Tuesday 11 March 2014

The Ukraine Crisis: The Case for Russia

The narrative given by most mainstream Western media outlets in relation to the current crisis gripping the nation of Ukraine runs something as follows: A former Eastern Bloc country and subject nation of the old Russian Empire with yearnings for economic growth and democratic freedoms of the sort practiced by Western European nations experiences a sudden and popular revolutionary ferment and by means of a constitutional coup unseats a ravenously corrupt president backed by Russia which then mobilizes its armed forces to intimidate the military of its smaller neighbour which it ultimately threatens with invasion and occupation.

The subtext behind this appraisal posits the Russian Federation as headed by a former KGB ‘thug’ named Vladimir Putin; a man not so much as imbued with dictatorial tendencies (since that would pre-suppose that he had at least some redeeming democratic tendencies), but one who is comfortably and unabashedly authoritarian in nature; who sits atop a kleptocracy, where the operation of the rule of law is but a figment of the imagination of Russia’s present written constitution.

The threats supposedly posed to Ukraine by an aggressive Russian state is to many Western –and Eastern- European eyes redolent of the tactics utilised by the Soviet Union which was willing to trample under foot any dissenting nation wishing to jettison itself out of the orbit of its larger, more powerful neighbour. It was Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Soviet-era and it is Georgia and Ukraine in the post-Communist era.

The big, bold, bad bear of the east it would seem carries the same mark of the communist beast. It may have changed the colour of its fur but underneath it all it remains the same; something his critics are often quick to remind was confirmed by Putin himself when quoting him in 2005 as having said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century”.

That unflattering condensed portrait may be considered to be a faithful rendition of the orthodox view of Russia today.

But is it the whole truth? The Western eye has for long gazed eastward simultaneously perplexed and horrified by the foreign policy inclinations of the Russian state. In 1939, Winston Churchill characterised it as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.

Yet, whether Churchill’s words were referring solely to the thinking behind the communist regime alone or, on the other hand, to an overarching, historically continuously unpredictable system of thought patterns held by successive Russian leaders, they spoke more from an instinctive standpoint rather than any form of enlightened and empirical examination.

To understand the present crisis in Ukraine just as should be the case in understanding any crisis of this sort, one must place it within its proper context: the historical, geo-political and economic forces which have collided to create the situation.

Thus, it is important to understand at least a distilled history of what makes Russia different from the West even after the fall of communism and the importance to Russia of Ukraine with which it shares a common border as well as a common heritage.

It is also of crucial importance to understand the long-term foreign policy objectives which the United States, at the helm of a military empire named NATO, is pursuing in relation to Russia, and, as far as can be discerned, the role of the United States and the European Union in colluding to precipitate the crisis that has ensued.

The meaning of Ukraine, literally ‘the land on the edge’, while suggestive of a patronising attitude and hegemonic policy is also informative of the Russian psyche of insecurity. Understanding Russian sensitivities about its security and the historical difficulties it has found in protecting itself against external aggression through its vast and open borderlands is of the utmost importance.

This also gives an idea about why the style of Russian governance has tended towards autocracy. Despite a post-communist constitution providing for a clear separation of the powers of state and guarantees of personal freedoms, Russia, while no longer subject to the totalitarianism of the Soviet era, is clearly far from operating along the lines of a liberal democracy.

But the claims by Ukrainian separatists that they are somewhat naturally inclined to practice Western notions of a representative democracy while the Russians are inherently receptive only of governance bearing the trappings of autocracy is a slanted and ethnicized perspective that is wide of the mark.

It is true that the civilization of Kievan Rus bore vestiges of consultative government which in the course of time could have metamorphosed into a fully-fledged democratic tradition, but it was a loose confederation of princely states including that of Novgorod – a state readily identified even by non-Russians with modern Russia- and cannot be claimed solely as the inheritance of modern day Ukrainians as it is also the inheritance of the Russian people.

An appreciation that Kievan Rus, part of which was situated in modern Ukraine, is the cradle of Russian civilization is thus critical in understanding the strong attitude held by Russians towards Ukraine.

The reason why Russia has a leader such as Vladimir Putin can also be explained by an examination of the past.

There have been several key moments in Russia’s history when it could have turned away from autocracy and leant towards notions of the law governed state of the sort which aspects of the governance of Kievan Rus promised.

But the Mongol invasion and crucial events such as the ‘Years of Trouble’ which followed the death of Ivan The Terrible, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and the chaos during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin all played out in such a way that the need for ‘strong’governance came up trumps.

It is the fear of descending into chaos which has prompted acquiescence to ‘strong government’, in Russian parlance expressed as Zhelesyana Ruka (Silnaya Ruka) which roughly translates as ‘rule by the iron fist’.

Such mentality is at the heart of the formation of Russia given that the chronicles state that the feuding eastern Slavic tribes invited Rurik, a Viking king to rule over them so that order and not chaos be allowed to prevail.

