Crisis in Ukraine: it’s hard to tell the players, even with a scorecard, and a bunch of hyperlinks.

By Stan Persky | March 9, 2014

On that late February, 2014 weekend, just after the more than decade-long simmering crisis in Ukraine horrifyingly spilled over into the fatal shooting of dozens of demonstrators in Independence Square (or the Maidan, as it’s known) in Kiev, the country’s capital, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and I were attentively reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012).

Or maybe Russian president Putin and U.S. president Obama were attentively reading Max Hastings’s Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (2013) or Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013) or any of a number of other recent books commemorating the centennial this year of the outbreak of World War I.

Well, let’s hope they were at least reading something about how Europe stumbled into war a hundred years ago, a war that left millions of mostly young people dead, as a result of a lethal political brew that included the nationalism of tribal nostalgia, the assertion of “big power” interests, and a host of contingent diplomatic (and not-so-diplomatic) miscalculations, all revved up by an enormous amount of mouldy rhetoric and a not inconsiderable number of political crazies and incompetents. I hope these international leaders were reading all about it because they and a lot of their colleagues seemed to be stumbling toward something very unpleasant, too. The events of the present moment, as is frequently the case, are haunted by the spectre of history from a century ago.

Map of Ukraine.

Map of Ukraine.

By the end of the first week of March 2014, Ukraine, an eastern European nation of 46 million people that borders Russia, Poland, Romania and other countries, had a new interim government, cobbled together after thousands of encamped protestors in the Maidan toppled the elected, if terminally corrupt, regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. But there was also a new provisional government, supported by Russian troops, in Ukraine’s Crimea, the plump strawberry-shaped southern appendage of the country poking into the Black Sea. What’s more, Crimea’s new government announced a referendum to determine whether the 2-million person, majority Russian-speaking, Autonomous Republic situated in southern Ukraine would separate and seek to be incorporated into Russia. While all this was confusingly unfolding, Russia, the U.S. and the European Union, in between conducting hasty diplomatic meetings in various capitals of Europe, were busily engaged in a public exchange of charges and counter-charges attempting to interpet, manipulate and maybe even resolve the crisis.

You could hardly blame the various publics of the U.S., Russia, and dozens of European countries for being thoroughly confused about what was going on and what it meant. In fact, the satirical U.S. website, The Onion, had more than an ironic point to make when it mock-reported an imaginary poll that found Americans were fiercely divided on the Ukraine question between total ignorance and sheer apathy. As the imaginary pollster quoted by The Onion put it, “We’re seeing local workplaces, friends, even families ripped in two by their desire to either ignore the whole thing completely or spout an inane, half-witted opinion on it like they’re some geopolitical expert.” As one shrewd reader of the send-up story put it, I get the joke, but it’s not so funny; i.e., The Onion account is too close to the truth to inspire mirth.

Although many of the thousands of digital respondents to the Ukraine crisis trotted out the especially tired cliche that public confusion is being caused by “the bias of the media,” especially the “mainstream” media (or “lamestream,” as its condescending right-wing critics like to call it) this really wasn’t a case where the media could be blamed for ignoring or underplaying the crucial details of the situation. In fact, this was a typical case in our attention-deficit disordered times of a surfeit of information and interpretation. And no shortage of “inane half-witted” opinions, as The Onion put it, from self-anointed geopolitical experts.

When I wasn’t busy sorting through the murky internal politics of Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914 as described in Clark’s book (as I hope Obama and Putin were also doing), I had the benefit of the opinions of every outlet on the media spectrum, from the comic relief Onion to the clump-clump rhetoric of the Workers Weekly, produced by a far-left groupuscule called the “Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)”; from the New York Times to the English-language Kyiv Post. On the plus side, the mere fact that I can plausibly imagine Putin and Obama reading such books and media outlets is one of the minor hopeful omens in the present circumstances. In any case, this isn’t a matter of media bias (unless you think that all media by definition is biased), but a question of information overload, from which one had to extract a more or less sensible interpretation of the meaning of the salient facts and views. That wasn’t, and still isn’t, easy to do.

Without pretending for even a moment to be offering answers to the famous political question, “What is to be done?”, let’s at least see if it’s possible to sort out some of the strands in this tangled web that power-hungry men and women weave. First, let’s try to identify who’s who (or some of them, anyway). For starters, begin with “the people,” the people who are making Ukraine’s would-be latest “revolution” (we’ll canvass earlier upheavals in due course).

