Ukraine: Notes on a Crisis Made in the West

May 27, 2014

Last week I was in Izmir, Turkey for the 2nd European Workshops in International Studies, and I was asked to join a roundtable discussion on Ukraine and its implications for “security governance” in Europe. In preparing my contribution I found it quite difficult to find critical accounts of the crisis that adequately acknowledged the West’s role in precipitating it. The Western media has been full of hyperbolic nonsense about a people “yearning to be free” and throwing off the yoke of tyranny in their desire to join the EU, sparking a “new Cold War” with the evil Russians. This week’s European parliament election results alone stand as a neat rebuttal to the idea that the people of Europe embrace the EU’s idea of “freedom”. With that in mind I thought it might be useful to share my notes, complete with links, for others who might be looking for critical interpretations of the crisis. Obviously what follows is an incomplete and partial survey, intended as a provocation to consider how an irresponsible – and somewhat mindless – logic of Euro-Atlantic expansion has, by ignoring repeated warning signals of the geopolitical consequences, led Europe to its worst international political crisis since the Balkan wars.

Any comments/ improvements welcome. I will aim to update this with your input to provide the fullest possible critical account.

Ukraine: a crisis made in the West

EWIS, May 2014


  • EU and US have behaved with reckless abandon in Ukraine, fomenting the present crisis. This is not a result of deliberate geopolitical aggrandisement or any strategic intention to subvert Ukraine or Russia, at least on the EU’s part. Indeed, the EU in particular has shown very little strategic nous at all, and has simply blundered into the crisis.
  • The EU, and arguably NATO, have been set on a course of expansion since the Cold War in order to provide a sense of meaning and purpose to their continued existence: rather than aligning membership with clear strategic purposes, expansion has become an end in its own right, a measure of “success”. Consequently, despite previous undertakings and firm Russian opposition, NATO and the EU have sought to expand right up to Russia’s borders.
  • In Ukraine, this has played dangerously into severe East/West social divisions over the last decade. Essentially, there is no consensus within Ukraine for either association with the EU/NATO, or with Russia; different social forces support different external arrangements, and neither is supreme. Consequently, these social divisons – which date from Ukraine’s formation as a state – map onto external rivalries; they became internationalised, dramatically raising the stakes and emboldening actors on both sides.
  • In the short-term, the EU precipitated the 2013/14 ‘Maidan’ unrest against the elected government by forcing it to choose between Russia and Europe, which would definitely enrage one half the population regardless of how it chose. When protests erupted, Western leaders irresponsibly fomented the unrest, delegitimising the elected government and essentially authorising its overthrow, despite belatedly recognising the gravity of what they were doing.
  • Reflecting the way they had blundered into the crisis without a sufficient commitment as to its consequences, even when their allies – which included neo-fascist forces – seized power, the West was unwilling to put its money where its mouth was, offering nothing susbtantial to meet the government’s desperate economic needs. This deepened Ukraine’s severe socio-economic crisis.
  • The new, putchist Ukrainian regime was forced into adopting austerity programmes and also elected to curtail the rights of Eastern Ukrainians, precipitating a crisis in the East.
  • Ukraine’s apparent “loss” to Europe precipitated an entirely predictable – though still deplorable – Russian intervention in Crimea. Although local sentiment is not separatist, despite the rigged referenda, the growing deployment of paramilitary and militia forces against the East has fomented further anti-Kiev sentiment.
  • Far from de-escalating the conflict, the West has continued to fan the flames by backing the new regime politically and enhancing its military presence in the region. This is despite the reality that the West is not genuinely committed to supporting the Baltics/ former Soviet states – probably even some in NATO – in the event of any serious confrontation with Russia. Western policy thus continues to be irresponsible.

Long term background:

