by Gordon M. Hahn
The Western media and DC think tanks continue to get Ukraine wrong. In some cases, the bloopers are intentional, designed to mislead the reader. In other cases, biases are at work or the misnomer is more innocent, resulting from a poorly thought out assessment of the recent events surrounding that country. Regardless, American readers especially are being poorly served by the falsehoods and misconceptions that fill the Western mainstream media.
A good example of the more egregious transgressions came from the Jamestown Foundation and its writer Pavel Felgenhauer. They continue to falsify data–this time on what Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the G-20 press conference about the Ukrainian conflict. In the past, Jamestown has a long record of distorting the reality in Russia, especially but far from exclusively as regards jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus under first the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya and later the Caucasus Emirate, to which Jamestown and other US government-tied institutions like RFERL lent political support.
In a recent post on Jamestown’s site, Felgenhauer wrote the following:
(T)he Kremlin’s longstanding strategic goal is to take back all of Ukraine under Russian domination as part of the so-called “Russkiy Mir” (“Russian World”)…. Speaking to reporters in Hamburg this month, after meeting President Donald Trump during the G20 summit, Putin once again insisted: “I am absolutely sure the interests of Ukraine and Russia, of the Ukrainian and Russian people fully match, but the interests of Ukrainian leaders and some political forces in Ukraine are different.” Putin accused the Ukrainian leadership of deliberately trying to separate the Ukrainian and Russian people and states, which need and want to be together to jointly develop and build a future (my emphasis) (https://jamestown.org/program/the-russian-ukrainian-conflict-could-be-escalating/).
Putin said nothing similar to “the Ukrainian and Russian…states…need and want to be together to jointly develop and build a future,” as Felgenhauer’s phrasing implies. Indeed, Putin spoke of “two peoples and two states,” something genuine Russian nationalists would never say. Felgenhauer’s article links to the Kremlin/Russian president’s website. When one reads the actual text there, one gets a distinctively different sense of Putin’s words than that in Felgenhauer’s carefully crafted distortion in the section in bold-type above as well as before and after it. Those distortions are designed radicalize Putin’s words as well as to nudge readers to infer that Putin stated a goal of Ukraine’s reunification with Russia. Putin actually said:
“I am absolutely sure the interests of Ukraine and Russia, of the Ukrainian and Russian people – I am deeply confident in this, simply completely convinced — fully match. Our interests are completely compatible. Different only are, perhaps, the interests of today’s Ukrainian leadership and some present-day Ukrainian political circles. But if we objectively approach (this), then, of course, Ukraine and Russia are interested in cooperation and are interested in combining our competitive advantages, to develop our economies simply because much of this came from Soviet times still. I have in mind cooperation, a united infrastructure and a de facto united energy complex, transport and so on” (www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55017).
More serious thinkers also continue to get the Ukrainian crisis not quite right. In a recent Boston Review piece, the usually perceptive Thomas Graham and along with co-author, Rajan Menon, claim:
“Putin’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria are typically portrayed by Western commentators as masterstrokes that caught the West flat-footed and looking weak. Yes, Putin annexed Crimea and appears to have saved Assad’s regime, but the interventions have actually left Russia overextended.
“Turmoil in Ukraine has destabilized Russia’s western border and increased the West’s influence in that country. Furthermore, Russia’s land grab in Crimea and sponsorship of Donbas separatists have created an anti-Russian nationalism in Ukraine, which, in its importance to Russia, has no rival among the post-Soviet states” (my not their emphases) (Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon, “What Is Putin’s Endgame,” Boston Review, 24 July 2017, http://bostonreview.net).
First, to be sure, Putin’s Crimea move might not have been a ‘master-stroke.’ However, it was effective in solving several key problems created by the West’s pre-Maidan seeding of the 2013-2014 democratic-turned neofascist-led revolt centered in Kiev and its full-throated endorsement of said revolt after the fact, violating the 20 February EU-Russia-sponsored Yanukovych-opposition agreement that could have solved the crisis. In one effective, if overly robust stroke, Putin succeeded in: preserving Russia’s Black Sea fleet naval base; preventing NATO from acquiring said base and seizing more of the Black Sea coast; protecting Crimea’s overwhelmingly ethnic Russian and pro-Russian from possible, indeed likely reprisals from Ukrainian ultra-nationalists that could have led to civil war beginning in a region where a large Russian military contingent was based close proximity to Ukrainian troops based on the peninsula; and turned a strategic defeat vis-a-vis West (i.e., NATO and the EU) into at worst a draw for Russia, with Russia and the West in effect dividing Ukraine between themselves rather than the West swallowing it whole. Thus, Putin in effect limited the territory in which Graham’s and Menon’s “increase in the West’s influence” occurred. In sum, given the external geopolitical and domestic political consequences for Putin and others in the leadership (including their potential removal from power by hardliners) that Russia’s loss of all of Ukraine would have meant, Putin’s move demonstrated some mastery in a potentially desperate situation.
Second, Graham’s and Menon’s — I am paraphrasing here — ‘appearance of Western flat-footedness and weakness’ were not so much in evidence as was Western short-sightedness and poor strategic planning. Having set in motion Ukrainian democratic as well as nationalist and ultra-nationalist elements through democracy-promotion and other forms of support for a less Russian Ukraine, the West failed to foresee the consequences of their policies, despite the recent experience of the 2004-05 Orange revolution. A revolution could have been expected as a consequence of USAID and other institutions’ democracy-promotion and other efforts, and this expectation should have been part of contingency planning. Estimates of possible Russian actions in response to such a development should have been drafted, considered, and incorporated into policymaking. One can certainly say Washington’s and Brussels’ policies have been robust where they should not have been and feckless where they should have been robust before the fact and too robust and overreactive afterwards. All this assumes that a more cynical and dangerous goal was no pursued: provoking Russia in response to events in Kiev to overreact, so as to isolate her further from the West and revive NATO’s reason to survive and, more importantly, to expand.
Third, Graham’s and Menon’s “turmoil in Ukraine” did not start with Russian actions. They began with the violent overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych and the coercive and often violent seizure of regional government administrations, media offices, and the like by the opposition, manifested most horrendously by the ultra-nationalists’ false flag sniper attacks in Kiev (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/03/09/the-real-snipers-massacre-ukraine-february-2014-updatedrevised-working-paper/). Pro-Russian Crimeans and Donbassians simply responded in kind to the Ukrainian nationalists’ actions.
Fourth, it was not Russia that “created” “anti-Russian nationalism in Ukraine.” That was created in the inter-war period and in a particularly rabid form, was kept alive in the Ukrainian diaspora and by the brutality of Soviet conquest and rule, rekindled by the Soviet collapse, nurtured by said diaspora, revived by the Orange revolution and President Viktor Yushchenko’s support for nationalism, encouraged by post-Soviet Western policies, and sparked into action by the Maidan revolt seeded in part by Western democracy-promotion. Moreover, the level of Ukrainian nationalism has not increased in the wake of Russia’s overreaction to Maidan as much as might be expected. More meaningful than the increase in nationalism per se has been that some nationalists have become ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists as a result of the Maidan’s propaganda and the brutality of war. Thus, the percent of support for Ukrainian membership in NATO has if anything declined, despite the fact that surveys now cover a population minus the pro-Russian portions in Crimea and Donbass that most opposed Ukraine’s entry into NATO (and the EU).
Perhaps it is the grating dissonance between Western myths, on the one hand, and the reality regarding the causality of the Ukrainian crisis and the actual situation on the ground in post-Maidan Ukraine, on the other hand, that is driving Washington’s mixed messages and messy policy. There appears to be an ongoing battle within the Trump administration over which policy should follow from which assessment of the crisis’s causes. This is producing what appear to be mixed messages but which also might be misdirection. Thus, Trump signals a willingness to begin direct contacts with Putin over Ukraine by appointing a special envoy, but then appoints to the position Kurt Volker, the former US ambassador to NATO, one of the makers of the crisis (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/01/21/report-the-russian-american-reset-nato-expansion-and-the-making-of-the-ukrainian-crisis/). The State Department is badly divided, and the White House and Congress seem alienated from each other on the issue. This is occurring on a background of overall chaos in the administration, Officials at State and the White House are resigning almost daily, and reports of tensions within and between institutions abound.
This is producing a continued fecklessness that appears to be flourishing in NATO circles as well. The closely-tied Atlantic Council has appeared at times confused in its Ukraine strategic communications campaign. Thus, AC published an article titled “Something Is Very Wrong in Kiev” but which, albeit, only hints at the increasingly authoritarian, corrupt, and criminal nature of Ukraine’s Maidan regime and the strengthening of ultra-nationalist and neofascist groups through the volunteer battalions (www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/something-is-very-wrong-in-kyiv). This article is followed by NATO official visits to Kiev, Volker’s words about a “flourishing Ukraine” there, and AC pieces calling, for example, for myth-making for Ukraine on the basis of the Maidan experience to help the new regime build its “post-Maidan national identity” and galvanize Ukraine’s “national spirit.” The myth-making was truly colossal as the following excerpt demonstrates:
“In the spring of 2014, Ukraine faced seemingly overwhelming odds as Russia’s surprise offensive claimed Crimea and then spread east. There was an air of dreadful inevitability as town after town fell to Russian hybrid forces and their local collaborators. Ukraine’s threadbare military was hopelessly outmatched and unable to defend the country. By mid-April, many in Kyiv were preparing for the imminent arrival of Putin’s “little green men” in the Ukrainian capital itself.
“Then something incredible happened—ordinary Ukrainians took up arms and fought back. The volunteer battalions who brought the Russian advance to a halt were among the most ragtag formations in modern military history. Armed with whatever came to hand and often outfitted in mismatched uniforms, these largely untrained citizen soldiers were in the vanguard as Ukraine liberated town after town in late spring and early summer 2014. Behind them stood an entire nation of volunteers working to feed, fund, and outfit Ukraine’s improvised army.” (www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/miracle-of-2014-was-ukraine-s-dunkirk)
Just to address some of the grave distortions contained here, it can be pointed out that “Russia’s surprise offensive” in Crimea claimed not a single life and wounded not a single civilian or Ukrainian soldier, and there in fact was no military offensive of any kind. In addition, Maidan’s ‘citizen soldiers’ were in good part ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists who had received training in various nationalist training and indoctrination camps. Some of the organizations to which they belonged had military wings. Finally, far from “an entire nation” supported the ‘counter-terrorist operation’ in Donbass, as Kiev called it. In fact, a third to half of southeastern Ukraine opposed the new Maidan regime dominated by western Ukrainians, and massive evasion has plagued the drafts during the war there.
The Trump administration’s failure to hit the ground running on Russia that resulted from the massive propaganda campaign surrounding Russia’s alleged and still unproven hacking of the Democratic Party National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s and John Podesta’s emails is the main progenitor of the chaos, confusion and eventual reassertion of the anti-Russian neocon-neolib phalanx. The reigning consensus on Russia and Ukraine prior to Trump’s inauguration that the piece above reflects ultimately was able to reconsolidate as a result of Trump’s inexperience and the resulting chaos. Thus, the necon-neolib hegemony within the foreign policy establishment and government institutions has taken over the Trump administration’s agenda on Russia. Vice President Michael Pence appears to be representing the DC consensus on Russia and may even be coordinating foreign policy for the inexperienced Trump. Pence, State and Congress now support expanding sanctions against Russia and the provision of lethal weapons to the Maidan regime. and pressure on the White House will mount to acquiesce.
But as I have demonstrated repeatedly, contrary to the DC consensus’s view, blame for the Ukrainian crisis belongs not just to Russia but to American revolutionism’s democracy promotion/color revolution policy, NATO’s expansion, and the EU’s clumsy handling of its relations with Kiev and Moscow in pushing the EU association agreement with Ukraine–not to mention the Ukrainians themselves, both east and west. History will show and is already showing who is to blame for the crisis as well as which views on the matter were correct. Meanwhile, the sooner the West owns up to its role in the making and prolonging of the Ukrainian crisis, the sooner the crisis can be resolved and what remains of Ukraine, split apart from within and without, can begin to stabilize and heal.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; an expert analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com; a member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; and an analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), www.geostrategicforecasting.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, and three well-received published books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002); Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.