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Political Science and Political Polarization through the Prism of the Ukrainian Crisis

by Gordon M. Hahn

Political analysis is becoming dangerously politicized, one-sided and biased. The politicization of academia and media in this regard is polarizing relations between Russia and the West. The disease of politicized science also plagues the domestic politics of their and other societies. This two-tier political polarization is contributing to global instability. Analysis and the reality surrounding the Ukraine crisis is a good prism through which to examine this problem.

A standard practice in this type of contemporary political science and analysis, especially in near-government milieus, is to focus on one side’s actions which provoked a conflict that clearly was caused by at least two parties and multiple other causes. For example, many articles and books are written focusing on, say, Russian foreign policy, in a vacuum. Russian policy is described and negative consequences for the West, the US, global democracy, rule of law, etc. are delineated. More rare in the West are studies that look at Western policies’ effect on Russian interests and international and domestic behavior. On the other hand, in Russia such studies are ubiquitous, and those that look at the Russian side of the ledger are rare. More rare still on both sides are studies that examine policies of both parties, and how those policies affect the other; all this interacting to produce an ever-evolving ‘state of relations’. This practice is leading in the case of Russo-American relations to deeper polarization between Moscow and the West than otherwise might exist.

A recent article on Ukraine and the Donbas semi-frozen conflict published on the Carnegie Moscow Center’s website sparked more thinking on this issue of one-sided political analysis as a cause of political polarization: Konstantin Skorkin’s article for the Moscow Center “Elity i kontrelity Donbassa. Kak sformirovalas’ rukovodstvo LNR-DNR” (

In the article, sponsored by the British Embassy in Moscow, Skorkin notes the role Russia played in driving a wedge between the Donbas and Kiev before the Maidan crisis, Yanukovych overthrow, and Donbas civil war. He notes: “On the practical level, actions of the ruling party (Party of Regions in Donbas) took the form of cultivation a specific regional patriotism. For example, the Luhansk (Lugansk) Oblast Soviet, controlled by the Party of Regions, adopted in 2011 a program ‘Patriot of Lugansk,’ which presented local patriotism as an alternative to Ukrainian-wide civil patriotism.”

The article and indeed the Carnegie Moscow Center in all its years of existence in the center has never detailed the Yushchenko administration’s and present Maidan regime’s cultivation of the ultra-nationalist and Galician-oriented versions of Ukrainian nationalism and a cult of the neo-fascist World War II-era OUN and UPA organizations, who fought against the grandfathers and grandmothers of many of the residents in Donbas.

Skorkin continues: ” Roundtables and fora broadly advertised in the mass media and highlighting defense of the Russian language, the federalization of Ukraine, and resistance to the ‘rewriting of history’ were regularly conducted in Luhansk and Donetsk with the participation of guests from Russia. This collection of ideological principles was reinforced in the mass consciousness. Local authorities with the support of Russian non-governmental organizations created Russian cultural centers posing as their task the defense of the Russian-language minority (as if oddly they did not see the practically complete Russian-language cities of Donbas). The concept of the ‘Donbas character’ — unwavering, proud, and true to traditions and its own choice of being a special people of miners and metallurgists was cultivated (devotedly voting for the Party of Regions was given as one of its aspects).”

But, as I detail in my own book, precisely the mirror-opposite process was happening in western and central Ukraine and would have been extended to Donbas if then possible and if now the Donbas rebels had not emerged, as the mayor of Lvov declared at the beginning of the Maidan revolt in 2013. Various programs, roundtables, conferences and courses were provided by US and other Western government bodies (most notably USAID), US and other government-funded non-governmental organizations (National Endowment for Democracy, etc.) across Ukraine, but especially in Kiev and Western Ukraine, the nucleus of the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist movement and the OUN- and UPA-oriented population. These conferences focused on Western values, English-language instruction, opposition political organizing against the Kuchma and then Yanukovych administrations. These values were combined with the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists’ view of a ‘freedom-loving’, ‘European’ Ukrainian people making their ‘European choice’ as opposed to retaining close ties with Russia. Although such values suited western Ukraine and some in central Ukraine, they did not suit those in Donbas and many in southeastern Ukraine more broadly and even in central Ukraine. Moreover, it is not just Donbassians and Russians who have discerned a Donbas ‘national’ or regional character but foreign scholars as well, most notably Hiroaki Kuromiya’s Freedom and Terror in the Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s – 1990s (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

 Skorkin adds: “As a result by 2014 an integrated ideology already existed explaining why the region would not follow Ukraine’s path. It remained only to give a resonant political push, which became Maidan.” The very same could be said — and has been in my book — for the Maidan revolt’s causation: As a result of a decade of Western opposition-promotion of anti-Russian forces in Ukraine there already existed an integrated democratic-nationalist Galician ideology, which only needed a political spark to drive protests on Maidan. That spark became Yanukovych’s delay in signing the EU association agreement, which seemed to stifle the Galician ideology-oriented groups’ aspirations to move away from Russian influences.

