In Background, Feature Articles, Ukraine

By Patrick L Smith,, Sept 2, 2015

‘It is not too soon to assess Washington’s failure in Ukraine. It is, indeed, “pretty much complete” and pretty much on display as we speak.’

Right-wing riot in Kyiv on Aug 31, 2015 that killed and wounded three national Guardsmen (UNIAN News)

Right-wing riot in Kyiv on Aug 31, 2015 that killed and wounded three national Guardsmen (UNIAN News)

The slightly fetid “phony war” in Ukraine—the unsettling stagnation noted in this space a month ago—is emphatically over. Suddenly there is movement on several fronts, and some of it is promising. But this is a dangerous moment, too, chiefly because Washington’s bet on the post-coup government in Kiev, bad from the outset, is on the brink of producing a result so ugly and shameful its consequences all around cannot now be calculated.

I refer to the very real potential, as of Monday [Aug 31], for a coup mounted by violence-adoring ultra-rightists—those neo-Nazis airbrushed out of the news coverage even as they now maraud through the Ukrainian capital almost with impunity. “The far right won’t make a full move on the Poroshenko government now,” a Ukrainian émigré said on the telephone Tuesday. “I think it’ll be a couple of months before we see that.”

Comforting, isn’t it?

In effect, we will now watch a race between those attempting to forge a negotiated settlement in Ukraine—and the prospects for this look good once again—and the collapse of the Kiev government precisely because the European powers are now forcing it to accept such a settlement. You tell me who is going to break the tape.

Before I go any further, there is an aspect of this new phase in the Ukraine crisis that needs to be noted right away. The narrative advanced over the past 18 months by most Western media—and all corporate American media, without exception—is coming unglued before our eyes. This is going to make it even more difficult than heretofore to understand events by way of our newspapers and broadcasters.

Already we see the kind of contorted reporting always deployed when our media have to cover their tracks after long periods of corrupt, untruthful work. Per usual, the most consequential offenses occur in the government-supervised New York Times.

Example: Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, now confronts “Ukrainian nationalists” over plans to decentralize power because Vladimir Putin forced this upon him, “with a metaphorical gun to his head”. This we read in Tuesday’s paper. And here we need a trigger warning for the faint of heart, because I have two strong words for this report, written with deliberation: outright lies. We are beyond lies of omission now. These are the real thing.

  • One, these are not “nationalists”. France’s Front Nationale is nationalist. The U.K. Independence party is nationalist. The majorities on Capitol Hill are nationalist. These are black-shirted ultras who vote with explosives and assassins’ bullets. You deserve to know this, and it does not change simply because Washington backs them covertly and John McCain—ask him—does smiling photo ops with Oleh Tyahnybok, their openly fascist leader.
  • Two, there is no accounting at all for the “gun to his head” bit, but Putin’s view that federalization is the sensible solution to the Ukraine crisis is (1) plainly the sound way to hold the nation together while addressing its differences and (2) vehemently endorsed by the French and German governments. Chancellor Merkel, with no gun to her head, made this plain Tuesday, when she insisted that autonomy legislation now pending in Kiev must be acceptable to the leadership in the rebellious eastern regions. You deserve to know this, too.
  • Chronology is all if we are to understand the events of the past week or so. You have not seen a chronology, because this is the very worst time, from the official and media perspectives, for you to understand events. A brief sketch of the errant timeline, which will do for now, looks like this:
  • Angela Merkel and François Hollande, the German and French leaders, had Poroshenko to Berlin last week and made him stand next to them as they vigorously reiterated their commitment to a negotiated settlement based on the pact signed in Minsk last February. “We are here to implement the Minsk deal, not to call it into question,”Merkel declared in that forthright way of hers.
  • Last weekend, with Poroshenko back in Kiev, Germany, France and Russia—the Minsk signatories, along with Ukraine—declared that a new ceasefire would go into effect Tuesday, September 1. At writing, the very early signs are that it has a better-than-even chance of holding, previous efforts having frayed.
  • On Monday the Kremlin announced that the Minsk signatories would meet by mid-September “in the Normandy format.” This means the four foreign ministers will convene, probably by telephone (as they first did in northern France on the D-Day anniversary last year). Two implications: One, this is a working session, devoted to structuring terms. Two, Paris, Berlin and Moscow want concrete progress toward a settlement within two weeks. In other words, the clock ticks.
  • Also on Monday, the Rada, Ukraine’s legislature, held a preliminary vote on the constitutional revisions that are to provide the eastern regions a high degree of autonomy. While this is a key provision in the Minsk agreement, the Poroshenko government had previously done nothing to implement it over the seven months since Minsk II was signed.
  • And finally, far-right protesters had gathered outside the Rada in anticipation of the vote. As soon as the measure was passed—by a narrow margin—they erupted into violent rioting featuring bombs, explosive devices and grenades. Three police officers are now dead, more than 100 injured. The instigator was the same party that turned demonstrations last year into a coup— Oleh Tyahnybok’s Svoboda, the Russian-hating, Jew-hating party that canonizes Nazi collaborators. Poroshenko called Svoboda’s riot “a stab in the back.” Of course: Until recently his deputy prime minister and prosecutor general were both Svoboda members. He’s no stranger to these people.

So went the past week. What do we make of it? Where are we in this story?

* * *

I see several moving parts in what is now a highly kinetic situation in Ukraine and surrounding it. In some cases these are intricately related.

Consider, first, the European position. The Germans and French have plainly quickened the pace of their joint diplomatic efforts. Why is this and why now? It helps to note that Paris and Berlin have chosen to work with the Russians within the Minsk II framework while excluding the Americans (as, indeed, Mink II pointedly excluded them earlier this year, when warmongers on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon were hoisting the thought of arming Kiev up the flagpole).

Two concerns appear to be at work in the European capitals. One, Washington has stepped back but half a step from its effort to force a military solution in Ukraine. Recall: As of this summer the Pentagon is effectively managing Ukraine’s armed forces. Note: Joe Biden, the White House’s point man on the war, had little to say to the French and the Germans last week, but he called Poroshenko in Kiev to stiffen the wayward president’s back in countering rebel forces on the ground in the eastern regions. (Biden for president is an odious thought, incidentally.)

Two, and more urgent, the Europeans are well aware that the Poroshenko government is highly unstable, if not teetering indeed. Its support in opinion polls is well down in the single digits. Even before this week’s street violence, nobody in Berlin could fail to see the threat of an overthrow posed by the black-shirted ultras of Svoboda and Right Sektor, a more recently formed descendant of the Social-National Party, as Svoboda used to call itself.

Remember the wave of assassinations in Kiev last April? Among the victims was a journalist and historian named Oles Buzina, who opposed a radical breach with Russia on numerous grounds. Buzina seems to have been much honored among Ukrainians, for some of them placed a plaque on the front wall of his home. Last week, Right Sektor members gouged it off—and then replaced it with a similar slab honoring his assassins. “In broad daylight. No police to be seen,” as Russia Insider, the Western-run news site in Moscow, reported. [Story here.]

A few days later, Svoboda and Right Sektor staged the riot outside the Rada. There have been arrests in both cases, but we are looking at something close to impunity.

I called Lev Golinkin, a young Ukrainian writer from the eastern city of Kharkiv (and the émigré quoted above), to ask him about this. Here is some of what he said in a long telephone exchange Tuesday:

The far right does not have enough support to win any presence in parliament. But they don’t need support. They need unrest. All they need is for people to see the Poroshenko government as just as corrupt and inefficient as the one it replaced. And of course it is.

Svoboda sees Poroshenko as a traitor, who is letting Europeans betray Ukraine. They have no interest in equal rights, decentralization of the country, peace with Russia. There’s no room for compromise in their position…. The war serves Poroshenko because it distracts the far right. They’re for the war. But other than this, they have nothing in common with this president.

Why, Lev, do you think a move against the government is probable in the next couple of months?” I asked. Golinkin replied:

It’s historical reality. Once they’re active they don’t stop until they’re completely defeated or they take power. After World War I, Poland brutally suppressed them. After World War II, the Soviet Union brutally suppressed them. And now there’s no one to suppress them…. The Ukrainian army may not be on Poroshenko’s side. The biggest question in my mind is whether the army will fight the far right.

Right now, Poroshenko is darting around like a squirrel. In Kiev he says, ‘There’s no plan to decentralize. There’s no special status for the east.’ Then he works with Merkel and Hollande on plans to decentralize and grant the east special status.

Let me put it this way: If I am talking about this near-chaos as I sit in a village of 1,600 souls in the New England hills, they are talking about it in Berlin and Paris. Merkel and Hollande appear to be motivated in some measure, and maybe in large measure, by the thought that they must move now if they are to grasp their last, best chance to achieve a negotiated settlement in Ukraine.

* * *

I had a note from a reader the other day—a prominent, connected man—who conveyed the thoughts of an American colonel now serving in Germany. (I will name neither my reader nor the officer I am about to quote.) The colonel was writing about “a shift toward collaborative behavior” he sees among Americans—the thought being that Washington is moving gradually away from unilateral action and insistence on American primacy across all oceans and continents.

I, too, see signs of this in the Obama administration’s record, but only signs, and they are faint. It occurs on a here-and-there basis and there is no consistency to it. In my read, this shift reflects partly a new understanding of America’s place but mostly the force of circumstance. The colonel sees the latter at work in Europe, referring to “the pretty much complete failure of the most recent ‘regime change’ that was engineered in Ukraine.”

