How to think about Ukraine & the offer of ties to the EU

The game is moving rapidly in the Ukraine crisis, and will continue to move in the coming days.

But I want to provide some context. You’ve heard how the government leader (or ex-government leader) Yanukovych is bad and pro-Russian. Also how the pro-EU “protesters” are a mixed lot and include many violent neo-Nazi elements. And also how the good people running the E.U. have offered closer ties to the West, about which Ukrainians decidedly disagree.

For the most part, those axes — bad Russia vs. the good E.U., bad government officials vs. equally bad mob-like protesters — are all you hear about in the mainstream media. I want to offer more. In particular, these further elements, or axes of analysis as well:

1. The E.U. (Western) offer of alliance is a deeply neoliberal one.
2. The West is one of the progenitors of the crisis.
3. If Ukraine splits, Russia will be aligned with the more viable half.

Let’s look at these in order.

The Western & E.U. offer is deeply neoliberal

There is no question that keeping Ukraine in the Russian and slavic sphere will have consequences that may not be good. But ties to the West and the E.U are also a mixed bag, a mixed offering. I have this from David Bacon via email, and with his permission, I’m printing it as sent with very few changes.

Bacon analyzes the neoliberal content of the West’s offer of closer ties. About David Bacon, from his bio at Truth-Out:

David Bacon is a writer and photographer. His new book, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Migration, was published by Beacon Press. His photographs and stories can be found at

Here’s what Mr. Bacon sent (all emphases mine):

It is important to consider what exactly it is that Europe and the U.S. are offering to the Ukraine, especially to its working people. As a result of previous economic reforms, financed and promoted by the World Bank and IMF, the Ukraine has closed 90 of its 280 coal mines, for instance. In one town, Stakhanov, in the industrial region of the Donetsk (one of the most industrialized areas of the former Soviet Union) the closure of all four coal mines led to the loss of a quarter of its entire workforce, and its population dropped by 13,000 people. Sound like Detroit?

In the World Bank’s sanitized language, “Stakhanov has been particularly hard-hit by the closure of uneconomic mines, with all four of the mines operating in the city having been closed almost at the same time. Given the scope and timing of the mine closure, the downstream impact on other industries was particularly severe.” (Link:

On top of these earlier reforms, the U.S. and Europe are now “offering” the Ukraine a free trade agreement and an accompanying set of austerity proposals. We know what the consequences of free trade agreements are — higher profits for investors, especially foreign ones, and harder living conditions, with displacement and forced migration, for workers and farmers. The industry of the Donetsk has largely been sold off already in the economic “reforms” that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. Further austerity, in the interest of privatizing what’s left, and increasing the profitability of Ukrainian industry by lowering living standards, to make it more attractive to foreign investors, can’t be an attractive prospect for its workers. When they look at the price Greece and Spain have paid for austerity, or Mexican workers and farmers have paid for NAFTA, I can only imagine the unpopularity of these proposals.

The support given by the U.S. and western European governments to the “opposition” as it fights for “closer ties with the west” (I’m using quotes because these are the words the New York Times and Washington Post use in describing events there) has little to do with democracy or protecting the welfare of Ukrainian working people. As progressive people in the U.S. we have learned to decode the language of our government and media when they talk (or refuse to talk) about NAFTA, CAFTA, TPP and the economic reforms they promote in other countries. We should use that skill in decoding the coverage we’re getting from them about the Ukraine too.

So, the first point — this isn’t about “freedom” vs. Russia. It’s about bringing Ukraine into the E.U. neoliberal sphere and away from an autocratic and corrupt Russian one.

The West is one of the progenitors of the crisis

Whatever you think of the thugs on either side of the conflict, a case can be made that the West precipitated it. Amy Goodman at Democracy Now (interview date: Friday, February 21), from the transcript (again, my emphasis and some reparagraphing):

AMY GOODMAN: The Ukrainian parliament, Rada, and Cabinet buildings have reportedly been evacuated because of fears they could be stormed by protesters. The street clashes are occurring while the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, is meeting with the foreign ministers from Germany, Poland and France.

The Obama administration stepped up pressure on the Ukrainian government Wednesday by announcing a visa ban on 20 members of the Ukrainian government. The U.S. is also threatening to place sanctions on the Ukrainian government.

The protests began in late November after President Yanukovych reversed his decision to sign a long-awaited trade deal with the European Union, or EU, to forge stronger ties with Russia instead.

To talk more about the latest in Ukraine, we’re joined by Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. His most recent book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, is now out in paperback. His latest piece in The Nation is called “Distorting Russia: How the American Media Misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine.”

So, talk about the latest, Professor Cohen.

STEPHEN COHEN: Where do you want me to begin? I mean, we are watching history being made, but history of the worst kind. That’s what I’m telling my grandchildren: Watch this. What’s happening there, let’s take the big picture, then we can go to the small picture. The big picture is, people are dying in the streets every day. The number 50 is certainly too few. They’re still finding bodies.

Ukraine is splitting apart down the middle, because Ukraine is not one country, contrary to what the American media, which speaks about the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Historically, ethnically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically, it’s two countries. One half wants to stay close to Russia; the other wants to go West. We now have reliable reports that the anti-government forces in the streets—and there are some very nasty people among them—are seizing weapons in western Ukrainian military bases. So we have clearly the possibility of a civil war.

And the longer-term outcome may be—and I want to emphasize this, because nobody in the United States seems to want to pay attention to it—the outcome may be the construction, the emergence of a new Cold War divide between West and East, not this time, as it was for our generation, in faraway Berlin, but right on the borders of Russia, right through the heart of Slavic civilization. And if that happens, if that’s the new Cold War divide, it’s permanent instability and permanent potential for real war for decades to come. That’s what’s at stake.

One last point, also something that nobody in this country wants to talk about: The Western authorities, who bear some responsibility for what’s happened, and who therefore also have blood on their hands, are taking no responsibility. They’re uttering utterly banal statements, which, because of their vacuous nature, are encouraging and rationalizing the people in Ukraine who are throwing Molotov cocktails, now have weapons, are shooting at police. We wouldn’t permit that in any Western capital, no matter how righteous the cause, but it’s being condoned by the European Union and Washington as events unfold.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you say the Western countries who bear some responsibility, in what sense do they bear responsibility? I mean, clearly, there’s been an effort by the United States and Europe ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union to pull the former Soviet states into their economic sphere, but is that what you’re talking about?

STEPHEN COHEN: I mean that. I mean that Moscow—look at it through Moscow’s eyes. Since the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the U.S.-led West has been on a steady march toward post-Soviet Russia, began with the expansion ofNATO in the 1990s under Clinton. Bush then further expanded NATO all the way to Russia’s borders. Then came the funding of what are euphemistically called NGOs, but they are political action groups, funded by the West, operating inside Russia. Then came the decision to build missile defense installations along Russia’s borders, allegedly against Iran, a country which has neither nuclear weapons nor any missiles to deliver them with. Then comes American military outpost in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which led to the war of 2008, and now the West is at the gates of Ukraine. So, that’s the picture as Moscow sees it. And it’s rational. It’s reasonable. It’s hard to deny.

But as for the immediate crisis, let’s ask ourselves this: Who precipitated this crisis? The American media says it was Putin and the very bad, though democratically elected, president of Ukraine, Yanukovych. But it was the European Union, backed by Washington, that said in November to the democratically elected president of a profoundly divided country, Ukraine, “You must choose between Europe and Russia.” That was an ultimatum to Yanukovych.

Remember—wasn’t reported here—at that moment, what did the much-despised Putin say? He said, “Why? Why does Ukraine have to choose? We are prepared to help Ukraine avoid economic collapse, along with you, the West. Let’s make it a tripartite package to Ukraine.” And it was rejected in Washington and in Brussels. That precipitated the protests in the streets.

And since then, the dynamic that any of us who have ever witnessed these kinds of struggles in the streets unfolded, as extremists have taken control of the movement from the so-called moderate Ukrainian leaders. I mean, the moderate Ukrainian leaders, with whom the Western foreign ministers are traveling to Kiev to talk, they’ve lost control of the situation. By the way, people ask—excuse me—is it a revolution? Is it a revolution? A much abused word, but one sign of a revolution is the first victims of revolution are the moderates. And then it becomes a struggle between the extreme forces on either side. And that’s what we’re witnessing.

