Turning Ukraine into a stage for Western preening
The laptop bombardiers need a new mission, and their eyes are set on Ukraine.
Since a ceasefire was agreed in early September between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, little has actually ceased. The rebels continued to push for independence, even staging de facto national elections in November; the government continued to try to quash the rebellion, declaring the rebels’ political moves illegitimate; and the firing and fighting have continued unabated. According to recent United Nations figures, since April the death toll has reached 5,300, with 12,000 more wounded, and 1.2million having fled their homes.
And now it appears the conflict is entering a far more dangerous phase. In recent weeks, the rebels have made significant territorial gains – 500sq kilometres, according to NATO estimates – and the talk now is of them pushing on towards Mariupol so as to connect the rebel-held regions to Crimea, annexed by Russia in March last year. There is talk also of raising mass armies. Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko has spoken of rallying together 100,000 troops, while Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has promised to draft an army of 200,000.
Much of the Western media focus, though, has not been on the conflict itself, exactly; it has been on Russia’s role in proceedings. Russia has been presented as the shady protagonist in the conflict, the military power behind the scenes, taking advantage of the massive political instability in Ukraine to advance its own territorial and political interests. And no doubt, Russia’s role is significant. Russian weaponry and Russian soldiers do seem to be involved in the conflict, with anecdotes, satellite imagery and corpses dragged out by the Ukrainian government and its allies as evidence. Russian president Vladimir Putin denies military involvement, claiming that the Russian soldiers killed or captured in eastern Ukraine were there voluntarily, unofficially. But this seems unlikely, not least because Putin seems to be actively profiting from the escalating conflict on Russia’s borders. Fighting back the West’s supplicants in Ukraine plays well to a domestic audience: it bolsters Putin’s authority. Russia’s willingness to back the rebels in eastern Ukraine is not just a territorial exercise, then; it’s a reputation-building one, too. And it is making the situation in Ukraine worse, deepening antagonisms, unsettling a region, and rendering a federal solution to the split even more unlikely.
But, as spiked has argued from the beginning of Ukraine’s descent into civil war, while Russia’s actions are making things worse, the West’s role has been more destructive. At every stage of the recent conflict, from the Maidan Square protests towards the end of 2013, which eventually brought down the democratically elected government of President Yanukovych, to the constant cosying up to his pro-Western successors, too many in Europe and the US have recklessly, cluelessly upped the ante. In fact, even before the recent conflagration, before the Maidan protests, the West, be it through NATO’s two-decades-long flirtation with Russia’s neighbours or the European Union’s entreaties to Ukraine through its Eastern Partnership scheme, has constantly threatened to pull Russia’s old allies into its orbit, all in the name of promoting ‘democratic’ or ‘Western’ values. Indeed, Western provocation, raising the stakes in Russia’s old Eastern Bloc backyard, has a history that extends back to the end of the Cold War.
So, Western leaders, cheered on by a braying, Russia-stereotyping commentariat, have not only helped to create the situation in Ukraine – they have also ceaselessly used it to haul themselves on to the moral high ground, issuing condemnations of Russia, and pushing through new rafts of economic sanctions with one hand, while beckoning Ukraine’s government to come ever closer to the European Union with the other.
And now, as Russia responds ever more dangerously, ever more unpredictably, to what it perceives to be a threat on its border, how are Western leaders and an increasingly excited media responding? By upping the ante yet further. Elite opinion, such as it is, is now becoming increasingly, myopically martial. The talk is now of backing the Ukrainian government, not just with Russia-baiting, Putin-demonising rhetoric, and yet another new regime of sanctions, but with actual military assistance. One Financial Times columnist urges the West to arm the Ukrainians; the Washington Post says the ‘clear answer is direct military support’; a collection of US think tanks and politicians has just released a report urging similar. Western politicians, with the exception of the likes of Republican senator John McCain, may not have been quite so forthright so far; but the prospect of military intervention is now firmly circulating in the policymaking air.
And the most incredible aspect to this slow-motion slippage into something approaching international warfare in Ukraine is that those calling for the West to get stuck in are doing so for the most abstract, most self-aggrandising, and therefore most dangerous reasons. Theirs is not a geopolitical calculation. It is not a matter of realpolitik balancing of power blocs. No, theirs is a vain comic-book calculation. It is a matter of fighting the bad guy, of doing battle with the forces of Russian irrationality and reaction. Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton likened Russia’s actions to those of Hitler in the 1930s. Others, incredibly, have displayed even less subtlety. One US commentator blamed everything on, variously, ‘Putin the Thug’ and ‘Czar Putin’; one UK commentator said that the West was dealing with ‘classic psychopathic behaviour’; and in the Guardian, columnist, policy adviser and laptop bombardier Timothy Garton Ash decided to invoke his own Kosovo-era version of Hitler: ‘Vladimir Putin is the Slobodan Milošević of the former Soviet Union: as bad, but bigger.’
This is what the conflict in Ukraine has been rendered up as: a battle between the West and Putin the Bad Man. It is a chance, once more, for Western commentators and politicians to act out their liberal interventionist fantasies, to do battle with a psychopath, a thug, a man intent on doing wrong. Those venting their anti-Putin diatribes no doubt feel terribly good about themselves. Those calling for the West to do more no doubt remain convinced that, abstractly, as a moral decision, it is the Right Thing To Do. And that is the problem. This same unthinking, politically dumb impulse has already wreaked immeasurable damage across the globe, pulling down social arrangements and civic structures from Iraq to Libya, and leaving behind little but massive instability. And yet, because it always looks like the right thing to do, especially when the antagonist is conjured up as a psychopathic wrongdoer, the clueless interventionists continue to call cluelessly for intervention. They up the ante, selfishly, vainly and, ultimately, barbarically.
Russia’s destabilising involvement in Ukraine cannot be ignored. But just as significant is the equally deleterious role of the bumbling, purpose-seeking West and its international institutions. Their culpability in Ukraine’s disintegration has been ignored for far too long.
Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.
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