The New York Times manufactures ignorance: More half-truths about Ukraine

Once again, the media and the foreign policy establishment are dangerously misreading history and current events

Published March 20, 2014 1:15PM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin                       (Reuters/Yves Herman)
Vladimir Putin (Reuters/Yves Herman)

Vladimir Putin was very Vlad this week, as 97 percent of voting Crimeans elected to quit the mess Ukraine has become and rejoin Russia. The world watched a Sphinx for weeks. In a trice, the Russian president then took command of a crisis Americans, Europeans and the provisional government in Kiev could not have made sloppier if they had put their minds to it.

It is a little like pouring a resolving compound into a cloudy beaker, as in high school chemistry classes. The papers are signed, Crimea is once again part of Russia, and Putin’s adversaries are left to reject the proposition even as their protests and threats remind one more of the dandelion puffballs of spring with each passing day.

It is time to draw lessons, as everyone seems to agree. The startling thing is how consistently Western leaders and the think-tank set behind them draw all the wrong ones.

As I see it, the headline is that no one can stop history’s wheel from turning. If I were a copy editor writing display language, my subhead would be: “But the post-Cold War West nonetheless persists in forlorn effort to do so.”

One can neither mourn nor cheer Crimea’s split from Ukraine and the Russian annexation Putin declared Tuesday, and there is no need to do either. It is not a tragedy; it is a calamity only for those invested in the post-Cold War order because this order has been to the advantage of the Western powers.

It is a victory for those Russians — very many, it seems — invested in making their nation a prominent pole in a multipolar world. But it is their victory and they are to be left to it.

For me, history has always had a greater claim to a sovereignty all its own than lines drawn on political maps. I see nothing sacred in the latter and much to celebrate in the former, which I understand in the French way — bottom-up history, dense with humanity and human bonds, full of culture, sociology and economics and made of language, engrained practice, locality — altogether “the dailiness of life,” in the poet Randall Jarrell’s phrase.

There are centuries of this history behind the referendum held last weekend, and six decades to support the claim that Crimea is integral to Ukraine. So it comes to preference, and we now know the preferences of almost every Crimean who replied to the referendum’s question. More than 80 percent of them turned out to vote. For them, too, a victory in that they have self-determined.

Something else must be added instantly. It is no good thinking that the vote was somehow forced by the barrels of Russian rifles. The imagery is familiar, time-tested Cold War stuff with obvious truth in a lot of cases. And scarcely would Putin be above intimidation. But it does not hold up this time, if only because there was no need of intimidation.

The plain reality is that Putin knew well how the referendum would turn out and played the card with confidence. Washington and the European capitals knew, too, and this is why they were so unseemly and shamelessly hypocritical in their desperation to cover the world’s ears as Crimeans spoke.

This raises the legality question. There is blur, certainly, but the legal grounding is clear: International law carefully avoids prohibiting unilateral declarations of independence. In any case, to stand on the law, especially Ukraine’s since the coup against President Viktor Yanukovych last month, is a weak case in the face of Crimeans’ expression of their will.

There was a splendid image published in Wednesday’s New York Times. Take a look. You have a lady in Simferopol, the Crimean capital, on her way to something, probably work. Well-dressed, properly groomed, she navigates the sidewalk indifferently between a soldier and a tank.

The shot was taken Tuesday, day of the annexation. No big one, she seems to say.

This is the right position. If there is big stuff in Crimea’s change of status from the point of view of Crimeans, it is that the 2.2 million of them, 60 percent of them Russian, will leave behind a failed state now staring at the prospect of life under the neoliberal austerity regime those at the southern end of Europe love so much they simply cannot get enough of it.

There are perspectives other than those of the Crimeans, of course. “This is an earthquake, and not a four-point earthquake,” a Russianist named Toby Gati told the Times Tuesday. Gati served in Bill Clinton’s State Department and now brokers business deals, correspondent Peter Baker tells us.

Absolutely this is so. It is an earthquake high on the Richter scale for many in the West, but for none more than the strategists and architects of the neoliberal order, the lopsided “globalism” in vogue these past couple of decades. For them, a defeat has come, an outer boundary tested and now requiring retreat.

You are not reading the above thought in the Western media as we speak. You are reading of the “defiant” Putin — this mess gets more ad hominem by the day — of a disrupted post-Cold War stability and “a new, more dangerous era,” of Russian anger and ressentiment (Secretary of State Kerry), of “this dark period” that may or may not last as long as the Cold War itself (Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Moscow), and “nothing more than a land grab” (the inimitable Joe Biden, who “swept into Poland and the Baltics Tuesday.” Can you beat this phrasing?).

I have explored previously in this space the journalistic phenomenon I term “the power of leaving out.” We have a classic case before us.

I cannot find anywhere an account that rests on the self-evident proposition that as action begets reaction, reaction by definition requires antecedent action. Putin’s speech at the Kremlin Palace Tuesday revealed his boiling reaction to events in Ukraine since Yanukovych was deposed. He stood before all as a man provoked, and in case anyone missed this he did the favor of saying so in spades.

“If you press a spring too hard it will recoil,” Putin said. Entirely apt, pretty good one-sentence summary, including an acknowledgment that he has sprung swiftly at Ukraine, and in angry reaction.

