Cold War By Other Means
Ukraine: the Crisis in Context
It is never easy to see the present as history: Being inside events, being the stuff of which events are made, makes distance and the perspective that comes of it difficult. It is not a new thought. But the crisis in Ukraine over the past six months shoves it at us anew. Nothing else in the quartercentury period we call “post–Cold War” presses a consciousness of history upon us so urgently. In no other case has the history of the piece been so cynically manipulated.
The necessity of history to understanding, history subverted to reproduce a couple of centuries of prejudice, West toward East: There is no coincidence here, which is one of the tragedies before us. An immense effort is expended to persuade us that what is perfectly plain to see in Ukraine is other than it is. Among the few virtues of the crisis to date is that clarity is available so long as one looks; the chicanery of those veiling the West’s provocations and irresponsibility is evident.
Washington and the European allies have waged several wars in Ukraine. One is Cold War II, and now that President Obama has declared this more or less openly, the thought of the “post–Cold War era” looks like a delusion. One is to roll the neoliberal order across the planet like shiny linoleum— the project of the end-of-history ideologues these past 25 years and latterly the nation-building set. Another, not least, is the war against democratic consent.
It is hard to say which of these will finally deliver the bitterest body counts. At writing the hot war, against Ukrainians, takes the greatest toll. We are now treated to the same spectacle served up last year in Egypt: An elected leader is deposed for his transgressions, unelected provisionals replace him, and the unelected then turn the army on the electorate. This, the Americans tell us, is called “democratic restoration”—Secretary of State Kerry’s extraordinary description of the coup in Egypt last year, perfectly applicable now to the American position on Ukraine.
Most readers, viewers, and listeners tuned into the Ukraine crisis when protests against Viktor Yanukovych, who was elected president in 2010, erupted in Kiev last November. Instantly the core problem confronts us: This lops off two decades of history involving a minority of opportunist Ukrainians, NATO’s post–Soviet ambitions, and the view of Ukraine, shared in Washington and the European capitals, as “the biggest prize”—felicitous phrase of Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy—in the neoliberal project. But we can come back to the missing 20 years. Good enough to begin with the beginning of the end for Yanukovych.
He is a curious figure, even in exile. He is no more or less corrupt than anyone else in the Kiev political scrum. Yanukovych is of interest primarily because he was well-positioned to lead Ukraine through a passage that could have— best outcome—left it well-balanced between Russia’s historically weighty influence and an opening to Europe that reflected the post–Soviet aspirations of a segment of the population concentrated in the west of the country.
Yanukovych built his political base in the east, where the majority speaks Russian and where ties to Russia—cultural, historical, familial, economic—are dense. Yet he came to office promising European integration via an elaborate trade and political-association pact with the European Union. His project was a defensible reinterpretation of Ukraine in 21st century vocabulary. He was elected because voters judged him the man to get it done.
Putting this to paper in America now is like belching in chapel, so thoroughly has Yanukovych been vilified. This is a case of fooling all of the people some of the time. For one thing, Yanukovych looks like Mandela next to the divisive imposters who took him down with the support of atavistic thugs and crypto–Nazis. For another, the E.U. went to the eve of signatures on a deal with Yanukovych that was many months in negotiation. Why, if he is so scurrilous a figure?
Yanukovych is invariably described now as “pro–Russian” in the shorthand of western media. It is not so simple. I have read one good account of what happened when Yanukovych abruptly dropped the deal with the E.U. last November 21, setting the stage for his own exit. This was filed Dec. 19 by Elizabeth Piper, a Reuters correspondent in Moscow (“Special Report: Why Ukraine spurned the EU and embraced Russia.”) Yanukovych accepted Russia’s offer of a $15 billion bailout two days prior to the publication of Piper’s piece.
