This is how we spooked Putin: What the New York Times won't tell you about the American adventure in Ukraine

The failure of Washington’s most adventurous power assertion in post-Cold War period can no longer be papered over

Published February 23, 2016 11:59PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

All of a sudden, straight out of nowhere, Ukraine creeps back into the news.

There is renewed fighting in the rebellious eastern regions. There is political warfare in Kiev. There is paralysis in the upper reaches. There is some new formation called the Revolutionary Right Forces occupying the Maidan—the very same Independence Square where, two years ago this past Sunday, months of protests tipped into violence and an elected president was ousted.

All of a sudden. Straight out of nowhere.

Now you know what you are supposed to think as the flowers of corruption and ultra-right atavism burst forth in Ukraine. Shall we insist together on remaining in what is quaintly called the real world?

Ukraine has gone from political crisis to armed conflict to humanitarian crisis with no break in the regress since the American-cultivated coup in February 2014. But for many months now we have had before us a textbook example of what I call the Power of Leaving Out.

The most daring attempt at “regime change” since righteous Clintonians invented this self-deceiving euphemism in the 1990s has come to six-figure casualties, mass deprivation,  a divided nation and a wrecked economy. If you abide within the policy cliques or the corporate-owned media, it is best to go quiet as long as you can in the face of such eventualities.

The short of it, readers, is that all three chickens now take up their roosts at once: The Poroshenko government is on the brink of collapse, neo-Nazi extremists have forced it to renew hostilities in the east and there is no letup in the blockade Kiev imposes on rebelling regions. The last differs from a punitive starvation strategy only in degree.

The very short of it is that the more or less complete failure of Washington’s most adventurous assertion of power in the post-Cold War period can no longer be papered over. Even the most corrupted correspondents have to file something when political mutiny and warfare break into the open—and when non-American media, as is their peculiar habit, report on these things. It is for this reason alone you can read a smidge—but only a smidge—about the events now unfolding in Ukraine in the New York Times and all other media that reliably do as the Times does.


This column has cheered for an American failure in Ukraine since first forecasting one in the spring of 2014. Brilliant that it is upon us at last.

Forcing a nation to live under a neoliberal economic regime so that American corporations can exploit it freely, as the Obama administration proposed when it designated Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister in 2014, is never to be cheered. Turning a nation of 46 million into a bare-toothed front line in America’s obsessive campaign against Russia is never to be cheered. Forcing the Russian-speaking half of the country to live under a government that would ban Russian as a national language if it could is never to be cheered. The only regret, a great regret of mind and heart, is that American failures almost always prove so costly in consequence of the blindness and arrogance of the policy cliques.

Readers may remember when, with a defense authorization bill in debate last June, two congressmen advanced an amendment banning military assistance to “openly neo-Nazi” and “fascist” militias waging war against Ukraine’s eastern regions. John Conyers and Ted Yoho got two things done in a stroke: They forced public acknowledgment that “the repulsive neo-Nazi Azov battalion,” as Conyers put it, was active, and they shamed the (also repulsive) Republican House to pass their legislative amendment unanimously.

Obama signed the defense bill then at issue into law just before Thanksgiving. The Conyers-Yoho amendment was deleted but for a single phrase. The bill thus authorizes, among much, much else, $300 million in aid this year to “the military and national security forces in Ukraine.” In a land ruled by euphemisms, the latter category designates the Azov battalion and the numerous other fascist militias on which the Poroshenko government is wholly dependent for its existence.

An omnibus spending bill Obama signed a month later included an additional $250 million for the Ukraine army and its rightist adjuncts. This is your money, taxpayers, should you need reminding. As Obama signed these bills, the White House expressed its satisfaction that “ideological riders” had been stripped out of them.

No, you read next to nothing of this in any American newspaper. Yes, you now know what the often-lethal combination of blindness and arrogance looks like in action. Yes, you can now see why American policy in Ukraine must fail if this crisis is ever to come to a rational, humane resolution.

The funds just noted are in addition to a $1 billion loan guarantee—in essence another form of aid—that Secretary of State Kerry announced with fanfare last year. And that is in addition to the International Monetary Fund’s $40 billion bailout program, a $17.5 billion tranche of which is now pending. Since the I.M.F. is the external-relations arm of the U.S. Treasury (and Managing Director Christine Lagarde thus the Treasury’s public-relations face) this is a big commitment on the Obama administration’s part (which is to say yours and mine).

How are things on the receiving end, it is natural to ask. Our money goes to exactly what?

