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Stephen Cohen: How the current crisis developed – and the media myths about it

Part 3 of Stephen Cohen Lecture, “The Ukrainian Crisis: A New Cold War?” on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies Program, Fairfield University, February 5, 2015

part one here    part two here

So now come to the current crisis. And the myths. The American orthodox assertion is that this is all due to Putin’s aggression. That’s the phrase, “Putin’s aggression”. And here too we find myths beginning with this fundamental one. And I apologize to Ukrainians or people of Ukrainian descent in the room, but I think if they think about it they’ll agree with me. All this talk of the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people striving to be free of Russian influence and join the West is, to put it politely, fragmentary. For centuries Ukraine has been a divided country. It’s not my fault, it’s not Putin’s fault; it’s God’s fault. Centuries of being formed from fragments of different empires left Ukraine divided. Religiously, ethnically, economically, politically, geographically. Mainly between the pro-Russian eastern provinces and the western provinces that look to Europe, but not only, you find both sides in central Ukraine. Even in Kiev.

When this crisis began, Ukraine had one state. But it wasn’t, in the sense that the rhetoric has it, one country. It should have remained one country; it was struggling to do that after the end of the Soviet Union. But anybody who was going to tamper with this delicate balance in Ukraine either had an evil deed on his or her mind or didn’t know history. Or didn’t know Ukraine. So the civil war that we now see in Ukraine is not Putin’s fault. It was latent, at very least latent, in Ukrainian society in history all along.

That brings us to a related myth. In November 2013 the European union, backed by Washington, offered – this is the myth – President Yanukovych of Ukraine a benign, generous association agreement with the European Union, but Putin bullied and bribed poor Yanukovych into refusing it and then Yanukovych fell to the protests in the streets.

What’s the reality? The European Union proposal was a reckless provocation. It told Yanukovych – even though Putin had said, let’s do a three-way plan to save Ukraine from meltdown, Moscow, Kiev, Brussels – it told Yanukovych, the European Union did, “Choose between Russia and us, the West.”  That was an ultimatum.  Why would anybody do this?

Nor was it so benign; the financial terms that the European union was offering [were] virtually no money up front and austerity measures of the kind that Greece has just rejected in a vote and that savaged European society, 25 percent unemployment, for a decade. What would this have done to Ukraine, which was already on financial ropes, with an elderly population dependent on pensions? What would this have done?

Moreover, nobody seems to read anything anymore. But buried in the thousand-page protocol was the section called Military Security Issues, which if signed, Yanukovych and Ukraine would have been obliged to abide by Europe’s military and security policies.  NATO wasn’t mentioned, but what are Europe’s military and security policies? They are those of NATO. This was clearly an attempt – all right, let me take that back – this seems to have been an attempt in fine print to hook Ukraine to NATO, I’m mixing my metaphors, through the back door. So it wasn’t all that benign, and Russia has lawyers and they read everything, and they knew what was going on. Or thought they did. And they weren’t happy about it.

So it wasn’t Putin’s aggression that initiated the crisis but a kind of velvet aggression by Washington and Brussels to bring all of Ukraine into the West and at least into the embrace of NATO.

And here arises another myth:  “The Ukrainian Civil War was triggered by Putin’s aggressive response to peaceful demonstrations at the Maidan.” The reality was different, and you will remember it, because you saw it on TV.  You saw the people in the streets throwing flaming Molotov cocktails.  You saw that they were increasingly armed. You saw that people were being shot. You saw the burning barricades. You saw the assaults on government buildings.  The reality is, is that by February of last year,  what had begun as peaceful protests had become violent.  And the violence was inspired in part, in large part, by ultra-nationalist Ukrainian forces.  Some of whom indisputably, any reasonable person would call neo-fascist.

What does that mean? They want to rid Ukraine of Jews, Gypsies, Russians, homosexuals, anybody who’s not a pure ethnic Ukrainian. Whatever that is, after centuries of mixed marriages. That’s their written ideology. Leave aside that they carry around pictures of Hitler.  Maybe it’s just ornamentation.  (Read your programs.) So these people – a small, small minority – got traction in the streets.  And influenced events.

What happened?

What happened?  The violence grew.  Three European foreign ministers flew to Kiev and they brokered an agreement between the president and the street demonstrators’ leaders. They said “Look, Yanukovych will form a coalition government, [will] bring in the opposition leaders, [and] he will stay as president until December” – February to December, whatever, that is 10 months – “and then there’ll be new elections.” They brokered a democratic agreement. I don’t know who initiated the phone call, but within minutes Putin and Obama were on the phone with each other. Apparently Obama said to Putin, “Do you support this?” Putin said, “I do.” Putin said to Obama, “Do you support this?” Obama said, “I do.” Within hours it was overthrown as street protestors marched on the Presidential palace. Yanukovych fled to Russia. A new government was formed and was immediately endorsed by the United States and Europe. The new government. Nobody ever mentioned in the West again the agreement they had negotiated themselves. The Western diplomats. And out of that came all the rest.

Out of that came all the rest.  All the rest meaning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, the civil war, the new American Cold War, and Merkel’s flight, desperate flight to Kiev, Moscow, and Washington in these last two or three days, to ward off actual war.

Part 4 here


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