Out of the Vortex … Thoughts on Ukraine

Posted: March 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

By Benjamin Tallis

As the situation in Ukraine swung from hopeful to horrific and then from tentative victory for people power in Kyiv to Russian power play in Crimea, it has been difficult to keep pace with events. Excellent reportage from brave journalists has, as usual, come side by side with witless simplification and reprehensible cynicism. However, with the media understandably chasing the storm, it is too easy to get caught in the whirlwind where ‘high’ politics and low morals blur some of the most important factors that led Ukraine into this situation, as well as obscuring potential ways out. As well as offering my own analysis, I provide links to insightful or informative commentaries on recent events and try to draw out the wider or deeper points they raise.  Based on my long-standing interest in and experience of Ukraine, as well as on academic and journalistic writing and research, the following issues stand out amidst the maelstrom of information and ideology circulating in both traditional and social media.

These four, linked yet distinct, pieces address different aspects of the crisis that has arisen in Ukraine.

  • The first looks at the achievements and significance of  EuroMaidan and how they have been traduced by prejudiced or ideologically blinkered commentators. I argue that  we must reject these analyses and nurture the new post-Maidan Ukraine that is emerging.
  • The second piece challenges the fixation with Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity’ arguing that it ignores issues of legitimacy and obscures the symbiotic relationship between borders, identities and orders. It asks whether Ukraine’s long-term interests would be best served by being more flexible about its borders.
  • The third piece examines the ignorance that has characterized much of the commentary and reportage on Ukraine and arguing that this has been politically exploited by the Putin regime.
  • Finally, the fourth piece looks at the role of the EU in the crisis, arguing that while it could and should have done more, it should not change its overall approach, but rather should re-affirm its belief in its own values and methods and its commitment to Ukraine as a European country.

In each piece, embedded links connect to freely accessible articles that are mentioned in the piece or which provide interesting substantiation, elaboration or contextualization of the themes discussed.

1. EuroMaidan is a triumph for the power of the ‘powerless’ & must be supported not smeared

In the face of a brutal crackdown by a repressive government, propped up by an even more brutal Russian regime, the protestors of the Maidan made a mockery of the asymmetry of the means at their disposal. By staying true to the principles that sustained their protest through the freezing nights and fiery days since November and by refusing to be intimidated they have shown the cracks in the façade of Putinism. As Vaclav Havel argued in ‘The Power of the Powerless’ authoritarian regimes depend both on the illusion of their own invincibility, which makes resistance seem futile, and on the de facto complicity of large numbers of the population, to sustain their power through conformity and the small, everyday actions that performatively re-affirm the regime’s grip.

Ukrainians have refused to be governed like that, believing that another way is possible, expressing themselves peacefully but defiantly and ultimately demonstrating their willingness to die for this cause. The crucial defections of police and military forces to the side of the protestors were triggered by the steadfastness of Maidan’s belief, the attraction of its hope and the practical example it set. In a country where for far too long too many have lived without hope, the fact that the protests could topple the government is a highly significant and welcome development. It is no wonder that Andrew Wilson described a new Ukraine built on these foundations as “Putin’s worst nightmare.” If Ukrainians can do it, Russians can too. It is no wonder therefore that Putin’s response has been to significantly up the ante, in his latest attempt to disguise weakness as strength.

Predictably however, not everyone has recognised or celebrated the success of the EuroMaidan for what it is. This failure stems from two main sources: anti-Eastern European prejudice and ideological blinkering. Chrystia Freeland exhorts us to treat this as 1989 all over again and make sure we are on the “right side of history” but, as Andrew Wilson points out, narrow-minded scepticism surrounding intra-EU migration and further EU enlargement means that it might be like 1989, but with an overwhelming response of cynicism rather than hope, as if it was Nigel Farage rather than Vaclav Havel setting the agenda.

The archipelago of prejudice against Central and East Europeans extends from the distorted debates about mobility in the EU as well as the Union’s hesitancy over confirming that Ukraine would, as any European country, have the potential to join the EU in the long run. The liberal broadsheets are not immune to this prejudice; Boyd Tonkin patronizingly dismisses the history of Ukrainian independence as “a primitive peasant throwback” and one wonders if he would be comfortable describing Irish or Scots nationalism as “backwoods chauvinism.” This prejudice has also made fertile ground for the slurs thrown at the EuroMaidan, primarily in relation to the supposed dominance of far-right groups.

