Book review of ‘Frontline Ukraine, Crisis in the Borderland’
Reviewed by Chris Nineham, published in Counterfire, March 26, 2015
Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, by Richard Sakwa, I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, December 2014, 220pp
We all know about of the fog of war, but the current coverage and commentary on the crisis in Ukraine arguably takes wartime disinformation to new levels. Richard Sakwa’s new book is a rare and precious exception. It is clear and measured and carefully researched and it shows that the story we are told in the West about events inside Ukraine is deeply flawed. More generally, it exposes the idea that Russia is the aggressor and the West the protector of Ukraine’s democratic will as a travesty of the truth. In short, Sakwa’s analysis is diametrically opposed to what passes for an explanation of the Ukraine crisis in the mainstream.
One of the book’s great strengths is that it sees the crisis as a product of two connected processes, one domestic, one geopolitical. Far from being a straightforward expression of popular will, Sakwa details how the government that emerged from the Maidan protests in February 2014 represented the victory of a minority hardline anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism. But this minority could come to dominate, he argues, because of the context provided by an aggressive, US-led, Western foreign policy designed to assert Western control over Eastern Europe and, at least in its more hawkish versions, de-stabilise Russia.
The push to the east
Nato and the EU have been pushing steadily eastwards ever since the end of the Cold War, despite verbal assurances from a series of Western leaders that this would not happen. Twelve countries have joined Nato in the region since 1991. Georgia and Ukraine were promised membership at the Nato Summit in Bucharest in 2008, despite repeated warnings from the Russian government that taking Nato to the Russian border would cause a security crisis of the first order. It was only the intercession of Germany and France that forced the US to put these plans on hold.
The push to the east continued in the form, amongst others, of a plan to get Ukraine to sign up to an ‘Association Agreement’ with the EU. It was this agreement, due to be signed in November 2013, which sparked the crisis. To grasp its significance it is important to understand just how closely tied Nato and the EU have become, especially since the Lisbon Treaty signed by EU members in 2007.
Article 4 in the proposed Association Agreement committed the signatories to ‘gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever deeper involvement in the European Security area’ (p.76). As Sakwa puts it, “it is pure hypocrisy to argue that the EU is little more than an extended trading bloc: after Lisbon, it was institutionally a core part of the Atlantic security community, and had thus become geopolitical”. (p.255)
All parties involved must have known that this document, if signed, would have caused existential anxiety in Moscow. Defenders of the West’s drive to the east justify it as the reflection of the will of the people concerned. This is disingenuous. As Western leaders themselves have publicly admitted, a campaign to buy Ukrainain hearts and minds has been running for decades. In 2013, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, Victoria Nuland, publicly boasted of the fact that the US had invested $5 billion in ‘democracy promotion’ since 1991, a huge sum by USAID’s standards (p.86). It has since been revealed that the EU too spent 496 million on front groups in Ukraine between 2004 and 2013 (p.90).
And there was nothing democratic about the process. Discussions about the Association Agreement in fact took place behind the backs of the Ukrainian people and the text of the agreement was not available in Ukraine till the last moment (p.74). It actually contained very little in the way of assistance to Ukraine’s economy, and its centrepiece was a radical liberalisation of EU-Ukraine trade, a direct threat to the traditional economic relations between Ukraine and Russia.
In the end, for a mixture of reasons, President Yanokovich didn’t sign up to the deal. But the pressure to sign helped to polarise the debate in Ukraine. The meaning of the agreement was an open secret in Washington. In the words of Carl Gershman from the National Endowment for Democracy, while Ukraine was ‘the biggest prize’, there was, beyond that, an opportunity to put Putin ‘on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself’. (p.75)
This concerted Western strategy to surround and weaken Russia had a profound impact on the internal politics of Ukraine. Sakwa explains well the complex history that links Ukraine and Russia, a history that can’t be reduced to simple formulas of colonial dependency. The long, indigenous tradition of seeing Ukraine as part of greater Russian union has resulted in Russian being the dominant language in most of the country despite ethnic Russians being a relatively small minority. (p.8)
For all the mixed motivations behind the Maidan protests, it was a hardline anti-Russian strand that came to dominate, first in the protests themselves and subsequently in the regime that emerged out of the forced removal of the Yanukovich government.
Western policy in general gave ballast to a hardline nationalist tradition in the country that saw Russia – and the Russian minorities within the country – as the enemies of Ukrainian nationalism. This tradition centred on the historic figure of Stepan Bandera who collaborated with the German Nazis in atrocities against Jews, Poles and Russians in Ukraine during WW2. His followers formed SS divisions which were responsible for the deaths of up to half a million people. (pp16-17). A giant poster of Bandera hung by the side of the stage in the Maidan, and many leaders of the regime that came out of the Maidan saw him as part of their tradition.
The West was minutely involved in this process. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland visited Ukraine three times in the first few weeks of the Maidan protests (p.86). The famous February leaked phone call between her and the US ambassador in Ukraine in which Nuland said ‘fuck the EU’, showed the extent to which the US was pulling the strings and in which direction. In the call Nuland judges that the relatively moderate nationalist Vitaly Klitschko, who had the backing of Germany and the EU, should be kept out of office and that Arseniey Yatsenhuk – ‘Yats’ she calls him – a man who turned out to be a hardline chauvinist, should be the key player. Yatsenyuk indeed became the acting Prime Minister in the new government.
The result, in Sakwa’s words, was that, ‘what had begun as a movement in support of ‘European values’ now became a struggle to assert a monist representation of Ukrainian nationhood. The amorphous liberal rhetoric gave way to a much harsher agenda of integrated nationhood, and the euphoria promoted a rash of ill-considered policies’ (p.94).
As President Yanukovich was impeached and the new government was installed, armed insurgents strutted around the debating chamber. Yatsenyuk’s government was a mixture of recycled oligarchs and hard-line nationalists and fascists. It contained only two ministers from the entire south and east of the country, the areas with closest ties to Russia. Five cabinet positions out of 21 were taken by the far right Svoboda Party, despite the fact they had only received 8% of the seats in Parliament. The minister of justice and the deputy Prime Minister came from the Russophobic Svobada party and its founder, a man with a long record of ultra nationalist activism, Andriy Parubiy, became head of the NSDC security agency.
One of the new government’s first acts was to vote to rescind a law guaranteeing the right to instate a second official language where there were significant minorities. Although the change in the law was blocked, the vote was correctly interpreted as an attack on Russian minorities across the country. It was followed by the outlawing of the Ukrainian Communist Party and the establishment of a ‘special service’ to root out fifth columnists in the armed forces (p.137). A wave of physical assaults on Russians duly followed. In Odessa, pro-Russian activists were driven from an encampment into a trade union building which was then torched, killing a minimum of 48, many hundreds according to locals. The massacre was hailed by one of the Maidan leaders, Dmytro Yarosh, as ‘another bright day in our national history’ (p.98).
This series of events made a civil war virtually inevitable. Uprisings in the east of the country were motivated by political resentments, opposition to neoliberal policies and other economic grievances against Kiev, but most of all by a sense of the need for self defence. Unlike the largely middle-class movement in Kiev, the anti-Maidan movement in the Donbass region was ‘lower-class, anti-oligarchic (and Russian nationalist)’ (p.149). It was not mainly separatist. A poll by the Pew Research Center in May 2014 found that 70 per cent of eastern Ukrainians wanted to keep the country intact, including 58 per cent of Russian speakers (p.149).
The view from the East
Sakwa carefully analyses Russia’s behaviour during the crisis. His conclusions are a frontal challenge to the West’s narrative that the crisis in the Ukraine was precipitated by Russian aggression. As he shows, this is the opposite of the truth. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, successive governments embraced a Western orientation, even making tentative moves to join Nato. In contrast to the stereotype that has been so carefully constructed, in his first term, Putin, and his successor Medvedev, sought engagement and accommodation with the West and tried to establish structured relationships with Nato and the EU. This approach faltered according to Sakwa, because of repeated rebuffs from the West: “Continued conflicts in the post-Soviet space, the inability to establish genuine relations with the EU and disappointment following Russia’s positive demarche in its attempt to reboot relations with the US after 9/11 all combined to sour Putin’s new realist project” p.31
Over the last decade and a half, the Russian foreign policy establishment has become more and more alarmed by the unilateralism of US foreign policy, particularly over the invasion of Iraq and the attack on Libya. The non-negotiated push eastwards by Nato and the EU could of course only be perceived as hostile. Even in these circumstances, however, for Sakwa, Putin’s central concern was to maintain the status quo in Ukraine, and try and ensure a friendly or at least neutral buffer state based on a stable settlement within the multi-ethnic Ukrainian state.
The forced, Western-backed removal of the Yanukovich government created an immediate crisis for the Russian government. Putin reacted by running a popular poll and an armed operation to secure the secession of the Crimean region to the USSR. Given the level of hostility and the mobilisations against Russian minorities, this can have surprised no-one. The Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, and it contains Sevastopol, Russia’s only major warm-water naval base. The idea that the Russian ruling class was going to stand aside and allow this area to be taken by a pro-Nato and anti-Russian government was obvious fantasy.
But if Putin’s long-term plan had been to invade, partition or even to destabilise the rest of Ukraine, he would have taken the opportunity presented by the virtual collapse of the Ukrainian government in February last year and the anti-Kiev uprisings in the east of the country which developed as a result. His response was in fact was very different. Sakwa argues that despite the hoopla in the Western media, with the exception of the special case in Crimea, there is little evidence of significant military intervention by Russia in the months after the crisis of February, at least until August. Putin supported the rebels to try and gain some leverage, but when it came to military assistance the rebels in the east were denouncing Putin for not delivering it. In Sakwa’s words, “Russia used proxies in the Donbas to achieve its goals within Ukraine, but this was not an attempted ‘land-grab’ or even a challenge to the international system” (p.182).
On 24 June in fact, the Russian Federation Council revoked a ruling which had previously allowed Russian military involvement in Ukraine ‘in order to normalise and regulate the situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine’ in the run up to tripartite talks involving the new Prime Minister Poroshenko (p.162). But Poroshenko had been the continuity candidate. On taking office, he had issued a statement calling for ‘a united, single Ukraine’ and characterising insurgents in the south-east as ‘terrorists’ (p.161).
Sakwa, along with most other sane commentators, is far from idealising the authoritarian and sometimes aggressive Russian regime. He criticises its human rights record and its institutions of governance. If anything his instincts are with a reformed integrationist ‘wider European project’, which, given the behaviour of the actually-existing Western institutions, seems a bit of a forlorn hope.
But what Sakwa’s book does so well is to ask us to go beyond rhetoric and generalities and examine the actual dynamics of the particular situation in its national and international dimensions. Most importantly, he argues, we can’t begin to understand the Ukrainian catastrophe unless we completely reject the dominant, not to say consensual, Western account of what is happening. This is a crisis created by the West, but by threatening Russia’s core interests, it contains the possibility of a catastrophic confrontation; ‘the US has sought to create a regime in its own image, while Russia has sought to prevent the creation of one hostile to its perceived interests’ he argues (p.255). We in the West have a responsibility to do everything possible to force our leaders back from the brink.