Months of discontent in Kiev and the western portion of Ukraine combust into an explosion of provocation and response, unwarranted violence, political crisis and now what amounts to a coup, even as Washington prefers any other name for the past two weeks’ events.
We are invited to see in this some kind of Ukrainian Spring, a nation cleansed by its own will of its many dysfunctions. There is a post-revolutionary glow. There are daunting tasks, our media tell us, but 46 million Ukrainians now can turn toward the liberal democracies of Western Europe, so escaping the burdensome influence Russia, its neighbor to the north, has exerted for centuries.
The ultimate came last Sunday in the person of Tom Friedman. One can always rely on the supremely toady New York Times columnist to come forth with comment that remolds the world such that the most misshapen, ambiguous events fit neatly into the Washington orthodoxy and the neoliberal version of humanity’s way forward.
“The good news is the fact that this happened from the bottom up,” Friedman said on ABC’s "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." “The West didn’t do this. The United States didn’t do this. The EU didn’t do this. The Ukrainian people did this.”
Every one of the above sentences reflects what we are supposed to think we have just witnessed in Ukraine. And every one is false. The “revolution” in Ukraine was orchestrated, not bottom up; the West by way of the Europeans and Americans did the orchestrating, and the Ukrainian people — that portion who favor a Westward tilt — were the instruments, not the composers.
The true tragedy in Ukraine as we have it for the moment is that the tragedies of the past couple of weeks are not the true tragedy. As I see it, this is yet to come. Seduction and betrayal are the plot lines — the former now accomplished, the latter the inevitable denouement.
The American media made very little of the recently leaked YouTube tape wherein Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state, plots to manipulate “regime change” — when did this odious euphemism gain legitimacy? — with Geoffrey Pyatt, Washington’s ambassador in Kiev. We were supposed to take Nuland’s vulgar language as no more than a curious bit of naughtiness, end of story.
Shame on the Times and all other media for this chicanery. In hindsight the Nuland tape is the Rosetta Stone of the Ukrainian riddle. It was an early advisory that we were about to watch Washington at work corrupting the affairs of another nation, exactly as it has for the past 60–odd years elsewhere. Nothing new under the American sun, even as the afternoon light starts to fade.
Proof of this pudding: The three opposition politicians Nuland and Pyatt were subverting — Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatseniuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok — were the three who signed a late-hour compromise, instantly drowned by events, just before Viktor Yanukovych fled the presidential palace last week. Watch for these names as events unfold.
This read of Ukraine brings grave realities to the fore, especially for Americans.
Their nation’s foreign policy cliques remain wholly committed to the spread of the neoliberal order on a global scale, admitting of no exceptions. This is American policy in the 21st century. No one can entertain any illusion (as this columnist confesses to have done) that America’s conduct abroad stands any chance of changing of its own in response to an intelligent reading of the emerging post–Cold War order.
Imposing “democracy,” the American kind, was the American story from the start, of course, and has been the mission since Wilson codified it even before he entered the White House. When the Cold War ended we began a decade of triumphalist bullying — economic warfare waged as “the Washington Consensus” — which came to the same thing.
One thought this might end with the sobering humiliations of September 11. But then came Bush II and the “nation-building” set. Then one thought Obama would end it. My new conclusion: Americans are too intimately dependent on this narrative to escape it. As nothing lasts forever, we must now wait to see the magnitude of the calamity that will force the U.S. to accept some workable form of global citizenship.
I do not think this is an over-interpretation of the Ukraine question. Consider this from Tuesday's New York Times, front page, above the fold:
Turned off by what he saw as Mr. Bush’s crusading streak … Mr. Obama, aides said, was wary of being proactive in trying to change other societies, convinced that being too public would make the United States the issue and risk provoking a backlash. The difference, aides said, was not the goal but the methods of achieving it.
There you have it. Our leadership is trapped in mythologies, incapable of breaking free, even if these lead recklessly up to Russia’s borders and must be realized by way of open secrets.
This clinging to mythical “missions” induces a form of blindness, unhelpful when running the relations of the world’s most powerful nation. You get a lapse of vision and a tendency to see the world as if it were a John Wayne movie, all black hats and white.
In this case, Washington takes that piece of Ukraine susceptible to Western enticement as if it were the whole. It cannot work.
Many Ukrainians see room for closer relations with the West; the more sensible seem to favor a variant of “third way” thinking, no either/or frame. Many fewer desire a decisive break with Russia, and among those who do are atavistic anti-communist fanatics of varieties such as the Right Sector, running all the way to neo-Nazis.
Once again, Washington looks to be getting into bed with unsavory people. See Afghanistan and the friends made during the Soviet era. See Syria as we speak.
The mythical mission bit also admits of no grasp of history, geography, culture, or language, all of which are operative in Ukraine’s dilemmas — another part of the blindness. Ties with Russia are long and strong and part of the weave of daily life for much of Eastern Ukraine. You cannot read this in the American press, busily reporting on Yanukovych’s opulent houses and other idle topics, but the BBC and some other non–American media tell the story in good, enlightening detail.
While the Americans meddled in the political sphere, the European Union less intrusively negotiated an extensive trade and political agreement with Yanukovych. I wrote of the impossible dilemma the E.U. presented him with in this space two week ago. A Reuters correspondent, Elizabeth Piper, wrote an excellent explainer late last year. The revealing detail that has since come to light: The E.U. agreement stipulated that Yanukovych could not accept further assistance from the Russians.
It was the politics of the piece did Yanukovych in, of course. He had plainly lost huge support by the end, but as his victorious adversaries prepare to tilt Ukraine toward Europe, he may start to look more sensible than he does now — weak, corrupt, but more sober of judgment as to the limits geography and history impose, at least for now — on Ukraine’s alternatives.
Instantly after Yanukovych was hounded from Kiev, seduction began its turn to betrayal. The Americans and Europeans started shuffling their feet as to what they would do for Ukrainians now that Russia has shut off the $15 billion tap. Nobody wants to pick up the bill, it turns out. Washington and the E.U. are now pushing the International Monetary Fund forward as the leader of a Western bailout.
If the past is any guide, Ukrainians are now likely to get the “shock therapy” the economist Jeffrey Sachs urged in Russia, Poland and elsewhere after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Sachs subsequently (and dishonestly) denied he played any such role — understandable given the calamitous results, notably in Russia — but the prescription called for off-the-shelf neoliberalism, applied without reference to any local realities, and Ukrainians are about to get their dosage.
It is wrong, as ahistorical thinking always is. Formerly communist societies, especially in the Eastern context, should logically advance first to some form of social democracy and then decide if they want to take things further rightward. Washington’s fear, evident throughout the Cold War, was that social democracies would demonstrate that they work — so presenting a greater threat, paradoxically, than the Soviet model.
Ukrainians favoring the Westward tilt, having idealized the E.U., appear to assume they are to evolve into some system roughly between the Scandinavians and Germany, as East Europeans earlier anticipated. They will thus find the I.M.F.’s deal shocking indeed. It will be bitter, after all the treacherous, carefully couched promises.
We cannot yet know what Vladimir Putin plans for Russian relations with the Ukraine. The nation that armed the Contras in Nicaragua and invaded a harmless social democracy in Grenada has to know that Kiev has not heard anything near his final word. Where will the E.U. and Washington be when it comes?
Having induced a convulsion to shake a nation loose, neither seems willing now to see through the undertaking. One suspects they recognized they had taken on more than they could manage the minute they got the prize. From the present vantage point, it looks as if Ukraine was never about Ukraine for the West, but about biting Putin on his backside.
At this writing, a new twist. Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s top foreign policy official, has just finished two days of talks in Kiev, during which she emphasized “the importance of the strong links between Ukraine and Russia and the importance of having them maintained.”
This is code for, “We’re not actually planning to come up with the $35 billion Ukraine needs over the next two years now that we are finished provoking Putin.” A reversal this diametric amounts to treachery in disguise.