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Stephen Cohen: A humanitarian disaster of the first magnitude

Part 4 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    part three here

Finally there is today’s perilous fallacy, which Merkel seemed to publicly support, but apparently has rethought – though Obama has not. That all this will end only if Putin stops his aggression. That’s it. We heard this from Kerry today. We heard it from McCain. We hear it from Psaki, the spokes[wo]man at the State Department. Putin has to stop aggressing and everything will be okay. They call it “we are going to give him a diplomatic off ramp,” whatever that is. It’s a cliché. They don’t say what the diplomacy is. In other words, if he capitulates, we’re good with that. Everything: we’ll call off the sanctions, and he can have Russia, or at least part of it. And that’s it. All over.

But the reality is two-fold. First I ask you, and I ask anybody from Ukraine, who knows Ukraine in this room: there are 4 to 5 million people still living in Donbass. Donbass is the industrial heartland of Eastern Ukraine. I don’t know the numbers because so many have fled – we had a fact checking problem, not I, but my wife did at The Nation. [There’s] a very good piece about this on The Nation blog by Lev Golinkin, who was born in Eastern Ukraine. He’s an American citizen writing about these people. Do these 5 million people have no humanity? No agency? The Americans, The New York Times, refer to them as “Putin’s thugs”. Babies, grandmothers, grandfathers, mechanics, schoolteachers, nurses, miners, taxi cab drivers, merchants: they’re all Putin’s thugs. But what about their rights? They have been bombed by Kiev. And mortared and shelled. For a year.

We don’t know the exact casualty rate. The U.N. says 5,300. That can’t be. Dead: there are thousands dead and wounded, gravely wounded. The refugee count – people who’ve had to flee the area – is somewhere between one and two million. We don’t know what it is. The U.N.’s not sure, Russia’s not sure. So many people and they flee as we talk. Why do they flee tonight? Because they’re still being bombed. At first it was the women folk taking the children. Now the young men are fleeing too. And some are coming from Kiev because they’re being conscripted and they don’t want to fight. Russia claimed 500 young men are coming out and Russia lies too, [so] who knows? 500 a day are arriving in Russia fleeing conscription. I mean this is a humanitarian disaster of the first magnitude.

And yet the United States has said since the Clinton administration “R2P”: the “Right To Protect” is our doctrine. We protect people who are put in a humanitarian disaster situation by natural or warfare means. But the United States government has nothing to say about the fate of these people. Even though the American Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, was the great ideologue of this whole doctrine. And when asked, what did she say? “I think Kiev has shown remarkable restraint.” I am ashamed as an American citizen that a representative of my government could not bring herself to say “We feel badly for these people, we’re gonna do something to help them.”

Now, belatedly, apparently there’s some talk of sending a few million dollars. But meanwhile they’ve tried to stop those Russian white trucks. Remember all those white trucks we were shown that were supposed to be carrying military equipment and every one that’s been opened has had baby food, penicillin, and water, stuff like that? I mean maybe they’ve stashed some weapons in there, so what? These people are starving. The infrastructure is destroyed, you can’t get fresh water, the hospitals are being destroyed. Do they have no agency in this controversy, in this discussion?

What about Kiev’s aggression – backed by the United States? This terrible destruction is done by Kiev under what it calls, and I quote, an “Anti-Terrorist Operation”. That’s the name of Kiev’s military operation. It’s been that since April [2014]; they call it that till today, and the United States is endorsing it. I ask you: what kind of government declares 5 million of its own citizens terrorists? And if you say people are terrorists, is it your notion to negotiate with them or to kill ‘em?

What’s the American policy? We don’t negotiate with terrorists. We do, but officially we don’t; we kill them. There’s something wrong here. And what’s wrong in Kiev is endorsed in Washington. And that bothers me as an American citizen but it is also the reason that the solution cannot be only the end of Putin’s aggression.

So, this is the actual history.


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