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Vilifying Putin’s Russia


By now every analyst worth his or her salt has made a point of waxing indignant in the mainstream Anglo-American media over the “criminality” of the Russian intervention in Crimea. The media is not in the least deterred by the fact that the Russian operation took place with next to no loss of life. It has been a season for name calling and for exhibiting moral superiority, for crying foul and denouncing President Vladimir Putin as a bully and a thug. The more inventive the writer, the more over-the-top the epithet of abuse has been.

The integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation has been an unexpected bonanza for reporters and analysts in the mainstream Anglo-American news media. It has been a field day for the commentariat in particular who are enviably free from the constraints of neutrality and objectivity. The Russian action in Crimea has gifted them with a pretext for seizing the moral high ground and proclaiming the superiority of Western political values and institutions. The post-Soviet world order is one in which the US-EU axis has repeatedly flouted international law with impunity. But this privilege is reserved for the US led bloc–and for countries that have a special relationship with the US. Steps that could constitute even a minor transgression are out of bounds for every other nation. The commentariat, stenographers to the rulers of the world, have done a great job of upholding the prevailing double standards. They have vied with each other in proposing measures —preferably hawkish ones—for isolating Russia internationally and punishing President Putin for offering resistance to the US led world order.

Why have prominent commentators lately displayed so much enthusiasm for international law? To understand the reason, let us play for a moment the empathy game and regard international events from the mainstream Anglo-American media perspective. Consider from this vantage point the phenomenon of President Obama’s terror Tuesdays. These are the weekly authorization of extra judicial murder of individuals who have come under unproven suspicion of harboring hostile intentions toward the United States. In essence the US President signs off on a weekly hit list that targets victims across the world. Consider how the murder of thousands of innocent civilians by drone attacks and the terrorizing of defenseless human beings by killer drones has become the norm in places like Waziristan. The drones that are ceaselessly buzzing overhead envelope in a pervasive mantle of dread the daily activities of every man, woman or child whether it be working in the fields, going to school, or gathering for a group celebration. Consider how the CIA embrace of unmanned aircraft has inaugurated an era of video game like warfare in which drone operators in a Nevada base have adopted the use of the term bug splat to describe the victim of the missile fired by a drone. Consider in particular the moral abomination of the signature strike in which a killer drone returns to attack those who have rushed to the aid of the victims of a missile strike. Just how much angst have the pundits expended on the moral bankruptcy exhibited by the acts described above? They were perfectly cool with the use of drones to massacre helpless civilians in Pakistan. They couldn’t give two hoots for the sovereignty of Pakistan. These are the people who are now throwing a hissy fit over Russia’s purported violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. To restate the initial question–Why are we seeing this selective outrage?

The answer lies in the toll taken by the discursive constraints necessitated by the task of upholding American supremacy and American exceptionalism. There are many things that must go unsaid. Although for the most part the commentariat has turned a blind eye to various forms of lawlessness that are routinely perpetrated by the US across the world such self-enforced silence must have been very frustrating. Given a choice between delivering a lecture on the sacrosanct status of international law and holding one’s peace on the topic which analyst would not prefer the former? The moment of catharsis arrived when Russia acted in defense of its strategic interests in the region and took control of Crimea. In effect the Anglo-American commentariat were handed an opportunity that they proceeded to milk for all it was worth. Hence the hysteria and the outrage that has been witnessed recently. They who consider not the beam that is in their eye behold with relish the mote in their brother’s eye. This cynicism and opportunism has not gone unnoticed in Russia where President Vladimir Putin has had some devastating things to say about the discovery of international law by his West European and North American critics. As he put it in his historic address of March 18: It is good they realize that international law still exists. Better late than never.

President Putin’s remarkable address to Parliament on integration with Crimea is noteworthy for a number of reasons. The case for unification with Crimea is eloquently stated. The language of the address is imbued with historical depth and feeling. An uncompromising stand is taken on the issue of Russian sovereignty and Russia’s status as an independent active participant in world affairs. Above all the address is hard-hitting. There is scorn and sarcasm for the hypocrisy of the US led Western powers and their expertise in manipulating or disregarding or violating international law as suits their purpose. President Putin’s landmark address has not been well received in the Western world if the reaction in Anglo-American media outlets is anything to go by. A concerted effort appears to have been made to detract from the truth telling and the denunciation of US led military assaults on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. “An autocrat like Putin plays his own game, and always finds his own excuses,” sniffed George Packer of the New Yorker magazine. Putin’s bile and bitterness poured out unchecked in the address to Parliament claimed Simon Tisdall of the Guardian newspaper. The New York Times alleged that the address was steeped in years of resentment and bitterness at perceived slights from the West. No doubt these examples could be multiplied with ease.

A common thread runs through much of the media commentary on President Putin. Time and again analysts speak of the Russian President’s deep seated grievance toward the West. Usually it is implied that these grievances are somehow imaginary or insubstantial. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are not talking here about some minor grouch that has been blown up out of all proportion by the nasty and evil Putin. We are talking about unconscionable acts of betrayal that were perpetrated by the victorious side in the cold war. Academic experts in Russian or East European Studies commonly recognize that the treatment of its fallen adversary by the United States has set the stage for future conflict. Many observers have used the Versailles analogy to convey the gravity of the humiliations that Russia had to swallow when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Among other issues there is the actual fact of NATO’s eastward expansion in direct contravention of assurances given by top officials like US Secretary of State James Baker and Chancellor Helmut Kohl to then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev when he reluctantly agreed to the unification of Germany. This is treachery pure and simple. No need for mincing words here or whitewashing black deeds. That sort of thing is best left to those who appear regularly in the Opinion pages of the Washington Post and other corporate run media. They are old hands at obfuscating or suppressing plain facts.

Why has the betrayal of President Gorbachev by US led policy makers somehow escaped the attention of the media analysts who are infuriated by Russian “aggression” in Crimea? By what subterfuge is it possible to condemn Russia for purportedly violating international law while exonerating the United States from blame for spearheading NATO expansion in flagrant disregard of objections made by the Russian side? Having incorporated nine former Warsaw Pact states and three former Soviet republics into the alliance NATO announced in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia would be inducted as well. NATO was now set to expand all the way to Russia’s borders. With this prospect before them, the Russian leadership acted on behalf of Russia’s national interests. As Mr.Putin put it in his speech to Parliament: If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.

NATO is the elephant in the room. NATO’s eastward creep and in particular its impending expansion to Russia’s borders are key to understanding why the showdown in Crimea took place. Apart from honourable exceptions (e.g. Seumas Milne “The Clash in Crimea is the Fruit of Western Expansion” Guardian, March 5, 2014) mainstream analysts have disregarded the provocative implications of NATO expansion. At best they mention NATO expansion in passing and move on to other topics, preferred ones being President Putin’s aggressive inclinations and the sanctions that should be enforced by way of punishment. The continued existence of NATO more than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union calls for more than passing mention. The Warsaw Pact was disbanded but not NATO. It is essential to ask why a military alliance that was originally founded for the purpose of containing the Soviet Union flourishes in the post-Soviet world order.

The Anglo-American media is deceiving the public by glossing over issues of crucial importance. To obtain reliable information it is necessary to turn to the academic literature. Historian J.L.Black’s study Russia Faces NATO Expansion (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) is of particular interest in this context. The author shows that from the early 90’s onward NATO expansion has been a festering issue in political discourse on the Russian side. In this discourse NATO is viewed as an instrument for isolating Russia from Europe and for advancing the cause of American hegemony. The author’s findings are substantiated by the use of Russian language materials—reports and analysis in the news media, opinion polls and other relevant literature. As far back as 1993 the Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenni Primakov predicted that NATO’s expansion of its membership eastward would cause Moscow to institute counter measures (Russia Faces NATO Expansion, p.16). In other words the concept of the red line is not the exclusive product of President Putin’s diseased, empire obsessed mind. The red line was being delineated in strategic thinking on the Russian side long before President Putin declared that it had been crossed by the Western powers in Ukraine.

The media coverage of Russian integration with Crimea has been shameful, irresponsible and misleading. It is vitiated by the myopic inability to see beyond US-EU interests. And it is incorrect on essentials. Despite all the gloating in the New York Times Russia is not facing international isolation. Although Russia has been expelled from the G-8, the countries of the BRICS economic alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) have not adopted the US-EU position on Crimea. India has explicitly recognized that Russia has legitimate interests in Crimea. But none of this is of interest to the Anglo-American news media. Today the public is witnessing the vilification of Putin’s Russia brought to us by the very media who some ten years ago were all gung-ho over the invasion of Iraq. The news media has grown tired of waiting with bated breath for the unearthing of Saddam Hussain’s weapons of mass destruction and is now swept up in feverish expectation of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. No doubt the commentariat has already composed anti-Russian diatribes befitting the occasion.

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