It has even been argued that the legacy bequeathed to Russia by Mongol invasion and governance; that of autocratic rulership, is somewhat analogous to the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.

If an increasing number of Russians are privately tired of Putin being at the helm of the affairs of state, most are still thankful for the decisive role that he played in bringing order to the chaotic state of affairs which resulted during the post-Soviet era when Boris Yeltsin occupied the presidency.

It was during Yeltsin’s time in office that assets of the Soviet state were sold off at knockdown prices and acquired by those who became known as the ‘Oligarchs’.These men perpetuated their wealth through fraud, bribery and murder.

They enriched themselves while the vast majority of ordinary Russians, totally bereft of a protective state apparatus, desperately improvised the means of ensuring their survival. In the chaotic transformation from the controlling Soviet state to an unregulated free-for-all, cowboy state of laissez faire economics, many literally starved to death.

It was Vladimir Putin, the anointed successor of Yeltsin, who put a stop to this state of affairs. The rape of Russia’s economy and the plundering of its assets, a great deal of which were secreted outside the country was brought to an end. The economy was stabilised.

Putin then took on the Oligarchs. His message was blunt, “You can keep your ill-gotten wealth, but do not interfere with the political direction of the country.” Those who did not heed this warning like Vladimir Guzinsky and Boris Brerezovsky were forced to flee the country, while others such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky at one time reputed to be the richest man in Russia and the head of the Yukos Energy Corporation was stripped of his wealth and Yukos nationalised.

While the West viewed his actions against Khodorkovsky as having been in contravention of the norms of due legal procedure, many Russians applauded Putin’s actions as those of a patriot who was standing up for Russia’s interests.

With Khodorkovsky at the helm of a body controlling a vast amount of Russia’s natural resources parts of which potentially, perhaps even inevitably would be sold to Western commercial interests, Putin was not going to countenance the control of these resources effectively falling into the hands of foreign interests.

The need to protect Russia from external efforts geared towards its destabilisation and potential domination by the West is based on fears which are not ill-founded.

There is evidence that the thrust of American policy towards Russia is based on a desire on the part of the United States to effect the destabilisation of the Russian Federation as a continuum of objectives conceived at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

A plan formulated by the influential political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski involved a strategy aimed at containing and then destroying the military capability of what remained of the Soviet Union. The idea would be that Russia would be reduced to a peripheral status which would be used to service the energy needs of the West.

There had been an agreement between James Baker, the US secretary of state of the day and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader that in return for allowing East Germany to re-unite with West Germany, NATO would not extend its reach into Eastern Europe. This agreement was of course not adhered to.

Russia has seen NATO and the European Union expand their spheres of influence by co-opting most of the Eastern European states which were members of the Warsaw Pact and is naturally wary of having NATO bases right on its perimeter.

That the conflict between Georgia and Russia was set up by the West to test the resolve of Russia is now beyond any doubt. Mikheil Saakashvili, the irascible Georgian leader prompted an incident which led to a short, sharp and brutal beat down by the Russian military.

The incursion into Georgia and the threatened incursion into Ukraine, while seeming to be aggressive manoeuvres by Russia are arguably defensive measures. The fears that the Bolshevik regime had about Western capitalist encirclement is replicated contemporarily by the actions of the United States which Russia views as aggressively pursuing a similar policy.

America’s deployment of nuclear defensive shields in locations such as Poland, Bulgaria and Turkey which the United States reassures Russia is aimed at defending against Iran’s non-existent nuclear capability, as well as from rogue missiles launched from North Korea, must be taken into account when judging Russia’s actions. Such assurances are clearly disingenuous as the reality of their being deployed against Russia would be apparent to any neutral bystander.

Indeed, putting American sincerity to the test, the Russians offered to share the burden of placing radar technology in Azerbaijan on the Russian border with Iran, but this offer was met by a resounding silence from Washington.

The implications of such a policy are clear: That the United States seeks to create an advantage in the ultimate scenario; namely that in a war with Russia, it will have the capability of mounting a first strike at a nuclear armed rival with the assurance that it will be protected from retaliatory strikes.

It is arguably a dangerous policy which on examination presents the United States in the mould of the aggressor rather than a party on the defensive. The danger here is that as the United States nears a the situation where Russia becomes locked in by the Ballistic Defence Shield programme, the Russians will be tempted to use a pre-emptive strike option if and when it is drawn into a grave crisis with the United States.

Lacking a significant access to sea routes on all points of the compass, the crisis in Ukraine affects Russia’s vital interests to the extent that any threat that it could be severed from the only route that it has to the Mediterranean ocean is one which cannot be countenanced.

Russia believes that it is being targeted because it is the only country other than China which is capable of defying the United States and which in fact has frustrated American goals on a number of occasions.