  • Ukraine established 1991; divided between East/West and to some degree ‘artificial’
    • Ukraine’s longstanding divisions:
      • East, dominated by uncompetitive industries tied to Russia, Russian speakers, historic base of Russian ‘state’, underpinning corrupt, oligarchic govt under Yanukovych – who was nonetheless elected in 2010 with 49% of the vote.
      • West, dominated by more internationally/EU oriented business, underpinning their own corrupt, oligarchic parties, Ukrainian speaking;  no government sufficiently robust to impose structural adjustment; deepening economic crisis over time, with different govts desperately courting EU/ Russia for help.
  • ‘Governance’ context set by 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances (signed by Russia, Ukraine, US and UK):
    • Ukraine de-nuclearised in exchange for guarantees of sovereignty from other signatories
    • In accordance with Helsinki principles of territorial integrity and non-intervention, US, UK and Russia agreed not to use force or economic coercion to subvert or subordinate Ukraine to their own interests.
  • Nonetheless, West began promoting gradual expansion of NATO, eventually to Russian borders and including Ukraine.
    • Under George W. Bush, the US, UK and others pushed Ukraine to join NATO, despite opposition from France, Germany and Russia.
    • NATO membership simply not acceptable to Russia: Ukraine borders Russia; Russian bases in east. Equivalent = Russia-Canada defence pact with Russian forces stationed along the US border. Russian opposition openly stated.
    • NATO membership also unacceptable to most Ukrainians. Opinion polls consistently showed large majorities hostile to membership – with the West most favourable and the East most opposed. A 2009 poll found 40% said NATO was a threat and only 17% saw it offering protection. Membership was only really favoured by the Western forces headed by Yulia Tymoshenko, while it was rejected by the Eastern forces headed by Viktor Yanukovych in favour of a looser ‘partnership’.
    • But equally, idea of strong association with Russia was also opposed by large sections of the population.
    • Idea of NATO membership dropped 2008 following Russian-Georgian war – itself indicative of the risks of pushing NATO to Russian borders – though cooperation with Ukraine continued.
  • EU expansion also promoted, despite partial curtailing of NATO expansion, again playing into the East/ West divide, as only 45% favoured EU association (though, again, large sections also reject close association with Russia):
    • From 1994, various Ukrainian governments have sought benefits of EU membership, but without the attendant internal reforms required due to the constraints of domestic politics. The EU has generally tried to fob off Ukraine (and others) with sub-membership deals, which have all the merits of provoking Russian concerns without ever having to actually take full responsibility for Ukraine’s fate.
    • 2006 EU Action Plan for Ukraine envisages ‘gradual economic integration and a deepening of political cooperation’
    • European Neighbourhood Policy seeks to encompass Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – all seen as in Russian sphere of influence.
    • 2009-2011: EU pursues ‘Eastern Partnership’ with Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Offers Ukraine market access but at cost of adopting costly EU regulations and no economic aid.
    • Fantasies of expansion continued to be aired, despite continued reluctance to accept Ukrainian membership, e.g. UK PM’s statement that EU should stretch from ‘the Atlantic to the Urals’ (July 2013). Had the effect of raising hopes of pro-EU Ukrainians, without ever apparently being underpinned by the real intention to embrace Ukraine as a member and/or provide the political/ economic backing that any govt in Kiev would need to break fully out of Russia’s orbit.
  • No one could possibly have missed the way that Western-Russian rivalry was being mapped onto Ukraine’s internal divisions:
    • 2004/2005 so-called ‘Orange revolution’ pitched pro-Western Viktor Yuschenko vs. pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. Extensive Western support had been lent to Yuschenko’s grassroots organisations, and huge Western pressure brought to bear for him during this crisis, while Russia clearly favoured Yanukovych and later severed gas supplies, apparently to rein in the pro-Western government.
    • Arguably both sides were by now violating the Budapest Memorandum; the only difference was that the West was doing it more subtly and more in accordance with ‘international norms’, whereas Russia was compelled to resort to much cruder strategems.
  • More broadly, West/ Russia tensions have increased in recent years as part of an international ‘culture war’, with the West posing (often hypocritically) as the bastion of liberal values and Putin increasingly as the guardian of traditional conservatism. This distorted coverage helps prime Western publics for confrontation with Russia.

Short-term build-up

  • 2013/14: Russia/ EU rivalry over Ukraine intensifies.
    • Ukrainian government facing severe socio-economic crisis, possible default on government debt.
    • Russia offers Eurasian customs union; massive bailout; cheap gas.
    • Nov 2013 Vilnius summit on Eastern Partnership: EU offers weak association agreement with no aid initially, just promise of €600m if Ukraine agrees a structural adjustment package with the IMF – but would then have to pay full price for gas.
      • Russia makes plain its concerns; EU denies it is playing geopolitics, despite admitting this was a step towards Ukrainian membership of the EU and NATO – essentially presents policy as technocratic, disregarding Russian interests and fears.
      • The current crisis was thus sparked by ‘the EU’s reckless ultimatum, in November, that the democratically elected president of a profoundly divided country choose between Europe and Russia. Putin’s proposal for a tripartite arrangement, rarely if ever reported, was flatly rejected by US and EU officials’. Former German Chancellor Schröder recognised Yanukovych had no choice but to accept the Russian deal to keep the gas flowing and prevent a govt debt default, asking why the EU ‘press[ed] for an association agreement, without being able to offer Ukraine anything comparable’, arguing that EU made ‘mistakes’, citing Russia’s ‘fears about being encircled’ and stating that Brussels ‘ignored Ukraine’s deep cultural division between traditionally pro-European western regions and Russia-leaning regions in the east’ – later echoed by Germany’s current vice-Chancellor. Even the European Parliament president belatedly recognised that the EU ‘underestimated the drama of the domestic political situation in Ukraine’ and the government’s economic desperation.
      • Yanukovych forced to reject poor EU offer, sparking Maidan protests.
        • Initial protest from Nov 2013 wasn’t simply or even primarily about joining the EU but rather reflected Ukraine’s longstanding divisions between West and East (see above)
          • Maidan divided between ‘Occupy’ style, anti-political youth protesting corruption and favouring EU, and Western-based, anti-Yanukovych political parties, including right-wing and anti-Semitic Svoboda Party, and neo-fascist Brastvo and Right Sector – very hostile to Russia, with no affection for the EU.
          • Western sympathisers like Timothy Snyder tried to campaign to get media not to mention rightists; but, while never a majority, they were an important presence.
          • The association with the far-right is partly created by the Westerners’ use for nation-building of (a) the Holodomor (the Stalinist war against the Soviet peasantry) for nation-building; they claim (wrongly) that the Soviets tried to exterminate Ukrainians, and implicate by extension Ukrainian Jews working for the NKVD who often implemented forced collectivisation; and (b) the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), an anti-communist group that collaborated with the Nazis.
        • 2nd phase of protest begins in Dec vs. Govt crackdown.
        • 3rd phase = govt/ militia attacks on protestors, coupled with anti-protest laws in Jan 2014. At this stage the neo-fascists became critical because they led the armed response to govt aggression; this was accompanied by more violence against leftists and ethnic minorities.
        • 4th phase = escalation into violent conflict in Feb 2014. Realising that matters on the ground were getting out of hand, EU governments intervene: Polish, German and French foreign ministers negotiate deal for amnesty and early elections, pressing Ukraine to deviate from its constitution. Emboldened protestors nonetheless ignore the settlement; conflict climaxed in fall of govt in March.
  • Maidan protests were fomented by West, leading to change of govt.
    • US politicians like John McCain visit Maidan, pledge ‘support [for] your just cause’ and dine with Svoboda leader; John Kerry pledges US support, as does German Foreign Minister Westerwelle and Chancellor Merkel. Obama compares Ukraine to Syria and praises Maidan’s alternative ‘vision’. UK FM Hague praises the Maidan as “inspiring“. Overall, the West pursues a sustained delegitimisation of elected Ukrainian government, effectively authorising its overthrow – then recoiling at the last moment when it became clear that this might actually happen. Arguably this was more about moralistic posturing and a desire to be on the “right side of history”, unlike during the Arab Spring, than about a deliberate attempt to overthrow the Ukrainian government for some wider strategic purpose.
    • Victoria Nuland, neocon in charge of US Ukrainian policy: leaked phone call essentially selecting Ukraine’s new govt.
    • How would we react if US was fomenting anti-EU demonstrations in Athens or plotting overthrow of Western govts? We don’t ask this because double standards are now so entrenched in Western policy and public discourse.
      • E.g. US/EU did whatever it could to rescue Egypt’s Mubarak regime from protestors, and has barely reacted to the murderous destruction of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood successor regime.
      • Western posturing about sovereignty and territorial integrity is particularly laughable in light of interventions from East Timor to Kosovo to Iraq to Libya, etc. Russia’s claims to be intervening to protect civilians is merely an attempt to invoke the Western doctrine of the ‘responsibility to protect’ – mostly recently abused in Libya to facilitate NATO-led regime change.
      • Putchist regime installed with strong rightist component. Neo-fascist Right Sector grouping controls three ministries (education, anti-corruption, national security); rightist Svoboda party controls three also (defence, prosecutor-general, agriculture and environment). Svoboda leader on record as saying that Ukraine was run by ‘Moscow-Jewish mafia’ and ‘Germans, kikes and other scum’ want to ‘take away our Ukrainian state’
  • West therefore acquiesced in overthrow of elected government by armed militias, which also chased off much of the elected parliament, and installation of far right ministers.
  • Yet, reflecting its underlying lack of strategic intent, West was still not willing to put its money where its mouth was:
    • Ukraine needed $35bn; could not even afford to pay state pensions to May.
    • EU initially offered nothing beyond its earlier deal to support an IMF package. Later it presented an ‘offer’ of $15bn, but this was over several years, focused on infrastructure, and again conditional upon IMF intervention – in reality it amounted to an extra €1bn that the Ukrainian government could use immediately, and even then the first €100m was not delivered until late May.
    • US offered a measly $1bn in loan guarantees.
  • New government, backed by West, initiates major crisis with Russia and East:
    • Rump parliament abolished official status of Russian and minority languages; members of new govt threatened to ban pro-Yanukovych parties; generates spiralling alarm in East.
    • Regime’s acceptance of IMF strictures also deepened economic crisis and cut subsidies on gas and medicine, prompting protests and making a ‘social implosion’ inevitable.
    • Even some in successor regime became afraid of rising neo-fascist activity and tried to suppress it.
  • Having ‘lost’ Ukraine, Russia was bound to intervene (despite apparent restraint hitherto)
    • Violated lease of base on Ukrainian territory by spreading troops and disarming Ukrainian forces.
    • Began playing on fears of anti-Russian sentiment being stoked in Kiev, broadcasting black propaganda.
    • Annexation of Crimea. Main purpose of both Crimea and later meddling in Donetsk = apparently to exert leverage over Ukraine as a whole, to restore some sort of internal political balance not entirely unfavourable to Russia – not territorial aggrandisement or a “return to the Cold War” (see Anatol Lieven, who has been a sane voice of reason throughout).
    • Polling evidence suggests no real support for separatism.
      • Crimea: pre-crisis polling suggested only 23% favoured integration with Russia (not 97% as in fake “referendum”).
      • East: only 12% supports “federalists’” armed action; 30% back Kiev; 58% supports neither.
      • “Referenda” have clearly been rigged, with strong involvement of Russia supporting provocateurs.
      • Strong preference in the East is not for absorption into Russia or even independence, but for a government that takes their interests into account, rather one merely captured by Westerners. The whole crisis is about one side of Ukraine’s political divide seeking to impose its sole will onto the state, rather than seeking an accommodation – the achievement of which remains the most urgent priority.
  • Lacking the support of the army and police, the new Kiev regime has had to recruit rightist militias from central and western Ukraine to suppress anti-govt uprisings in the East, leading to what Fred Halliday called “internationalised civil war”, with both sides backed by external sponsors.
    • 2 May Odessa massacre: street-fighting and fire-bombing of trade union building by what eyewitnesses variously describe as pro-Maidan militias, hooligans and ‘fascists’, assisted by some police, clashing with pro-Russian separatists, possibly backed by Moscow. At least 43 killed.
    • Regime initiated blockade of east, restricting freight and passenger transport.
    • Regime has continued with 25 May elections, despite conditions being unsuitable for free and fair campaigning.
  • Russia attempting to be somewhat conciliatory, but still backing pro-Russian forces in the east:
    • 17 April, Geneva agreement to ‘de-escalate’ – but local forces in east seem disinclined to step down – too fearful of new regime?
    • 7 May, pulled back troops from Ukranian border; urged movements in eastern Ukraine to postpone referenda.
    • Has declined to respond positively to referenda and calls for integration with Russia – apparent preference is for these outcomes to put pressure on Kiev to compromise, not to expand Russian territory.
    • But in pursuit of this same goal, Russia has apparently continued to back Eastern militias to strenthen the pressure on Kiev.
  • NATO/EU backing the putchist regime in Kiev.
    • Reports suggest ‘dozens’ of CIA agents are supporting the government inside Ukraine.
    • Obama has asserted regime’s right to ‘uphold law and order’; cf. Western response to Yanukovych’s brutality.
    • NATO announces intention for ‘robust presence’ throughout Eastern Europe to end of 2015.
    • US increases military training exercises and despatches fighters to Baltics; NATO exercise led by US army scheduled in Ukraine in July.
    • All this despite fears among retired US military officers that this could (again) encourage Ukrainian actors to take a more hostile stance towards Russia.
    • Also irresponsibly conveys unreal posture to Eastern Europe/ Baltics: reality is that NATO will not intervene to defend these states against Russia (proven in Georgia, 2008), and probably not even to defend NATO members.

posted in EU, russia by Lee

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