Americans do not learn from history because they don’t know history, either their own or anybody else’s. That’s why they are so ready to swallow the narrative now being sold to them about what, exactly, is occurring in Ukraine.
According to the Official Version, the Brave People of Ukraine are holding off the voracious Russian Bear in the person of Stalin Vladimir Putin, who wants nothing more than to corral the long-suffering Ukrainians back into a post-cold war equivalent of the Warsaw Pact – the somewhat sinister-sounding “Eurasian Union.” The “pretext” – a Russian majority population in Crimea, which wants out of Ukraine. What should be the US position in this latest overseas crisis?
The near universal view, certainly among the political class both left and right, is summed up by Sen. John McCain’s all-too-predictable war cry: “We’re all Ukranians now!” The problem is that we’re not all Ukrainians now, and especially not the key players in this unfolding drama: the Crimeans.
While Western headline-writers are telling us Russian troops are moving into Ukraine, in reality they are moving into Crimea – which is not the same thing. While Crimea is officially an autonomous region formally within Ukraine, it has its own Parliament and, up until 1995, its own President. The majority of Crimeans are Russian-speakers, and they have voted repeatedly for close relations with Russia.
Crimea’s post-Soviet history is a rocky one. Unilaterally handed over to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 – in a move of dubious legality – Crimea was caught between Russia and Ukraine as the old USSR collapsed. In 1991, the Movement for a Republic of Crimea gathered 180,000 signatures on a petition calling for a popular referendum on Crimean independence, an informal “opinion poll” was held in which the modified demand for close relations with Russia passed overwhelmingly, and the elected Parliament adopted a resolution declaring Crimean sovereignty.
Kiev responded to this with the threat of force, and at that point the bargaining began. The Crimeans, for their part, used the separatist threat to gain some leverage in the negotiations with Kiev: what they wanted – and got – was control over local resources, which were about to be “privatized” by the crooks in Kiev and looted by various Western Ukrainian oligarchs. The local oligarchs took exception to this, and in the end they won out: Kiev basically caved and the resulting compromise kept Crimea within Ukraine, albeit with full economic and political autonomy.
The compromise, however, didn’t last long: in 1993, as the Ukrainian economy collapsed, the Ukrainian currency approached worthlessness, and the social fabric of what was essentially an administrative unit of the old Soviet Union rather than an actual nation came apart at the seams, a national movement for Crimean independence gained traction. The presidential and parliamentary elections of 1994 gave Yuri Meshkov, a Russian nationalist, a big majority and a subsequent referendum on closer ties with Russian wonnearly 80 percent of the vote. Kiev went ballistic, and Meshkov appealed to the Russians for protection, but President Yeltsin was more interested in appeasing the West and the Crimeans were ultimately left to fend for themselves. The Crimean presidency was abolished by unilateral decree of the Ukrainian Rada, and troops from Western Ukraine were sent in.
That same year, Yeltsin signed a tripartite agreement with Ukraine and the US, in which the Ukrainians agreed to give up their nuclear weapons – left over from the old Soviet days – with the secret protocols (never made public to this day) widely believed to guarantee Western support for Ukraine in the event of a threat to its arbitrarily-defined borders.
Yet the Crimean desire to be free of the Ukrainian yoke did not abate: in 2008, the Crimean Parliament voted to recognize Abhkazia and Ossetia, two former Soviet autonomous regions that had been arbitrarily handed over to Georgia and subsequently voted to rejoin Russia. That same year, one million Crimeans signed a petition demanding the Russian fleet be allowed to retain its presence in Sevastopol.
In spite of threats of force, and a series of heavy-handed administrative measures, Crimean separatism has continuously bubbled just beneath the surface, and polls show the majority of Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers favor separation. This desire to get away has no doubt been amplified a thousand-fold as a coalition of corrupt oligarchsand outright fascists with US support overthrew Viktor Yanukovich, the elected President, and the country teeters on the edge of bankruptcy and chaos.
With officials of the ultra-rightist Svoboda party – formerly the “Social National” party – in top positions in the new government in Kiev, and with the outright neo-Nazis of “Right Sector” being handed control of police and law enforcement bodies, Crimeans are refusing to recognize Kiev’s authority. The Crimean Parliament has – once again – declared independence and appealed to Russia for security guarantees, while the head of the Ukrainian navy, which is stationed in Sevastopol, has defected to the Crimean side.
The real story of what is happening in Ukraine is somewhat more complicated than the little morality play now being staged by the “mainstream” Western media. But then again there’s nothing new in that: the role of the American press as loyal servitor of the State has been repeatedly confirmed in recent years, from the Iraq fiasco to the demonization of Edward Snowden.
The roots of the crisis can be traced to the ongoing effort by the US and their EU allies to absorb Ukraine into the Western orbit. The West, with the US in the lead, deployed “soft power” in a bid to overthrow the pro-Russian duly-elected government of Ukraine, and they succeeded – due in large part to Yanukovich’s stupidity. It was and is a provocation, one designed to bait the Russian bear – and the success of that project has posed, for the first time since the Yugoslav wars, the prospect of military conflict on the European continent.
The decision by the Russian Duma to grant Putin authority to take military action in Ukraine – including in the Donetsk and Western Ukraine – is an ominous development indeed. What looms before us is the prospect of a vicious civil war in which both sides are supported as proxies by, respectively, the US/EU and Russia. What’s more, the Ukrainian army, while certainly inferior to the Russian military, is no likely pushover. The very idea of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is so counterproductive to Russia’s longterm interests that it is difficult to see Putin taking this course – and yet nothing can be ruled out at this point.
A military conflict would be a disaster for Ukraine, Russia, and the United States.
By moving Russian troops into Crimea, the Russian President may be biting off more than he can chew: Crimea, and Ukraine at large, is an economic basket case, and would require huge subsidies on top of the costs of a military occupation. Such a reckless move would isolate Russia at the very moment when it needs, more than ever, to become part of the international system, expand its trade relations with the rest of the world, and take its place in the family of nations as a recognized equal.
For Ukraine, which could default on its debt in a matter of weeks, the consequences of a war would be even more dire: for this would have to mean a vicious civil war that would turn the country into a battleground for proxy armies and devastate what’s left of the Ukrainian economy.
For the US, an open conflict with Russia over Ukraine would set back efforts to normalize our post-9/11 foreign policy – and reenergize the neoconservative warmongers who have been waiting in the wings for a second chance. Discredited by the disastrous Iraq war, and sidelined by the public, the neocons see in a new cold war a new lunch ticket for themselves and their allies in the political class. In short, the Ukraine crisis gives the War Party a new lease on life – and that is always a bad thing.
As these guys put it: We take no side in the conflict between the Ukrainian and the Russian nationalists. However, the Crimean people, just like any other people, have the right to national self-determination – and they have spoken on this issue many times over the years. Recognition of this right is the key to a peaceful resolution, but unfortunately the US government maintains that Ukraine’s borders – as set by a long-dead Communist regime – are sacrosanct. That this doesn’t apply in Kosovo – or, for that matter, in the country formerly known as Czechoslovakia – is one of those telling little inconsistencies US apologists downplay, but the rest of the world (and particularly the Slavic world) sees right through.
As usual, US Secretary of State John Kerry is out there making a fool out of himself and his country by making statements like: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”
On the Planet Kerry, the US invasion of Iraq on just such a pretext apparently never happened. Kerry’s brainless rhetoric is an embarrassment – and yet more evidence that our wise rulers in Washington are so completely out of touch that they’ve become a danger to themselves as well as the rest of the world. On the other side of the aisle, we have Senator James Inhofe declaring his nostalgia for the cold war: he recently averred, mournfully, that “mutual assured destruction doesn’t mean anything anymore”!
Mutual assured destruction – that just about sums up the consequences if the US and Russia engage in yet another cold war. And that will make many people in Washington quite happy.
Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute.
He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles.