A Bit More on Ukraine

Evgeniy’s plea for balance in the Russia-Ukraine conflict has produced, in my mind, an interesting dialogue on propaganda – both of the Western and of the Russian variety.

Let me come out and say with some conviction that I am not a supporter of the Putin regime. Nor do I believe much of the analysis that comes out of the Russian press. (This is because the vast majority of the Russian press is controlled by the state, and not because it is Russian or because it generally espouses pro-Russian sympathies.)

Evgeniy, for example, cites reports from the Russian press claiming that half a million people have fled Ukraine for Russia since the beginning of the year (when the demonstrations started). If half a million people fled from one place to another in a month, from anywhere in the world it would be headline news, but for some reason only Russian citizens have heard of this exodus? I don’t buy it.

Now, this number may be a misunderstanding based on a bad translation. In fact, I think this may be the case. My translation of Evgeniy’s comment states that the Russian press reports that “since the beginning of the year (January 2014) in Russia has resettled about 500,000 refugees from Ukraine.” Emphasis mine. Has this resettlement been ongoing since the end of the Cold War? However, judging by Evgeniy’s comment, it looks as if resettlement has only begun in January of this year, so if this is indeed the claim that the Russian press is making then it is obviously false.

Terry’s excerpted quote from the Daily Beast fares no better in the facts department, though, despite the Daily Beast being a private organization. The op-ed is an attempt to debunk “Putin’s Crimea Propaganda Machine” as if Putin has the power to control everything the Russian press publishes. State control of the media, especially in a country as large and diverse as Russia, does not mean that the bureaucratic process magically disappears. Bureaucracies and especially regulators are actors in their own right, and as such are beholden to certain constraints and processes that come with the way these institutions are organized.

So in the spirit of open inquiry and debate, there are a couple of facts I’ve gathered that I think are important to note.

  1. The President of Ukraine was ousted in a coup. He was elected by a very slim margin and accusations (from both sides) of voter fraud were rampant.
  2. The opposition that recently installed a new President therefore gave democracy the finger. This is not in itself a bad thing, but many Western observers tend to side with the pro-West faction as if it was democratic. It is not.
  3. The exiled President signed an agreement with the opposition last month guaranteeing early elections and more power to the legislature at the expense of the executive branch. This is as peaceful and as democratic as it gets, and the opposition gave, as I said, the finger to this agreement.
  4. The opposition has fascists in its cabinet. It has also installed Ukrainian Jews to high-ranking positions. The Muslim Tartars in Crimea stand to lose the most during Russia’s occupation.
  5. Ukrainians are sick of their government – right or left, pro or anti -and this has yet to be addressed by anyone other than Dr Foldvary as far as I can tell.
  6. No shots have been fired. Moscow has reiterated that it is in Crimea to protect its naval base and Russian citizens. I have a feeling that Russian troops will be back in Russia within the year. Crimea will get to keep its autonomous status within Ukraine, and Kiev will be forced to think twice before it attempts to impose its will on Crimea arbitrarily. This is a good thing, as it limits the size and scope of government.
  7. So far most, if not all, information about military activities have been coming from governments, not from the free press. This can only lead to more misunderstanding and more suspicion.
  8. War is the health of the state. In times like these, journalists should be criticizing their own governments rather than the governments of others. In the West, where the press remains relatively free, there is more criticism of government policies concerning foreign affairs than there is in Russia.

At the end of the day, I have to agree with Evgeniy’s plea for toleration and prudence: “Please do not judge this conflict only from one side.”

15 thoughts on “A Bit More on Ukraine

  1. “I have a feeling that Russian troops will be back in Russia within the year. Crimea will get to keep its autonomous status within Ukraine, and Kiev will be forced to think twice before it attempts to impose its will on Crimea arbitrarily.”

    I have a feeling that they won’t and it won’t. Let’s revisit it 03/03/2015.

    • My, my. Such pessimism from you Professor Terry!

      I’d like to understand the reasoning behind your pessimism, of course. I hope it’s not the same sort of reasoning I’ve found in writings during the Cold War.era.

      My logic is as follows:

      Ukraine is not Georgia. The Georgian military attacked the Russian military in an area that was currently in limbo legally due to the conflicting claims of Tbilisi and Moscow. After the attack, the Russian military had every justification to keep its military in the regions it currently lays claims to (South Ossetia and Abkhazia).

      The referendum on secession about to be held (ten days from now) will likely be a symbolic one rather than a legally binding one.

  2. As far as I know, 500.000 ukrainian people – it’s a total number of all citizens who asked for “political shelter” since the begining of “all this” events. Maybe from the end of november, when Ukraine refused euro-integration… I can be wrong, but “500.000” – is only one number that was posted in our news. Sometimes I think that it’s quite big, and real one is a way down lower. I don’t want you all t think about me as a “russian desinformator”, I can be wrong, because I’m a human – just like you. And I’m afraid of war too. I don’t want this horrible brother-killing war to be happen – because I’m an officer and I’m surely will go in this bloodbath. Not because I want – but because of our military laws.

    • Ah gotcha. Thank you Evgeniy.

      So rather than half a million people fleeing the country, it is half a million people who have applied for asylum should they need it. It’s an insurance in case events go sour, right?

  3. I think your seventh point is the most salient here. All of the information, whether true or false, is coming from governments and then filtered through a vast media apparatus. Although nominally free, the Western press is largely a shill for corporate-government, neoliberal, imperialistic interests. Although nominally controlled by bureaucracy, the Russian press at least offers a countervailing viewpoint, though it may be a wrong one.

    Who to believe? I find that reading multiple articles on the same subject used to be worthwhile, but at least in Western media, all the articles on Ukraine have mirrored each other: Russia is bad, Ukraine’s revolutionaries are good, let’s help the Ukrainians and punish the Reds!

    We must then ask: qui bono? Who benefits from this? Honestly, who gives a shit about Ukraine in the United States or Western Europe? It’s a cultural and political backwater by any estimation, its economy is small and weak, and the only Ukrainian contribution to the world besides Kievan Rus that I can think of is borscht – Evgeniy, being Russian and likely having his own borscht recipe, may disagree with me here.

    The only meaningful frame, to me, for understanding this conflict is one of geopolitical conflict between Western and Eastern powers. That is, between America/Europe and Russia/China/Iran. The only reason America fomented revolution by the neo-Nazi and fascist elements in Ukrainian society was to make sure Ukraine fell to the West, rather than remain within the Russian orbit. Why? To maintain regional and global hegemony, I suppose. To isolate Russia, keep it weak, keep it from acting against American/European foreign and economic policies. Who can understand the madness at the top besides those who are themselves mad?

    • All excellent points, Matthew. My only two quibbles are on the points of neoliberalism and the clash of cultures.

      Neoliberalism can be a tricky term because it is so ambiguous. If we take neoliberalism to mean the lowering of trade barriers throughout the world then it has been an unheralded success in terms of economic prosperity as well as politically and socially. There are no doubt bumps and bruises associated with free trade but these bumps and bruises often have to do with the nature of bargaining trade agreements and domestic policies rather than free trade itself.

      On the clash of cultures, a doctoral candidate in economics at Harvard recently had a blog post at the Monkey Cage arguing that the conflict has occurred because of the cultural similarities between Russians and Ukrainians rather than because of old geopolitical rivalries.

      The argument is basically that Ukrainians are showing the Russians that the plight of the Russians does not necessarily have to be accepted by them. Ukraine shows the Russians that alternative forms of governance can be undertaken by Slavic peoples. Most Russians have come to believe that despotism is the only way Slavs can be governed, but the events in Ukraine show otherwise. Therefore, it is in Russia’s interest to make a counter-example out of the Ukrainians. It’s a fascinating argument that you should read in full, but one that I am not entirely able to accept just yet (the candidate has an academic paper out on the topic that I would like to check out for more details).

  4. ““Political separation… may not lead to deprivation of rights—that is, the general rights of self-determination. It is unbearable for a world power to know that there are… comrades at its side who are constantly being afflicted with the severest suffering for their sympathy or unity with the whole nation…To the interests of the [nation] belong the protection of those…people who are not in a position to secure along our frontiers their political and spiritual freedom by their own efforts.”

    100 Brandon points to anyone that successfully identifies the author.

    • Ha!

      Actually, I’m the one who gets 100 Brandon points for predicting that Professor Terry would be the first to invoke a Hitler quote in the name of his favorite “cause” (well-to-do’ers and their causes often need the iron hand of government, cloaked in a velvet glove of course, to shove their cause down the throats of everybody else).

      Why don’t you tell us all why this quote, from the late 1930s, is relevant to today’s world?

      EDIT: This old piece by yours truly puts early 20th century nationalism in perspective (if I do say so myself) and this piece in Tablet shows how the Jewish population in Ukraine is divided over Russian aggression. I haven’t found anything worthwhile on the plight of Muslim Tartars in Crimea yet (perhaps this is a foreboding sign of things to come).

    • “I haven’t found anything worthwhile on the plight of Muslim Tartars in Crimea yet (perhaps this is a foreboding sign of things to come).”

      Your sense of foreboding is justified. Crimean Tatars don’t have a bright future.

      I think you should deduct 100 Brandon points for mis-identifying my favorite cause. It’s not across the ocean and all of Europe, it’s the obscene surveillance state in the good ole’ U, S, of A.

  5. “The referendum on secession about to be held (ten days from now) will likely be a symbolic one rather than a legally binding one.”

    The plebiscite was unconstitutional so I guess you could say it’s not legally binding but I think symbolic can now be ruled out. The results were disappointing though. Only 96.77% in favor of annexation by Russia. You’d never see the North Koreans with a % that low, they know how to run an election.

    Perhaps the upcoming plebiscites on secession in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Karelia will produce better numbers.

  6. Thanks Dr A,

    I still think this is all a part of Russia’s symbolic strategy against the West. As you mention, the referendum is not legally binding and nobody aside from Moscow has recognized it.

    What I think the best option available to the West would be to go ahead and recognize the independence of regions within Russia’s “official” borders (the territories you mentioned, for example).

    To back this up, simply make a mockery of the whole process going on in Crimea. Have a couple of silly press conferences. Then, to add teeth to the recognitions, publicly announce some weapons deals with Georgia and Ukraine. Publicly announce that all Western arms-related bans in the Caucasus are to be repealed.

    Then point out, in a rueful manner, that Canada and Mexico are under threat from domestic fascists and must be invaded in order to protect the American citizens and lovers of American citizens in those two countries.

    Mocking Russia’s current moves in Crimea will have a much greater impact on policy decisions and public opinion than economic sanctions (which will only make things much, much worse).

    Sanctions are a prelude to war.

    There is also the issue of secession and political oppression to think about. As it stands, the Crimeans should be able to vote their way out of a political union with Kiev. So, too, should Dagestanis, Chechens, Karelians, etc., be able to vote their way out of a political union with Moscow. The fact that only guns have so far been able to secure a vote in favor of public opinion (Crimean secession from Ukraine) suggests that liberalism has yet to reach enough minds and institutions to have the positive impact that I think it could have on the world.

    I also don’t buy the argument, made by some, about the fact that at least one of these oppressed post-socialist, post-Soviet regions was able to secede from a political center it deemed oppressive and should therefore be viewed in a positive light, even if it was Moscow’s guns which brought about the change. To me this line of reasoning is akin to arguing that the US invasion of Iraq was a cautious positive for the world, even though half a million people died due to the invasion, because there is now one less dictator in the world.

    Secession needs to be viewed as a legitimate political option for peoples and this recognition needs to be incorporated into the legal systems of liberal societies if we want to avoid more conflicts like the one between Russia and Ukraine. The world is devolving politically, which means secessionist tendencies will increase, and if there is no political or legal mechanism (much less intellectual recognition) for dealing with these aspirations then be prepared for more problems in the post-colonial world (see this and this), but not so much in the West (see this and this). Liberals, of course, have been at the forefront of the secession debate since John Locke first brought it up in his 1689 classic Second Treatise of Government.

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