The note prompted me to think, and the events of the past few days confirm the thought: It is not too soon to assess Washington’s failure in Ukraine. It is, indeed, “pretty much complete” and pretty much on display as we speak. No surprise from this quarter: As argued severely in this space, this failure is has been more or less inevitable since the beginning of the Ukraine adventure in the first post-Soviet years—and certainly since the coup Washington cultivated in Kiev last year.

I do not seem to be as isolated in this judgment as I was even a few months ago. “Better to get the most advantageous possible negotiated terms,” a new piece on Ukraine in The National Interest argues, “than to set up ourselves and the NATO alliance for a high-profile defeat.”

That is a foreign policy “realist” doing his reckoning. It is the sound of tactical retreat in the face of failure. I go even further: Not only has failure been inevitable from the first; it is the best outcome for Americans by a long way.

There are a couple of ways to explain this. First, there are the practicalities. The shambolic Poroshenko government is simply too weak to serve as an effective client, even if you think a client regime on Russia’s border is a good idea. It long ago spent its political capital. Its support in the Rada is crumbling. The IMF just completed its bailout arrangement, but in so doing it assumes responsibility for an economy that has more or less ceased to exist.

The new figure for deaths in the conflict zone bouncing around in the press is “approaching 7,000”. Bad enough. But as Stephen Cohen, the honored Russianist, pointed out long ago, this is the number of bodies counted in morgues, nothing more. German intelligence put fatalities at 50,000 or more, and that was six months or so back.

Now comes the very real threat of a far-right insurgency no one can control. Even if Poroshenko manages to keep his balance, this problem will haunt him. Equally, consider the damage to trans-Atlantic relations—already complicated by the Ukraine crisis—if a neo-fascist regime were to take power as the outcome of Washington’s 20-odd year effort to pull Ukraine out by its roots and re-pot it as another flower in the Western garden.

These are on-the-ground reasons Washington simply does not want to put its name on this mess any longer. A “realist” in these matters might agree. Wait for it, readers: All the blame must now be shoved off on Russia, which is never right about anything and which holds guns to people’s heads. This is going to take a lot, lot, lot of lying.

But there is another reason to applaud Washington’s failure in Ukraine, and I put a higher value on it.

Good people in Washington and elsewhere in this nation can think all the high-minded thoughts they wish, but none is going to decisively alter the policy which cliques conduct abroad, as it must be altered if we are to avoid a series of calamities and tragedies as the 21st century proceeds. It is essential to wage the intellectual war, surely, but we also need failures. Repeated failures are the only way we will get this done. In failures lies our success, to put the point another way.

It is not a matter only of countering entrenched interests—the Pentagon, the defense industries, the intelligence and national security apparatus. I conclude that the American consciousness must also sustain a certain kind of violence before we will imagine our place in the world anew. This seems to me the colonel’s thought: We failed in Ukraine “pretty much completely,” and we can learn from this to think differently.

I see two major misapprehensions immediately at issue. One is the neoliberal model, arising as it does out of the Chicago School’s free-market ideology, econometrics, rational choice theory, and the drastic tilt toward mathematics and computer modeling in postwar social sciences. It strips all history, culture, tradition and human preference out of our thinking such that we can pile into Ukraine and expect to win the day.

Impossible. This is the irrationality of hyper-rationality. It is a proven loser. Let the losses pile up.

Two, of course, is the exceptionalist impulse, and it is closely allied to neoliberal thinking. I have little faith that we Americans will abandon our claim to providential righteousness—the ideological cloak draped over our incessant drive for markets—until the world tells us one too many times to keep it to ourselves. Drop the mythological veneer, and we Americans can have a proper debate as to whether we want to subvert nations such as Ukraine for the sake of corporations such as Chevron.

The only weakness in this argument, so far as I can see, is undue optimism—and yes, you read the sentence correctly. It may be that I overestimate this nation’s capacity to learn from its mistakes. Maybe I see higher aspirations among us than the policy cliques will ever reflect and, in a drastically changing political scene, see a chance for these to rise to the surface as they might have before the three assassinations that changed everything 50 years ago.

We will see. Let us watch how our failure in Ukraine computes out. Two wishes in the meantime.

One, the odious triumphalism that arose in the 1990s—so tinny and unbecoming when seen from the perspectives of others—will go straight to hell at last. I detest it.

Two, the shockingly bad performance of our media, notably but not only the government-supervised New York Times, will prove a turning point in the arrival of alternative media. It is they that have got the Ukraine story right, shining more light on it than news organizations commanding a hundred times the wattage. Given this performance, we should not consider them an alternative to anything, I like to think—only new growth on the old tree.

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is [See Patrick L. Smith’s articles page on New Cold]


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