Russia stood by while the United States and NATO waged an illegal war of aggression against Iraq and looked on wearily as it invaded a country near its borders: Afghanistan.

The Russians were clearly duped by the United States into supporting the United Nations resolution which led to NATO’s war in Libya, ostensibly conducted to protect innocent civilians from being slaughtered but in actuality a pre-designed plan geared to effect the overthrow of Colonel Muamer Gaddafi.

Putin’s sleight of hand in diffusing imminent American military action against the forces of the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria was an excellent demonstration of statecraft which frustrated the objective of giving advantage on the field of battle to the so-called Free Syrian Army action and other avowed Islamist insurgents and not the publically stated aim of protecting innocent civilians or of punishing the regime for unleashing chemical weapons, which were blamed on the Assad government, but of which no tangible evidence of the Syrian government’s culpability has been presented.

The Russians were not going to be fooled again.

As with the case of Georgia, there is ample evidence available which makes it clear that the crisis in the Ukraine was a manufactured event bearing the hallmarks of manipulation by the United States.

What effectively can be considered to have been a coup d’├ętat against an elected leader was executed against President Viktor Yanukovych between February the 21stand the 23rd.

It was a culmination of a prolonged period of agitation referred to as the ‘Euro Maiden’protests which despite the impressions given by the Western media was not a widely supported movement and in fact was spearheaded by a hardcore of far Right radicals including members of a neo-Nazi militia named Pravy Sektor (‘Right Sector’) who with the connivance of the main opposition parties were tasked with protecting a rent-a-crowd brigade drawn from the ranks of Ukraine’s unemployed who were bussed in from areas around the country.

When events took a more violent turn, Pravy Sektor members armed with guns, laser weapons and Molotov cocktails were at the heart of it. This was a deliberate escalation designed to portray disorder and a sense that things were out of control to discredit the Yanukovych government.

Most Ukrainians, whatever their ethnicity and apathetic about the state of affairs of their country, simply were not a part of the protests.

Yanukovych, whose election was considered legitimate according to independent election monitors, was removed by means which did not follow the procedure for presidential impeachment as laid down in the Ukrainian constitution.

It was a coup which was apparently encouraged by the United States government; evidence of which surfaced through the dissemination of intercepted wiretaps of an early February conversation between Victoria Nuland and the United States ambassador to Ukraine.

The footage catches Nuland in her inelegant brand of English decrying the caution of the European Union in their attitude to the Ukrainian issue. It is apparent that she felt that that institution was not being forceful enough in persuading the Yanukovych government to bow to Western pressure to move away from Russian influence.

But Nuland was not only raging about the EU’s lack of aggression. She can be heard to be actually handpicking the people who would become members of the so-called ‘interim government’ installed after the overthrow of the Yanokovych government.

The sight of United States government figures such as Nuland and Senator John McCain meeting with opposition figures and giving succour and encouragement to anti-government protesters bear witness to its blatant interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation.

McCain himself is a representative of the International Republican Institute, a body created under the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy during William Colby’s tenure as head of the Central Intelligence Agency which has a remit to do what the CIA did, namely that of instigating regime change, only through private means.

The IRI may be one source through which the funding of foreign groups opposed to governments not to the liking of the United States can be channelled. And if not providing funding, since there are Ukrainian opposition figures with huge amounts of wealth available to perform such task, it can provide the necessary directions in terms of strategy.

The United States certainly has a history of financing destabilisation in Ukraine. NGOs such as Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy utilized funds emanating from the government and channelled them around the country in order to foment what came to be known as the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004.

Another disclosure adding great weight to the belief that the series of events leading to the removal of Yanukovych were planned and executed by covert actions is that of the intercepted telephone conversation between Urmas Paet, the Estonian foreign minister who had recently been in Kiev, and Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign minister.

In it, Paet informs Ashton that the sniper killings in the square which had been the focus of the protests had been carried out by “someone in the new coalition”. The snipers were shooting at both police and protesters. This is the classic modus operandi of a secret third force mounting a ‘false flag’ operation and seeking to discredit an opponent by laying the blame on them.

Keen on putting up appearances before the foreign news media, Yanukovych had actually restrained himself from taking a hard-line against the protesters by sending the police out to confront the protesters unarmed, a fact to which he alluded during this last press conference.

However, events eventually overwhelmed Yanukovych who lost his nerve and fled. He was presumably threatened and reached the conclusion that his safety could not be guaranteed if he continued in office.

The fear which presumably overcame Yanukovych becomes appreciable when considering the sort of people now ascended to the interim governance of Ukraine. And it is all the more disturbing that the United States and the European Union have failed to publically register their protests, or at a minimum, to express concerns about the appointment of those whose political stripes bear the unmistakable marks of the extreme political Right.