And also this, about the leaked tape:

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the famous leaked tape right now. The top State Department official has apologized to her European counterparts after she was caught cursing the European Union, the EU, in a leaked audio recording that was posted to YouTube. The recording captured an intercepted phone conversation between the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, and Victoria Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe. Nuland expresses frustration over Europe’s response to the political crisis in Ukraine, using frank terms.

VICTORIA NULAND: So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the U.N. help glue it. And, you know, [bleep] the EU.

AMY GOODMAN: While Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s comment about the EU dominated the news headlines because she used a curse [word], there were several other very interesting parts of her conversation with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

GEOFFREY PYATT: Let me work on Klitschko, and if you can just keep—I think we want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing. Then the other issue is some kind of outreach to Yanukovych, but we can probably regroup on that tomorrow as we see how things start to fall into place.

VICTORIA NULAND: So, on that piece, Geoff, when I wrote the note, Sullivan’s come back to me VFR saying, “You need Biden?” And I said, “Probably tomorrow for an attaboy and to get the deets to stick.” So Biden’s willing.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Pyatt, speaking with Victoria Nuland. The significance of what she is saying? She also had gone to Ukraine and was feeding protesters on the front line.

STEPHEN COHEN: Cookies, cookies. Well, here again, the American political media establishment, including the right and the left and the center—because they’re all complicit in this nonsense—focused on the too sensational, they thought, aspect of that leaked conversation. She said, “F— the European Union,” and everybody said, “Oh, my god! She said the word.” The other thing was, who leaked it? “Oh, it was the Russians. Those dirty Russians leaked this conversation.” But the significance is what you just played. What are they doing? The highest-ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine.

Who’d have thought it? There’s a lot in this interview that’s worth your thought and attention. I’ve embedded the whole thing as a video below.

If Ukraine splits in two, Russia will be aligned with the more viable half

Even at the level of conscienceless diplomacy, if you just consider the game, it looks like the West may have badly misplayed its hand. Paul Craig Roberts with the analysis (my emphasis):

So far, in Washington’s attempt at regime change in Ukraine[,] large numbers of Americans are not being killed and maimed. Only Ukrainians are dying, all the better for Washington as the deaths are blamed on the Ukrainian government that the US has targeted for overthrow.

The problem with Washington’s plot to overthrow the elected government of Ukraine and install its minions is twofold: The chosen US puppets have lost control of the protests to armed radical elements with historical links to nazism, and Russia regards an EU/NATO takeover of Ukraine as a strategic threat to Russian independence.

Washington overlooked that the financially viable part of today’s Ukraine consists of historical Russian provinces in the east and south that the Soviet leadership merged into Ukraine in order to dilute the fascist elements in western Ukraine that fought for Adolf Hitler against the Soviet Union. It is these ultra-nationalist elements with nazi roots, not Washington’s chosen puppets, who are now in charge of the armed rebellion in Western Ukraine.

If the democratically elected Ukraine government is overthrown, the eastern and southern parts would rejoin Russia. The western part would be looted by Western bankers and corporations, and the NATO Ukraine bases would be targeted by Russian Iskander missiles.

It would be a defeat for Washington and their gullible Ukrainian dupes to see half of the country return to Russia. To save face, Washington might provoke a great power confrontation, which could be the end of all of us.

The rest of Mr. Roberts’ piece is comment on the reaction to his earlier piece, but do click through if you want to read more.

To put a picture to it, here’s the electoral results of the 2004 election in Ukraine. It’s a decent proxy for the divisions Mr. Roberts discusses above:

2004 Election results in Ukraine (source)

2004 election results in Ukraine (source)

Food for thought.

I’m not sure about Robert’s dire warning of a new cold war, with the border down the middle of Ukraine instead of Germany, but the situation is certainly fluid, and this wouldn’t be the first time that the neoliberal West has fomented a revolt it thought it could profit from, and failed to see an obvious bad outcome (as in Egypt). So the jury is definitely out on the consequences of this semi-provoked revolution.

Dr. Stephen Cohen on the Ukraine crisis

For your information, here’s the full Amy Goodman interview with Stephen Cohen. (If the video doesn’t queue it up, the Ukraine segment starts at 11:36.)

It looks like two of us here (Myrddin and myself) have our eyes on the Ukraine crisis. Stay tuned for more.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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