A treatise on the upheaval in Ukraine, in eight takes.
The money shot:
As tensions rose on the streets of the Russian-speaking eastern portion of Ukraine, the response of the new government in the capital on Sunday was not to send troops, but to send rich people.
The interim government, worried about Russian efforts to destabilize or seize regions in eastern Ukraine after effectively taking control of the Crimean peninsula in the south, is recruiting the country’s wealthy businessmen, known as the oligarchs, to serve as governors of the eastern provinces.
The strategy, which Ukrainian news media are attributing to Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and party leader, is recognition that the oligarchs represent the country’s industrial and business elite, and exercise great influence over thousands of workers in the east, which is largely ethnically Russian.
The office of President Oleksandr V. Turchynov announced on Sunday the appointments of two billionaires — Sergei Taruta in Donetsk and Ihor Kolomoysky in Dnipropetrovsk — and more were reportedly under consideration for positions in the eastern regions….
The ultra-wealthy industrialists wield such power in Ukraine that they form what amounts to a shadow government, with empires of steel and coal, telecoms and media, and armies of workers. Persuading some to serve as governors in the east was a small victory for the new government in Kiev.1
Has there ever been a more pathetic postscript to a putative “revolution”? This act by Ukraine’s new-old rulers encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the phony “democracy promotion” advanced by American “regime changers,” everything that’s wrong with the recent history of the post-Soviet republics, and everything that was wrong with Soviet Stalinism. It’s a sorry symptom of the sad state of politics and ideology in Ukraine, and in the whole wide neo-liberal world. More on that later.
Let’s take a careful look at what has happened in Ukraine.
It was an insurrection
What occurred in Ukraine is the overthrow of a democratically-elected government and the subversion of parliamentary democracy by an insurrection. There can be no serious argument about this. According to the extant standards of bourgeois democracy, Viktor Yanukovych was freely and fairly elected. There was and is no dispute about that. His party, the Party of the Regions, was elected as the largest in the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament). He was driven out of office and out of the country, and his party was effectively overturned in parliament, by an armed insurrection.
Yanukovych was so corrupt
He certainly was, before and after his election. But so are his political opponents, all of whom are in the pockets of one oligarch or another. This includes his former nemesis, and the woman some in the West see “almost as a modern-day saint,”2 Yulia Tymoshenko, who is a corrupt oligarch in her own right. She made a fortune in sweetheart natural-gas deals in the 1990s with then-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko—deals for which Lazarenko was prosecuted and convicted, and Tymoshenko named as a co-conspirator, in the United States. This earned her the nickname of “The Gas Princess,” and because she was very cozy with Russia in these deals—before, fortune made, she became all anti-Russian and pro-Western—she is also known on the street as “Putin in a skirt.3”
As one commentator remarks:
In a country with endemic and rather extraordinary corruption—which is really the most important issue for many Ukrainians—Tymoshenko’s best hope may be that Yanukovych has left behind such obvious symbols of his stupid cupidity.4
Now, The Economist reckons: “One [clear thing] is that the government is going to be controlled by Yulia Tymoshenko… She has no official post, but Mr [Alexander] Turchinov [speaker of the parliament and acting president] is her right-hand man and Mr [Arseniy] Yastsenyuk [the new Prime Minister] is the leader of her party, Fatherland.” Actually, I think this may be true in the short run, but it’s not a sure bet to last.
The Economist also points out that, behind the public theater on the maidan:
A less visible battle has been going on between various Ukrainian oligarchs and the members of Mr. Yanukovych’s extended family who took their place at the trough. These oligarchs used their money, influence and political fronts to pile on pressure.”5
The Economist’s analysis is echoed by Denis, a member of the Autonomous Workers Union (a revolutionary syndicalist group) in Kiev, in an interview published in mid-February:
Since 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, who had initially been just a puppet of powerful oligarchs, has become an ambitious businessman himself. His elder son has accumulated vast powers; “The Family” occupied important positions in the government, monopolized control over capital flows, and started fighting with Rinat Akhmetov, Dmitry Firtash and other oligarchs who had been their sponsors previously. Naturally, the traditional oligarchic clans didn’t like this, so the current protest has also an elite dimension.6
Yanukovych, then, is only the nouveauist of the rich oligarchs, squeezing his snout into the trough with “stupid cupidity.” That made him a target of the USDA-approved smartly greedy swine, and a convenient scapegoat to throw under the bus of popular discontent. The Western media won’t be featuring shocked, shocked corruption-morality-play tours of Akhmetov’s, or Firtsah’s, or Tymoshenko’s, personal palaces, in Ukraine and elsewhere, with America’s Top Designers judging how gaudily or elegantly appointed they are.
So, corrupt indeed. Everyone accuses everyone else of corruption, and they are all right. Transparency International ranks Ukraine 144th (of 177) on its Corruption Perception Index, tied with Nigeria. Corruption is endemic in the Ukraine, and the overthrow of Yanukovych does nothing to overturn that. Even the Rada, now the seat of all power in the new, Yanukovych-free, democratic, Ukraine, is, as The Economist recognizes, “itself the product of this corrupt system, its seats bought and sold by the oligarchs’ factions for years.” So, “a corrupt, cowardly and thuggish president” has been overthrown, “but the post-Soviet order which prevailed in Ukraine over the past two decades has not been uprooted.”
Only in a bizarre—but unfortunately real and elaborate—ideological construct, can a round of oligarchic musical chairs be sold as a victory for “democracy.”
It was the “endemic and extraordinary” corruption, the theft of the wealth of society, that, more than anything else, infuriated the people of Ukraine. The Economist correctly notes that “The oligarchs and their political place-men are creatures of the dysfunctional state that Maidan rejects.” Yet, it’s the oligarchs—“ultra-wealthy” billionaires with “empires of steel”—who are now being sent to rule over, and soothe/placate their “armies of workers.” Goodbye, Yanuk, hello, John Galt-ovich.
That anybody thinks billionaire oligarchs are just the ticket to soothe the savage breasts of discontented workers, marks how deeply entrenched capitalist, allied with nationalist, ideologies have become in the post-Soviet states. In Ukraine, and in western Ukraine particularly, Stalin’s crimes gave rise to a nasty strain of nationalism that collaborated with the Nazis during WWII (discussed below). This, combined with a visceral rejection of anything calling itself “socialism,” has led to a hardening of Ukrainian identity in “nationalist” terms, promoted by Ukrainian educational and institutions. As Denis remarks:
[T]he crash of the “real socialism” also brought about the crash of the progressive values which had been officially promoted in that society (atheism, feminism, internationalism). The gap has been promptly filled by the wild mixture of nationalism and conservatism (and New Age charlatan philosophy, for that matter). This shift was eagerly supported by the state ideological apparatus. Actually, in many universities at the beginning of 1990s the departments of “scientific communism” were rebranded into “scientific nationalism”! Later they became the departments of “political science” though.
It has also led to a host of illusions, reinforced by the messages of Western mass media, about what’s on offer in the capitalist West:
[Y]ou should understand that from the very beginning people had a very peculiar understanding of “Europe.” They pictured a very utopian ideal – society without corruption, with high wages, social security, rule of law, honest politicians, smiling faces, clean streets etc. – and called it “EU”. And when one tried to tell them that actual EU has nothing to do with this pretty picture, that people there actually burn EU flags and protest against austerity etc. – they retorted: “So would you better live in Russia then?” So, yes, from the very beginning the protest was driven by the false consciousness of “civilizational choice”, by nationalist ideological patterns which didn’t leave any room for the class agenda. These are the results of the bourgeois cultural hegemony, in Gramscian terms, and this is the main problem we should fight in this country over next years (or even decades).
Capitalism, Socialism, Nationalism: Post-Soviet Confusions
In their anti-Russian fury and nationalist rejection of “Bolshevik” class politics, people in the maidan may think they’re getting the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but they’re going to end up with the real homeless of Camden. The Yanukovych regime itself promoted these Europeanist illusions. Here’s Denis again:
EU hysteria [was] provoked by the government itself! For the whole year 2013 they were constantly talking about how Ukraine is going to sign that agreement with the EU. They’ve roused the expectations of the “pro-European” part of the population, and then, when suddenly they made a U-turn, people were extremely frustrated and angry. That was the initial impulse.
Indeed, Yanukovych dug his own grave in many ways, including his attempts to institute the neo-liberal austerity measures that were demanded by the EU deal:
[T]here are very real reasons for people to hate the government, too. When Yanukovych became president in 2010, he started pushing for unpopular neo-liberal steps. The natural gas tariffs were growing; the government launched medical reform which will eventually lead to closure of many medical institutions and to introducing the universal medical insurance instead of the unconditional coverage [Yanukocare?]; they pushed through extremely unpopular pension reform (raising pension age for women) against the will of more than 90% of population; there was an attempt at passing the new Labour Code which would seriously affect workers’ rights; the railway is being corporatized; finally, they passed a new Tax Code which hit small business. But eventually this assault wasn’t very successful, and the government had to back off. … They saw they can’t move on with such low levels of support. But still, the welfare of the working classes, as well as the general state of the economy leaves much to be desired, and people have all legitimate reasons to demand better living standards. Sadly, these grievances are dressed in the false consciousness of nationalism.
Whatever one thinks of Yanukovych, the idea that, by not signing the EU deal in November, he committed some horrible, treasonous act that compromised Ukraine’s independence, is the opposite of the case. Indeed, as Marilyn Vogt-Downey says, in her excellent analysis, Yanukovych “would have severely dampened enthusiasm for this Agreement,” if he “had summarized the terms of only one part of it—the Agreement’s ‘Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area,’ and explained what it would mean to the Ukrainian people—namely, ”convert[ing] Ukraine into one big ‘free trade zone’, where the anti-environment, anti-labor, and pro-business laws would prevail.” 7
He could not, however, because: “during his time in power, he—like all the Ukrainian rulers since Ukraine became independent with the collapse of the USSR in 1992—had already been pursuing measures similar to those the IMF would impose.” So, the popular discontent generated by EU austerity measures led to a popular movement which overthrew Yanukovych, in favor of a government that vows to institute those same EU austerity measures! Discontent against an unpopular elected president has led to his overthrow in favor of an unelected government whose prime minister says: “I’m going to be the most unpopular prime minister in the history of my country.”8
As someone who lives a few blocks from Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, the Ukrainian National Home, the Ukrainian Museum, the Ukrainian-American Youth Association, restaurants named Kiev and Veselka (“probably the most famous Ukrainian restaurant in the world”9), whose sister married a Ukrainian-American, and who is a denizen of joints where owners, patrons, and friends are speaking Ukrainian, I humbly submit that: Ukraines who think the government produced by this insurrection, with the EU-IMF initiative it adopts, is going to solve these problems are confused. This “revolution” is not about making Ukraine more democratic or less corrupt; it is about creating a government whose “main responsibility … will be to carry through a social onslaught against the Ukrainian working class at the behest of international capital.”10 These measures include the cuts in pensions and crucial fuel subsidies, as well as things like the large-scale fracking deal with Chevron that was announced last week. Economists predict a 10% collapse in GDP; Greece lost 25% in 5 years with the program the new prime minister wants to emulate [see below]. Rest assured, however: Rimat, Dmitri, and Yulia won’t lose one estate or one hryvnia.
The new government knows it will have a few months, while everybody’s all warm and cuddly in the afterglow of “democratic revolution,” to inflict the plague of austerity, before popular anger is turned against it. Arseny Yatseniuk, the American-favored prime minister calls it a “kamikaze government.” Oleksandr Turchynov, the president, says: “This government is doomed. Three, four months and they won’t be able to work, because they have to make unpopular decisions.”11
It’s not just wacky socialists who understand things this way. Here’s an excerpt from a Forbes article, cogently titled, ”Washington’s Man Yatsenyuk Setting Ukraine Up For Ruin”:
Vladimir Signorelli, president of boutique investment research firm Bretton Woods Research LLC in New Jersey. “Yatsenyuk is the the kind of technocrat you want if you want austerity, with the veneer of professionalism,” Signorelli said. “He’s the type of guy who can hobnob with the European elite. A Mario Monti type: unelected and willing to do the IMFs bidding,” he said. [Mario Monti is an Italian “technocrat”—i.e., IMF stooge—who brought austerity to Italy.]
…Yats had friends in high places and while he does not have strong support of the electorate, and would have no chance of winning an election, he is pro-IMF austerity and apparently the bulk of parliament is as well.
“Yatsenyuk was saying that what the Greeks did to themselves we are going to do ourselves,” said Signorelli. “He wants to follow the Greek economic model. Who the hell wants to follow that?”…For economists who think austerity is a disaster, Ukraine is on a path to ruin.
This ruin is going to compound “the scorched earth economics of capitalist restoration” to which Ukraine has already been subject. Ukraine now boasts the highest maternal mortality rate in Europe, and is the 80th poorest country in the world, (based per capita GDP), behind Iraq and Tonga. Since it became “free” in 1991, 15% of its population has emigrated, its birth rate declined, and its population shrank 11%–classic hallmarks of a moribund and dependent “third-world” social economy.12
Along with a lot of other people, Ukraines need to recognize that the “endemic and extraordinary” corruption of their polity is the necessary prerequisite and inevitable result of the restoration of capitalism—of the shock-therapy transformation of post-Soviet Ukraine into a crony capitalist playground. To turn Ukraine (and the Soviet Union itself) into a capitalist society required the creation of creatures that had not existed: capitalists. It required, that is, transferring the industrial “armies” that constitute the capital wealth of the country from public ownership (however well- or poorly-managed) into the hands of private individuals, who can now own and control the wealth of the country for their private gain above all. (You know, those oligarchs who have managed things so much better over the last twenty years.) The only way to do that was by various forms of semi-disguised theft that handed industries over—i.e., sold them at bargain-basement prices—to various candidates, often functionaries of the old regime, who were likely to be compliant with the foreign capital and capitals that were subsidizing and pushing this whole process—no matter what the cost to ordinary Ukraines. That’s capitalism.
Isn’t “endemic” corruption a structural feature of capitalism itself? It’s quite common in the capitalist world, I’ve heard, that wealthy billionaires capture the political process, functioning as “what amounts to a shadow government.” You say “oligarch” and I say “plutocrat.” It’s also quite common to think that the problems of capitalism will be solved by better capitalists enforcing more austere capitalism, which will only actually exacerbate inequality, social misery, and corruption itself. Let’s call the whole thing off.
But, again, don’t take a socialist’s word for it. Here’s Bogdan Danilishin, a former minister of economy in Yulia Tymoshenko’s government (and a former target of “abuse of power” inquiries himself):
In order to be saved, the Ukrainian economy doesn’t need 35 billion dollars or even 135 billion dollars. It will be stolen anyway. They just need to check and evaluate all privatization deals made during the last years. All that has been bought for a reduced price or illegally must be nationalized or the difference must be paid to the state budget. All taxes that oligarchs have been exempt from for the last three years must be paid.13
Of course, there’s no chance for such a real reform process. It would require a genuinely democratic re-nationalization that would retrieve the wealth of the country stolen by the oligarchs, and the neo-liberal government installed by this putatively democratic insurrection will never consider that. As one commentator wrote on Investment Watch: “The new government might go after a few oligarchs who ended up on the wrong side of the fence. But those who’d backed the uprising directly or indirectly and who are now backing the new government would be able to hang on to their property, their ill-gotten wealth, and their tax privileges.”14
You don’t have to be a socialist to recognize the problem. (Only to solve it.) I have to agree with our Ukrainian syndicalist, Denis, that the predominance of what he calls “bourgeois cultural hegemony,” and the displacement of class with nationalist politics, which makes it so difficult for Ukrainians to see what’s happening in these terms, is “the main problem we should fight in this country over next years (or even decades).” Otherwise, they’ll be rearranging the deck chaise longues of the oligarchs over and over again. Kamikaze revolutions for kamikaze governments.
Yanukovych was so authoritarian
One can certainly say that Yanukovych had authoritarian tendencies, and that they were getting worse. On January 16th, in the midst of militant anti-government protests that had been going on for two months, he passed a set of harshly repressive anti-protest laws. Predictably, these laws only further inflamed the rebellion, and most of them were repealed or diluted by the parliament on January 28th. No question that the Interior Ministry police, Berkut, were also brutal in their attempts to break up or limit demonstrations and occupations. Of course, as we’ve seen time and time again, repression – if images thereof are widely broadcast and insistently framed with outrage – only builds popular support for protestors. Protestors’ injuries and deaths only intensified the conflict (particularly the deaths from sniper fire on February 20th, more on that later), drew more people into what was incontestably a massively popular movement (in Kiev and the western Ukraine, at least), and intensified protestors’ resolve to settle for nothing less than the immediate ouster of Yanukovych.
Whether Yanukovych’s police, and attempted legal, repression was unusually more brutal than that of any president in any country, elected or not, who was besieged by a militant movement, no matter how popular, seeking his immediate deposition, I’ll leave as an open question. What is unusual in this instance is that the protestors fought back, fiercely and from the get-go. They defended their positions, built strong barricades, prepared for battle, armed themselves with everything from makeshift weapon to firearms (as they thought appropriate), and did not hesitate to go on the offensive when they could. Beatings, and bullets, were flying both ways.
It was a insurrection in which force trumped electoral and constitutional legitimacy
Yale historian Timothy Snyder has taken to Democracy Now and the New York Review of Books as a leading intellectual voice arguing that American liberals should wholeheartedly support the Ukrainian “revolution” and condemn the Russian “invasion” of Crimea. He likes to portray the maidan movement as a kind of utopian, even classical, space of enhanced dialogue, a place where liberal-minded Americans watching Amy Goodman can feel right at home:
But a maidan now means in Ukrainian what the Greek word agora means in English: not just a marketplace where people happen to meet, but a place where they deliberately meet, precisely in order to deliberate, to speak, and to create a political society.15
Pass the talking stick, Plato.
Well, yes, revolutionary uprisings – of which the Paris Commune has been the socialist prototype, after all – are, importantly, that kind of space, the one where people work out how to build a new “political society” with their comrades. They are also, necessarily, this (circa Jan 25th):
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And this (circa Jan 21st):
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In the language of revolution, agora means battlefield.
Do not get me wrong: I do not present these images as dispositive evidence that discredits the maidan protestors. These kinds of forceful actions – not just defensive, but aggressive actions that advance one’s position – are often necessary to fight and win game-changing political battles. It is not I who wants to pretend that revolutionary struggles can and/or must always be won by purely non-violent means. I find the methodical advance of the protestors into the administration building in the first clip quite instructive, for example. Their fierce determination to keep pressing forward, not resorting to firearms as long as the police don’t, but using every makeshift weapon they can get their hands on, stripping the police of their armor and pulling them out of formation until they break ranks and retreat – these people didn’t come out to express themselves; they came to fight and win. Good for them, depending on what they’re fighting for.
As someone who finds it insulting to go to demonstrations in America’s most liberal cities, where protestors are literally penned in like cattle, I’d just like to ask those Americans who have seen what happened to their fellow citizen protestors in Seattle, and Pittsburgh, and Wall Street: If protestors from Zuccotti, or Central, or Lincoln, or Lafayette Park, tried to seize and occupy a nearby civil administration building, exactly how many inches do you think they would advance into that structure, exactly how many cops would they set on fire, before they would have the living shit beaten out of them? Before any means that were necessary to stop them were deployed against them?
And exactly how many words of praise and support would American politicians and media personalities have to say about them? How many cookies would they be served?
Yes, the Ukranian protestors were protected by their numbers and by their large base of political support, which served to buttress their fierce determination. Mass political strength is a powerful weapon. Still, insistent deployment of near-lethal riot-control agents and technologies (sound cannons, etc.), let alone concentrated lethal firepower from the automatic weapons and tanks of an army, can, at least temporarily, overcome even that. Are the Berkut not as heavily militarized as average American urban police department have become? Was the Yanukovych regime reluctant to employ more heavily militarized police weaponry, or to call on the army – whether out of respect for the people, respect for the political costs, and/or fear that orders would not be followed? Is there a high horse here that the American regime can ride on?
As the more trenchant intellectual voice of Stephen Cohen puts it:
But let me ask you, if in Washington people throwing Molotov cocktails are marching on Congress—and these people are headed for the Ukrainian Congress—if these people have barricaded entrance to the White House and are throwing rocks at the White House security guard, would President Obama withdraw his security forces?….We wouldn’t permit that in any Western capital, no matter how righteous the cause.16
Let’s not forget (if by some chance you were ever made aware) that in the final week of confrontation, it was the protest movement, feeling its increasing power, that repeatedly initiated violent confrontations to get immediate satisfaction of their demands.
As the AP reports:
The latest street violence began Tuesday [February 18th] when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing Yanukovych of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would once again limit the president’s power.17
By Wednesday evening, a truce was announced, but it:
appeared to have little credibility among hardcore protesters. One camp commander, Oleh Mykhnyuk, told the AP even after the alleged truce, protesters still threw firebombs at riot police on the square. As the sun rose, police pulled back, the protesters followed them and police then began shooting at them, he said.
Who’s on the offensive?
By Thursday, the 20th, AP cites the Ukrainian Health Ministry as saying that “28 people have died and 287 have been hospitalized this week.” In a slightly earlier report, discussing the theft by protestors of 1500 guns, RT says that at “At least 26 people, including 10 police officers, have been killed and some 800 injured since the start of violent riots in Kiev on Tuesday.” The AP avoids any mention of police causalities, and avoids any mention of protestors’ firearms. They had them and can be seen here using them.18
On Thursday, the worst day of violence:
Fearing that a call for a truce was a ruse, protesters tossed firebombs and advanced upon police lines … in Ukraine’s embattled capital. Government snipers shot back and the almost-medieval melee that ensued left at least 70 people dead and hundreds injured, according to a protest doctor. ..In addition, one policeman was killed Thursday and 28 suffered gunshot wounds.
Snipers. They seem always to appear at key moments in protests like these, raining sudden and arbitrary death from above – a particularly vicious tactic, certain to infuriate the protestors and harden their resolve. The new Interior Minister has called the sniper shootings “the key factor in this uprising.” Let’s remark that, despite the figure in the AP article, there was more than “one” policemen killed by sniper fire, and, despite the presumption of the AP, as well as of Obama and Kerry, it is not all clear that these were “government” snipers. In fact, according to what Estonian Foreign Minister, Urmas Paet, recounted in a phone conversation with EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, “What was quite disturbing, this same Olga [Olga Bogomolets, a doctor on the maidan] told that, well, all the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers from both sides, among policemen and people from the streets, that they were the same snipers killing people from both sides… So there is a stronger and stronger understanding that behind snipers it was not Yanukovych, it was somebody from the new coalition.” “Gosh,” says Ashton. We’ll return to the sniper issue later.19
Sure enough, this violence catalyzed a political breakthrough, and on Friday, as the AP reported, “a representative from Russia” as well as the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland—met with “the opposition leaders,” then with Yanukovych for five hours, then with opposition leaders again, as US Vice President Joe Biden “placed repeated calls to both Ukrainian negotiating sides.”20 As a result of this intense mediation a radical new agreement was worked out that represented the regime’s virtually complete surrender to the opposition’s position. The agreement, which the Russians did not like and “pointedly skipped … signing,” called for a unity government, early elections, a return to the 2004 Constitution, and amnesty for arrested protestors. As Vladimir Putin characterized it, implying his dislike: “I would like to stress that under that agreement (I am not saying this was good or bad, just stating the fact) Mr Yanukovych actually handed over power… Moreover, he issued orders to withdraw all police forces from the capital, and they complied.”21 Even a Russian leftist critic of Putin, who came to the maidan, remarked: “The president even asked the opposition parties to appoint the prime minister.”22 Furthermore, the parliament immediately sealed the deal, enacting laws that would allow for the release of Julia Tymoshenko, curb presidential powers, and make it easier to reverse Yanukovych’s decision about the EU economic agreement that had been the original catalyst for the protests.
And, sure enough, that did not satisfy the protestors either:
Militant anti-government activists in Ukraine on Saturday threatened to storm the president’s palace and shatter a fragile peace deal to end the ex-Soviet country’s bloodiest crisis since independence…
“Elections in December are not enough — he has to leave now,” said 34-year-old Oleh Bukoyenko as he joined 40,000 protesters to hear the peace pact’s details announced on the square late Friday….One ultranationalist speaker grabbed the stage on Independence Square late Friday to call on protesters to storm the president’s office at 10:00 am (0800 GMT) Saturday should Yanukovych fail to relinquish power overnight.
The call was met with cheers and rounds of applause. Several top opposition leaders meanwhile were booed for signing the compromise agreement allowing Yanukovych to keep his post until snap elections are called by the December deadline….
So, by end of day Saturday, the 22nd, protestors had taken control of the presidential administration buildings “without resistance,” and Yanukovych had fled.
Let’s put aside for the moment the “content” of this protest and uprising, its ultimate political point and program, and acknowledge the incontrovertible fact that it was an extra-legal, extra-constitutional action that imposed its political will and achieved its one immediate goal – the ouster of Ukraine’s elected President – by force. It succeeded by the force of popular pressure and armed resistance and assault on the streets of Kiev, helped along greatly by international pressure, with no real concern for what was legal or constitutional or electorally legitimate. “Coup” is a perfectly reasonable word for what happened, though, in recognition of its significant popular base, I prefer to call it an “insurrection.”
In Kiev, with the blessing of virtually all the world’s political and media missionaries of capitalist democracy, force trumped elections. This movement deposed a President who had been chosen in a 2010 election that, according to European and NATO observers, “was a good and competitive election and very promising for the future of Ukraine’s democracy.” It was an election in which there was “a genuine democratic choice between a large number of candidates,” and “Open access to information about the candidates and their programmes [that] allowed the Ukrainian voters to make a well-founded choice.” It was an election that, as the NATO representative summarized, “the Ukrainian voters won.” Sounds to me like an election that was no less “free and fair” than elections held in these VoterID-Electoral-College-Florida-Ohio-Citizens-United States.23
In the parliament, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was “the most widely supported Ukrainian political party…hold[ing] nearly forty percent of the seats in the Rada. No other political party even comes close to holding this type of support in the Ukrainian political landscape or the Rada.”24 Furthermore, this movement deposed a President in defiance of the extant constitutional electoral process that had him facing a new election in less than a year, an election no one had any reason to believe would be less fair than that of 2010 – especially since, as we saw above, the President had effectively ceded all of his effective power before the movement’s final assault. According to the rules of parliamentary democracy, the proper way to get rid of a corrupt and despised elected leader is to vote the bastard out. If Yanukovych were widely despised, and the Kiev opposition widely supported, throughout Ukraine, he could easily have been removed by electoral means. On the other hand, it may not have been quite so easy, and some serious adjustment to the constitutional-electoral order might have been necessary, precisely because the Kiev opposition still has this to contend with this:
And why not call this what it is? Isn’t that what revolutionary change is all about – a radical break with the old order? To reprise what I said in a previous post on Egypt: An electoral process can be a thin facade of democracy and, effectively, a tool of disempowerment, justifying militant extra-electoral politics, or even insurrection. A serious revolutionary conjuncture, a real break into a new social order, usually involves both. It’s an unapologetic, forceful, seizure of power that seeks to be definitive and irreversible. (Of course, not every insurrection is a revolution, or even a step forward, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)
As someone who accepts the revolutionary socialist argument, I do not object to extra-legal, extra-parliamentary, insurrectionary politics per se. And guess what? All the self-proclaimed liberal, conservative, moderate, non-violent, constitutional, parliamentary democratic thinkers, politicians and commentators who are proudly and loudly supporting what happened in Ukraine also do not object to extra-legal, extra-parliamentary, insurrectionary politics per se – they just don’t want to admit it. Like me, they will support an insurrection, depending on what it’s about. Unlike me, they will pretend it wasn’t really an insurrection at all, just another, maybe somewhat “messy,” but fundamentally non-violent, constitutionally-authorized transition within the rules of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. And that’s because, as the man said: We wouldn’t permit that in any Western capital, no matter how righteous the cause.
It’s quite amusing, until it gets sickening, to watch American leaders—who cling to the notion that a thin, corrupt, disempowering electoral process legitimizes them—embrace the forceful overthrow of a democratically-elected leader in a functioning parliamentary democracy while insisting they are doing no such thing.
Let’s recognize that virtually nobody really supports or opposes what happened in Ukraine, or anywhere else, because it was an insurrection, but because of what kind of insurrection it was – what it’s explicit and implicit socio-political objective was, what different kind of society and polity it was moving toward creating. And let’s recognize that the US would denounce, and help to crush, any insurrection, no matter how popular or righteous the cause, in which leftist forces played anything close to the prominent fighting role that right-wing, neo-fascist forced played in this one. If revolutionary anarcho-syndicalists had been the vanguard of the maidan, Yanukovych would have been America’s “democratic” hero.
As for “democracy” (along with “nonviolent,” one of the most dishonestly abused words in the American political vocabulary), it certainly does not just mean having an election. It means power to the people. Neither Ukrainian oligarchs, nor the EU-IMF neo-liberal “technocrats,” nor the American government, nor NATO, want that. They have too much to lose.
It was a right-wing, imperialist insurrection, powered by fascist groups and permeated with fascist ideology
The overthrow of Yanukovych was an insurrection accomplished by a political movement that was driven by popular socio-economic discontent and thoroughly imbued by “ultranationalist”—i.e., neo-fascist—ideology.
It was decidedly not a revolution, in the strong sense of the word. A revolutionary insurrection marks the beginning of a change in the social order. This movement did not, will not, and, given its foundations, could not, establish a popular government that will create anything like more widespread prosperity and deeper democracy, let alone a new social order.
It was a regime change, fuelled by popular discontent, powered by neo-fascist militants, and surreptitiously managed by American intelligence diplomats, with Ukrainian oligarchs maneuvering for ultimate control behind the scenes—factions that have different, sometimes internally contradictory, agendas. It will create a government that will be controlled by and benefit some Ukrainian oligarchs at the expense of others, that will benefit European and American capitalism at the (acknowledged, indeed promised!) cost of austerity and immiseration for Ukrainian working people, and that will benefit American and NATO plans for an ever-tightening military encirclement of Russia at the expense of possible war and perpetual tension for Ukraine.
The only possibility for a more serious, “revolutionary” break from neo-liberal standards of oligarchic-imperial rule in the near future would come from the neo-fascist groups, who indeed imagine themselves to have a radically different agenda. But guess what? Faced with any popular uprising against its policies, from the right or the left, the new neo-liberal, Euro-facing, Russia-hating, America-loving, Ukrainian government, and its international supporters, will trot out the bourgeois democratic principles that its leaders, of course, never really contravened, and insist, Berkut (by any other name) and all: We won’t permit that in our democratic, European capital, no matter how righteous the cause.
Is there anybody who honestly doubts any of this?
Brendan O’Neill makes the point quite nicely:
For what we have in Ukraine is not revolution, but regime change …As for the word ‘revolution’ … its deployment in Ukraine takes its bastardisation to a new low: there has of course been no replacement of one social order by another in Ukraine, or even the instalment of a people’s government; instead various long-established parties in parliament, some of which are deeply unpopular among certain constituencies in Ukraine, are forming an interim government. Revolutionary? Hardly.
The Western debate and coverage … has certainly made externally generated regime change seem revolutionary, and the Western-assisted anti-democratic removal of an elected leader seem like an act of people’s democracy. It has exposed a severe dearth of independent critical thinking among the Western commentariat. …
The truth of what has happened in Ukraine is this: the EU and Washington have effectively brought about regime change, replacing an elected pro-Russian regime with an unelected, still-being-formed new government that is more amenable to the institutions of the West.26
Regarding the “fascism” question, Max Blumenthal’s Alternet piece, and Per Anders Rudling’s detailed scholarly study are indispensable sources. Rudling understates considerably, when he says: “The far-right tradition is particularly strong in western Ukraine.” The fascist currents in the Kiev movement are undeniable. They are represented in the parliament by the Svoboda (Freedom) Party (originally called the Social National Party). In December, 2012, the European Parliament condemned Svoboda for its “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views,” and urged other Ukrainian parties “not to associate with, endorse or form coalitions with this party.”27
As Blumenthal notes, Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, defines his mission as freeing his country from the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” His deputy, Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn founded a think tank named after a historical figure he admires greatly: The Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center. Svoboda’s – and, unfortunately, much of western Ukraine’s – “nationalism” is embodied in the revered figure of Stepan Bandera, a World War II-era Nazi collaborator who led the pro-fascist Organization of Ukrainian (OUN), which helped to form a Ukrainian division of the Waffen SS to fight with the Nazis against the Soviet Union. From 1942-1944, Yaroslav Stetsko, the “Prime Minister” of ONU-B (Bandera’s wing), who supported “bringing German methods of exterminating Jewry to Ukraine,” oversaw the killing of “more than 90,000 Poles and thousands of Jews” in western Ukraine. Banderists in Lvov circulated a pamphlet telling the city’s Jews: “We will lay your heads at Hitler’s feet.”28
Viktor Yushchenko, the president produced by the last American-supported Ukrainian uprising, the “Orange Revolution,” put the full weight of the ideological apparatus of the Ukrainian state into reinventing the history of Ukrainian complicity with Nazism into a “national liberation” mythology. He “tasked a set of nationalistically minded historians” into “disseminating a sanitized, edifyingly patriotic version of the history of the ‘Ukrainian national liberation movement,’ the leaders of which were presented in iconographic form as heroic and saintly ﬁgures, martyrs of the nation.”
Thus, in 2010, against the protestation of the European Parliament—which he accused of having a “historical complex”—Yushchenko awarded Stepan Bandera the title of “Hero of Ukraine.”29 As Rudling notes: “There was little protest from intellectuals who identify themselves as liberals.” It was the government of big, bad Yanukovych that later annulled the award.
And thus, still satisfied by their political research, Svoboda led a 15,000-person march in honor of Bandera in Kiev on January 1st of this year, with chants of “Ukraine above all” and “Bandera, come and bring order!”30
Now, as a result of the insurrection, Svoboda, which won about 10% of the vote in the last election, has effectively muscled the much larger (34% of the last vote) Party of the Regions out of parliament, and seeks nationally to outlaw it and the Communist Party (13% of the vote), whose leader’s house was burned down. With the help of its Right Sector allies, these parties have already been banned in a number of regions. Svoboda now holds “key leadership positions in the parliament and law enforcement, four ministerial portfolios in the new government [including Prosecutor General and Deputy Prime Minister] and several appointed governorships.” Svoboda’s co-fouder, Andriy Parubiy, is head of the National Security & Defense Council of the new, democratic, government of Ukraine.31
So, fourteen months after denouncing Svoboda for its “racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia,” European governments are gushing over the new “democracy” in Ukraine over which Svoboda presides. And, as the BBC reports: “Inside the columned central hall of Kiev’s city council, an activist base of operations, hung a giant banner with a Celtic cross, a symbol of ‘white power,’ and an American confederate flag….and an immense portrait of Stepan Bandera.”32
Keep in mind, too, Rudling’s point that the whole Banderist “national liberation” narrative “was well received in western Ukraine but was received coldly or met open hostility in the eastern and southern parts of the country.
BBC did a decent report on the “Neo-Nazi threat in new Ukraine.” Again, maybe not so “neo.” The reporter, Gabriel Gatehouse, interviews Svoboda and Right Sector militants, meets a group called C14 (apparently an armed wing of Svoboda) under a portrait of Lenin in the Communist Party headquarters they had taken over, and shows two Svoboda MPs displaying “14” and “88” tokens. These numbers, which are often displayed in combination, and which appeared in graffiti throughout the maidan, have special fascist significance: “14” stands for from the Fourteen Words coined by an American white supremacist: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children” (there’s an alternate version, about “the White Aryan woman”); “88” represents a double of the eighth letter of the Latin alphabet, HH, for Heil Hitler. [I cannot make this stuff up.]
Yes, it depends what you’re fighting for.
My favorite is this 2½-minute tidbit from a young Right Sector gentleman, explaining the group’s, and his, affinity for “National Socialist themes,” and assuring his interviewer that they want a society that’s just “a little bit like” that “under Hitler”:
[Video embed does not seem to work. If you don't see video, click here for link.]
So there’s no question that fascists were part of the insurrection, and there is no question that they were crucial to its success. As Oleg Shynkarenko insists, the scenes of fighting resistance and advance were led by Right Sector and allied groups:
[I]t was the far right that first started to talk back to Yanukovych in his own language. They were the first to throw Molotov cocktails and stones at police and to mount real and well-fortified barricades. They were amongst those who burned two military troop carriers that attacked the barricades on February 18. The Euromaidan won thanks to the resoluteness of people who were ready to fight rather than to negotiate in parliament when any negotiation became pointless.
Nicolai Petro agrees, and points out the political ramifications:
I ascribe a much greater role to the Right Sector…the spearhead of the revolution. … [T]he actual coup was accomplished thanks to the armed intervention of extreme nationalists, led by the Right Sector. And the fact that they were so instrumental in accomplishing this change of power has put them in the driver’s seat. From now on, whatever political decisions are arrived at will really be at the sufferance of the Right Sector.
Let’s be clear, also, that these neo-fascist groups not only fought and defeated Yanokovych’s police, they attacked and drove away any political group from the left that tried to establish a presence in the maidan. The fascists made sure they controlled the radical politics of the square. Sascha, a member of AntiFascist Action Ukraine, a group that monitors and fights fascism in Ukraine, recounts in an interview published in mid-February:
A group of 100 anarchists tried to arrange their own self-defense group, different Anarchist groups came together for a meeting on the Maidan. While they were meeting a group of Nazis came in a larger group, they had axes and baseball bats and sticks, helmets, they said it was their territory. They called the Anarchists things like Jews, blacks, Communists. There weren’t even any Communists, that was just an insult. The Anarchists weren’t expecting this and they left. People with other political views can’t stay in certain places, they aren’t tolerated.34
And Mira, of the same group, adds:
One of the worst things is that Pravy has this official structure. They are coordinated. You need passes to go certain places. They have the power to give or not give people permission to be active. We’re trying to be active but we have to avoid Nazis, and I’m not going to ask a Nazi for permission!…
Early on a Stalinist tent was attacked by Nazis. One was sent to the hospital. Another student spoke out against fascism and he was attacked.
Pravy Sektor got too much attention after the first violence, the media gave them popularity and they started to think they’re cool guys. Pravy existed before but now it’s growing and attracting a lot of new people.
Ilya Budraitskis, a Russian Socialist who came to the maidan in January, tells us how the “ultranationalists” brutalized and evicted everyone from leftish Europhiles to anarchists:
Another part of the left repetitively tried to join the movement, even after they were repetitively kicked out of it. Some of the “euro-enthusiastic” leftists came to Maidan in November with red (instead of blue) flag of the EU, with banners for free healthcare and education, and with feminist slogans. They were brutally attacked by Nazis. Then there was an episode when the far-right attacked the tent of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine near the Maidan. A man on the stage said that there were some “provocateurs” and said that “men know what to do”; as a result, a mob of Nazis has broken ribs of the trade union activists, tore their tent with knives and stolen their property. The victims hadn’t been doing anything “leftist” per se, but they were members of the left movement, known to their political adversaries, and that was enough….
[T]here is also another group of people who are often confused with the radical left. …who call themselves anarchists but actually have a very conservative political agenda full of machismo and xenophobia. After the protests have begun, they shifted to the right dramatically; they reached truce with the nazi groups and showered Molotov cocktails at the police together. Eventually, they parted ways with left movement finally.
A week ago they, together with some actual leftists who wanted to “act”, decided to form an “anarchist sotnia [defense unit]” in the Maidan self-defence. In order to do that, they were prepared to give an oath to [Svoboda leader] Andriy Parubiy. But when they formed their ranks to do this, they were met by approximately 150 Svoboda fighters with baseball bats and axes. The fascists accused them of being racially impure and politically irrelevant and forced them out of Maidan.35
So much for Professor Snyder’s agora.
Of course, the great majority of the people in the square are not fascists, but, for all the reasons of history and ideology discussed above, a lot of people in western Ukraine are susceptible to their charms. As Denis, from Kiev Autonomous Workers Union says: “[I]n the long run the rightist political hegemony is being reinforced,” because “That’s what happens when you don’t have a developed left movement and your liberals are too corrupt and ugly!” Here’s how he describes the rightward political momentum on the maidan:
[Far right] ideology has really become more acceptable in the mainstream (which had initially been leaning to the right!). … Of course, most protesters really say they want political pluralism, bourgeois democracy. … But at the same time the crowd at the Maidan revives some deeply buried pre-modern, medieval social practices like whipping post, lynching, reinforced traditional gender roles. This scary readiness to slip into barbarism is born from the general disenchantment with parliamentary politics and the ubiquitous nationalist mythology about the golden past, imposed in schools and media.
The original Euromaidan agenda in November was a right liberal one, standing for the EU, “economic liberties” and bourgeois democracy. But even then the issues of multiculturalism, LGBT rights, workers’ rights and freedoms were severely repressed by the politically conscious far-right activists … [whose] political programme had always included critique of the EU’s “liberal fascism”. … The attackers didn’t represent the majority of protesters, but the majority was very susceptible to their political agenda which they had been aggressively pushing through…
[P]eople are new to politics, they just “know” they are rightists and nationalists. And therefore they trust the more politically experienced leaders to express their views and formulate their programme for them. It just so happens that those leaders are nationalists or even Nazis. And they shift the centre of the political discourse even further to the right.
But, first of all, their ideas are welcome among the apolitical crowd; second of all, they are very well organized, and also people love their “radicalism”. An average Ukrainian worker hates the police and the government but he will never fight them openly and risk his comfort. So he or she welcomes a “vanguard” which is ready to fight on their behalf; especially if that vanguard shares “good” patriotic values….And since the basic “common sense” had long ago been established on the nationalist fundamental assumptions, the radicalization goes only further in that direction.36
As we all know, fascists don’t have to be a majority to determine outcomes, and their power to do so can increase very quickly under favorable conditions. Perhaps the most telling, and disturbing remark of the leftists cited in these interviews was this, from Sascha of AntiFascist Action Ukraine, a couple of weeks before the head of Right Sector became deputy head of the National Security and Defense Council: “If Pravy [Right Sector] has positions in a new government that would be really dangerous but that isn’t possible, they aren’t powerful enough.”
Oh, yes they are. Consider the stunning turn of events we have just witnessed: “the ascension of a genuinely fascist mass movement into the corridors of power” in a European country for the first time since WWII, greeted with a stunning non-chalance—nay, embraced as an exemplar of democracy—by the Western liberal democracies. University of Ottawa political scientist Ivan Katchanovski specifies: “The paramilitary right sector has de facto power at least in some Western Ukrainian regions,” and “The far right in Ukraine has now achieved the level of representation and influence that is unparalleled in Europe.”37
Then imagine, please, Professor Katchanovski’s last sentence with “left” substituted for “right,” and consider how unthinkable it is that any American government would be so welcoming of such a “democratic” outcome. The United States and its allied liberal democracies are, in other words, willing to accommodate very hard swings to the right in order to secure and/or extend the neo-liberal capitalist, and US/NATO imperialist, order, but will abide not an inch of movement toward resistance from the left—no matter how righteous or democratic the cause.
The “liberal-nationalist” alliance, the American role, and what it portends
Might we interrupt the rejoicing over the rebirth of democracy in Ukraine to ask: Have the US and European governments given a thought to how their embrace of a government including Svoboda and Right Sector in Ukraine implicitly legitimizes and emboldens the far-right and neo-Nazi movements in Britain, and France, and Sweden, et. al.? Because those movements have.38 Ukraine now has a government that is, as Eric Draitser puts it, “essentially a collaboration between pro-EU liberals and right wing ultra-nationalists.” Israel Shamir is on to something, when he remarks that “a union of [right-wing] nationalists and liberals” has become “the trademark of a new US policy in the Eastern Europe.” As he reminds us: “[L]iberals do not have to support democracy. They do so only if they are certain democracy will deliver what they want. Otherwise, they can join forces with al Qaeda as now in Syria, with Islamic extremists as in Libya, with the Army as in Egypt, or with neo-Nazis, as now in Russia and the Ukraine.”39 Or, as Pepe Escobar puts it:
Everyone remembers the “good Taliban”, with which the U.S. could negotiate in Afghanistan. Then came the “good al-Qaeda”, jihadis the US could support in Syria. Now come the “good neo-nazis”, with which the West can do business in Kiev. Soon there will be “the good jihadis supporting neo-nazis”, who may be deployed to advance U.S./NATO and anti-Russian designs in Crimea and beyond.40
Lest one think this is a fanciful compilation, be aware that Right Sector leader and new deputy head of the National Security and Defense Council, Dmitry Yarosh, has called upon Caucasian jihadi, Doku Umarov, to “support Ukraine now,” “to activate his fight” against Russia, and “take a unique chance to win.” Doku Umarov calls himself ‘Emir of the Caucasus Emirate’. He has claimed responsibility for attacks that killed dozens of Russian civilians—including the 2010 Moscow Metro bombings and the 2011 Domodedovo International Airport bombing. He is on the UN Security Council’s Al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions list, and the US government has a posted a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.41
It does get confusing. The frenemy of my frenemy, or something like that.
This has become a formula, and a favorite part of it involves street protests that begin as democratically-inspired movements against corruption and/or authoritarianism, and turn sharply violent when the standard scenario of water-cannon and tear-gas police repression vs. rock- and Molotov-throwing protestors gets brutally escalated by something like….snipers.
Snipers are a vicious weapon. I think whoever is responsible for their use in the maidan protests deserves the world’s condemnation. I also know that nobody knows who is responsible, and no one should accept the pure assumption that they were “government” snipers. The leaked Estonian foreign minister’s phone call, mentioned above, which raised the “stronger and stronger understanding that behind snipers …was somebody from the new coalition,” has cast widespread doubt on the “government sniper” assumption.
According to the AP, the new Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, asserts: “I can say only one thing: the key factor in this uprising, that spilled blood in Kiev and that turned the country upside down and shocked it, was a third force…And this force was not Ukrainian.” Commanders of police sniper units have denied receiving orders to shoot anyone, and the new Deputy Interior Minister seems to believe them. Imputing a rather complicated motive, he thinks the sniper shooting were “intended to generate a wave of revulsion so strong that it would topple Yanukovych and also justify a Russian invasion.” The new Health Minster thinks Russian special forces were involved.42
An American analyst, on the other hand, claims that, “According to veteran US intelligence sources, the snipers came from an ultra-right-wing military organization known as Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO).”43
One might also keep in mind the hacked emails of opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, leaked by Anonymous Ukraine (or Russian intelligence), discussing plans for “destabilization,” “radical escalation,” and the arrival of “colleagues” whose “services may be required”:
“Our American friends promise to pay a visit in the coming days, we may even see [Victoria] Nuland or someone from the Congress.” 12/7/2013
“Your colleague has arrived ….his services may be required even after the country is destabilized.” 12/14/2013
“I think we’ve paved the way for more radical escalation of the situation. Isn’t it time to proceed with more decisive action?” 1/9/201444
Every scenario is crazy in one way or another, including the one in which the Yanukovych government, ignoring all the clear lessons of recent history regarding the effects of sniper fire during protests, stupidly thought that killing protestors and policemen would calm the waters. I hope those who are responsible for the sniper attacks are identified and punished, and I do not rule out any possibility. The Russians claim to want the same thing, and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has called for a full OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) investigation, which Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin insists, would draw “a completely different picture …compared to what is being depicted by American media.” Let’s see if there is a real investigation, and who will support it. In the meantime, we should remember the Syrian chemical attack, and refuse any argument for aggressive action based on a false assertion of certainty about who is responsible for this.45
Let’s also take a look at the role of the US in the Ukranian liberal-“ultra-nationalist” alliance, keeping in mind what I said above about all the actors in this drama having different, sometimes clashing, and sometimes internally contradictory, agendas.
The point is not that the US controlled everything in the Ukrainian uprising. It does not control as much as it thinks, and, as we’ve seen repeatedly, it often gets surprised when it gets what it asked for. It already has been surprised in this case, as we’ll discuss below. But the US, especially when acting in concert with its allies, can significantly affect the course and outcome of events. It has enormous powers, and uses them relentlessly, in public and private, to get what it wants. Not least of these powers is its ability, through its influence on ubiquitous Western media outlets, to withhold and confer a sense of legitimacy. It did just that in Ukraine, with considerable success. Brendan O’Neill makes the incontrovertible point:
The regime change that occurred [in Ukraine] would have been unthinkable without something else, without an additional force – outside pressure. ..
[Western governments] both undermined the legitimacy of the Yanukovich regime and conferred political and moral authority on to the protest camps. They did this firstly through issuing statement after statement over the past three months about the out-of-touchness of Yanukovich,… and secondly through imbuing the protest camps effectively with the right to rule Ukraine. The camps were visited by leading European and American politicians, who told the protesters theirs was a ‘just cause’ and that they have ‘a very different vision for the country’ to Yanukovich – a better one, of course. The consequence of such ‘mediation’ (meddling) was to isolate Yanukovich and embolden the protesters, creating the space for anti-Yanukovich politicians to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power.
Let’s recall the name of arch-neocon Victoria Nuland (wife of arch-neocon Robert Kagan), Assistant US Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, whose leaked “Fuck the EU!” conversation with the American ambassador in Ukraine brought her out of the shadows as the behind-the-scenes point person for US management of the Ukrainian “revolution.”
In December, 2013, after her third trip to Ukraine in five weeks (including the one where she passed out cookies to maidan protestors), Nuland reminded a meeting of the International Business Conference that the US “had ‘invested’ more than $5 billion and ‘five years worth of work and preparation’ in achieving what she called Ukraine’s ‘European aspirations.’” She also said she “made it ‘absolutely clear’ to Yanukovych that the US required “immediate steps” …to ‘get back into conversation with Europe and the IMF.’” As Renee Parsons puts it, it was “As if [Nuland was] intent on providing incontrovertible evidence of US involvement in Ukraine.”46
In regard to the leaked phone conversation, American media focused on the Nuland’s salty language, but the more important substantive point of her remarks, as Peter Lee points out, “was that Nuland was calling for the EU to be sidelined because it was not being sufficiently aggressive on the issue of threatening pro-Russian figures with sanctions.” She also wanted the more popular Vitalyi Klitschko and Svoboda leader Oleh Tiahnybok to step aside and allow the more “economically experienced” (i.e., IMF-friendly) Arsenyi Yatsenyuk take the leading role in the new Ukrainian government. She also specifies the supporting role the UN is being assigned. She got everything she asked for.47
Nobody who hears this tape can credibly deny that the United States, through Nuland, was intimately involved in micro-managing the outcome of this independent, nationalist, Ukrainian movement:
Yats is the guy that who’s got the economic experience the governing experience he’s the… what he needs is Klitsch and Tiahnybok on the outside he needs to be talking to them four times a week you know.
Ok. He’s now gotten both [Dutch diplomat Robert] Serry and Ban ki-Moon to agree that Serry could come in Monday or Tuesday. That would be great I think to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it and, you know, fuck the EU.
But anyway we could land jelly side up on this one if we move fast.48
[all quotes from Nuland]
Throughout the crisis, the US was pushing hard for the EU to take punitive measures against the Ukrainian government, and to impose sanctions on its key officials and oligarchical backers. Peter Lee describes Nuland’s strategy as an effort “to remove the initiative in Ukraine negotiations out of the hands of Germany and the EU.” He speculates—reasonably, I think—that this had to do with accommodating the American military, as well as the neo-liberal economic, agenda: “Victoria Nuland, in allegiance to her neo-con roots, aggressively facilitated a government that was simultaneously pro-US, anti-Russian, and non-EU-oriented and would therefore see no problem with facilitating a cherished US objective—evicting the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Crimea.” The Germans were certainly pissed off about the high-handed American attitude.49
So the Americans may have been attempting a delicate triangulation, in which the hard anti-Russian sentiment of the ultranationalist Ukrainian right was instrumental for their military agenda, without being so obvious as to lose any support of less confrontational Euro-liberal parties.
But they may have been too clever by a third.
Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that Russia saw what was going on, and acted pre-emptively to stop it. The scent of brewing trouble between Ukrainian neo-fascists and their cosmopolitan patrons in the Euro-American politico-economic elite wafts forth from Right Sector’s rejection of the “cult of profit and depravity” as well as what the English captions of their video clumsily describe as “any integrations on terms that dictates not Ukraine.” The Ukrainian right, embodied in both Svoboda and Right Sector, is, after all, ultra-nationalist, and has a very good idea of the national serfdom that awaits Ukraine in the EuroAmerican-IMF neo-liberal global village. Ukrainian rightists, too, are ready to say “Fuck the EU!” They want Ukraine to be a strong, morally and ethnically pure, a brick in the wall of the GRE—the Great European Reconquest.
As Jack Rasmus points out, however:
Both the EU and USA want reliable (and pliable) capitalist politicians in Parliament and the Ukrainian government. That means politicians who will follow their economic policies and integrate the Ukraine into the western economic orbit. In other words, politicians that respond correctly when threats to freeze their personal assets in Switzerland and Luxembourg are raised, as has been the case in the days immediately preceding February 20.
The west’s gamble is their hope they can exclude the radical, ultranationalist and proto-fascist forces on the ground that served as the battering ram to bust down the door of the Yanukovych regime; or at least minimize their influence in the government. But that task that will not prove so easy, they may find.50
The far-right has its claws deep in the new political order in Ukraine. After all, it considers that it has the right to rule. It may not be so easy to co-opt or push aside, and it is capable of causing a lot of trouble.
Of course, the more astute neo-fascist leaders will make various purring sounds to persuade their anxious Euro-American patrons that they can play nice. Thus, as Blumenthal recounts, Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok—eager to deflect any notion that their anti-“Muscovite Jew” Banderist ideology has anything to do with anti-Semitism, and knowing that there’s no better way to please the American government than to show one’s belly to Israel—recently hosted the Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine. In what, for those who have a “historical complex,” is one of the saddest of ironic moments, Tyahnybok appealed for solidarity thusly: “I would like to ask Israelis to also respect our patriotic feelings… Probably each party in the [Israeli] Knesset is nationalist. With God’s help, let it be this way for us too.” Birds of an ultranationalist feather, and all.51
The showdown will likely come, however, over whether the neo-fascist right will be tame enough to roll over for the IMF-friendly neo-liberal oligarchs and their political henchpersons. To prepare for the eventualities, the US and friends will want to shower the interim government with beefed-up police equipment and training, in order to make sure that no street protest can get anywhere near the traction of the maidan of the last few months. You know, to protect the now-democratic (unelected) government against an undemocratic popular insurrection.
On the other hand, as Julie Hyland reports, the far-right is now entrenching control of its own national military force, in the form of a 60,000-strong National Guard, “recruited from ‘activists’ in the anti-Russian protests and from military academies.” This force was just established by the Ukrainian parliament, and will be overseen by Svoboda’s own Andriy Parubiy.52 Ukraine’s neo-fascist right may have been a tad too well nourished on Victoria’s baked goods, and the US’s neo-liberal plans may not get swallowed so easily. These guys are ready to fight. They may be inclined to be independent of, and resistant to, an EU-IMF agenda. The Russian reaction in the Crimea has already taken the US off-guard, and the new armed forces of the Ukrainian right can now create a lot of trouble throughout the Ukraine, which could provoke the wider conflict with Russia that they are itching for, and that Europe, and even the US, can ill afford.
I’ve got no happy ending. As I said above, possible war and perpetual tension is what’s in store for the Ukraine. And America’s cookies may land jelly-side down.
Russia and Crimea
I hold no love for Russia under Putin, although I do not consider him the comic-book villain he is now being cast as. Russia has its own problems with post-Soviet oligarchic capitalism and a confused nationalist mythology. The re-annexation of Crimea is a dangerous gambit, and arguably, but not certainly (see below), in contravention of international law. Nothing here to celebrate.
It’s also true that, in this situation, the US is being hoisted on its own petard of utter disregard for what I previously called “the carefully-constructed and delicate post-war architecture of international law and institutions.” It’s the United States (along with its ward state, Israel) that has routinely ignored issues of national sovereignty and international law, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, over decades—and have suffered no sanction for doing so. Their actions, more than anything else, have rendered the always-fragile construct of international law practically a dead letter. You can’t bomb and/or invade Lebanon, Cuba, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Serbia, Iraq, Libya, et. al., to install your favored government (all but one thousands of miles from your territory), and then stand in politico-moral judgement over another country’s incursion into and recapture of a contiguous region that had been part of its national territory until 1954.
Especially when that happens with the consent of ithe people in that territory, and without a single casualty. Neither the Russians, who lost 20 million people to fascism in WWII, nor the Crimeans (Crimea being part of Russia at the time), have any mythologized confusions about fascist historical heroes, or any reason not to fear and reject the resurgent fascism at the door. Western countries, in fact, could use a little of that anxiety.
In the global context they have created, American leaders can’t think they’ll be taken seriously when they say: “You just don’t in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext.”
Furthermore, US foreign policy since the fall of the Soviet Union has been particularly contemptuous of Russia. Bush I promised Mikhail Gorbachev that the US would not expand NATO to take in the Eastern European and Baltic states, and he, Clinton, and Bush II proceeded to do just that. They took it for granted that Russia—under the leadership of their corrupt and drunken stooge, Yeltsin, and economically devastated by the American-led shock-therapy restoration of capitalism—could do nothing. With his war on Russia’s close ally, Serbia, Bill Clinton (proving that NATO never was a defensive alliance) announced that, henceforth, NATO was free to attack any country on Earth–its concept of right trumping the United Nations process and all other notions of international law; he, too, presumed Russia could do nothing about it. In Libya, the US lied to get the Russians (and Chinese) to vote for a “humanitarian” mission, and then blatantly disregarded the terms of the UN resolution and bombed the crap out of Libya for the purpose of “regime change”—assuming Russia could do nothing about it. G. W. Bush and Obama have pushed NATO forward more aggressively, and moved to station “missile defenses” in Eastern Europe that everyone with half a brain, and certainly Russia, knows are weapons designed to enable US first-strike capability—taking for granted that Russia could do nothing about it.
Well, today, in Crimea, Russia—which has every reason to suspect US/NATO plans for Ukraine and for its only warm-water port—can do something about it. It’s not something very nice, but nor is it a hundredth as destructive as what the United States has been doing, or certainly would do in the same circumstance. Putin can cite the Obama administration’s own statement to the UN International Court on Kosovo:
“Declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation. However, this does not make them violations of international law.” End of quote. They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree and now they are outraged. Over what? The actions of Crimean people completely fit in with these instructions, as it were.53
And he can then go all Victoria Nuland on the US. There’s really nothing the US can do, or even credibly say, about it. Fortunately, nobody has the stomach for war.
Like a lot of us, the Russians may have thought something else was possible after the break-up of the Soviet Union. But, for the past twenty-some years, the United States was content to ignore international law, and re-create that Great Power world in which one country could invade another country on completely trumped-up pretext—because it took for granted that it was the only Great Power.
No happy ending, for Americans or Ukraines. It’s a very dangerous world we now live in; somebody could get the stomach. It was Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama who created this world. The Russians have only decided they’re going to live in it. And so will we all.
[See follow-up post on Ukraine developments at: Good for the Gander:Ukraine's Demise Accelerates.]
Notes and Links
Christopher Dickey, Yulia Tymoshenko: She’s No Angel, Daily Beast
11Economist, op. cit.
12Hyland, op. cit.
13Valentin Mândrăşescu, ’Western financial aid won’t save Ukraine’ – former minister of economy – The Voice of Russia
15Timothy Snyder, Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine | The New York Review of Books
24Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, The Road to Moscow Goes Through Kiev: A Coup d’Etat That Threatens Russia | Global Research
27Max Blumenthal, Is the U.S. Backing Neo-Nazis in Ukraine? | Alternet
“The Return of the Ukrainian Far Right: The Case of VO Svoboda,” in Ruth Wodak and John E. Richardson (eds.) Analyzing Fascist Discourse: European Fascism in Talk and Text (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 228-255. | Per Anders Rudling – Academia.edu
Nicolai N. Petro, Threat of Military Confrontation Grows in Ukraine | The Nation
28Blumenthal, Petro, and Justin Raimondo, A Monster Reawakens: The Rise of Ukrainian Fascism — Antiwar.com
A lot of Ukrainians like to convince themselves that, as one of the January demonstrators insisted, “Bandera never was on the Germans’ side,” and that he was just about national independence. They’ll cite the fact that he was imprisoned by the Germans in 1941, when his faction of the OUN (OUN-B) “came to control the OUN’s Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and declared an independent Ukrainian state … as a satellite of Nazi Germany,” which apparently was a little too assertive (or perhaps oxymoronic) for the Germans. But Bandera was back in German favor by 1944, and actually “set up a headquarters in Berlin and oversaw the training of Ukrainian insurgents by the German army.” Bandera’s “younger and more radical” OUN faction (ONU-B) was somewhat more ambivalent about the Ukrainian Waffen SS division than the “older, more moderate” (OUN-M) of Andriy Melnyk, but the ONU-B “did not interfere in i[the division’s] formation and once the division was formed it sent some of its members, a number of whom would obtain prominent positions.” Both factions of the ONU “were enthusiastically committed to a new fascist Europe.” And it was the UPA, under Bandera’s “top deputy and acting ‘Prime Minister,’” Yaroslav Stetsko, that “killed tens of thousands of Poles in 1942-44.” The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists portrayed Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Jews — most of the minorities in western Ukraine — as aliens and encouraged locals to destroy “Poles and Jews.” All this goes to show is that Bandera was as ardently racist and anti-Semitic as he was nationalist. Ukrainians who imagine that Bandera was not an outright fascist are kidding themselves. It’s a little like believing that Confederate statesmen weren’t really racists, just proponents of “states’ rights.” Read the Per Anders Rudling article to get the full flavor of it.
The French were responsible for a vicious imperial occupation of Vietnam. Nonetheless, when given the easy opportunity, Ho Chi Minh did not confuse an alliance with Japanese “fellow-Asian” imperialism with a worthy strategy for Vietnamese nationalism. Stalin’s many horrible crimes committed against Ukraine (at the same time he was murdering thousands of Russian revolutionaries) are no excuse for a nationalism that wants to lay the heads of Jews, and prostrate itself, at Hitler’s feet.
For a taste of the US partnership with Ukrainian fascists, see the recent interview with Russ Bellant, “Seven Decades of Nazi Collaboration: America’s Dirty Little Ukraine Secret,” based on his 1991 book, Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party: Domestic fascist networks and their effect on U.S. cold war politics. [Reference added 5 May 2014]
31Nazemroaya, op. cit., and Brian Becker, Who’s Who in Ukraine’s New “Semi-fascist” Government: Meet the People the U.S. and EU are Supporting | Global Research]
33Oleg Shynkarenko, Can Ukraine Control Its Far Right Ultranationalists? – The Daily Beast
37Shynkarenko, op. cit.
38 Michael Moynihan, Neo-Nazis Pour Into Kiev – The Daily Beast, and Raimondo, op.cit.
We must add to the list Venezuela, where US liberal and conservative politicians and media—in the name of “democracy,” of course—are supporting another bunch of right-wing street fighters attempting to overthrow a government that they have failed to dislodge in election after election. Garry Leech, Behind the Lies About Venezuela’s Protests » CounterPunch, and Suren Moodliar, No Middle Road on Venezuela » CounterPunch
46Renee Parsons, Chronology of the Ukrainian Coup » CounterPunch
47Peter Lee, Skullduggery in Ukraine | Counterpunch
51Israel Hayom | Israeli ambassador holds friendly meeting with notorious anti-Semite, and Blumenthal, op. cit.. And try this for crazy: Israeli militia commander fights to protect Kiev | The Times of Israel “Delta, a Ukrainian-born former IDF soldier, heads a force of 40 men and women, most of whom are not Jewish, against gov’t forces,:
52Hyland, op. cit.