The history of the Ukrainian crisis, which has made everything it affected worse, is distorted by political myths and American media malpractice.
Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and radio-show host John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, can be found here at TheNation.com.)
Cohen argues that the Ukrainian crisis, which unfolded in late 2013 and early 2014 and which led to Crimea’s annexation by (or “reunification with”) Russia and to the still ongoing US-Russian proxy war in eastern Ukraine, is a seminal event of the 21st century. It militarized and moved the new Cold War to Russia’s borders—in the form of a civil and proxy shooting war—indeed to inside a civilization shared for centuries by Russia and large parts of Ukraine. It implanted a toxic and dangerous political element in US, Russian, Ukrainian, and European politics, perhaps for at least a generation. And it has left Ukraine in near-economic ruin, with thousands of citizens dead and millions displaced and many more struggling to regain the quality of life they had before 2014. The events of 2014 also led to the ongoing NATO buildup on Russia’s western border in the Baltic region, yet another new Cold War front fraught with the possibility of hot war. Making things only worse, in late 2017, the Trump administration announced that it would supply the Kiev government with more, and more sophisticated, weapons, a step that even the Obama administration, which played a major detrimental role in the crisis, declined to take.
Two conflicting narratives of the Ukrainian crisis have been a major factor in preventing its resolution. One, promoted by Washington and the US-backed government in Kiev, blames only “aggression” by the Kremlin and specifically by Russian President Putin. The other, promoted by Moscow and rebel forces in eastern Ukraine, which it supports, blames “aggression” by the European Union and NATO, both inspired by Washington. Cohen sees enough bad intent, misconceptions, and misperceptions to go around, but on balance thinks Moscow’s narrative, almost entirely deleted from US mass media, is closer to the historical realities of 2013–2014:
- Putin, celebrating the apparently highly successful Olympic games in Sochi, in January 2014, intended to demonstrate that Russia was prospering, sovereign, and a worthy partner in international affairs, had no reason to provoke a major international crisis with the West on Russia’s borders, and still less in “fraternal” Ukraine. Whether wise or not, his actions ever since have been mostly reactive, not “aggressive,” including in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
- On the other hand, ever since the 1990s, following the end of the Soviet Union, Washington has made clear that both EU and NATO expansion eastward should eventually include Ukraine, which was regarded as “the prize.” What precipitated the Ukrainian crisis was the EU “partnership” offered to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, which he declined to sign in November 2013. (Actually, having learned the astronomical financial costs, he merely asked for more time to consider the terms.) Protests in Kiev, centered on Maidan Square, led to violence and eventually to Yanukovych’s overthrow and his replacement by the US-backed government in Kiev.
- Several circumstances need to remembered—or learned—in recalling these events. Putin and his ministers sought to persuade the EU to make the economic agreement with Ukraine “tripartite,” including Moscow so as not to disadvantage the very substantial trade relationship between Ukraine and Russia. The EU leadership, for whatever reason, refused, telling Kiev it had to choose between Russia and the West. For years, as all sides knew, Washington and other Western actors had been pouring billions of dollars into Ukraine to prepare it for the West’s “civilizational” values. That is, the “march” on Ukraine had long been under way. The EU agreement—purportedly only economic and civilizational—included provisions binding the new “partner” to NATO “military and security” policy. (The intent was clear, with President George W. Bush having proposed to fast-track NATO membership for Ukraine in 2008, only to be vetoed by Germany and France.) Moreover, during the years preceding the EU’s proposed agreement, President Yanukovych had not been “pro-Kremlin,” as regularly alleged in the US media, but had, on the advice of his American electoral adviser (the now-infamous Paul Manafort), “tilted” toward the West, toward the EU, in order to expand his electoral base beyond southeastern Ukraine. (Putin’s loathing for Yanukovych as a greedy and corrupt opportunist was well known in Moscow and Kiev, though evidently not by the US media.) As anyone who followed the unfolding of the crisis knows, prominent members of US officialdom—from the State Department, Congress, and the Obama administration—were persistently present throughout the Maidan events, publicly and privately urging a showdown with Yanukovych, the constitutionally elected president. (A phone conversation between the leading State Department official involved and the US ambassador to Ukraine plotting the makeup of a successor government became public.) Finally, the day before Yanukovych was forced to flee the country by an armed street mob, he signed an agreement, brokered by three EU foreign ministers, to end the crisis peacefully by forming a coalition government with opposition leaders and agreeing to an early presidential election. That is, a democratic resolution of the crisis, privately endorsed by President Putin and President Obama, was in hand. Why none of the Western parties defended their own agreement, insisting that it be honored, remains uncertain, though perhaps not a mystery.
- Which brings Cohen to another prevailing media myth: that what occurred on Maidan in February 2014 was a “democratic revolution.” Whether it was in fact a “revolution” can be left to future historians, though most of the oligarchic powers that afflicted Ukraine before 2014 remain in place four years later, along with their corrupt practices. As for “democratic,” removing a legally elected president by threatening his life hardly qualifies. Nor does the peremptory way the new government was formed, the constitution changed, and pro-Yanukovych parties banned. Though the overthrow involved people in the streets, this was a coup. How much of it was spontaneous and how much directed, or inspired, by high-level actors in the West also remains unclear. But one other myth needs to be dispelled. The rush to seize Yanukovych’s residence was triggered by snipers who killed some 80 or more protesters and policemen on Maidan. It was long said that the snipers had been sent by Yanukovych, but it has now been virtually proven that the shooters were instead from the neo-fascist group Right Sector among the protesters on the square. (See, for example, the reports of the scholar Ivan Katchanovski.)
- The antidemocratic origins of today’s Kiev regime continue to afflict it. Its president, Petro Poroshenko, is intensely unpopular at home. It remains pervasively corrupt. Its Western-financed economy continues to fail, as even some of its ardent American cheerleaders now admit. And for the most part it continues to refuse to implement its obligations under the 2015 Minsk II peace accords, above all granting the rebel Donbass territories enough home rule to keep them in the Ukrainian state. Meanwhile, Kiev is semi-hostage to armed ultranationalist battalions, whose ideology and symbols include proudly neo-fascist ones, which hate Russia and today’s Western “civilizational” values almost equally. It may be said that the Donbass rebel “republics” have their own ugly traits, but it should be added that they fight only in defense of their own territory against the armies of Kiev and are not sponsored by the US government.
Adding to this explosive mix, the Trump administration now promises to supply more weapons. The official pretext is plainly contrived: to deter Putin from “further aggression against Ukraine,” for which he has shown no desire or intention whatsoever. Nor does it make any geopolitical or strategic sense. Neighboring Russia can easily upgrade its weapons to the rebel provinces. Indeed, the danger is that Kiev’s failing regime will interpret the American arms as a signal from Washington for a new offensive against the Donbass in order to regain support at home—but which will end again in military disaster for Kiev while perhaps bringing neo-fascists, who may well come into possession of the American weapons, closer to power, and the new US-Russian Cold War closer to a larger, more direct war between the nuclear superpowers. (US trainers will need to be sent with the weapons, adding to the some 300 already there. If any are killed by Russian-backed rebel forces, even if unintentionally, what will be Washington’s reaction?)
Why would Trump, who wants to “cooperate with Russia,” take such a reckless step, long urged by Washington’s anti-Russian hawks? Assuming it was Trump’s decision, it was no doubt to disprove the underlying premise of the still unproved Russiagate allegations that he is a lackey of the Kremlin and an accomplice of Putin—accusations he hears and reads daily, not only from damning commentary on MSNBC and pseudobalanced panels on CNN, but from the once-distinguished academic Paul Krugman, who tells his New York Times readers: “There’s really no question about Trump/Putin collusion, and Trump in fact continues to act like Putin’s puppet.” There is every “question” and no “in fact” at all, but Trump is understandably desperate to end the unprecedented allegations that he is a “treasonous” president—that there was “no collusion, no collusion, no collusion.” We have here yet another example, Cohen points out, of his argument that Russiagate has become the No. 1 threat to American national security, certainly in regard to nuclear Russia.
Indeed, Cohen concludes, if the media insists on condemning Trump for mangled narratives and dubious international entanglements, they might want to focus on former vice president Joseph Biden. It has long been known that President Obama put him in charge of the administration’s “Ukrainian project,” in effect making him proconsul overseeing the increasingly colonized Kiev. In short, Biden, who is clearly already seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, bears a heavy personal responsibility for the four-year-old Ukrainian crisis. But he shows no sign of rethinking anything and still less any remorse. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Biden and his coauthor, Michael Carpenter, string together a tsunami of highly questionable, if not false, narratives regarding “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin,” many of them involving the years he was vice president. Along the way, Biden repeatedly berates Putin for meddling in Western elections. This is the same Joe Biden who told Putin not to return to the Russian presidency during Obama’s purported “reset” with Moscow and who, in February 2014, told Ukraine’s democratically elected President Yanukovych to abdicate and flee the country.
Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University and a contributing editor of The Nation.