There was intense pressure from Vladimir Putin, Piper reported. But the E.U. and the International Monetary Fund gave Yanukovych five compelling reasons not to sign the deal he had just negotiated, Piper found. One, while Yanukovych thought Ukraine would need $160 billion over three years to dig out of crisis and make up for lost trade with Russia, the Europeans had an initial sum of $850 million on the table and the I.M.F. $5 billion. The numbers were not remotely close.
Two, the I.M.F.’s check would arrive with conditions Yanukovych judged severe enough to destabilize; the I.M.F. also required that Kiev repay earlier debts in nearly the same amount, $5 billion, the year after a deal was signed. This is key, signaling that little bailout money would benefit Ukrainians. In effect, the I.M.F.’s intent was to bail out Western banks by assuming their debt and forcing Ukraine to take up the heavy harness of the fund’s standard austerity program. With a $17 billion bailout package now on the table, the object remains the same: It is not to build a vigorous nation that benefits its citizens; it is to extract capital and open it to transnationals to extract labor and resources.
Three, the E.U. demanded a pledge of allegiance: Kiev would have to forego future aid from Russia. Four, there was no offer of E.U. membership, which Ukrainians eager to tilt westward prized above all else; the deal offered only “association,” with many fewer rights and privileges. Five, the Europeans demanded the release of Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s arch-rival, who was jailed on corruption charges that were politically motivated, certainly, but just as certainly merited.
In an interview with Piper after Yanukovych cut the deal with Russia and as protests raged in Independence Square, Volodymyr Oliynyk, a Yanukovych ally in the governing party, explained it this way: “Ukraine is at a crossroads and there’s a huge boulder there. We go one way to Russia and we get hit. We go the other way, to Europe, and we get hit. We stand still, and we get hit.” Then a pause. Then: “But it will hurt less this way.”
There are aspects of the E.U.’s offer to Ukraine indicating readily enough an intent that was other than benign. The Europeans had no business demanding that Kiev drastically shrink ties with Russia—not if the thought was to help Ukrainians decide their future for themselves, as the Western allies continue to insist. Equally, the I.M.F.’s off-the-shelf conditionality is never pretty to watch when implemented; pressing it on Ukraine was either radically insensitive or—far more likely—intended to do the work of undermining Yanukovych as a man of divided loyalties. As to the Tymoshenko demand, what is Brussels doing telling one crook to let another crook out of jail? Her virtues among Westerners are her taste for free-market reform and a pronounced animosity toward Russia. This makes the E.U.’s insistence yet more embarrassing when understood in context.
The E.U.’s strategy to draw Ukraine westward with one swift yank was politesse itself compared with what the Americans were up to. Here, the starting point that is not the starting point is the infamous “‘F’— the E.U.” conversation between Victoria Nuland, Obama’s assistant secretary for European affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, who was named ambassador to Kiev last August. Their exchange was made public February 6 on YouTube—we do not know by whom, but Putin’s people would be almost self-evidently the pranksters. The best analysis of this tape I know of is that of Jonathan Marcus, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent (“Ukraine crisis: Transcript of Nuland–Pyatt call.”)
No American newspaper or broadcaster has ever given an honest account of this extraordinary recording. It was quickly airbrushed from the record, Stalin-style. The New York Times published an inexcusable piece of hackery in the just-a-little-naughty-fun line, casting Nuland as a feisty lady full of brio and smarts, no harm done (Mark Landler, “From ‘Least Diplomatic Diplomat,’ Salty Peek at Trans–Atlantic Strains.”) The sailor’s language was scarcely the point, of course. The tape ran longer than four minutes, a blip in what was plainly a running conversation of many hours over many months. In this interim we have what may be an historic first: Real-time actuality of an American coup operation in progress.
Go back to February 6, date of the YouTube release. Yanukovych was against the wall by then. The protesters, drawn out when the E.U. talks failed and then focused on corruption, mismanagement, and hardship, were soon to be joined by people of a different order. These were ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists from the western sections of Ukraine, many of whom were xenophobically anti–Russian devotees of extra-constitutional violence. Their political ancestors had fought with the Nazis against the Soviets. Their main organizations were Right Sektor and Svoboda. These formed a fringe constellation in Ukraine’s political sky, but they were about to become more. They arrived from the west armed—clubs, axes, pistols, appropriated rifles—and altered the character of the Independence Square demonstrations. When protest transformed into a coup, it was these groups who led it.