Until recently, what one heard and read of Ukraine’s progress into a neoliberal future was almost all happy talk (or silence, of course). Vice President Biden, who carries the Ukraine portfolio in the administration, makes regular trips to laud the Poroshenko government and the reformist zeal of Premier Yatsenyuk. This is perhaps only natural, given Biden’s son is neck-deep in Ukraine’s resource extraction industry.

Biden sounded a different note during his latest trip to Kiev, which came in December. Yes, there was another handout, this one $190 million to help the Poroshenko government implement “structural reforms” of the usual antidemocratic kind. (Are you toting up all these checks?) But Biden was stern, make no mistake. He shook his finger from the podium in parliament.

“We understand how difficult some of the votes for reforms are, but they are critical for putting Ukraine back on the right path,” Biden said. “As long as you continue to make progress in fighting corruption and build a future of opportunity for all Ukraine, the U.S. will stand with you.”

Back on the right path? Continue to make progress?

Since euphemisms are an American export item, familiar in euphemism markets the world over, a translation: You are embarrassing us because you have done nothing. We gave you a window to pass legislation before the Ukrainian people figured out how awful it would make their lives. You’re blowing it as we speak. Hurry up. Meantime, here is another couple of hundred million.

A few days ago Geoffrey Pyatt, the American ambassador in Kiev, put in his two cents. (No check this time.) Pyatt, readers will surely recall, did the gumshoe work for Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state who engineered Yatsenyuk’s elevation to the premiership two years ago. His concern was grave as he addressed a defense and security seminar: He wants to see “meaningful steps to reform the trade and investment climate.” These are, of course, the abiding passions of every un- or under-employed Ukrainian.

“Ukraine has said that it wants to become a major defense exporter,” the ambassador elaborated. “I know that is possible, given the extraordinary capabilities that I have seen the Ukrainian industry demonstrate, but it can only happen if Ukraine continues to press ahead on critical reforms, tackles corruption, and works to meet NATO standards. This will require a paradigm shift in Ukraine’s defense industry, and a move away from a mindset of state-owned enterprises….”

Pyatt refers to a very specific circumstance in the above passage. Ukraine is a cesspit of illegal arms dealing, and this is a wellspring of corruption and illicit profit American defense contractors want to partake of. A source in Europe who is familiar with the trade but not part of it explained things this way in a note the other day:

“Ukraine has been the plaque tournant [hub, lively market] of illegal arms trade since the end of the U.S.S.R. The mob, the Kiev military, the far-right groups and some of the oligarchs all participate at different levels in this very, very dirty business…. None, as in none of this has been touched by the Kiev regime….”  

This tableau of trade in deadly devices is surely what Pyatt meant by “the extraordinary capabilities” he has witnessed among Ukraine’s weapons dealers.

See where we are headed here? The project is to neoliberalize Ukraine and make its defense machine, now so corrupt nobody but the Pentagon will provide it any assistance, NATO-compatible. But none of this is proceeding to plan.

The absence of “structural reform”—a phrase I have loved since my correspondent days for all the anti-social savagery it masks—is one problem. But it is the corruption that comes to crisis of late. There has been no sign of improvement since the February 2014 events; now it is worse than under any previous government, including the one ousted two years ago, my sources in Europe report.

“Corruption continues to be the worst at any time since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.,” a source with close contacts in Kiev writes. “Recently even the I.M.F.—i.e., the international office of U.S. Treasury, run by [Under Secretary] David Lipton—read the riot act…. The economy is in free fall…. The most competent ministers have left, resigned due to the inability to get anything significant done. Berlin and Paris are, I am told by Quai d'Orsay [French foreign ministry] contacts, “completement exacerbés” [highly aggravated, made furious] by the Kiev regime. There are demos practically every day against the gov’t.—of course, not reported in the int’l. media.”

The resignation this source had in mind was that of Aivaras Abromavicius, who stepped down earlier this month as economic development minister with this parting comment: “Neither me, nor my team, has any desire to serve as a cover-up for the covert corruption, or become puppets for those who, very much like the ‘old’ government, are trying to exercise control over the flow of public funds.”

Abromavicius, a Lithuanian by birth and a former fund manager, was among several foreign technocrats appointed to the Poroshenko cabinet—more or less by the I.M.F., and hence the Americans—to see through the neoliberal project. Subsequent to his departure, Lagarde let loose with her well-publicized warning: Clean up the act or the $17.5 billion check on my desk does not get signed.

The act that needs to be scoured has two parts. Apart from the questions of corruption and “free-market” reform, there are the terms of the ceasefire agreement signed last year and known as Minsk II for the city where it was negotiated. Minsk II calls for constitutional revision allowing the eastern regions a significant degree of autonomy, their own elections, and a decentralization of administrative authority to give Ukraine something like a federalized national structure.

