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The US and Ukraine: Deconstructing Political Rhetoric
by Alexander Bessmertnykh
By issuing a statement that failed to mention Crimea’s integration into the Russian Federation, the four-way meeting held in Geneva signaled a milestone in the Ukrainian drama. Crimea’s reunification with Russia is now taken for granted.
Moving forward, the illegitimate authorities in Kiev attempt to misrepresent the consequences of their destructive policies for some time, but will not succeed in hiding evidence of what was done against Ukraine’s true interests.
With regard to the United States, I can’t remember a single time when Washington displayed such nervousness, and even bewilderment, as in the recent months in connection with the developments in Ukraine. Things went so far as to make President Putin call on the Americans and their allies to “stop the hysteria” and “renounce Cold War rhetoric.” It goes without saying that Washington’s nervous attempts to threaten Russia with something more serious than a cold war are totally unacceptable.
This imitation, presumably unconscious, of the neocon rhetoric and acts that did a lot of damage to the USA’s international reputation, is only weakening the hand of the current US leaders. What is more, it makes even less likely the prospect of achieving a shared understanding of the risks related to the deteriorating situation in Ukraine and reaching the necessary level of concord between Moscow and Washington on measures to prevent the situation from sliding into the abyss of an unpredictable conflict.
If my many years of experience in dealing with US administrations, both democratic and republican, can serve as any guide, a mutual ability to stop when sliding down a slippery slope has always saved the two nations from disasters that would have been unacceptable both for themselves and the rest of the world. Keeping a cool head is crucial. An awareness of all the ins and outs that affect the behavior of the other party is also essential.
Some analysts suggest that the growing US arrogance is due to the fact that having the biggest military budget in the world the United States has yielded to the temptation to expand the Monroe doctrine – banning any interference in what the US views as its vital interest – to encompass the entire world. It is allegedly for this reason that the United States is so possessive with regard to Ukraine, a major European country which has long become a point of interest for Washington. This perspective is wide off the mark and has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. Moreover, it fails to take into account one fundamental fact. Ukraine and Russia share a common history, an age-old kinship and a common fate. Ukrainians and Russians formed a single ethnic community long ago and this historical past is indivisible. They are actually closer to one another than, say, the British, Americans and Australians.
It cannot be denied, of course, that we have been separated to some extent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but this didn’t go so far as to completely alienate the two peoples.
Ukraine has been weakened by long-time political instability and a failure of its fragmented elite to ensure national cohesion, exposing it to US and Western influences. These power centers view Ukraine, first and foremost, as a springboard for efforts to weaken Russia and disrupt integration process within the post-Soviet space. For them, Ukraine is not so much a subject as a strategic object. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that the interests pursued in Ukraine by the United States and Western Europe have always been somewhat different. For the Europeans, even though they have to toe the NATO line, Kiev has always been a neighbor involved in addressing all historic challenges of the continent, as well as an economic, cultural and trade partner. Recent developments clearly demonstrate that approaches coming from European capitals are not tainted with belligerence, notwithstanding the unprecedented pressure from Washington. High-profile political and civil society figures from leading European nations are calling for balanced and pragmatic solutions to the crisis, except for those serving in NATO structures, from where only ecstatically aggressive roars can be heard.
In order to gain a better insight into the possible motives and causes underpinning US policies regarding the Ukrainian crisis, it seems advisable to analyze Washington’s miscalculations at its key stages.
The three faces of Maidan
The Ukrainian crisis entered its active phase with the outbreak of protests on Kiev’s Maidan Square. Unable to keep up with developments, Americans spoiled their own game. The first stage of the Maidan protest movement was about young people energetically voicing their opposition to the unexpected decision by President Viktor Yanukovich to suspend Ukraine’s association with the EU. In fact, by laying the groundwork for Ukrainian accession to the EU and NATO, he inadvertently inspired a dream among a part of the country’s youth that their disorderly nation could reach the “European heaven” in a single stride. However, when the President backed out without even explaining his motives, these young people were enraged and took to the streets to erect peaceful barricades.
This was a classic Maidan-style protest: an outburst of anger and disappointment with the inconsistent and deceitful leaders. The fact that the country had failed to hold a national debate on its future and failed to take all the pros and cons into account, only made things worse. The political message was blurred, as were the country’s prospects.