While Russia has placed a great deal of focus on the presence of xenophobic and anti-Semitic neo-Nazis among the appointees to the new government, the United States appears to be downplaying these concerns.

For instance, the new minister of defence belongs to Svobada, meaning ‘Freedom Party’, whose members are the spiritual disciples and worshippers of Stephan Bandera, the World War Two-era Ukrainian fascist leader who headed the Galician Division of the Waffen SS. The leader of Svoboda has in the past talked about liberating Ukraine from what he described as the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.”

Yet, Victoria Nuland, herself Jewish, happily consents to pose with the leader of this party. And Senator McCain who shamelessly posed with members of the imported, mercenary death squads in Syria does the same with Svoboda Party members.

The present state of affairs has an element of the surreal about it. It all seems rather strange when, as reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Israeli Army veterans instructed by Svoboda activists are leading street-fighting units in clashes with law enforcement bodies during the agitations which led to the overthrow of an elected government.

The members of Pravy Sektor and Spilna Sprava which Israeli news outlets have described as “Fascist” and “neo-Nazi” have met with the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine to give assurances that they are “no longer anti-Semitic”.

The United States, of course, has a history of dallying with extremist groups in order to combat those who stand in opposition to its objectives. It utilised neo-Fascist groups in Western Europe via its Gladio operations to neutralise the influence of the political Left during the Cold War-era and more recently, has given support to Islamist groups in the Lebanon, Libya and Syria in order to pursue overarching foreign policy objectives.

The presence of neo-Nazi elements who are also Russophobes naturally strikes a chord of concern among the ethnic Russian population. One of the first decisions of the newly installed government was to ban the use of Russian in parts of the country. Ethnic Russians are unlikely to have their confidence reposed in the minister for food and the anti-corruption minister who are Ukrainian ultra-nationalists.

The Russian decision to intervene in order to protect the ethnic Russian population, while difficult to justify under the strict tenets of international law, does have more than a veneer of justness about it given the illegal removal of a head of state and because of the genuine fears held by a section of the population.

The intervention in foreign nations under the ‘Right to Protect’ doctrine is admittedly a policy utilised by Adolf Hitler regarding ethnic German populations in the Sudetenland and Danzig. However, it was revived in recent times as a legitimate basis for the sanctioning of foreign intervention by the United States.

The coup against President Yanukovych was a concoction encouraged, and from the chronology of available evidence, engineered by the United States and the European Union. The deadline given by the EU to Yanukovych concerning the offer of a bailout was designed to precipitate the unrest that transpired.

It was not a popular wave of unrest which caught on to 45 million Ukrainians who are concerned about the levels of corruption across the political class of their nation. This has contributed to the economic malaise which may be set for an even worse turning due to Western efforts in removing an elected government and installing an unelected one.

Russia is unlikely to step in to bail out Ukraine given the recent course of events. The economic deal that Ukraine has with Russia is a largely fair one which takes Ukrainian interests into account including a subsidy in the cost of gas.

The International Monetary Fund on the other hand can only offer Ukrainians a dose of painful austerity measures: the removal of gas subsidies, a cut in pensions and a devaluation of the national currency.

The EU would also be unlikely to provide a panacea for Ukraine’s financial ills. With bailouts given to Greece and Portugal and with the economies of Italy, Spain and the Netherlands looking distinctly shaky, support from member nations of a substantial package to Ukraine would be lacking.

The United States, itself under strict self-imposed budgetary constraints, is unlikely to come to the rescue given the difficulty of justifying such aid in a situation that is largely of its making.

The wider, long-term solution to this geo-political quagmire surely lies in steering a course which sees Ukraine develop along the lines of Finland during the Cold War-era. The Fins supported Nazi Germany when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union which led to Finland acquiring Russian land.

The deal reached after the war’s end, and one which endured and from which both nations profited, was that in return for Soviet respect for Finnish sovereignty, they were to remain neutral: not to join NATO or the Common Market and to renounce claims on Russian territory which in effect led to an effective marginalising of Finnish ultra-nationalist groups.

In the same way, Ukraine should give up hopes of NATO and EU membership and marginalise those far Right and ultra-nationalist groups which are being given a say in the running of its government.

At the same time, the United States should cease its efforts geared towards destabilising Russia’s borderlands. The sanctioning of the coup in Ukraine in which ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis are given significant access to power has nothing to do with the urge to spread freedom and democracy and everything to do with an overarching policy of diminishing Russian power and influence.

There also needs to be an open public debate in the United States regarding the spread of the ballistic defence shield program which would enlighten the American public about the offensive capacity that it poses to a potential Russian foe and hence, the inherently mistrustful atmosphere that pursuing this provocative policy will continue to breed.

There are a number of geo-political situations which conceivably could lead to a World War Three situation, and the United States long-term policy toward Russia is one of them.

(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2014)

Adeyinka Makinde is a London-based writer.

1 comment: