The first difficulty encountered when trying to cut through the tangled mass of misinformation, omission and downright lies that has been presented as serious reporting about Ukraine, Russia, and Crimea in most of the British media, is to know where to begin. Anyone interested in getting at the truth should have learned long ago not to expect any serious historical perspective or any interest in balance or consistency in the pronouncements of leading politicians. Dissembling and peddling propaganda is their stock-in-trade. The same goes for their loyal echoes in the tabloid press. But reporting of the Russia/Ukraine/Crimea crisis has fared little better in supposedly serious newspapers and on the main television news channels. Essentially they have all endorsed the stance of the United States government, NATO and the European Union. Briefly stated they support the post-February 21st authorities in Kiev as the legitimate democratic government of Ukraine and condemn the referendum in Crimea and its annexation to the Russian Federation as a “land grab” by Vladimir Putin, denouncing it as “illegal”.
One way to get this into a more balanced perspective is to look at a bit of history and try to deconstruct some of the overplayed shibboleths that have featured prominently in the US/EU/NATO discourse.
1. Post-Soviet Russia. Whatever view one takes of the Soviet Union, the trajectory of post-Soviet Russia can hardly be regarded as a cause for celebration. During the last decade of the twentieth century, under the tutelage of Western protégé Boris Yeltsin, the country was subjected to an extreme version of the neo-liberal “shock doctrine”. Russia’s resources, painstakingly built up in terrible adversity over decades of hardship and suffering, were systematically plundered by a rapacious, Western inspired and backed band of kleptocratic privateers. They enriched themselves beyond imagination and reduced the majority of people to penury. In less than a decade, life expectancy, earlier comparable to that in advanced Western countries, plummeted to below 60. For the most part this was regarded as of no importance by the Western governments and their apologists who rarely mentioned it. Many U.S. and British Russian experts were complicit in promoting this catastrophe. A few drew attention to what was happening, but generally they were ignored. Those interested in getting at the truth might read Stephen F. Cohen’s The Failed Crusade (2001) and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007).
2. NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949 as a U.S. led military alliance against the Soviet Union. Its raison d’etre was supposed to be to defend Western democratic countries against “totalitarian” aggression and to safeguard peace in Europe. The membership of Salazar’s Portugal and of Turkey sat uneasily with this claim. In 1955 West Germany was admitted. Western-backed German rearmament alarmed the Soviet Union. Little-known (because rarely mentioned) is the fact that in 1955 at the Geneva summit conference, Soviet leader Khrushchev applied to join NATO. Eisenhower, Dulles and Eden were seriously discomfited by the application and needless to say nothing came of it. But, in response to Germany’s membership, the Soviet Union was instrumental in setting up the Warsaw Pact which included most of the communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe. When the USSR and the Soviet Bloc ceased to exist the Warsaw Pact was wound up. But not NATO. A reasonable question to ask is - Why Not? What is the purpose of NATO now that the reason for its existence no longer exists? The attempts of its apologists to justify not only its existence but its continued expansion are risible but they also give cause for serious concern. We are told that NATO is necessary for “the war on terror”. It is necessary because the world is a dangerous place and “we” might face unknown threats in the future. It is necessary for possible cases requiring “humanitarian intervention” such as the crisis arising from the Western-backed disintegration of Yugoslavia and the uprising against Gaddafi in Libya we are told. But, if we look at the way it has expanded since 1991 we get a pretty good idea of its main purpose. To the original 12 member states of 1949 and the four later adherents, Greece and Turkey (1952) and West Germany (1955) and Spain (1982), 13 new members have been added since 1991. They are Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Thus, NATO has expanded to absorb all the former Warsaw Pact states of Eastern Europe. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Russian history, particularly since 1917 through the Second World War and the Cold War, should appreciate Russian sensitivity concerning the perceived and very real dangers of threat from the West and encirclement. To imagine that any Russian government would regard the relentless encroachment of NATO on its borders with equanimity would be naïve in the extreme.
3. Russia in World War Two. Growing up in Britain during and after the Second World War one was taught that “we” had defeated Germany. We learned about the Battle of Britain, the Blitz and D. Day. We were informed about the war by the recollections of our parents’ generation who had lived through it and fought in it. We were entertained through the post-war years by a steady stream of films, some good but most indifferent, which dealt with the war “we” had fought. “We” were Britain and America. What we saw in the cinema dealt with subjects such as the Battle of Britain, the Normandy landings, the war in North Africa, the Italian campaign and, if the films came from Hollywood as most of them did, with the war against Japan in the Pacific. All this was reasonable, whatever the quality of the films. But, from 1948 we were also given to understand that the new “totalitarian” enemy was the Soviet Union. The Soviet contribution to the defeat of Nazism was pretty much ignored. We even got films (conveniently coinciding with the move to rearm West Germany) which presented Erwin Rommel in a very glowing light. So strong was the anti-Soviet bias during the Cold War that many people in Britain today are ignorant of the fact that the Soviet Union lost between 20 and 25 million dead in the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany. Mention of the Crimea may in some people stir a faint memory of Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, but they remain ignorant of what it might mean to the Russians. To get some idea of what the Crimea means to Russians, it is worth referring to John Erickson’s unsurpassed study of the Soviet Union at war, the two-volume The Road to Stalingrad and The Road to Berlin. He recounts in great detail the Soviets’ last ditch defence of Sevastopol in June 1942. Manstein’s 11th Army subjected the fortifications to “27 days of relentless bombardment and savage attack which raged on by the hour as each Soviet position had to be smothered in men and fire before opposition was literally blotted out….Each fort had to be blown out of the ground in which they were anchored with all their concrete and steel. Even when cracked open the forts fought on. Riflemen fought on in gas masks and smoking stench….A sea of fire rolled relentlessly on Sevastopol.” Erickson describes how Soviet soldiers, having fired their last rounds blew up themselves and their guns as German infantrymen closed in for the kill. The siege lasted 250 days, from 30. October 1941 to 4. July 1942. At least 18.000 Russians were killed and 95.000 were captured. After the fall of the city the Nazi Einsatzgruppen moved in and began the systematic genocide of the Jews. Ukrainian nationalist collaborators in the Crimea asked the Nazi authorities to be allowed to liquidate the Jews themselves. Manstein was promoted by Hitler to the rank of Field Marshal. Sevastopol, after its final liberation from German occupation in 1944 received the title “Hero City”. These events, like the 1941 defence of Moscow, the three-year-long siege of Leningrad, the unparalleled resistance and final victory at Stalingrad have been engraved on the memory and consciousness of generations of Russians.
4. The legitimacy of the Kiev authorities. The British media coverage of the Ukraine/Russia crisis has rubber-stamped the interpretation peddled by the E.U. and the U.S. The story goes more or less like this: The anti-Yanukovych demonstrators in Kiev represented the democratic will of the Ukrainian people. The fatal casualties in those demonstrations were all victims of Yanukovych’s armed police and snipers. Extreme right-wing nationalists were only a tiny, insignificant minority amongst the demonstrators. They are of no political consequence and they were not responsible for killing anyone. Suggestions to the contrary should be ignored. There were no Western agents or provocateurs amongst the demonstrators. The only provocateurs were Russian or pro-Russian agents. The compromise deal struck between Yanukovych and the opposition and signed off by E.U. negotiators on 21. February, which was immediately rejected by the Ukrainian right-wing nationalists, should also be ignored. The new Kiev “government” that took power after the deal was scrapped, despite not being elected, represents the democratic will of the Ukrainian people. Talk of a coup is Russian propaganda. The few representatives of “nationalist” groups like Svoboda and Right Sector, have no influence. To regard them as Nazis or Fascists is also just Russian scare-mongering propaganda designed to justify a possible Russian take-over of Ukraine. The alternative to this version of events, which challenges these assumptions, is likewise, Russian propaganda and not worthy of serious consideration.
