cannot coerce Ukraine into satellite status; the West must acknowledge that Ukraine is a country in which Russia takes a deep and abiding interest; the EU should understand that “its bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning a negotiation into a crisis.” He wisely counsels against steps that look like domination:

Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other — as has been the pattern — would lead eventually to civil war or breakup. To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West — especially Russia and Europe — into a cooperative international system.

Like Anatol Lieven and Thomas Graham, Kissinger stresses the close electoral competition since independence and doubts that street demonstrations in one part of the country can adequately represent the whole. The drawn-out contest between Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko, he notes, was a struggle in which each side sought the domination of the other. Outside powers, he in effect observes, should seek to mitigate or contain that destructive competition, not feed it. That is not what they’ve been doing.

Thomas Graham’s more detailed proposal is simpatico with Kissinger’s guidelines. Graham served as Bush’s senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007. On the basis of his essay, it is difficult to believe that he supported the Bush administration’s quest to bring Ukraine into NATO, a deeply destabilizing proposal that at the time was turned aside by opposition from Germany and Britain. He argues, rightly, that Ukraine has a serious democratic deficit, and that the interim government “consists of members of the same corrupt elite that has dominated Ukraine for at least the past decade and brought the country to the brink of ruin.” He notes the irony that “we are backing the actions of a Rada that was elected in 2012 in a process the OSCE judged less free and fair than the one that elected Yanukovych in 2010.”

Graham’s proposal for a resolution of the current impasse is moderate in tenor. As Russia refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the new government and continues to hold out for a return to the February 21 agreement, Graham wants Russia to agree that part of the February 21 agreement (allowing Yanukovych to remain in power until December) is no longer viable and that Russia should get Yanukovych to formally resign. In return, the West should agree to a broadening of the interim government to include a bigger part of Ukraine’s political spectrum. The president’s formal resignation would set in motion a constitutional process for new presidential and parliamentary elections, resulting in a new government that would be tasked with writing a new constitution. He insists, critically, on OSCE supervision of the electoral process (another point on which the US has been mum, though the fairness of hastily scheduled elections should clearly be of outside concern). During this process, Graham wants outside powers to reaffirm the Budapest Memorandum consecrating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and he thinks there should be a moratorium on negotiations for an EU Association Agreement or a Russian-led Customs Union.

Against the Tide

Graham’s motive for suspending negotiations with external bodies is laudable; he wants to secure each side “its minimal goal of keeping Ukraine out of the other side’s economic structures and regulatory space.” But while such suspension is advisable at the formal level, pending new elections, the nature of the offer the EU and Russia wish to make to the Ukrainian people should form a vital part of the election campaign. Ukraine is now an economic basket case, in immediate need of bridge loans to survive the coming year. The EU needs to spell out clearly what it is prepared to give, what conditions it will impose, what future beckons for Ukraine. The EU needs to be transparent rather than opaque; there has been almost no detailed reporting on what, concretely, the “restructuring” of the Ukrainian economy would entail if the Ukrainians were to “join” Europe. (It is extremely doubtful, of course, that full membership in the EU is really on offer). Both sides—the West and Russia—would have an opportunity to show that their vision for Ukraine did not preclude association with the other side. Lieven notes that over the past year “Neither Russia nor the EU made any serious effort to talk to each other about whether a compromise might be reached that would allow Ukraine somehow to combine the two agreements [with the EU and the Eurasian Union], to avoid having to choose sides.” Both sides—Russia and the West—would have an opportunity to do so in the elections. On current form, the needed dialogue will just be a shouting match or worse, but there is an opportunity here.

Nearly all leaders and commentators, realists included, reject the idea of partition. They do so on the assumption that partition would be equivalent to civil war. When America confronted its own secession crisis, Daniel Webster observed that there were not five men in the country who could agree on the borders that would separate the states, and perhaps that would be the case here as well. The West’s policy, however, should not be that partition is entirely off the table. It would clearly be acceptable were the parties themselves to agree to it, as in the Velvet Divorce dividing the Czech Republic from Slovakia. That said, it seems much better for now to work for a peaceful settlement within the framework of a united country. In Ukraine, partition does not look like a war-avoiding strategy, but it will inexorably become one of the possibilities for a settlement if a civil war begins.

The Ukrainian crisis is tailor made for a concert strategy, such as has existed at various times in international history. In the bad old days, the Powers met and, reaching a consensus among themselves, imposed a settlement on the small fry. Unfortunately, there is no concert in today’s international society, and there are powerful domestic forces in America that want to keep it that way. A breakdown of the limited cooperation that has existed between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War would be bad for both sides, but not so bad for the military-industrial complex and the national-security state. That is one factor pushing against a reasonable attitude in the United States. But it is not so much sordid material interests as firmly affixed cultural blinders that make a concert strategy so difficult for Americans to accept. Kissinger may note that the “demonization of Putin is not a policy,” but that’s the way they roll in Washington, D.C. and in all the major media establishments.

David C. Hendrickson is Professor of Political Science at Colorado College. He is the author of Union, Nation, or Empire: The American Debate over International Relations (Kansas, 2009). He blogs at IR and All That. His essay “The West and the Decline of Oil” appeared in the premier issue of The National Interest in 1985.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.