Highly selective and sensationalized reporting has bought into Putinist propaganda and grossly exaggerated the role and prevalence of right wing groups in the protests. That nationalist parties with some extremely distasteful views are present is undeniable, as is the use by some extremists of Nazi or fascist insignia. However, Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum, both scholars of the holocaust and the latter with Jewish roots, have strongly criticized the disproportionate reporting of these elements. BBC Newsnight seemed to make special efforts to seek out teenagers espousing views that would not sound out of place in the fringes of ‘eurosceptic’ parties in the UK. Moreover, it says much about the Maidan that its broad church has remained just that, with only those who support the Yanukovych and Putin regimes excluded. The vast majority of the millions involved in EuroMaidan are not right-wing and certainly not extremists. It is a disgrace that their courage and dignity has been dragged through the mud by others who are prejudiced or, at best, gullible.

Aside from the contemptible ranting of the Putin-regime and its media puppets, further criticisms of EuroMaidan have come from the left. One form of this is a critique of the goal of closer integration with the EU, which is interpreted as merely a neoliberal stitch-up. There is serious merit to the critique of unfettered neoliberalism – the economic crisis of the last 6 years should have convinced anyone who previously held any doubts about that – but the EU is about much more than neoliberalism; it certainly is to the majority of Ukrainians who support integration, even if it needs to do a better job of showing this. Even the avowedly left-wing activists that I interviewed, while highly critical of the neoliberal aspects of the EU still saw integration as the best option for Ukraine and highly valued its guarantees of rule of law and freedom of movement.

Apparently the left critics of Maidan either don’t care about the views of the majority of Ukrainians who support integration with the EU, or they patronizingly see them as dupes of false consciousness, one of the great dead-ends of left-leaning analysis. Another is dogma, which, to paraphrase the geographer Derek Gregory, too often serves to do the victims of injustice the indignity of making them the objects of theory. Sadly this is not confined to the fringes, with journalists like Seumas Milne and academics such as Immanuel Wallerstein reducing Ukrainians to mere pawns in their ludicrous interpretation of the greater games they see being played. Dr. Lee Jones, pronounced on twitter that “both sides [Euromaidan and the Putin regime] are equally ugly” and called for a “plague on both their houses”. This inability to distinguish between people coming together to overcome a repressive regime in order to seek a better future and the murderous, repressive kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin is shocking but not surprising. Dr Jones cites libcom.org as backup for his claims, particularly an article branding EuroMaidan as a “right-wing, reactionary” movement and thus “unsupportable from a radical, libertarian communist point of view.

This speaks volumes for the confusion that occurs when dogma replaces reflexive thought as it has also done in claims that the changes brought by Maidan are merely the switching of one oligarch guard for another. It is simply too early to tell if this is the case and it will remain so until after elections have been held. Ukrainians are not blind to this danger. They saw a stolen election followed by a stolen revolution ten years ago. Nonetheless, the way that that the temporary, transitional government has gone about its business, the distinctly frosty reception given to Yulia Tymoshenko’s release from prison and the presence of many left leaning and highly critical groups in the Maidan gives cause for optimism in this regard. However, optimism is one thing that the cynical contemporary Western left seems to struggle with; it will be an all too predictable shame if it continues to provide useful idiots for Putinism.

At the time of writing, as we wait anxiously to see what follows the illegitimate invasion of Crimea, it is too early to tell what the final outcome of the revolution born at EuroMaidan will be. It will be easier to tell after the elections in May, if they go ahead. However, what is certain is that what has been achieved should be celebrated as a triumph in the face of adversity. The victory of the EuroMaidan should be cherished and nurtured and has come as a timely reminder to the EU of what it stands for. In order to deliver on its promising start and ensure it does not succumb to the fate that has befallen previous attempts at progressive change in Ukraine, we must stand with Ukrainians and their Maidan.

2. Self-determination & legitimacy, not ‘territorial integrity’ are key to Ukraine’s future

As any scholar of Ukraine knows, the name of the country means ‘Borderland’. Orest Subtelny begins his majestic history with this and Anna Reid used it as the title for her journey through Ukrainian history, to give just two examples. Ukraine’s borders are again the subject of much interest, but one possibility hasn’t been seriously considered – that for Ukraine to have a sustainable future as more than a borderland, it may need to change its borders.