This story doesn’t hold up. Whatever one thinks of Yanukovych (and like so many others he was evidently pretty corrupt) he was the head of an elected government. There is reliable evidence of Western involvement in the Kiev protests, just as there is about CIA involvement in the attempts to destabilize the elected government of Venezuela. Evidence supporting the view that armed ultra-rightists were responsible for killing people during the Kiev protests is persuasive and cannot easily be discounted. Such elements were more numerous and significant than is claimed by Western commentators and apologists. Svoboda and Right Sector are two anti-Semitic fascist organizations now represented in Kiev’s unelected government. Svoboda has four posts, including those of deputy prime minister and acting chief prosecutor. Svoboda members hold the portfolios of agriculture and ecology. Protest leader and co-founder of Svoboda, Andrej Paruby is chairman of the National Security Council. One of his deputies is head of the fascist paramilitary group, Right Sector. One of the new regime’s first acts was to repeal the 2012 law which recognized Russian as an official regional language. The Kiev regime’s assumption of power can perfectly accurately be described as a coup. This is the first time since 1945 that open fascists have held cabinet posts in any European government. Russian alarm at this is perfectly understandable.
5. National Self-Determination, Referendums and Hypocrisy. The E.U and the U.S have declared the Crimean referendum to be illegal and condemned the Russian military presence and annexation of Crimea as a violation of international law. A few comments are in order. National self determination is a very contentious issue and few states confronted with demands by national minorities for secession have unblemished records in handling them. But the reactions of Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power are breathtaking in their hypocrisy. Kerry condemned Russia for invading another smaller country on the basis of a concocted pretext. This, he said, was not acceptable in the 21st century. Kerry voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Russia’s move on Crimea was hardly “Shock and Awe”. Power said that “Under the U.N. Charter the Russian Federation has the power to veto a Security Council resolution, but it does not have the power to veto the truth.” Consider this: Since 1970 the USA has used its veto in the UN Security Council 78 times. During the same period the Soviet Union (1970-83) used its veto 9 times and the Russian Federation (1993-2012) 9 times. NATO with full support from the U.S. and the U.K. launched an armed attack on Serbia in 1994 without the backing of the UN Security Council. Both countries supported the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo when it broke away from Serbia in 2008. The legality of this move continues to be hotly disputed. Neither Britain nor the U.S. can lay claim to any moral high ground in their attitude to Russia and the Crimea. Their support for, or opposition to, cases of secession in the past have been determined solely by perceptions of realpolitik and their own national self-interest. They are in no position to criticize Russia for operating in the same way.
6. The U.S., Cuba and the “International Community”. Two of the most glaring examples of U.S. hypocrisy when it comes to the rights of small nations may be seen in relation to Cuba. The naval base at Guantanamo in Cuba has been occupied by the U.S. against the wishes of the Cuban people since 1901 when, at the end of Cuba’s war of independence from Spain, the U.S. forced the so-called Platt Amendment onto the Cuban constitution, compelling the government to accept serious limitations to its sovereignty, including the right to maintain a naval base at Guantanamo. While other conditions of the Platt Amendment were later abrogated, the retention of the naval base remained. It is retained until the present day against the hostility of the Cuban people who regard it as a gross infringement of their national sovereignty. Since 1959 the Cuban government has refused to accept rent for the base. It is worth comparing this with U.S. support for Ukraine in its opposition to the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. The Russians have always had a naval base there on what was their own soil, and after Ukraine became independent from Russia its retention was properly and freely negotiated with the Ukrainian government.
Many Western politicians and commentators are fond of talking about the “International Community” but they seldom bother to explain what they mean. The “international community”, we are told, has condemned Russia for invading Crimea. We haven’t heard that “the international community” has condemned the U.S and Britain for invading Iraq or Afghanistan. Which countries are members of “the international” community? Is it made up of all members of the United Nations? Is Russia a member? Are Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Iran members? It can’t mean all members of the U.N. General Assembly, because every year for the past 22 years the General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly in support of a Cuban resolution calling for the lifting of the 62 year old U.S. blockade of Cuba. Usually only 2 or 3 countries vote against the motion – the U.S.A, Israel and occasionally one other. And every year the United States ignores the will of the General Assembly. So, “the international community” invoked so frequently and respectfully by the U.S. and its allies, cannot mean all the member states of the U.N. It can only mean those countries who in their infinite wisdom see eye-to-eye with Washington, the E.U and NATO. The rest of the world remains in benighted error.