The Maidan, Kiev, Ukraine.

The Maidan, Kiev, Ukraine.

Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University and the author of the estimable Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010), reminds us that the demonstrations in Ukraine began with the students. “The students were the first to protest against… Yanukovych on the Maidan, the central square in Kiev, last November. These were… the young people who unreflectively thought of themselves as Europeans and who wished for themselves a life, and a Ukrainian homeland, that were European. Many of them were politically on the left, some of them radically so. After years of negotiation and months of promises, their government, under President Yanukovych, had at the last moment failed to sign a major trade agreement with the European Union,” in no small part due to pressure from Ukraine’s neighbour, Russia. It was this failure to move Ukraine closer to Europe (and correspondingly further from Russia, the major power in the region) that brought the students into the square, in a movement they often called “Euromaidan.” (Timothy Snyder, “Fascism, Russia and Ukraine,” New York Review of Books, Mar. 20, 2014; see also, Timothy Snyder, “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda,” New York Review of Books blog, Mar. 1, 2014.)

Once the riot police attacked the students in late November 2013, a new group, Afghan veterans, “men of middle age, former soldiers and officers of the Red Army,” says Snyder, came to the square to support and protect the students. “After the Afghan veterans came, many others, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, now not so much in favor of Europe, but in defense of decency,” he adds. As well, Snyder concedes, “A fraction of the protestors, some but by no means all representatives of the political right and far right, decided to take the fight to the police. Among them were members of the far-right party Svoboda and a new conglomeration of nationalists who call themselves the Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor).”

However, Snyder insists, “The protestors represent every group of Ukrainian citizens,” both Ukrainian and Russian speakers, all religions including Muslims and Jews, even young feminists and a hotline staffed by “LGBT activists.” Snyder underscores that the goal of the people on the Maidan “… began with the hope that Ukraine could one day join the European Union, an aspiraton that for many Ukrainians means something like the rule of law, the absence of fear, the end of corruption, the social welfare state, and free markets without intimidation from syndicates controlled by the president.”

Ukrainian parliament.

Ukrainian parliament.

Another vital strand in the who’s who of Ukraine is the 450-member Ukrainian Parliament (or Verkhovna Rada) elected in 2012, and the considerable state apparatus of bureaucracies, security, police, and military forces that it nominally controls. It’s a famously fractious institution that at various times in the past has seen everything from brawls to the usual parliamentary skullduggery of more sedate legislative bodies, and in its present form has been the theatre, since the early 1990s, of post-Soviet developments in Ukraine. (Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine was one of a dozen-and-a-half nominally independent republics in the Soviet Bloc; such countries, however, weren’t “independent,” and were republics pretty much in name only.)

The leading party in the Parliament after the 2012 vote was the Party of Regions, the political vehicle of then president Yanukovych (who was elected in 2010), which commanded a plurality of some 200 or so seats in the 450-member body, on the basis of 30 per cent of the parliamentary vote (since the latest phase of the crisis, its numbers have shrunk through voluntary defections to about 120). The second party in the Rada is the Fatherland Party, with about 100 seats and 25.5 per cent of the vote. This is the party of former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, who emerged in the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” but was subsequently jailed for corruption once Yanukovych was elected, after she had served what most observers agreed was a spotty, ineffective term in office. Once Yanukovych was overthrown, Tymoshenko was released from jail (and is currently in Germany, receiving medical treatment). As an aside, it ought to be noted that the immediate jailing of a high official right after the expiration of her term is one of those generally bad signs that points to the instability and deeply divided character of a polity.

The then ruling Party of Regions, and the Fatherland party, is followed by former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko’s reformist UDAR party, which has 40 parliamentary seats and gained 14 per cent of the vote in its debut electoral run in 2012; then comes the Communist Party of Ukraine with 13 per cent of the vote and 32 seats; followed by the far-right Freedom Party, or Svoboda, which polled 10.5 per cent of the vote but secured 37 seats; the rest of the body is made up of unaffiliated MPs and representatives of a half dozen lesser parties with minuscule percentages of the vote. To make matters more complicated, parties tend to be weak, their memberships and representatives very fluid, and their ideologies hard to discern, other than the fact that we would describe most of the leading parties as conservative or centre-right.

If you do some Wikipedia “deep research” and are able to figure out what the various parties stand for after reading several lengthy articles about the parties and parliament of Ukraine, please put a message in a bottle and drop it in the Black Sea, for the benefit of the rest of us lesser analysts. Since nothing is obvious, I should point out that a more complete who’s who in Ukraine would require an examination of the business “oligarchs” and how their control of big chunks of the Ukrainian economy works, and how it meshes with political affairs, especially in terms of regional governmental structures. A more complete picture would do the same for Russia.

Yanukovych (l.), Vladimir Putin (r.)

Yanukovych (l.), Vladimir Putin (r.)

It was the fluidity of Ukrainian parliamentary loyalties that proved important in the confusion that followed the slaughter of Maidan demonstrators Feb. 18-20, 2014. With the possibility of some form of civil war, or at least further serious violence on his hands, then president Yanukovych met with foreign ministers from Poland, France and Britain (with the U.S. and Russia onsite and in the wings) and signed an emergency agreement for withdrawing riot police and holding early presidential elections, all designed to calm a situation dangerously spinning out of control. But by then it was too late. As the government situation deteriorated, Yanukovych suddenly fled the country, and the parliament (duly elected, it will be recalled) formally removed him from office, with more than 300 deputies voting for his ouster, including members and former MPs of his own Regions Party. It wasn’t a completely constitutional impeachment, but it was close, and closer to legal norms than what was happening in Crimea. (An initial account of this aspect of the story can be found at Maxim Erastavi, “How Ukraine’s Parliament Brought Down Yanukovych,” The Daily Beast, Mar. 2, 2014.)

Interim PM Arseny Yatsenuk (l.) and Vitaly Klitschko (r.)

Interim PM Arseny Yatsenuk (l.) and Vitaly Klitschko (r.)

What followed is still shrouded in considerable murkiness, certainly with respect to details, but a new regime was cobbled together on Feb. 27, mostly from Rada members. It’s an interim Ukrainian government led by Fatherland Party figures close to former PM Tymochenko, but includng a half-dozen ministerial appointees from the far-right Svoboda party, as well as several unaffiliated officeholders. (No, you don’t have to remember any of the names, and there isn’t a quiz at the end of this essay.) Simultaneously, pro-Russian nationalists in the Crimea seized control of its provincial government, backed by Russian troops, most if not all of whom were already stationed at the massive, Russian naval base on the peninsula. This is what is variously described as the “incursion,” “invasion,” or “takeover” of the Crimea by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

For those who don’t follow these matters in detail, it might be helpful to note that Crimea “belonged” to Russia during the Soviet period until it was given to Ukraine in the mid-1950s. The Russian naval base in Crimea, which provides Russia with an outlet to southern waters — the Black Sea and the Mediterranean — is legally leased from Ukraine (the lease is good until 2042), an arrangement similar to the U.S. lease of its military base at Guantanamo, Cuba. “Big powers” apparently have a fondness for bases on foreign soil. The difference between the American and Russian bases is that the Americans, befitting an empire, have a great many more of them than the Cold War-losing Russians, and that the Americans’ Cuban hosts are far more resentful about the matter than most Ukrainians and Crimeans are. By the way, the lease permits the legal presence of 25,000 Russian troops on the Crimean base, though of course they’re not supposed to leave the base to carry out military operations, such as providing muscle for independence-minded pro-Russian Crimeans. Ok, end of backgrounder, and apologies for the professorial style, an “occupational deformation,” as it’s known in the professing business.

I cite all this at length because there’s another story, a “counter-narrative” as it’s sometimes called (or even, as a politically sophisticated friend informs me, a “counter-hegemonic narrative”). This is the story told by Russian President Vladimir Putin, by a range of left and far-left groups around the globe (including that mouthful of moniker, the “Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)”), and by a dizzying array of websites, self-proclaimed thinktanks, media monitors and research outfits. The context in which these analysts and protagonists set immediate Ukrainian events goes something like this:

The United States, imperialist power sans pareil, ever since the end of the Cold War, the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has been seeking to hem in and bottle up rival Russia by scooping up former Soviet Bloc states and relocating them within such Western structures as NATO, the European Union, and various other security and trade organizations under American hegemony (ah, there’s that “hegemony” word again). This strategy is sometimes described as the “military encirclement of Russia.” The extent of U.S. maneuverings, depending on the version of the narrative you’re getting, ranges from more or less standard “big power” power-politics all the way to nefarious conspiracies, funded by multi-billion Yankee dollar NGO projects in targets, er, countries of opportunity. One of those prime targets of opportunity is Ukraine.