Both sides — the West and Russia — were playing on historical, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, socioeconomic, and political divisions between western and eastern Ukraine, generally speaking. Despite the bilateral causality, most studies focus on one side of the story. In the West, the entire conflict is based on Russia: ‘Russia’s invasion’, ‘Putin’s war’, ‘Russian cultural centers,’ etc., etc. This is clearly an unbalanced approach, not least of all because the funding devoted to Western democracy-promotion’ in Ukraine far outstripped that spent by Russia in Donbas; just as today the Western strategic communications apparatus far outspends and outreaches Russia’s ‘interference in Western politics.’

Oddly enough, if one dares to write the other side of the story from the Western paradigm, one is confronted with charges of being a ‘Putin troll’ and questions as to why the author did not mention ‘Russia’s……” — fill in the dots.

In Ukraine analysis, for example, one side (Ukraine, the West and Russian democratic opposition) believes Yanukovych ordered the 20 February 2014 sniper attacks in central Kiev (and in the most extreme case. perhaps with help from the Kremlin, such as US ambassador to Kiev Pyatt claimed) and that Putin ordered the shooting down of MH17 civilian airliner over Donbas in July 2014. The other side believes that Ukrainian ultra-nationalists were behind the snipers’ massacre and Kiev shot down the MH17. In reality, Ukrainian ultras did carry out the snipers’ massacre, but the Russian-backed Donbas separatists accidentally shot down MH17.

A domestic ‘polarization by expertise’ process is also being fed by political ‘experts’, ‘analysts’ and even the occasional scientist and is occurring in domestic politics worldwide, but especially in the West (writ large to include Russia). Thus, in American politics we have the A Team-B Team sporting contest in US politics in media, where both sides — Republicans and Democrats — support everything their ‘team’ proposes, does or says and similarly opposes such actions of the  ‘opposing team.’  For all too many in American politics, Trump is always right or always wrong; for others Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton are always wrong. A similar pattern is visible in Russia at least when it comes to the Putin regime and the democratic opposition. Putin is always right or always wrong. The Kremlin fears the worst from the opposition, and the opposition believes the worst about Putin and his allies.

The result of all this is a profound, destabilizing and potentially catastrophic political polarization globally and within societies.

How can this bifurcation of political science and analysis, societies, and the world be overcome in an age of disinformation? First, government must be removed from science. Second, academic journals and other publications might seek ensuring their publications strike some semblance of a balance of views. This is difficult when there are state and financial pressures and influence determining what gets published and what does not. Thus, one of the leading Russia- and Eurasia-focused academic journals comes out under a chief editor who works for the US government’s United States Agency for International Development (, one of the organizations that led the financing of non-governmental organizations conducting propaganda that fueled the Maidan revolt and continues to cover up the truth about Ukrainian ultra-nationalists’ leading role in the 20 February 2014 snipers’ massacre blamed on Yanukovych, etc. Without such gatekeepers, the truth about the snipers’ massacre might get some publicity and the founding myth of the failing ultra-nationalist-oligarchic Ukrainian Maidan regime fostered by Kiev and the Obama administration might be exposed. The crumbling of that edifice might lead to some reform of political, specifically American rusology’s research funding and publishing practices. But this is likely a dream deferred. A third remedy would be for journals and fora to include debates between opposing views, so that readers and participants would be forced to hear more than one point of view. But that would undermine the strategic communications value of what now passes for research and expert analysis.


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, and an expert analyst at Corr Analytics,

Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received 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.




1 comment

  1. The polarization of propaganda is certainly a ‘thing,’ and it reflect a polarization of policies. If we just look at the propaganda, there are indeed ‘two sides’ that are very reflective of each other. But this like saying that in a war both sides have armies. Is the existence of the armies the cause of war? If one side did not have an army, the character of the war would change, but if the motivations of the aggressor are there, there will still be war. So it’s worthwhile to examine the historical roots of the conflict in which armies and propaganda are used.
    Since human beings and the fates of human beings, it’s hard to avoid casting such analysis in moral/ethical terms, but even in a morally neutral context, one can identify series of actions and policies that demonstrate the responsibility of certain policies. In the Ukraine, for instance, we can see how the modern Ukraine was created by a series of mostly Russian actions, from the Tsars through the commissars, to enhance the power and extend the borders of the Ukraine within the Russian state, and AS a Russian state. The country we see now had no existence independent of this process, but was a proto-Russian medieval principality. So the conditions for the current conflict in its current form were set by the Russians as a largely internal matter of attaching territory to a Kievan core that was, originally, essentially Russian in character.
    The break up of the Soviet Union created the conditions for Western action by making what was fundamentally an administrative union of communities within the Soviet Union into an independent ‘nation’ which, as a whole, had no previous history. Western interventionist, in violation of their own agreements with the Russians that allowed the break up of the Soviet Union, began to NATO-ize former Soviet clients and then parts of the former union itself. The repeated Color Revolutions in the Ukraine were very directly a part of this campaign of the West across the whole former Soviet space and within Russia itself. In this context, the ‘ethno nationalism’ of the Donbass, with or without support from Russia, is a natural and inevitable response to the western aggression, and conducted in a mirror image of its methods.
    So, historically Russia set the conditions for the current situation over the course of five hundred years, but the west actually initiated this conflict post-1990. The west is the direct cause of the kind of conflict we are now witnessing, because of its over-arching goals of dismembering Russia completely. The motivations and possible real-world consequences of this policy should be the basis of moral/ethical judgments of the parties involved, not a comparison of tactics in the short term.

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