Early on Feb. 21, after all-night talks, Yanukovych signed an agreement with the opposition. By this time, Independence Square had turned into a violent standoff. Snipers, even now not positively identified, had killed scores of demonstrators. Yanukovych assented to early elections, negotiations to form a unity government, constitutional reform, and a supervised investigation into the origins of the violence. E.U. foreign ministers brokered the deal; three opposition figures signed: Oleh Tyahnybok, Vitali Klitschko, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
This pact did not survive the day. On the square, Klitschko apologized for shaking Yanukovych’s hand in front of a camera. The gesture was to no avail, as the momentum was now decisively in the street. Dmytro Yarosh, a long-noted ultra-nationalist and Right Sektor’s leader, announced that his group rejected the agreement and had no intention of desisting. Yanukovych’s top people quickly began to scatter, and the collapse was swift. By the next day, Yanukovych had fled (probably for his life) and parliament, rather after the fact, voted him unfit for office.
There are some bouncing balls worth following at this point. At the time of their recorded exchange, Nuland and Pyatt were focused on the manipulation of three political figures: Tyahnybok, Klitschko, and Yatsenyuk, the three who signed the pact with Yanukovych. The Americans’ preference was for Yatsenyuk to head the post–Yanukovych government they planned and for the other two to remain outside, doing “political homework and stuff,” as Nuland put it in a reference to Klitschko. Yatsenuk is now the provisional prime minister, and the others are neatly in their assigned roles. Klitschko intends to run for president in elections now brought forward to May 25. Tyahnybok remains a parliamentary deputy and heads the viciously far-right Svoboda party. This is a guy who, in his speeches, counts Jews on his long list of “scum,” refers easily to “the Moscow–Jewish mafia,” and who wants Ukrainian passports to designate the bearer’s ethnicity. There is a big “but” here. Tyahnybok loves NATO. He wants it to roll up to Russia’s borders, and so is useful in the provisional legislature and, presumably, beyond.
There is some language in what you have just read that is considered controversial. “Fascist,” neo–Nazi,” “thugs,” “ultranationalists”: This kind of talk is off-limits, notably among us Americans. For us, the primary problem is that this is Russia’s vocabulary when describing the putschists in Kiev, and if the Russians are saying it, it cannot be right. As in Egypt last year, Americans will not even call a coup a coup. The other problem is that the Obama administration has elected to succor these people. So they must be Ukraine’s democrats, heroically tilting westward in the nation’s hour of need.
It is bitter for Americans, especially those nursing long Cold War hangovers, but it is well to deliver this truth: Moscow’s account of the Ukraine crisis is vastly more coherent than Washington’s. No sort of russophilia need come into this. No need to carry a candle for Putin, although, even now, exercises a restraint in his backyard. The Russians are correct about one thing: We have witnessed a coup. Those behind it are all the things Moscow says they are: This is a matter of record, providing you can get your hands on the record. The provisionals in no wise represent the majority preference among Ukraine’s 46 million citizens—also a matter of record. The Americans and Europeans are complicit in fomenting this crisis—again, on the record.
Ukraine has proven an extraordinary display of language as political instrument. No side resists the temptation. And if there is no innocence, the question of guilt has little meaning. But terminology still bears the weight of truth or fallacy. So you have to insist on “thugs,” “criminals,” anti–Semites,” “coup,” “poseurs,” and so on. This said, nomenclature is only one device deployed to make up our minds for us. Far more powerful is the use and misuse of history, and here we can enter into the missing 20 years noted above.
The American pose has been that of the un-implicated onlooker. Anyone who knows the history of the American century knows this is stock stuff, tried if rarely true. The only thing more astonishing than the official claim to innocence this time is the craven willingness of the American media to open wide and swallow whole. I have been among many critical of the press week in and out for months, but as a former correspondent, I honestly cannot register why these people would abandon their station so abjectly.
In the excavation of the history, the Nuland–Pyatt tape is the Rosetta Stone. Once deciphered, however, we ought not linger long with it, for these two are minor operatives, and there are stores of tablets behind their stone needing interpretation. The coup they mapped was the end result, the political piece, in a campaign to wrest Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence that dates to the Soviet collapse. This, too, is a matter of record. In a speech last winter Nuland acknowledged this project, a public-private undertaking involving— her figure—$5 b i l l i o n i n various kinds of investment.
If you study t h e D u l l e s brothers—John Foster at State, Allen at the C.I.A.—there is nothing startling here, unless you count an almost slavish fidelity to the Dulles playbook over the course of nearly seven decades. Stir up the street, finance mosquito newspapers and radio stations and get some established hacks on the payroll, get the paramils going, arrange the puppet pols, bring it all to a plan: Iran 1953 was the template, applied the following year in Guatemala and on through Chile 1973, Iran–Contra in Nicaragua, and now in Ukraine. Equipped with the secret history, one finds it entirely in keeping that the Obama people are working with Right Sektor, Svoboda, and the others. Pyatt’s first act as ambassador last August was to arrange a grant for an online television broadcaster to help the Independence Square demonstrators organize and multiply.
There is one significant difference between our time and the Cold War decades. Since the Soviet collapse, the coup function has passed from the C.I.A. to the State Department. Diplomats and angelic civil-society people do much of the job now. This was an astute shift. An appearance of innocence is achieved. Few, apart from those on the receiving end, think to question the common code: “democratic practice,” “good governance,” “institution-building,” and so on. This is the language of the Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, and think tanks such as the New America Foundation. Apple-pie subversion is a plainer name for these endeavors in a crisis zone such as Ukraine or—another operation, apparently failed for the time being—Venezuela.
Among other consequences, liberals too true-believing to know what they are getting into can join neoconservatives such as Nuland, who know very well. The N.A.F. thinks it means well—or professes as much, we have to say—with its Commotion Wireless, a hack-proof communications tool it has developed, termed “internet in a suitcase” in the New York Times. The N.A.F. says it is for use in authoritarian environments, but intent has nothing to do with it. This is an instrument of intrusion, and no wonder the State Department funded it. The Times reported on April 21 that State now backs a similar contraption called “mesh network.” And here we go: U.S. A.I.D. pledges $4.3 million for a mesh network in Cuba (Carlotta Gall and James Glanz, “U.S. Promotes Network to Foil Digital Spying.”)
This kind of context reminds us what we are watching in Ukraine through a thicket of euphemisms to surpass Orwell’s imaginings. In this the Europeans have proven a great disappointment, at least to me. After Germans took down the Wall, one anticipated a tolerant incubation of some kind of Third Way, at the outside maybe a take on Rudolf Bahro’s Alternative in Eastern Europe. This proves sheer angelisme, as the French put it. All that distinguishes the E.U. from the Americans in Ukraine is a tactic. Brussels preferred economic enticement and intimidation, legalistically refined, while Washington, as is its wont, pushed past the niceties of sovereignty, the internal affairs of others, somebody else’s right to democratic process. The intent was all along shared.
The intent, to put a complex matter simply, was to declare the Cold War done but to carry on waging it by other means. NATO was the central instrument, although hardly has it been the only gun on the rack, for the object was larger than mere military advantage: It was the imposition of a neoliberal order admitting of no exceptions in the service of fortifying its own self-confidence. As Joseph Brodsky suggested in a 1994 review of the post–Soviet predicament, all the Indians are now to commence imitation of the cowboys.