In this version of the story, U.S. imperialism is deeply involved in what amounts to a plot to suck the lynchpin nation of Ukraine into its sphere of influence, aided and abetted by American diplomatic personnel in-country who are calling the shots, and some of their chatter has been hacked by interested parties — read: Russia — and presented to the public as evidence of American plotting, although less suspicious observers would read it as fairly normal behind-the-scenes efforts to influence events.

Within Ukraine itself, the anti-government demos of the past 3 months were, if not immediately led by, at least ultimately driven by thuggish gangs of extreme nationalist, anti-semitic (and anti-much else, from women to gays to foreigners), far right-wingers who ought to be described as “fascists.” Indeed, the events in Ukraine have been called a “fascist coup” and a “NATO/EU Ukraine coup.” A comparable set of justifications is then offered in such accounts for Russian military actions in the Crimea.

The first thing to be said about this picture is that, however much one may disagree with it (and I obviously do, or I wouldn’t be on this little soapbox), it isn’t crazy. One leading Russian history expert, Princeton and New York University professor emeritus Stephen Cohen, has recently written for the leftist Nation magazine and other venues, urging the public to at least try to understand some of this through the eyes of Putin, and how he experiences these policies as a threat. to his country’s political future. Cohen also criticizes the tendency of much of the American political and media establishment to demonize and underrate Putin. For his efforts, Professor Cohen has reaped the by now predictable wave of unpleasant vituperation. His half-century of relatively fair-minded scholarship is brushed aside, and Cohen is branded as a Putin apologist and worse.

One of the reasons this isn’t a crazy story is because there really is an American empire and it has both a long and recent history that ought to be subject to justifiable criticism, whether we’re talking about the launching of dubiously legal wars, the use of extra-judicial anti-terrorism weapons like drones, or the questionable suspension of habeas corpus for alleged terrorists who have been imprisoned offshore at America’s Guantanamo base for upwards of a decade and more. Another reason that this alternate analysis, as it applies to Ukraine, isn’t dismissable, is that signficant numbers of right-wing partisans have been active both on the Maidan and in the Rada. What’s more, they’ve secured a number of ministerial posts in the interim government disproportionate to their electoral support (while receiving 10 per cent of the vote at the last polls in 2012, they’ve been appointed to about a quarter of the cabinet positions).

So, while Putin’s account of events (and that of Western far leftist groups) is not at all preposterous, I think it’s a version that is seriously undercut by distortions. Start with empires. Naturally, like you, I’d prefer to live in a world without empires, actual, virtual or wannabe, but that’s not the world we’re living in. So, while we’re busy struggling for that other better world we occasionally believe is possible, if we’re forced to choose, I prefer empires that permit free speech, run more or less honest elections, and don’t persecute gays, women, minorities or critics of the regime. Russia’s authoritarian regime under Putin suppresses speech it finds objectionable, jails political opponents, harasses gays, etc. In global terms it is, of necessity, somewhat less aggressive than rival regimes, but if one has any illusions about its pacific character, ask Russia’s own “terrorists” in Chechnya, and other former Soviet territories.

Most of the former Soviet states have gravitated toward the European Union in the last quarter-century, and the majority of them report that their situations have in general improved over that period and they would not opt to return to the status quo ante. It’s unclear what the principled objection is to Ukraine wanting to do the same. (It will be appreciated, I hope, that I’m putting my argument in the least provocative language I can imagine. My tour through the internet on this issue reminds me that the decibel level and unassailable confidence of the literally thousands of website commentators is astonishingly uncivil, if not downright unbearable. As George Orwell once said about discussing infra-party politics on the left, it’s a “cesspool.”)