Nothing, no hint of responsibility explained in the news reports and analysis, no causality. There are the merest flicks at the role of unnamed “foreigners,” but only such as to make Putin appear paranoid. Here is my favorite, from the Times coverage of the Putin speech:

“He said that the United States and Europe had crossed ‘a red line’ on Ukraine by throwing support to the new government that quickly emerged after Mr. Yanukovych fled the capital.”

Can you spot the phony chronology? Putin’s gripe predated Yanukovych’s flight by a long way, arising out of the covert meddling of Americans among the friendliest pols in Kiev (and, if history is any guide, probably among the demonstrators in Independence Square, too).

The Ukraine crisis was the final touch, the political piece, in a two-decade campaign to entice westward the country’s vigorously anti-Russian elements. More broadly, we have the advance of NATO up to Russia’s borders, a strategy so provocative and ahistorical that even Tom Friedman thinks it was dumb (or he did for at least one afternoon at the computer not long ago).

This kind of willful omission can do lasting damage to public understanding. It is an eternal point of contention among scholars, but many are the historians who recognize that the Soviet Union, as it long insisted, was indeed surrounded during the Cold War, and its posture was in important measure defensive. Few Americans even now grasp this as at least an arguable dimension of the period’s history.

This week we witness the manufacture of the same ignorance again. This is the open and shut of it.

I blame the media only in part. Their sin lies in not calling the political leadership on its failure to accept responsibility in Ukraine crisis — and its consequent determination to repeat the same mistakes.

The Pentagon has sent new F-16s to Poland and new F-15s to the Baltics. It is now flying surveillance jets over the Polish and Romanian borders with Ukraine. It is planning new naval exercises in the Black Sea, the rough equivalent of Russian naval exercises in the Caribbean.

Nothing provocative here. No, the lesson drawn is that the East–West chasm now opening requires more of this, not less. Ian Bond, who directs foreign policy studies at the Center for European Affairs, a London think tank, thinks American military exercises scheduled to take place in Ukraine this July (unconscionable in itself) should be moved up in response to the crisis.

The other lesson concerns NATO. I am a Gaullist on this question. Like the late French leader, I think its insistence on a divided world is wrong, and at this point it has caused more trouble than it has prevented in its history.

Ukraine, and NATO’s broader post–Soviet advance eastward, are cases in point. Again, no. The region needs more NATO now. Addressing the 28-member organization’s eastward flank, President Obama had this on Tuesday: “As NATO allies, we have a solemn commitment to our collective defense, and we will uphold that commitment.”

One hopes the Baltics, the Poles and the others are prepared to discover what a solemn commitment signifies among Western nations these days. No need to improve on Ian Bond, the London thinker: “Putin has just given NATO something to do, but the question is whether NATO is up to it.”

If this is the question, the answer is no. The sound and fury before us this week would come to little in any circumstance leading to military engagement. Virtually all Western leaders pronouncing on the matter acknowledge this amid the declarations of high principle.

Putin’s speech before the Russian Federal Council is worth reading. Here is the Washington Post’s transcript. It is revealing not only of the man but of the Russian worldview.

This is a wounded civilization, to borrow Naipaul’s term for India. There are humiliations in its long encounter with the West. There are “perceived slights,” as the Times tells us, and there are real ones, as the Times leaves out. The distinction matters not at the horizon.

An intelligent strategist — somebody other than a technocrat trained in rational choice theory — would consider these matters. He or she would bring history into the figuring, taking in the long encounter between East and West, history rendered with detachment. Such people do not seem to populate State these days, or such that they do they are not in the ascendant.

Putin’s performance is also notable for its blunt language. However much you accept of what he says, he speaks with a clarity unthinkable on this side.

He gives a good accounting of his own view of the relevant history, whether one takes it or leaves it, and an interesting take on the demonstrators in Kiev, with whom he was not out of sympathy until the complexion of the movement changed. My point is simply that there is more in Putin’s 47 minutes at the podium than our media tell us.

This is a man who knows precisely what he is doing now, having been provoked in Ukraine. He is doing his utmost to bring America’s unipolar moment to an end. I am for this project, not as a Russophile or some kind of Putinite, but as an American.

“Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun,” Putin said. “They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: Here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle, ‘If you are not with us, you are against us.’”

I find it hard to argue with much of this. Little to refute, much to regret.

Putin made some interesting commitments Tuesday. He stipulated that Russian Crimea is to have three national languages, Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar, all of equal status. And in this he pointedly recalled the provisionals in Kiev, whose first act was to eliminate Russian as an official language — a step so embarrassing for its atavism they quickly repealed their own ruling.

He also declared that he has no interest in going further into Ukraine. I take this to be so, at least for now; I also think it will depend on the West’s next moves, and these could include more big mistakes. Putting American troops on Ukrainian soil within the next few months seems an especially worrisome insensitivity.

I end with a few choice quotations to come out of this week’s news coverage. There were many. These happen, without design, to be from the Peter Baker analysis in the Times mentioned above. It is singular for its harvest of telling observations:

Toby Gati, the Russianist: “We don’t know how to control the narrative anymore.”

Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser: “He wants to rewrite the history that emerged after the Cold War.”

Andrew Kuchins, director of Russian studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Washington think tank: “I’m afraid we are looking at something profoundly different from the last 25 years.”

Three bull’s-eyes, in my view.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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