The root of this drive extends to the mid-19th century, when the idea of the West as a political construct arose. Jules Michelet, otherwise one of the great historians of his time, was high on this line of thinking. The West needed an “Atlantic union” in response to the rise of czarist Russia. So “the West” was defensive from the first, formed in reaction. There was also something unconscious reflected in it. Russia was the East, given to communal forms of social organization and some dark, irrational peasant consciousness, pre-Cartesian and anti–Western to its core—and so an implicit threat, never to be any other.
These assumptions still make for blindness. The political West has never understood the extent to which it aggresses, even recklessly, in the name of its own protection. It is not popular now to ask Americans how they would respond were Putin to activate in, say, the Yucatan Peninsula. No one likes to think too much about the Cuban missile crisis just now. Another bitter truth arrives: the truth of Putin’s notable restraint throughout the Ukraine crisis. He turned on Kiev, and then took Crimea, only when it was evident the ultras had systematically changed the character of the demonstrations and the determination was to take Ukraine westward, never mind that a Western-backed coup was in the process of failing. Lately he is charged as the master puppeteer of the anti-Kiev groups active in the eastern and southern regions. Never mind there is no hard evidence to support this assertion, that he has consistently called for negotiation and an end to provocations, that he urged militias occupying eastern cities to step back from the two referenda they went ahead and conducted on May 12. Try to imagine an American leader acting similarly in an analogous circumstance in the western hemisphere: You will fail, it cannot be done.
No one says too much about spheres of influence, either—a very odd omission at this point. These have always counted among the blunter instruments of statecraft. The Berlin Conference in 1885, when Europeans chopped up Africa, is generally taken to be the high point of the phenomenon, but this distinction actually goes to the Cold War—the carveup of the planet. It is among our shared tasks, in my view, to outgrow this technology. But we have not—not yet, to put the best face on it. In our time, a wise diplomat—someone other than a technocrat trained in rational choice theory—will understand that spheres must be observed even as they are not honored. But instead of wisdom we have an alloy of triumphalist arrogance and ignorance, wholly wanting in creativity.
Putin spoke before the Federal Council in Moscow just after annexing Crimea (“Address by the President of the Russian Federation.” The Kremlin. http://eng.kremlin.ru/ news/6889. Posted March 18, 2014). It is worth putting down the old armor and all presumption long enough to read these 47 minutes. They are his take on the spheres-of-influence question. They are a credible anatomy of the crisis and the cause-and-effect aspect that American media to a one omit. They have history in them. They are a pithy expression of Russia as a wounded civilization, to borrow Naipaul’s term for India. They brim with the ressentiment at the core of Putin’s project, which is to overcome a long sensation of betrayal, exclusion, and inferiority that arose as soon as Russia came into its ambition to modernize.
Putin says something important here, and not merely as it applies to Russia or the Ukraine crisis or the West’s part in it. He posits the capacity to see from the perspectives of others as an essential 21st century project: to assume the eyes of “the Other” and then look at the world with them. He asserts that the West so far fails in this for the simple reason the West has no habit of seeing anything from anyone else’s point of view. It has never before now had to. Blind to others means blind to oneself among others.
It is not so difficult to favor this case. The French phenomenologists have made it for generations. Ryszard Kapuściński made it splendidly in the lectures published posthumously in 2003 as The Other. Putin simply advances the thought in another, harder-edged context. It is easy, indeed, to see how the West as well as the non–West is to benefit from this overcoming of “the West”—the idea of it—and the divided world it insists upon. But this takes a certain freedom of thought, an escape from all a Westerner is trained to think of Russia, a recognition of what our century needs if it is to work in a way the one just ended did not.
Ukraine tells us some things. Those nominated to lead the planet’s powerful nations are nowhere near equipped to understand the job before them. The intellects and imaginations, to say nothing of the nerve, are radically underdeveloped. It is not a matter of trying and failing at the task, which would bear within it some occasion for optimism. They appear wholly unaware there is any task specific to our time. And this is a different, greatly less promising thing.