This is, of course, the rational way to a resolution of the Ukraine crisis given the nation’s history, culture and languages. Why is Kiev paralyzed on both fronts?

The corruption question is easy. Nothing gets done because the same people in power when Viktor Yanukovych was ousted two years ago are in power now.

Washington’s problem with Yanukovych was never corruption, we need to note. It was his view of Ukraine: An easterner, he considered that the nation’s long and close involvement with Russia had to be accommodated along with the western region’s tilt toward Europe. Many deaths and much destruction later, this is what Minsk II is intended to do.

No, Washington has a problem with Ukraine’s corruption now for the reasons Joe Biden and Geoffrey Pyatt make perfectly plain: Western corporations cannot put their money down on the table so long as Ukrainian bureaucrats, generals and business people keep stealing it at so obnoxious a rate.

As to Minsk II, we can also note that none the visitors to Ukraine of late appears to give a hoot that the Proshenko government has done nothing to fulfill its obligations. This is because they have no hoot to give.

As of Monday we have two exceptions, however. Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Jean-Marc Ayrault, the German and French foreign ministers, have just finished talks in Kiev en route to Russia to negotiate the forward motion of Minsk II’s provisions after months of stagnation.

At the outset, as one of my European sources said, they were “completement exacerbés.”

And they were exacerbés, understandably, because it is lately clear that the Poroshenko government is incapable of moving on Minsk II. It is, in effect, the hostage of the right-wing militias that were long said to exist only in the imaginations of Russian propagandists.

Azov and the other militias, the Svoboda party and Right Sektor, a Svoboda offspring, have made their position clear since Germany, France and Christine Lagarde forced Poroshenko to sign Minsk II last year: Make one move to accommodate the accord and we will bring you down. At this point the barely competent maker of chocolates is squeezed into a corner so tight it is not clear he will be able to breathe much longer.

On one hand the exacerbés Europeans want Minsk II implemented; it was supposed to be by the end of last year. They want tensions on their border with Russia to ease, they are impatient with Washington’s sanctions regime and it is as plain as day now that Ash Carter’s Pentagon and General Breedlove’s NATO will run all the miles they can so long as Ukraine gives them an excuse to do so. This pair loves Ukraine to bits—and may literally do so, depending on how things go.

As Stephen Cohen, the noted Russianist, writes in a comment published in The Nation this week, with Defense Secretary Carter’s recent announcement that the Pentagon will quadruple spending on U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, “Western military power has never been positioned so close to Russia.”

This kind of Russian roulette, as Cohen terms it, is not a game Europeans like playing. Although “the Europeans have no foreign policy of their own,” as Vladimir Putin astutely observed in a video recording released last week, they have at least recognized that Russia is more logically a partner, however attenuated the partnership, than an adversary.

That is the one hand. On the other, Poroshenko is fighting for his political life in Kiev. Last week he called for the universally unpopular Yatsenyuk—bearer of the neoliberal banner, whose approval rating is below 5 percent—to resign. But it shapes up as too little and too late.

Over the weekend and into this week, sections of the ultra-right, calling themselves Revolutionary Right Forces, gathered in Maidan to mark the second anniversary of the revolution. Having bombed three Russian banks while the police stood by without intervening, they effectively called for another revolt by way of a hefty list of demands. They want Poroshenko’s head, too. They want mass resignations of the generals, the bureaucrats, and the politicians. They demand the government repudiate Minsk II en bloc and impose martial law in the eastern regions and Crimea.

Now tell me, are you surprised that the war in the east has suddenly resumed? Are you surprised that nowhere in any American news account is it made clear who recommenced the hostilities? The Times account carried in Monday’s paper is so pointedly evasive one must conclude they ran the story only because the Power of Leaving Out no longer quite does it.

There is movement in Ukraine: This we can say. Sometime this year the Americans and the I.M.F. may quietly acknowledge that they chose the wrong puppets and step back, in which case failure will be self-evident. This is doubtful, however. They are not smart enough and lack sufficient integrity.

Berlin, Paris and Moscow may continue to make common cause and more or less impose Minsk II on Kiev. It is quite possible. In this case the American failure will also be evident, if more subtly. Washington will claim the success, if it stays true to form.

Or the war in the eastern regions will escalate and grow very dangerous well beyond Ukraine. This is all too possible at the moment. It is probably the favored way forward in Washington and Kiev, but it will turn out to be merely failure of another, more brutal kind.

No ideological riders, as the Obama White House likes to put it.

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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