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Policy Papers: Ukraine and the Left

By (March 8, 2014) No Comment


It pains me to report that Henry Kissinger is right about something.  “Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation,” he says in the Washington Post. “But do we know where we are going? …Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West.” In gauging events on this premise, he writes later, each side “has made the situation worse.”

This is of a piece with what Kissinger practiced in office: negotiate with the powerful (like Russia and China), overrun the weak (like Chile and Vietnam). But it is nevertheless ironic: many American commentators, especially those on the right, are itching for confrontation, but here is a man with actual blood on his hands counseling restraint. Putin and the West maneuver for advantage in Ukraine, painting each other in stark terms, and while there are no outright partisans for Russia on the American scene, there is in some circles a similar dynamic at play between the so-called hawks and doves.

Critics of American and European policy in Eastern Europe span the gamut, but most of them agree on several points: that NATO and EU expansion westward has needlessly antagonized Russia, that Russia is quite logically concerned with events in its neighborhood, and that the United States sees itself as having a constabulary role in the world so broad as to be virtually limitless. There is much truth in this. Twelve countries have joined NATO since the end of the Cold War, and three of those, or four if you include a reunited Germany, now border Russian territory. NATO and the United States have been flirting with placing a missile defense system in Eastern Europe for years, and have intervened in or invaded several of Russia’s allies. The recent unrest was precipitated late last year by an EU ultimatum which forced a demographically divided Ukraine to decide between integration with Western Europe or a place in Russia’s orbit. Foreseeably, Victor Yanukovych, whose base is in the Russian-leaning East, chose the latter. Now he is deposed, and his vast, well-appointed mansion has become a museum to his regime’s corruption and graft. From the Russian perspective, these events are provocations and symbols of its diminishing power. Boris Yeltsin couldn’t do anything about this, but Putin, buoyed by rising energy prices and the resurgent nationalism which his regime has so assiduously cultivated, feels that he can.

In the United States, the more “realist” flavored critiques see in these events an unnecessarily pliant definition of America’s national interest, something that should instead be coldly circumscribed; leftist critics spy yet more bricks and mortar for the American imperial project. We’ll deal with only the second group, and their counterparts, the liberal interventionists, here. One article that has gotten a lot of play is Stephen Cohen’s “Distorting Russia,” which ran last month in The Nation. “The degradation of mainstream American press coverage of Russia,” he writes,

a country still vital to US national security, has been under way for many years… Russia today has serious problems and many repugnant Kremlin policies. But anyone relying on mainstream American media will not find there any of their origins or influences in Yeltsin’s Russia or in provocative US policies since the 1990s.

This is clunkily stated yet mostly true, though it’s clear he thinks the media hasn’t degraded so much as trundle the same low path since the Berlin Wall fell. But his view of Putin is too forgiving, and his enemies in the public arena – given how he writes, that is what he must think them to be – are drawn in caricature:

The media therefore eagerly await Putin’s downfall—due to his “failing economy” (some of its indicators are better than US ones), the valor of street protesters and other right-minded oppositionists (whose policies are rarely examined), the defection of his electorate (his approval ratings remain around 65 percent) or some welcomed “cataclysm.”

He further notes that the media and the President failed to recognize Russia for its participation in the “war on terror” (“Should not Obama himself have gone to Sochi—either out of gratitude to Putin, or to stand with Russia’s leader against international terrorists who have struck both of our countries?”), and did not sufficiently praise the Russian leader for releasing “more than 1,000 jailed prisoners, including mothers of young children.” The tone here is reminiscent of the monomaniacal critiques recurrently burbling out of Noam Chomsky, who has in the last twenty years grown so rigid he’s become almost useless. This is what happens when you see the world solely through the prism of your habitual bromides.

Over at The Daily Beast, James Kirchick volunteers a few sharp rejoinders:

Cohen lauds Putin for granting amnesty to 1,000 prisoners in December, failing to note that some of those individuals—most famously members of the punk band Pussy Riot and opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky—would never have been jailed in a democratic country with an independent judiciary. Cohen cites Putin’s 65 percent approval rating as evidence of his legitimacy, as if such a metric is a valid indicator in a country where every major media outlet is state-run and political opposition invites harassment and physical abuse…

Demonstrating his utter credulousness about Putin’s intentions, Cohen scoffed last month that, “Without any verified evidence, [Snyder] warns of a Putin-backed ‘armed intervention’ in Ukraine after the Olympics.” Oops.

In his own way, though, Kirchick is no better. He accuses Cohen of thinking Putin is “something of a hero,” and lumps virtually every critic of Western policy, from left to right, into a single category: “apologists for Russian imperialism,” “defenders” of its invasions. He believes the “realists” are really “isolationist” (none of them are, if the word has any meaning), and thinks “American ‘restraint’ now means not just withdrawing America’s overseas troop presence and drastically cutting the defense budget, but curtailing diplomacy itself.” The last bit was the conclusion he drew from this paragraph:

Washington’s alleged engineering coup d’etats has become an oft-repeated accusation of realist critics of robust American involvement overseas. “Is it the job of the American ambassador to act as a local potentate, choosing who does, and does not, get to serve in a coalition government?” Jacob Heilbrunn asked in The National Interest, the premier realist journal. In that same publication, David Rieff observed that Nuland was behaving like “a British resident agent in one of the princely states of India during the Raj” who “conspired with the US ambassador to Kiev to overthrow the current president of Ukraine.”

No serious student of American foreign policy would embarrass themselves by appending the word “alleged” to a discussion of American engineered coup d’etats after World War II. Just ask Henry Kissinger, who is quite proud of his handiwork in Chile.

And Kissinger has some sage advice for Russia and the United States:

Putin should come to realize that, whatever his grievances, a policy of military impositions would produce another Cold War. For its part, the United States needs to avoid treating Russia as an aberrant to be patiently taught rules of conduct established by Washington. Putin is a serious strategist — on the premises of Russian history. Understanding U.S. values and psychology are not his strong suits. Nor has understanding Russian history and psychology been a strong point of U.S. policymakers.

But it appears to be too late. Russia shows every intention of annexing Crimea, and the United States and its European allies have committed themselves to the new government in Kiev. This is how most international and domestic conflicts play out: the belligerents mythologize themselves and each other, believing their cause is just, that their opposing natures make confrontation inevitable, and end up creating together the reality they imagined in solitude.