Even in this era of rampant political spin and platitudes, where George Orwell’s claim that political language is used and abused to ‘make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’ has never been truer, the commentary on Ukraine stands out for its dishonesty. Western observers tell us there has been a revolution in that benighted nation. They claim revolutionaries have overthrown a dictator. They say the people of Ukraine have risen up and deposed their despot, and are now ‘experiencing the intense emotions expressed so eloquently by Thomas Paine in 1776 [in his writings on the American War of Independence]’. It is hard to remember the last time political language was so thoroughly used to obfuscate reality, to impose inappropriate historical narratives on to a messy modern-day event. For what we have in Ukraine is not revolution, but regime change, set in motion far more by the machinations of Western politicians than by the stone-throwing of Ukrainians.
Orwell was right – too much political writing is less about clarifying real-world events than it is a collection of pre-existing phrases ‘tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse’. So it has been in relation to Ukraine, where the words selected by Western observers tell us more about them and their prejudices than they do about events in Kiev. So the word ‘meddling’ is used to describe Vladimir Putin’s interventions in Ukraine, but never to describe Angela Merkel’s or John Kerry’s cultivation of the oppositional forces – that is ‘mediation’. Ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich is now widely referred to as a ‘dictator’, confirming how exhausted and meaningless that word has become through overuse: unlike serious dictators like Gaddafi or Assad, Yanukovich won a free and fair election, in March 2010. As for the word ‘revolution’ – that has been knackered by misuse for decades, but its deployment in Ukraine takes its bastardisation to a new low: there has of course been no replacement of one social order by another in Ukraine, or even the instalment of a people’s government; instead various long-established parties in parliament, some of which are deeply unpopular among certain constituencies in Ukraine, are forming an interim government. Revolutionary? Hardly.
The Western debate and coverage of Ukraine has cast a massive political fog over events there. It may not have quite made ‘murder seem respectable’, but it has certainly made externally generated regime change seem revolutionary, and the Western-assisted anti-democratic removal of an elected leader seem like an act of people’s democracy. It has exposed a severe dearth of independent critical thinking among the Western commentariat. Even those on the right who are normally passionately anti-EU are now lining up like lemmings behind Brussels’ dishonest moral narrative about being a mere observer to a glorious revolution in the East. And even those on the left who condemned regime change in Iraq or Libya are buying the idea that Ukraine has undergone a revolution of Paineite proportions, with the Observer giddily declaring that Ukraine is currently experiencing ‘an intoxicating sense of liberation from an old guard’. Across the political spectrum, narratives about Ukraine that don’t add up, and which are being promoted by people normally seen as untrustworthy, are being accepted as good coin – among both a right excited by the prospect of a return of the neat Cold War-era divide between good West and bad East, and a left so desperate for evidence of revolutionary behaviour in the twenty-first century that it will lap up even staid, grey, distinctly unrevolutionary Brussels’ claims about a revolution being afoot in Ukraine.
The truth of what has happened in Ukraine is this: the EU and Washington have effectively brought about regime change, replacing an elected pro-Russian regime with an unelected, still-being-formed new government that is more amenable to the institutions of the West. Yes, there have been very large protests in Ukraine for many months now, packed with people who are genuinely and passionately opposed to Yanukovich on the grounds that he is authoritarian, illiberal and hostile to the EU. But these have been fairly disorganised, Occupy-style gatherings, peopled by various opposing forces, from pro-EU urbanites to far-right and even anti-Semitic loathers of Yanukovich. These rather chaotic, ideology-lite camps were no more capable of ousting Yanukovich than Occupy Wall Street could have deposed the Obama administration. The regime change that occurred this week would have been unthinkable without something else, without an additional force - outside pressure. That has unquestionably been the decisive factor in the removal of Yanukovich and his replacement by a Western-friendly interim government.
Western governments did not send fighter planes or soldiers to Ukraine, as they did when pursuing regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they did pretty relentlessly pursue what the press euphemistically refers to as ‘international mediation’ (‘political language has to consist largely of euphemism’, said Orwell) but which I think would better be described as delegitimisation of Ukraine’s government. That is, they both undermined the legitimacy of the Yanukovich regime and conferred political and moral authority on to the protest camps. They did this firstly through issuing statement after statement over the past three months about the out-of-touchness of Yanukovich, with US President Barack Obama going so far as to compare Ukraine with Syria (that is, both are governed by illegitimate rulers) and to call for the formation of a new ‘transitional government’; and secondly through imbuing the protest camps effectively with the right to rule Ukraine. The camps were visited by leading European and American politicians, who told the protesters theirs was a ‘just cause’ and that they have ‘a very different vision for the country’ to Yanukovich – a better one, of course. The consequence of such ‘mediation’ (meddling) was to isolate Yanukovich and embolden the protesters, creating the space for anti-Yanukovich politicians to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power.