I believe that the country’s elite did not have a clear understanding of the best national development trajectory. Mired in corruption, they were not willing to analyze, let alone have serious debates regarding the situation in the country, consciously avoiding the dangerous discussion of the costs of an unprepared shift to “European quality.”
However, the first romantic protesters on the Maidan were not aware of such considerations. Moreover, they were soon swept away by the second wave of protests, when extremists began flowing into Kiev from Western Ukraine to focus the national agenda on enhancing its independence, which, however, served as a cover for expanding Poland’s opportunity to influence national policy of Ukraine.
At this stage, Berlin acted highly unusually. One had the impression that Angela Merkel, perhaps for the first time, was not playing her game. She actually supported this second, radical protest wave, more likely because it had been masterminded by Warsaw. The Polish foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, was a most active, if not the leading, figure during the Kiev negotiations with the Maidan-appointed government. Berlin was clearly heeding Warsaw’s prevailing interest. But why? In recent years, Poland has become an important manufacturing base for Germany by attracting a number of major German industrial corporations. This is where Poland’s economic achievements and accelerated development came from. The interdependence that followed could have justified Berlin’s unusual positioning at this stage in the Ukrainian crisis.
These developments were soon followed by the third phase that involved bloodshed, firearms, snipers on the rooftops and loss of life. This time, Maidan was under the full control of the Right Sector, a brutal fascist-leaning organization with Nazi slogans.
Failing to understand this swift and dangerous shift in the protest movement and continuing to back the regime change in Kiev and its henchmen was the United States’ principal mistake. It supported Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and was infuriated to learn that Germany had a protégé of its own in the boxer Klichko, and were ready to go as far as to confront Berlin on this issue. Germany finally gave in, removing its man from the game. Yatsenyuk became Prime Minister and was welcomed by President Obama in the White House. Nevertheless, he returned without the promised funding ($1.2bn). But he may still get it later on.
Crimea’s reunification with Russia overshadowed all other issues in relations between the United States and Kiev and quite opportunely distracted Washington and Europe from performing their obligation to provide financial assistance to and support Ukraine, at least for a time.
The growing severity and, at times, inadequacy of US public diplomacy at this time is mostly due to Russia’s successful reunification with Crimea, which had been part of Russia for centuries before being capriciously handed over as a “gift” to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
While Washington’s risky behavior is understandable in terms of psychology, it is far outside the realm of normalcy in terms of political strategy, and for a reason. In fact, few people know the history of relations between the US authorities and the “Ukrainian element” in America, or how much influence the latter wields. In the wake of the Second World War, the US was proactive in attracting immigrants from the USSR and Eastern Europe, especially those hostile to their country of origin. In the 1940s, thousands of Ukrainians settled in America, mostly displaced people who had found themselves to the west of the frontline at the end of the war, i.e., in the zone controlled by the US (an ally of Russia at the time). Most of them went to the United States.
As time went by, the Ukrainian diaspora found representation in government agencies of several states and even in the US Congress. Nationalist-leaning political associations emerged, most of them hostile to the USSR. Americans oversaw their activities and kept an eye on their political views. This important feature was noticed by prominent US diplomat and foreign policy scholar George Kennan, who talked about the existence of a vociferous and influential element in the US: refugees and emigrants from non-Russian regions of the USSR, who championed the definitive destruction of the traditional Russian state. For Kennan, Ukrainians were the most proactive in this respect, since they viewed waging war against Russian people as their main objective and regarded the United States as their only ally in this respect. Their influence in D.C. and across various state capitals kept growing.
Moscow closely followed these developments, especially the links between officials and these organizations, and protested when facts emerged about anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalist centers receiving government support. Among such groups, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, one of the main lobbyists with regard to Ukrainian politics, played a special role. US State Department representatives usually attended meetings of its Executive Board.
Even after the Cold War (what we are seeing now is merely its ugly twin), the question of whether Ukraine can break its historical ties with Russia remained relevant for Americans. This “Ukrainian factor” had a certain impact on shaping Washington’s current approaches.
That said, there are also other circumstances that should be taken into account.
The NATO factor
The United States’ initiatives in Ukraine are affected by its growing determination to lure Ukraine into NATO, which would represent a de facto breakdown in relations between Moscow and Kiev and the emergence of a 21st century “Berlin Wall.” US diplomat and former ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock said several years ago that while joining NATO would be unwise for Georgia, it would be outright suicidal for Ukraine. He went on to say that the key threats to Ukraine’s security stem from political, social, economic and linguistic divisions within the country rather than from Russian “imperialism.” From the point of view of recent events it is of interest to reproduce yet another remark made by the former ambassador: the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO would have forced Crimea and Russia to demand the restitution of the peninsula to Russia. This happened somewhat earlier, if for a similar reason.
The idea of drawing Kiev into NATO’s orbit was actively discussed in the US, particularly so in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But it didn’t seem so indisputable to the US establishment. There were differing views on the consequences of this move, which split the political class.
I would like to cite a well-known exchange between two former national security advisers – Gen. Brent Scowcroft (Rep.) and Zbigniew Brzezinski (Dem.) – which took place back in 2008 and shed light on moods prevailing in the US elite with regard to the future fate of Ukraine.
Brzezinski insisted that Ukraine should not be condemned to remain in Moscow’s shadow, since it is following a program adopted, not by President Yushchenko but by his pro-Russian opponent Viktor Yanukovich, who had set the following timeframe: joining NATO’s Membership Action Plan in 2006 and acceding to NATO in 2008.
Scowcroft warned that accepting Ukraine to NATO would be viewed by Russians as an attempt to humiliate them. So it would be wiser to adopt a more cautious approach by encouraging EU expansion. A reasonable line, he said, would be to promote NATO’s parallel rapprochement with both Ukraine and Russia. He was aware that insisting on NATO membership for Ukraine would create problems for the USA given that Ukraine’s eastern regions are predominantly populated by ethnic Russians.
Judging by the White House’s public grievances against Russia, including allegations that it plans to “saw up Ukraine,” the US leadership seems to be failing to adopt an unbiased mindset regarding data coming from its intelligence services. The eventuality of the CIA Director coming to the same conclusion after his trip to Ukraine is hard to imagine. More likely than not, the White House is aware of what is happening in reality, but is unable to publicly admit it. The unelected Maidan leaders who seized power in Kiev are an albatross around their neck, and the US government has so far been unable to shake it off.
Midterm elections will be held in the United States this November, with a third of Senate seats up for grabs. Given Obama’s sliding popularity (down to 41% as of March 2014), the outcome of these elections is a matter of great concern for the White House. It is for this reason that the Ukrainian drama is to be orchestrated in such a way that the White House doesn’t look like a loser, or even comes out as a winner, although the latter option seems highly unlikely due to the previous missteps.
Powerful mechanisms for influencing international, and especially domestic, public opinion have been put into motion. For the first time ever, practically all objective information channels into the country have been shut down in the United States. All major media networks in the country were effectively forced to participate in this effort to blind US public opinion, producing an almost impermeable information shield.
Looking back at my diplomatic career, I cannot recall any single instance of US leaders offering such grossly inaccurate information on the most important aspects of any situation in hand. (A case in point is “the Russian government’s support for armed pro-Russian separatists threatening to undermine and destabilize the government of Ukraine.”)
Calling on Russia to renounce a military intervention in Ukraine is another frequently used tool for influencing public perception in the US. Since Moscow has no such plans, the absence of an “intervention” will be palmed off as a victory for Washington and a result of its stern warnings to Russia.
Finally, the United States and NATO will use the Ukrainian crisis as a pretext for “strengthening collective security” in Europe, where additional armed forces will be deployed. However, this is unlikely to happen in Germany or any other major European power. The probable candidates are the pliant Baltic states, the willing Romania and possibly Poland, which placed its bets on the Maidan. All of them certainly have the sovereign right to suit policies to their taste. Even if the taste is deceptive.
What is needed is a joint and honest search for a way out of the current crisis. It should be about ensuring real national sovereignty for Ukraine and its economic survival. This is the only thing that matters. To get there, Russia is proposing a more acceptable option that would engage all countries concerned – primarily Russia and the US – in an intensive diplomatic dialogue. In the past, Washington knew how to join hands with Moscow in order to look for and find compromises even in more difficult situations. In short, it should pull itself together and join the effort to reach historically important solutions.
Alexander Bessmertnykh is President of the International Foreign Policy Association, Chairman of the Global Council of Foreign Ministers of Foreign Affairs