Words and Real Dangers

On September 3, 2014, "[t]he U.S. Defense Department [...] announced upcoming multinational military exercises inside Ukraine" that will bring U.S. troops to that country at a moment when Ukraine is engulfed in a civil war that started as an "anti-terrorist operation" against protesting Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens. Many Russian-speakers in the East of the country had voted for Yanukovich in the presidential election; they did not like it that he was toppled so quickly after being freely and fairly elected. These people objected to unconstitutional regime change in Kiev, to the role played by neo-fascist and other right-wingers in the new regime in Kiev, and to the attack on Russian as a second official language. The protestors had occupied public buildings in Eastern Ukrainian cities in a way that copied the approach of right-wingers occupying public buildings in Kiev during the anti-Yanukovich protests. 

This map gives a rough idea of the polarized character of Ukraine in 2014. Note also how close Moscow and St. Petersburg are to NATO's Baltic member states and to Ukraine's northern border. 

Clearly, both in Kiev and Eastern Ukrainian cities, the political developments that culminated in Mr. Yanukovich's ouster had inflamed nationalist sentiments. As was predictable, the determined effort of the new regime in Kiev to suppress dissent, if necessary, by armed force, led to counter-violence. Those who chose war reap now what they sowed. Kiev's militia and army, but also their armed Eastern Ukrainian opponents report casualties almost every day, while peace-loving citizens in Eastern Ukrainian cities who would have preferred a different method to solve the dispute between West Ukrainian nationalists and the East of the country, are either trapped in embattled cities (often without water and electricity, with scant food reserves, with hospitals and houses subjected to shelling and aerial attacks) -- or they are fleeing. Some to cities like Charkov, some to Russia. And some are obviously dying, as they attempt to cross front lines and leave combat zones. 

When the armed conflict in the East of the country intensified, the call for a separate republic quickly led to a referendum. A German journalist sympathetic (like most Western journalists) to the new regime in Kiev interviewed refugees from cities like Donetsk in the Charkov region some time ago, but also pro-Kiev Ukrainians whose job was to screen the refugees (and then provide shelter for these people). The journalist found out that those who fled had  overwhelmingly voted in favor of separation, but now most where having second thoughts about it because of the perils faced when the war hit their cities. 

Putin, whose government resulted from formally free and fair elections, but who is nonetheless in charge of a country which urgently needs real democracy and a U.S.-style Occupy movement, has sharply criticized the unconstitutional regime in Kiev, saying that it is not acceptable to wage war against a part of that country, against cities and their protesting citizens (and also those who would prefer not to have protests). 

We may be tempted to remind Putin of the way Russian troops waged war against cities like Grosny. In Chechnya, the situation was similar. Russian troops and their Chechen underlings combatted a "separatist" independence movement denounced as terrorist. It is probably true that the harshness of the military crack-down radicalized many Chechens. Fighters from Arab countries and Bosnia sneaked into the combat zone, aiding the "separatists" as a corps of volunteers. The Saudis and others gave financial aid. Even serious journalists maintained that the C.I.A. was involved. In the Ukrainian civil war, the neo-fascist right of Western Ukraine has been busy recruiting neo-fascists in the rest of Europe. The German military secret service BND found out that the U.S. has dispatched special forces serving in a renamed version of Blackwater. The tabloid BILD Zeitung reported it, and the serious liberal newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung indirectedly confirmed it when it reported anger in Berlin government circles about this BND leak. Obviously. the Putin government reduplicated this interventionist ploy by resorting to the same dirty involvement in the Ukrainian civil war.

A Norwegian director of an institute of "peace studies," Mr. Galtung -- basically an old-style social democrat not very fond of either revolutionary Marxist endorsement of violent overthrow of governments, or neo-colonialist armed interference in the business of other countries (as practiced so often by various U.S. governments) -- noted recently that it is very difficult, after having recognized Kosovo's right to secede from Yugoslavia, to deny a region the right to separate in an orderly, peaceful, referendum-based way.

If Yugoslavia's government was wrong when it labelled the UCK-guerillas "terrorists" and when it resorted to armed suppression of the attempt to secede, then of course the regime in Kiev is also guilty of criminal violence against a civilian population that, overwhelmingly, wants its region to become independent. 

The same is, of course, true of the Basque provinces in Spain and France. Should a majority of the population prefer independence, there is no reasonable way to keep them from claiming and achieving it.

The geopolitical dimensions of the conflict seem to rule out a such a reasonable solution of the problem. Mr. Obama, in his Talinn speech, on September 3, 2014, played down the well-known involvement of the U.S. in what was a policy aiming at regime change. He said that "[t]he protests in Ukraine, on the Maidan, were not led by neo-Nazis or fascists. They were led by ordinary Ukrainians — men and women, young and old — who were fed up with a corrupt regime and who wanted to share in the progress and prosperity that they see in the rest of Europe." In a similar vein, Thomas L. Friedman had written (in the New York Times International weekly edition of May 23, 2014, p. 2), in what amounts to a dishonest, ironical commentary, "If a large body of Ukrainians gathered in the square in Kiev  [...], it could only be because the C.I.A., NATO or the E.U. inspired or paid them [...]" Both Mr. Friedman and Mr. Obama neglected -- probably on purpose -- a number of well-known facts such as the fact that independent journalists confirmed the key role of Svoboda and Right Sector activists in the violent escalation of the protests that set the stage for the unconstitutional ouster of Yanukovich, and the other fact that leading figures from both of these right-wing political organizations obtained key posts in the new post-Yanukovich regime in Kiev. 

As for U.S. involvement aiming at regime change, we should remember Victoria Nuland's revealing conversation with the U.S. ambassador in Kiev that was first leaked, probably by the Russians, and then confirmed as authentic, by the U.S. government. We should also remember Victoria Nuland's boastful reminder that the U.S. had spent a very large sum on furthering "democracy" in Ukraine. And we should remember the role of Belgrade-based OTPOR and the Talinn-based school of democracy affiliated with the "Estonian School of Diplomacy” that had been established with American help in order to prop up a pro-Western tendency in countries like Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia etc. Listen, in this respect, to Estonian Foreign Minister Paet speaking about this strategy: "“Now, as a member of NATO and the European Union, Estonia has become a strong supporter of extending [...] the values of these organisations,” said Paet. “We feel it is especially important to share our experiences with acceding states [but which states are actually "acceeding" at present? None. - Mr. Paets refers to states he, and the U.S. government, want to acceed - like Ukraine.,.]. Estonia and other like-minded nations are attempting to support the European Union’s Eastern Partners and keep them in focus. Within the framework of these endeavours, we plan to establish an Eastern Partnership training centre at Tallinn’s Estonian School of Diplomacy,” said Foreign Minister Paet. Paet noted that co-operation and exchanging ideas with various think tanks, including the experts at the Brookings Institute, will certainly be helpful for the establishment of the training centre [open to pro-democracy activists from Ukraine, etc.]." (Source:   (N.N., “[Estonian] Foreign Minister Paet Met with Javier Solana and Strobe Talbott,” Press Release on the occasion of an official meeting in Talinn, April 22-23, 2010, in:  http://www.vm.ee/?q=en/node/9282. Additions in brackets, by me - j.s.)

As for Mr. Obama, he went on in his Talinn speech to say that the masses on Maidan "did not engage in an “armed seizure of power.” He simply ignores the armed struggle that took place, the protestors that arrived on the square with guns, shields, gas masks, the testimony of a doctor affiliated with the protestors that protestors were shot at from two sides, from the front -- by the police, and into the back, from an upper floor of a hotel to which the anti-Yanukovich forces controlled access. The violent escalation on Maidan Square was a key factor in bringing down the recently elected president.  Of course, the violent escalation was brought about by an armed, militant,  right-wing minority -- no more than a third of the protesting crowd --  and not the average change-seeking protestor. But these right-wing militants and their action proved decisive. Of course, there were many on Maidan Square who would have preferred the protests to remain peaceful. These people probably sought to express support for a policy that would bring Ukraine into the E.U. They had clear hopes, it seems; they probably wanted an economic upturn, better lives, no oligarchs in power, no corrupt president. Are they likely to get an economic upturn now -- or austerity medicine, of the sort administered to Greece? Did they get rid of oligarchs, or is the chocolade king, Mr. Poroshenko, just another oligarch? What about getting rid of corrupt presidents?  An independent journalist, writing for a French journal,  pointed out that Mr. Poroshenko is a billionaire. Another journalist, a French citizens who fought against the Vietnamese communists, Monsieur Scholl-Latour, laconically observed about Mr. Poroshenko that it is pretty impossible to make billions by selling chocolade that doesn't taste good. He was alluding to the fact that the period of shady deals and corrupt people in power is not over. Mr. Yanukovich was corrupt, and he was preferred by Putrin because he seemed to promise a continued neutrality of Ukraine. Mr. Poroshenko, just like that other guy, "Yats," of whom Ms. Nuland was speaking in that leaked conversation, promises a different course -- not neutrality, but NATO membership. Whatever the Russian-speaking citizens in Eastern Ukraine may be worried about -- a fortress-type Eastern boundary, for instance, should Ukraine become a member of the E.U. (which would make work in Russia and communication with relatives in nearby Russian cities difficult) -- , the Russian leadership is worried about NATO membership of this neighboring country.

Mr. Obama, in his Talinn speech, either ignored such fears, or tackled them offensively. In Talinn he said, "Ukraine needs more than words. NATO needs to make concrete commitments to help Ukraine modernize and strengthen its security forces. And, by the way, we have to do more to help other NATO Partners, including Georgia and Moldova, strengthen their defenses as well." Applauded by his Estonian audience, the U.S. president added, "And we must reaffirm the principle that has always guided our Alliance — for countries that meet our standards and that can make meaningful contributions to allied security, the door to NATO membership will remain open." These are very clear words. The Russians have got the message. "You are sovereign and independent nations with the right to make your own decisions. No other nation gets to veto your security decisions." What Mr. Obama was thus telling his Baltic audience, was intended for others, too -- those in Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia, who might want to apply for NATO membership.

The right of sovereign states to join military alliances is one thing. 
The security interests of countries is another thing. The U.S. reacted very decisively when Cuba, effectively allied with the Soviet Union, consented to the stationing of Soviet missiles on Cuban soíl. Presumably, they would not accept the right of sovereign states either, should Quebec choose independence and then (hypothetically) join a military alliance that would encompass Russia (or China), bringing troops of their allied partner, at least for military exercises, to North America. 

A friend recently observed that in a way, the Russians, since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, have retreated again and again, swallowing things they did not like to swallow. A high-ranking U.S. official scoffed recently that they are just a third-rate power, implying that there exists no second global superpower any more. But we should keep in mind how many missiles with nuclear warheads Russia possesses. In this respect, the two former Cold War adversaries remain terrible threats to the survival of mankind. The West has recently engaged in reckless escalatory rhetoric. Its military presence close to Russia, and its determination to construct a missile shield, all threaten to eliminate Russia's first strike and second strike capacity -- thus promising to replace the old perverse logic of mutual deterrence by unilateral American superiority that can no longer be challenged, and that will therefore enable U.S. governments to dictate terms. The friend quoted said that a bear retreats when noticing humans; the animal will try to avoid contact. But when cornered, it will attack. On September 4, 2014, one day after Mr. Obama's Talinn speech, the German public radio network WDR Cologne quoted a high-ranking Russian official as saying that his country will not accept American troops near its frontier, practically on the doormat of the bear's cave. And that Russia may be compelled, under certain conditions, to carry out a preemptive first strike. 

-Jonathan Saunders

Carla Babb (Voice of America), "US To Lead Multinational Exercises In Ukraine," in: Albany Tribune, Albany NY, Sept. 3, 2014 http://www.albanytribune.com/03092014-us-lead-multinational-exercises-ukraine/ 

Barack Obama "Remarks by President Obama to the People of Estonia" [Text of the Talinn Speech], in: Albany Tribune, Albany NY, Sept. 3, 2014, http://www.albanytribune.com/03092014-remarks-president-obama-people-estonia/

Robert Parry, "Who’s Telling the ‘Big Lie’ on Ukraine?." in: Common Dreams, Sept. 3, 2014  http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/09/03/whos-telling-big-lie-ukraine


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