Much of the opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has come on the basis of respecting guarantees about Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This territorial integrity is based on borders that, like those of other countries, are not natural, but rather are distinctly political constructs. This does not mean they are not ‘real’ or important, but it does mean that they are neither permanent nor sacrosanct. Borders are intimately related to Identities and Orders; reflecting and reinforcing who the people within them are and how they live with each other. US ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock is only the latest  – although surprising – addition to the long list of those to point out that US and EU respect for the principle of territorial integrity  – and national sovereignty – has been distinctly flexible in the past. Border change should not be ruled out in this case, but only if it reflects the democratically expressed wishes of Ukrainians.

Crucially, much of the legitimacy of the Maidan protests has been based on the desire to live differently. The protests were sparked by the desire of many Ukrainians to intensify integration with the European Union, which Yanukovych (backed by Putin) so callously disregarded. However, as Timothy Snyder has compellingly argued, they developed into a more general protest against a corrupt and violent governing elite and in favour of democracy, the rule of law and accountable government acting for the population rather than for itself. That these are values generally embodied by the EU, for all its faults, is no coincidence. Many of the Ukrainians who disagree with this approach and have stated that they don’t want these things have identified with Russia and some have openly called for Russian intervention to ‘save’ them from the new regime growing out of the Maidan. These people have the same right to self-determination as the people of the Maidan and should also be able to choose how they want to live.

Calls for a referendum on the status of Crimea have been widely denounced, with one comment on facebook comparing it to being asked to vote with a gun to your head. However, it could instead be used as a way to help find a long-term solution to some of the problems Ukraine currently faces. A referendum could be held in each region of Ukraine posing a simple question asking whether the people want their region to be part of the state of Ukraine. It is possible that this would mean that several regions – probably in the South and East – would choose not to be part of Ukraine. They would then be free to choose their own future, potentially allowing them to seek integration with Russia. This would indeed challenge the integrity of Ukraine’s territorial borders in their current form, but more importantly it would massively boost the viability and legitimacy of the newly bordered state and give a clear mandate to a post-election administration in Kyiv to govern for the people who chose to be live on its territory. It would also let people who – rightly or wrongly – feel threatened in post-Maidan Ukraine to leave and put the lie to claims that they are being kept in the state against their will.

The various grievances voiced by different groups, often in different parts of the country reflect to some extent the shifting borders that characterized Ukraine’s pre-independence history. Even though divisions in Ukraine are often exaggerated or wrongly identified (see 3), speculation about them has been a significant source of instability, which has been ruthlessly exploited by the Putin regime. Giving Ukrainians the chance to choose would remove this possibility either by confirming that they don’t exist or, if they do prove insurmountable, by giving them legitimate political expression. Ukrainians across the country voted for independence in 1991 and now it’s time to check again. If post-Maidan Ukraine is to stand a chance, it needs a solid foundation based on not internal mistrust and division and destabilization from outside.

Clearly these plebiscites would raise many practical issues, but none that are unfamiliar or irresolvable in a democratic context. They would in fact give Ukraine the chance to prove that it can deal with difference by p the rights of Russian speakers who want to remain part of Ukraine. Such a vote would also provide the platform for real public debate, a comparison of the options on the table, and as such would give Ukrainians a very good reason to cut through what Snyder calls the ‘haze of propaganda’ that has distorted the debate. If having done so, some people still prefer Putin’s tender mercies to life in the new Ukraine, then good luck to them. They will need it.

3. Useful Idiocy: Western Ignorance is a significant obstacle to a new Ukraine

The sheer level of ignorance about Ukraine in the West has been one of the most striking features of the media coverage of events in Ukraine since November. From Evan Davis’ astonishment at the size of Ukraine’s population, to the repeated confusion of Yanukovych and Yushchenko and Germaine Greer’s identification of Ukraine as a Northern, Baltic country, basic, yet indicative ignorance abounds.