Further, the view of American imperialism offered by its opponents tends to turn the U.S. into a monolithic one-eyed beast. It takes little or no account of the reality that the United States is a deeply divided culture and has been so for the last quarter century. As well, it generally denies even the possibility that there are significant differences between the American political parties or that U.S. policy is capable of change. While I take imperialism seriously, I find this view of it less than plausible.

Let’s look at fascists. Yes, there undoubtedly are fascists in Ukraine and they’ve played a significant role in what many Ukrainians see as the present “revolution.” There are also fascists, extreme nationalists, xenophobes, and irredentists in most European countries and Russia. The percentage of French, Italian, Belgian, and Russian fascists and proto-fascists may exceed the numbers in Ukraine. It should also be noted that “fascist” is a term that gets thrown around with considerable arbitrariness. (It was a habit in the old Soviet Union and among far left groups today to apply the phrase “social fascists” to one’s closest ideological neighbours.)

Timothy Snyder says much the same thing in his recent essays. He notes that “the protests in the Maidan, we are told again and again by Russian propaganda… mean the return of National Socialism [Nazism] to Europe… The Russian media continually make the claim that the Ukrainians who protest are Nazis. Naturally, it is important to be attentive to the far right in Ukrainian politics and history,” however, that’s not even close to the whole story. The Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya offers a corollary worry about the use of such language, and she cites a statement from the literary organization, PEN Russia, which reads, in part, “We are observing a severe noetic crisis, akin to what was described by Orwell: the meanings of the words ‘peace,’ ‘war,’ ‘fascism,’ and ‘democracy,’ ‘defence’ and ‘invasion’ are shamelessly warped.” (See Sally McGrane, “The Abuse of Ukraine’s Best-Known Poet,” The New Yorker, Mar. 8, 2014.)

Some media monitor sites have been quick to accuse mainstream Western media of failing to check out the story of extreme right-wing influence in Ukraine. However, when I looked, both Reuters and the BBC carried stories worrying about precisely that issue. It may be that the media monitor sites, which don’t do any of the on the ground slogging performed by real journalists, are slightly trigger-happy, or precipitate when it comes to criticising the failures of mainstream media. Since there’s no shortage of such actual failures, it may be unwise to over-anticipate them.

There is also a complex story to tell about “nationalism,” especially in less powerful countries that have long suffered political oppression, such as Ukraine, but it’s probably well past everyone’s bedtime by now, and so we can defer that topic for another occasion.

The point about all of this is relatively simple: there’s a big difference between recognizing and worrying about the role of extreme right wing groups in recent events in Ukraine, which any sensible person ought to do, and the exaggerated description of those events as a “fascist coup.” It’s a description that’s been offered by Putin and his spokespeople, as well as by many Western leftist formations, and it’s inaccurate. Again, there are real questions here that need investigation, and I’m not brushing them aside for a moment, but I refuse to buy into a histrionic account that seriously distorts what most of us see as reality in order to denounce U.S. imperialism or justify Russian policy.

As I remarked early on, I don’t pretend to have answers to the “what is to be done?” question. That’s for diplomats, the popular masses, and various negotiating institutions to determine. One merely hopes they will do better than the politicians in 1914, whose response to a small country’s nationalism and irredentism — that of Serbia — was one of the factors that led to world war.

Similarly, predicting which of various scenarios will play out is probably a mug’s game. The one in which everyone backs off from confrontation is no doubt most desirable. Another one in which Ukraine “gets” Europe and Russia gets Crimea is probably survivable, although that’s not the way the quarter million Muslim minority of Tatars, Crimea’s earliest inhabitants, would likely see it. A situation in which Russia attempts to secure eastern Ukraine, or the country is divided in two would be clearly dangerous, if not fatal. Finally, an outcome in which the U.S. and Russia produce the threat of apocalypse is, well, let’s just say, precisely what everyone should want to avoid.

The year 2014 is one of many remembrances: the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, but also the 75th anniversary of the joint Nazi-Soviet attack on Poland that formally began World War II, as well as the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the overthrow of communism in numerous countries of the former Soviet Union.

A century on from the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that Christopher Clark memorably narrates in The Sleepwalkers, we continue to recall the quip of Austria’s most famous satirist, Karl Kraus, who liked to say that the situation is “desperate, but not serious.”


Berlin, Monday, March 10, 2014.




















  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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