Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to formally recognise the breakaway People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent sovereign territories, prior to ordering a military operation to in his words “demilitarize” and “de-Nazify” the rest of the country, will have come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.
Ever since the coup in Kiev in early 2014 (materially and politically supported by Washington and its European allies) succeeded in toppling Ukraine’s last legitimate all-Ukraine government, leading to resistance in the east of the country where the majority of the population are ethnic Russians, there has been a grim inevitability about these events.
What we are witnessing in Ukraine right now is a pushback against Western aggression in the form of the eastward expansion of NATO to the point where it began to pose an unacceptable threat to Russia’s security. Putin has been nothing if not relentless in making this point for years up to now, but his warnings and words fell on the deaf ears of those resolute in their entirely mistaken belief in Western exceptionalism and supremacy in the wake of the collapse of Soviet Communism in the early 1990s.
Tremendously significant, isn’t it that leaders of an ideological bloc that has wrought so much devastation militarily are now reduced to bombastically announcing the imposition of new sanctions against Russia in response to Putin’s demarche in Ukraine? The incredible hubris that accompanied the march to war in Iraq in 2003 has morphed into crippling impotence in the face of a Russian bear that has awoken after being continously poked and prodded over time.
In the last analysis, empires are entities that create their own reality when secure in their power and domination. However when that power and domination wanes and weakens, as they must, what the proponents of empire consider reality is revealed to be the product of magical thinking and thereby its very antithesis. It is precisely this shifting dynamic that produces the shock-horror that we have been witnessing over the past weeks and months of Moscow’s military mobilisation in the West of the country, culminating in Putin’s decision to take things to the next level.
Accompanying this development has been the increasingly important war of conflicting narratives when it comes to the whys and wherefores of what has come to be known as the ‘Ukraine crisis’. With this in mind, let us take a moment to retrace our steps back to its origins.
The dragon’s teeth sown by Maidan
Author and historian Richard Sakwa provides a forensic exploration of the history of Ukraine and the tension between two competing national identities that underpin the status quo. Sakwa describes this as a struggle between a ‘monist’ Ukrainian notion of statehood and a ‘pluralist’ one, writing that at “the heart of the monist model…is a restitutive understanding of re-established statehood. In other words, the aim is not to reflect existing realities, above all the different histories of the territories making up contemporary Ukraine, but to restore some idealised vision of that statehood.”
When it comes to the pluralist alternative, Sakwa points out that this model “proposes that the post-Communist Ukrainian state is home to many disparate peoples, reflecting its long history of fragmented statehood and the way that its contemporary borders include territories with very different histories, but that they all share an orientation to a civic Ukrainian identity.”
In a state and society containing such centrifugal tensions, all it required to produce a convulsion so serious it would lead to civil conflict was a spark. In Ukraine this spark came with the decision of the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, to rescind the Association Agreement his government was about to sign with the European Union in November 2013, and instead opt for closer economic ties with Russia as a member of the Eurasian Customs Union, responding to the entreaties and political lobbying of Moscow.
East v West
Yanukovych found himself stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. His predecessor, Viktor Yuschenko, had set Ukraine on the path of closer integration with the West with the objective of eventual EU and NATO membership. Yanukovych, with the support of the Ukrainian parliament, abandoned this policy, striving instead to steer a neutral path between East and West. He elevated Russian to the status of an official language in those parts of the country – east and south – where it was popularly spoken, in a piece of legislation that resulted in violent protests in other parts of the country, thus confirming Ukraine’s intensifying ethnic and cultural divisions.
In response to Yanukovych’s decision to abandon closer ties with the EU in favour of Russia at the end of 2013, protests broke out across the country, mainly in the north and the west. Thousands congregated in Maidan Square in the centre of Kiev, which became the focal point of what was to become Euromaidan, a movement which came to be dominated by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis.
What is not in doubt is that the actions of the likes of Victoria Nuland of the US State Department in whipping up anti-government and anti-Russian sentiment during visits to Maidan during this period would never have been tolerated if the shoe had been on the other foot – i.e. if a Russian government official had gone out of his or her way to whip up anti-American sentiment in Mexico or Canada at protests against democratically elected pro-US governments taking place there.
As if not damning enough that Nuland, an official within the government of a foreign power, should visit Maidan to deliver anti-government protestors an unambiguous message of US support, a recording of a telephone exchange that took place between herself and Ukraine’s then US ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt, raised her perfidy to new levels. In the exchange, made public in February 2014, Nuland and Pyatt discuss who Yanukovych’s replacement should be in the manner of football coaches selecting a new quarterback. The flagrant negation of Ukrainian sovereignty provided an invaluable education in the day to day workings of imperialism.
By January 2014 the Yanukovych government was under siege with no end in sight. The crisis intensified when the Ukrainian parliament passed a raft of laws delegitimising the protests. This only succeeded in bringing even more people out onto Maidan Square and outside the parliament building itself. By now we were witnessing a similar trajectory to the events of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 – from which the Maidan protests had obviously drawn inspiration – leading to the fall of the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt.
The key difference between Egypt and Ukraine, of course, was that unlike Mubarak, Yanukovych possessed a democratic mandate, thus dictating that the efforts of a determined section of the Ukrainian people to topple him were both unconstitutional and anti-democratic.
Regardless, by this point the writing was on the wall for Viktor Yanukovych. Under the pretext of attending a political conference in Kharkov, Ukraine’s second city, he fled across the border into Russia via Crimea on the night of 21-22 February. If he had not – if he had instead opted to remain in Ukraine as his critics argued he should have – it’s a fair bet he would have suffered the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, such was the appetite for violence driving what by then was tantamount to an armed insurrection. To the Maidan protesters, Yanukovych was a Russian puppet, an enemy of everything they held dear as partisans of an ultra-nationalist, anti-Russian Ukrainian identity which held that the Ukrainian fascist, Stepan Bandera, was a freedom fighter rather than a Nazi collaborator during WWII.
Viktor Yanukovych’s corruption was not in doubt. In this respect he was merely the latest in a succession of corrupt leaders Ukraine has suffered since gaining its independence in 1991. However in his case inbuilt centrifugal political forces combined with geopolitical factors to turn the country into a key frontline in an emerging struggle between Washington and Moscow. This struggle, which has only grown more acute over time, is over whether the world will continue to function on the basis of the unipolarity enjoyed by the US since the end of the Soviet Union, or whether instead it was going to move forward as the multipolar alternative demanded by Moscow’s recovery from its post-Soviet decline, China’s increasing global economic and geopolitical footprint, and determined regional resistance to US hegemony by Iran, Venezuela and North Korea et al.
In trying to move Ukraine into their orbit, Washington and its European allies overreached and Russia’s intervention – firstly in facilitating Crimea’s reunification with Moscow in 2014, then with the official recognition of the independence and sovereignty of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and now with a wider military operation to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine – is the result.
Ultimately, as things stand, the West has been reduced to a spectator of the consequences of its own disastrous foreign policy.
History’s revenge is a hell of a thing.
By John Wight
John Wight is an author and political commentator based in Scotland.