There are other levels of ignorance that are equally damaging, such as the uninformed prejudice and general stereotyping as well as the willfully ignorant and innumerate smearing of the Maidan (See 1). However, it is also ignorance that fuels the claims about linguistic and ethnic division repeated ad nauseum across so much of the mainstream western media and in supposedly critical commentaries such as those of Immanuel Wallerstein. This supposed schism might fit nicely with the new-cold-war and Russia vs. the West narratives that infuse much of the reporting on the issue but do little justice to the complexity of the lives lived by most Ukrainians, ignoring them in favour of the seductions of ‘the great game’. The eagerness to switch the discussion to the geo-strategic level and to focus on the role of Russia is perhaps another symptom of ignorance born of the (relatively) greater familiarity with Russia, and of a press-corps based in Moscow rather than Kyiv who feed information to their often simplifying and sensationalist Western hubs.

As discussed in point 2, this is not to say that there are not divisions, but that they are not necessarily and certainly not exclusively along the ethno-linguistic lines that are normally given. Thankfully, more nuanced analyses are available. Peter Pomarantsev’s explanation of Ukrainian linguistic complexity gives substance to claims such as those made by the eloquent Ukrainian translator who explained to her hosts on the BBC’s Weekend Live that growing up, her family had spoken Ukrainian at home but that she had gone to a Russian speaking school and was comfortable with and happy in both languages. Ellie Knott’s research in Crimea also complicates the clear narratives coming out of the propaganda machines and questioning the simplistic analyses offered up by much of the media. Age, relation to current and previous regimes, material and financial benefits and possibilities, desire for certain types of lifestyle or other forms of preference and prejudice play significant roles in producing a political spectrum that straddles ethno-linguistic divides.

As Mary Dejevsky points out, it also underplays the ties that unite Ukrainians across  ethnic or linguistic lines. This rings true from my own experience in Ukraine when, in the course of living, working and subsequently researching I found significant commonality between the young people I met, regardless of whether they spoke Ukrainian or Russian as their first language. I also found significant difference between them, but this was the kind of difference that one could find between people in any country, a sign of healthy plurality of opinion and not determined by ethnicity or language. As Anne Applebaum has pointed out, Ukraine’s differences – like those of countries elsewhere – are primarily political and Pomerantsev is right when he says

“The big winner from the conceptual division of Ukraine into ‘Russian’ and ‘Ukrainian’ spheres may well be the Kremlin. The idea that Russia is a separate political and spiritual civilisation, one which is a priori undemocratic, suits the Kremlin as it looks to cut and paste together an excuse to validate its growing authoritarianism. So every time a commentator defines the battle in Kiev as Russian language v. Ukrainian, a Kremlin spin doctor gets in another round of drinks.”

4. The EU should stick to its (lack of) guns

For many people, the development of what is now a crisis in Ukraine has been an indictment of the EU as a failed foreign policy actor and a sad confirmation that old fashioned power politics will inevitably trump the values, laws and standards that lie at the heart of the most successful peace and prosperity project in European history. Andrew Wilson, author of many of the best-informed and insightful commentaries on Ukraine, coined a catchy phrase in this regard when claiming that the EU had ‘brought a baguette to a knife fight’. Indeed, for anyone who believes in the potential of the EU to be a force for good in Europe – within and beyond the Union’s current borders – closely watching the unfolding of events since November has been a deeply painful process. The guarded, hesitant support; the words rather than actions; the missed opportunities and slow response times highlight significant problems in the way that the EU has conducted itself as well as about its attitude to Ukraine and Ukrainians.

However, properly analyzing and identifying these shortcomings is essential if EU Foreign Policy action is to be improved – both generally and specifically to offer real and effective support the emergent post-Maidan Ukraine. Rather than being a problem of strategy or tactics, the main problems relate to belief and commitment: EU belief in its own ability to act effectively and a commitment both to its own values and to recognising Ukrainians as Europeans.

The Eastern Partnership, launched after the Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008 sought ostensibly to deepen integration between the EU and its Eastern neighbours, including Ukraine. However, despite the negotiation of the association agreement  – rejected by Yanukovych, prompting the EuroMaidan revolution – progress on opening up the benefits of the EU to Ukrainians was too slow. A ‘Deep & Comprehensive Free Trade Area’ had been negotiated but not enough progress had been made on visa liberalization or on other measures that matter directly and deeply to Ukrainians. Dubious security concerns had come to dominate the mobility agenda and a general climate of populist hostility to Central and East Europeans in the gutter press was reflected in the lack of official EU recognition of a membership perspective for Ukraine in the long term. This is something that I have written on before, and which is a central concern of my research. Tim Judah also examines this and one of his interviewees, Hanna Shelest, a researcher at the Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies put it succinctly when explaining her reasons for supporting the association agreement “it is a question of self-identification. Sometimes we don’t feel ourselves European but what is worse is when Europeans don’t see us as European.”

The key to effective EU policy in Ukraine is confidence in its own attractiveness that would allow for a combination of commitment to its own standards with the principled openness that allow these to be shared with other Europeans. This is not asking for a lowering of standards to fast-track Ukrainian membership – it is precisely these standards that make the EU so appealing to Ukrainians – but rather for a clear demonstration that Ukrainians belong in Europe. A good way to show this in the short term would be to offer visa-free travel and in the long term to make clear that Ukraine does have a chance to join, but only if it reaches the necessary standards. The former will also help in achieving the latter.

However, the EU can  – and belatedly has – taken other actions in regard to Ukraine, but again it could go further and could have acted sooner. Travel bans, sanctions and asset freezes are crucial sticks to add to the carrots mentioned above. Canadian MP Chrystia Freeland, quotes a Russian joke about Putin seeming to want to rule like Stalin and live like Abramovich and that this is facilitated partly by allowing others (like Abramovich), to live like Abramovich. As Freeland notes, the EU and its member states, particularly the UK, are complicit in this and could take action to limit the activities of Russia’s super rich, which would lessen the appeal of their tacit support for Stalin-like rule.

Banning autocrats and their oligarchs from travelling, studying, banking and partying in the west poses no such dilemma. We don’t need to allow autocrats to outsource the domestic demand, and their own desire, for the perks of democratic capitalism. Without them, they may find that ruling like Stalin loses some of its allure.

Timothy Snyder goes further,

“Soft power can hurt. General restrictions on tourist visas, a few thousand travel bans, and a few dozen frozen accounts might make a real difference. If millions of urban Russians understood that invading Ukraine meant no summer vacation, they might have second thoughts.

However, while this may be effective, the ethics of punishing people for the actions of a regime they may not support need to be seriously considered here. Targeted focus on the elite would seem a fairer way to proceed. By contrast, the oligarchs and their entourages, who maintain the Putin regime and conspicuously enjoy its trappings, at the expense of others, must however bear their share of responsibility for the crisis that is unfolding. As Ben Judah compellingly argues, the EU and its member states need to their game in enforcing their own laws and upholding their own standards rather than kowtowing to the obnoxious wealth of this toxic plutocracy. UK politicians (and population) might wish to consider the nature of the real migration problem from Eastern Europe – the

Both the EU and Ukraine must be careful not to slide into anti-Russian rather than anti-Putin stances. Doing so would only be grist to Putin’s mill and would alienate ordinary Russians, many of whom also suffer under the current government. Given the views of Navalny, et al on Ukraine, it is not surprising that the Russian opposition has not made more of the current crisis. It is perhaps, slightly wishful thinking, but it would certainly be refreshing to see a broader based opposition movement emerge in Russia, as the practical contrast between authoritarian nationalism and the way chosen by Ukrainians becomes clearer. As in Ukraine, punishing ordinary people for the sins of a regime they have little connection to is not only unjust, but also ineffective in securing support for change.

Notwithstanding the slings and arrows of the twittersphere, arguing for EU engagement to support the goals that it purports to share with the EuroMaidan is not the same as war-mongering. As Andrew Wilson observes, the EU does not do geopolitics in the classic sense, and nor should it. Some, like Robert Cooper, have suggested previously that it should, patronisingly stating that “Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle” while advocating the creation of a ‘post-modern imperium’.

Such an approach would if course undermine the EU’s own values and thus its legitimacy, but we should also ask if there would have actually been a better outcome if the EU had brought a knife or a gun to the fight, or had thought of the issue as a fight in the first place? The EU’s very credibility (and indeed its success) rests on eschewing those tactics and the perspectives that underpin them. The Union has the whip hand in soft power in the region, something that Putin also knows – otherwise he would not have resorted in desperation to hard power. If only the EU were as confident in itself and as willing to live up to its principles and goals in order to do well by doing good in Ukraine.

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Comments
  1. […] supporting anti-EU parties and groups on both the far-right and far-left, many of whom have bought into the type of propaganda discussed […]

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