10 Things You Need to Know about Ukraine (2014)

Intervention isn’t always military

  1. The U.S. government, through Victoria Nuland, was caught interfering directly in Ukraine’s politics. Her “fuck the EU” phone call demonstrates the high level of U.S. State Department involvement.Our media focused largely on the negative PR caused by the “fuck the EU” comment, but skirted around the content of the phone call.

    The widely-leaked conversation featured Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt “micro-managing Ukraine opposition party strategies,” as Daniel McAdams put it.

  2. The U.S. has “invested” 5 billion, that’s five billion dollars, on Ukraine’s political system since 1991, according to Victoria Nuland.
  3. The presence of the far-right in the current round of anti-government demonstrations is significant. Reports, such as the one from Anti-Fascist Action in Ukraine, suggest that pro-fascist and neo-Nazi groups formed a militant core inside Ukraine’s protests. The extreme right attacked opponents that they perceived as leftist, and controlled traffic inside the demonstrations.Testimony from diverse outlets, such as Vice Magazine and Libcom.org, either focus upon the significant role of the extreme-right, or refer to the ‘unclear’ political ties of forces behind the most militant and organized protests.
  4. Representatives of the U.S. government are happy to meet publicly with, and grant legitimacy to, the official arm of Ukraine’s extreme right, the Svoboda party.Max Blumenthal’s article in Alternet and Salon provides detail about the disturbing political ideology of Svoboda, and the party’s link to the “Right Sector” militant street movement. As Blumenthal explains,

    “Svoboda’s openly pro-Nazi politics have not deterred Senator John McCain from addressing a EuroMaidan rally alongside Tyahnybok, nor did it prevent Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland from enjoying a friendly meeting with the Svoboda leader this February. Eager to fend off accusations of anti-Semitism, the Svoboda leader recently hosted the Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine. “I would like to ask Israelis to also respect our patriotic feelings,” Tyahnybok has remarked. “Probably each party in the [Israeli] Knesset is nationalist. With God’s help, let it be this way for us too.”

    [the stance of pro-Israel organizations on Ukraine’s crisis will be addressed shortly.]

  5. Although the U.S. and Canadian media have presented a narrative of a democratic uprising in Ukraine, the removal of Ukraine’s government was not conducted in a fashion that the U.S. or Canadian governments would consider ‘democratic’ were it to occur in their own countries.Yanukovich was elected. He was the candidate generally favoured by the Eastern and Russian-speaking portions of Ukraine, who were able to deliver more votes than his opposition.

    The removal of the government did not occur according to legal provisions in Ukraine that allow for the dissolution of a government.

    It was accompanied by considerable threats and violence that were not widely reported in Western media, (not until after the ouster of the government, and not in any coherent fashion). Armed members of the opposition surrounded Ukraine’s parliament and prevented certain legislators from entering, allowing in only those who they supported.

    Yanukovich remains the legal head of state in Ukraine.

  6. The far-right character of much of Ukraine’s opposition was immediately manifested in legislation, and through other actions, after the forced removal of the Yanukovich government.Laws protecting minority-language speakers, such as Russian and Greek, were repealed. These laws are an important part of the multi-ethnic character of Ukraine. The dissolution of these laws endangers the cultural balance within Ukraine, and does not appear to represent a majority desire within Ukraine.

    Posters of WWII Nazi collaborator Stephen Bandera were erected in at least one government building. [Celebration of Bandera had previously been the focus of a 15,000 member torchlight rally in Lviv.]

    One notable strongman attached to Ukraine’s far right, Sashko Biliy, was videotaped physically and verbally threatening a public prosecutor. Dmitry Yarosh is now ascendant, and may run for President.

    Essentially, Ukraine’s far-right was positioned in such a way as to be able to immediately implement aspects of its desired, ultra-reactionary agenda. Several of its activists now occupy key positions.

    The toppling of statues in Western Ukraine has also been characteristic of the opposition, and of the far-right. The toppling of statues of Lenin in part represents anti-communism, and has been excused in some quarters as anti-Russian sentiment. Not only have statues of Lenin been toppled, however, but also statues of war heroes who fought against the Nazis in the Second World War. The toppling of those statues suggests a hostility to the struggle against fascism that the war represented. The toppling of statues associated with the Soviet Union, with Russia, and with the allied cause in World War II, and simultaneous veneration of pro-Nazi figures such as Stephen Bandera, is consistent with the values of Ukraine’s far right. Some of the toppled Lenin statues were also vandalized with fascist graffiti.

    It is also interesting that, although hyperbole, one Svoboda MP is now calling for a Ukrainian nuclear weapons program, to be used against Russia.

  7. Russia’s protection of its Crimean assets, in the context of the takeover of Ukraine’s government, has been portrayed in Western media as an invasion of Ukraine. This rhetorical framework is misleading.There exists a legal agreement between Russia and Ukraine, negotiated in 1997, allowing Russia use of key Crimean naval facilities used by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Russia is permitted to station up to 25,000 soldiers in Crimea and Sevastopol to protect the naval facilities, although it employs fewer than that number at present.

    Given the very rapid and unprecedented actions that involve the removal of Ukraine’s government through no legal means, and the actions taken by organized militants who are demonstrably hostile to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, to the cultural presence of Russia in Ukraine, and the Russian government itself, Russia has mobilized its military to protect its Crimean facilities.

    Militias have also formed in East Ukraine in order to protect the Russian-speaking population, and supporters of the government, from what they perceive as an immediate threat to the political and cultural status-quo that existed in delicate balance before Yanukovich was forced out.

    From the standpoint of the Russian government, the extra-parliamentary toppling of Ukraine’s government, with consent, legitimacy, and organizational support provided by rival U.S. interests, represents a strategic threat to legally-protected Russian interests in Ukraine.

  8. The toppling of Ukraine’s government and its replacement with an anti-Russian, pro-U.S. body, accentuates the collapse of the post-Soviet “peace dividend.” Some figures in NATO governments, during the negotiations over the post-Soviet space, implied that NATO would not expand eastwards. As Der Spiegel reported in 2009,

    “On Feb. 10, 1990, between 4 and 6:30 p.m., Genscher spoke with Shevardnadze. According to the German record of the conversation, which was only recently declassified, Genscher said: “We are aware that NATO membership for a unified Germany raises complicated questions. For us, however, one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east.” And because the conversion revolved mainly around East Germany, Genscher added explicitly: “As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this also applies in general.”
    […]

    “I wanted to help them over the hurdle,” Genscher told SPIEGEL. To that end, the German foreign minister promised, in his speech in Tutzing, that there would not be “an expansion of NATO territory to the east, in other words, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union.” East Germany was not to be brought into the military structures of NATO, and the door into the alliance was to remain closed to the countries of Eastern Europe.”

    Of course, NATO has expanded to the East. It has expanded into former East Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, etc…

    In this context, Russia’s fears of encirclement and the presence of a rival military power approaching closer and closer to Russia reach a new level of justification with the overthrow of Ukraine’s government. A pro-NATO body is now poised to bring that organization in direct proximity to the Russian heartland. Russia was invaded twice by Western countries in the twentieth century alone, and the possibility of a NATO move into Ukraine has dramatically heightened the threat felt by Russia.

  9. Despite the celebration in the West of Ukraine’s new ‘government,’ it does not deviate from the promotion of ‘oligarchs’ and ‘corruption’ for which the Yanukovich government was attacked.Yulia Tymoshenko received a “lukewarm” reception in Kiev’s Independence Square, as many Ukrainians believe her to be as corrupt as other major political figures in the country.

    ‘Yats’ is an austerity-loving politician who is not expected to bring economic prosperity to Ukraine.

  10. With regard to economic arrangements, the Yanukovich government sometimes selected Russian options over U.S./E.U. options when Russian options appeared more favourable. The forced change in government suggests that Ukraine’s new leadership will swing away from Russian options, in favour of U.S. and E.U. economic arrangements.Ukraine’s economy is struggling, as it is forced to cope with aging industrial plant, while negotiating export deals with multiple regions of the world. It is experiencing a budget deficit, and a number of mounting expenses.

    There has been discussion about the Western “offer” of financial aid, versus the Russian “offer.” Russia offered Ukraine’s government under Yanukovich “5% interest on $12 billion in additional bailout money, and a 33% discount on natural gas purchases from Gazprom.” The EU had not made as generous an offer prior to the recent crisis. Ukraine’s new leaders are now seeking IMF restructuring in order to join the EU.

    A number of writers have also drawn attention to the negotiations over oil and gas, and their importance to the United States and NATO. Nafeez Ahmed’s article in the Guardian provides statements from NATO and the U.S. state department about the significance of Ukraine as an energy conduit, and Ukraine’s need to “diversify” access to its routes away from Russia.

  11. BONUS ITEM: Pro-Israel organizations in the U.S., Canada, and Israel itself have largely downplayed the role played by anti-Semitic, fascist, and neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine.Elements in Ukraine’s opposition are direct descendants of Nazi formations such as the Waffen SS, and the Nazi party itself.

    Despite attacking any criticism of Israel, real or perceived, as “anti-Semitic,” and despite the incredible lobby that daily attempts to link critics of Israel with an alleged rise of a ‘new Anti-Semitism,” the presence of thousands of organized, direct descendants of Nazism engaging in pro-Nazi activity did not appear to significantly alarm Israel, or its lobby organizations around the world.

    One would have to look for stories such as the firebombing of a synagogue. And “Jewish Journal” did not appear to think that the far-right presence in Ukraine’s demonstrations was a significant problem:

    “The world must realize that Ukrainian nationalists or Ukrainian radicals initiated the conflict. They are not seeking the power. It is true — they are in the first rows, confronting the riot police and internal military forces. However thousands of ordinary Ukrainians from all over the country are on the front lines as well. They are fighting for a free and democratic country; they are against the corrupt Russian government; they want to build a nation and an independent state. They want a secure future for their children.”

    “The time has come to forget the old Soviet propaganda myths about the Ukrainian nationalists and Ukraine in general. Ukrainians, like Jews, want to live in a country of their own where they can freely speak the Ukrainian language, where they can make a European choice and ultimately live in a country no longer under Russian dictate.”

    Here, we see an example of a mainstream Jewish publication advocating “Ukraine for the Ukrainians.”

    Discussion of anti-Semitic elements in Ukraine and the anti-Semitic character of protests sometimes becomes expanded into a discussion of anti-Semitic rhetoric from actors in both the Russian and Ukrainian sides of the conflict, as if they are equivalent. When discussing the issue at length, however, such as in an article in Canada’s Globe and Mail, representatives of the mainstream Jewish organizations concede that there may be dangers for Jews in Ukraine:

    “Frank Dimant, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said in a telephone interview this week that his group is “very much concerned that part of the element that was calling for freedom and change in Ukraine was made up of neo-Nazi and extreme right-wingers.”

    Mr. Dimant asked Immigration Minister Chris Alexander last week to advocate against any tolerance of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. He also asked that Jews who want to leave Ukraine, and who want to come to Canada rather than Israel for family reunification or professional purposes, be allowed to do so.

    Overall, discussion of the presence of Nazism in Ukraine’s political crisis, and anti-Semitic incidents, is fairly tepid in pro-Israeli and mainstream Jewish publications. Efforts are made to build equivalence between Russian and Ukrainian anti-Semitism, and Putin is sometimes characterized as a political opportunist for raising the issue.

    When it comes to a real case of the exact form of anti-Semitism responsible for the Holocaust, the official arms of the Jewish community, and the Harper government, are paralyzed. Conversely, the Harper government was able to deliver robust and high-profile support to the Ukrainian opposition.

Interpretation

Western media has favoured an extremely one-sided narrative, in which peaceful democratic protestors toppled and legitimately replaced an unpopular regime. In this narrative, Russia has reacted in a sinister fashion, ‘invading’ Ukraine in order to reverse this popular protest.

In reality, many demonstrators were not peaceful, or democratic, and represented minority factions of Ukraine’s body politic. The opposition was also characterized by the significant involvement, and interference, by the United States in Ukraine’s political process. The U.S. had no qualms about providing legitimacy to far-right elements, and was not overly concerned about the methods used to remove Ukraine’s government. The overall actions of Ukraine’s opposition resemble a putsch more than a democratic uprising.

It is not ‘Pro-Putin’ to suggest that dangerous militants from the extreme right have played an important role, and continue to play an important role, in the toppling of Ukraine’s government. What is happening in our (Western) media is that simple facts such as these are attributed to a “pro-Putin” position. The effect is to ‘Putin-bait’ opposition to the U.S./E.U. policy in Ukraine. Ukrainians should be able to decide their own economic and political arrangements without the level of interference that the West has demonstrated in Ukraine. It was possible for Ukraine under its various governments to negotiate energy and financial deals with Russia, China, the European Union, the United States, and other countries. The recent events in Ukraine, following five billion dollars of U.S. investment in Ukraine, and support for Ukraine’s far-right extremists, have negated the decision-making power of a large part, perhaps the majority, of Ukraine’s population.

Worse still are the geopolitical consequences following from the removal of Ukraine’s government. As Russia has watched its’ security frontier shrink by hundreds of kilometers since 1992, it has become increasingly willing to engage in military action along its borders, as in Georgia in 2008. The policy of bringing East European countries into NATO, by hook or by crook, is perhaps the most dangerous action with regard to international stability that is currently pursued by the United States government.

On top of everything that has been written here, it is important to again emphasize that Ukraine is deeply-divided, and in more ways than one.

Its history is tied to Kievan Rus, a political formation that was foundational to modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Through war and politics, Ukraine has been a part of Polish and Russian empires and federations, and parts of today’s Ukraine have been ruled by Hungary, Lithuania, and Austria. The very name “Ukraine” is interpreted as “border-land,” and its history is shaped by its proximity to European empires.

It is an understatement to say that Ukraine’s population is “mixed.” Ukraine’s East-West division is only its most prominent. The actual territory and borders of present-day Ukraine is a very recent development. The addition of Crimea, previously understood as a Russian territory, only occurred as a result of a decision by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

The political character of today’s Ukraine, whose borders were created little more than 20 years ago, is necessarily fragmented. The back-and-forth between East-oriented and West-oriented governments in Ukraine reflects its most significant division.

Consequently, when our newspapers report that Ukrainians overthrew an unpopular government, or Ukrainians rejoice at the return of Tymoshenko, they cannot mean all Ukrainians – although that is the message. Washington is speaking for Ukrainians in the same manner that it has spoken for Libyans, Syrians, and the Iraqi people. In the most recent elections, Ukrainians, as a country, voted for Yanukovich. Rather than respecting that decision, Western governments have applied pressure to topple Yanukovich.

Ukrainians should be allowed to pick and choose the political and economic agreements that work best within the Eastern and Western influences that shape Ukraine today. Russia and the U.S./E.U. provide various offers to Ukraine, as seen in the recent negotiations over energy and debt. The election of Yanukovich appeared, for the U.S., to shift the pendulum too far to the east. The subsequent actions of the United States are equivalent to a losing player throwing the chess board off the table. If there are no rules, what happens next?

In Solidarity with the Oppressed