by Nile Bowie
March 6, 2014 (TSR) – As divisions deepen between the eastern and western regions of Ukraine, the backers of the putsch regime in Kiev portray Russia as a reckless aggressor to absolve their own responsibility for engineering the crisis.
While denunciations of Moscow have streamed out of western capitals in recent days over the standoff in Crimea, it should be understood that the political crisis currently unfolding in Ukraine could have been wholly avoided. In attempts to defuse unrest and maintain legal and societal order, ousted President Yanukovich offered remarkable concessions in his proposal to install opposition leaders in top posts in a reshaped government, which was rejected. Russia expressed readiness to engage in tripartite negotiations with Ukraine and the European Union with the hope that both Moscow and Brussels could play a positive role in Ukraine’s economic recovery, but the EU was unwilling to accept such a proposal. The February-21 agreement was mediated by Russia, France, Germany and Poland and aimed to end the bloodshed in Kiev by reducing presidential powers and establishing a framework for a national unity government, in addition to electoral reform, constitutional changes, and early elections.
There was clearly no shortage of opportunities to ease the polarization of the Ukrainian state through an inclusive political solution, and yet the opposition failed to uphold its responsibilities, resulting in the ouster of Ukraine’s democratically elected leader to the detriment of the country’s political, economic, and societal stability.
As the new self-appointed authorities in Kiev dictate terms and push legislation through a rump parliament, the reluctance of western capitals to address the clearly dubious legitimacy of the new regime suggests that the US and EU condone what is effectively a coup d’état with no constitutional validity.
The leaked phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, is a testament to Washington’s proclivity for foreign meddling and its brazen disregard of Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is no coincidence that Arseniy Yatsenyuk – handpicked by Nuland for the role of prime minister – now occupies that position in Kiev’s new leadership, and much like the reckless agitation strategies employed by the US elsewhere, extremist groups were manipulated to allow the nominal moderates to seize power on Washington’s behalf.
A new dawn for the far right
In order to maintain enough momentum to oust Yanukovich, Ukraine’s opposition leaders relied on allies in the radical camp such as fascist groups like Svoboda, Trizub, and the Right Sector. These organizations espouse ethnic hatred against Jews and Russians and promote neo-Nazi ideals. The foot soldiers of these movements laid the groundwork for the putsch by occupying the Maidan [Independence Square], storming government offices, and attacking riot police with Molotov cocktails, firearms, and other lethal weapons.
Members of these far-right groups have been integrated in so-called ‘self-defense forces’ that now patrol Kiev and other major cities, and have been seen wearing symbols that include the Celtic cross, which has replaced the swastika for many modern white-power groups, the wolf-hook SS insignia, and other occult symbols associated with the Third Reich. In his capacity as prime minister, Yatsenyuk has relinquished control of Ukraine’s national security forces to the heads of these radical organizations, who have openly used threatening and bigoted language to incite ethnic hostility, in addition to calls for Russians and Jews to be either destroyed or expelled from Ukraine.
Dmytro Yarosh, a leader of the Right Sector movement, addresses during a rally in central Independence Square in Kiev February 21, 2014. (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)
The political ascent of radical forces that represent a minority of Ukrainian public opinion has alarmed minority communities, indicated by Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman’s calls for Kiev’s Jews to flee the country in light of recent political developments. Regions in the east and southeast of Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians and Russian speakers reside, are experiencing the Maidan protests in reverse, as protestors plant Russian flags atop government buildings in rejection of the new leadership in Kiev.
Since seizing power, the putsch regime in Kiev has attempted to pass laws against the official use of Russian and other languages throughout the country, fueling social unrest and secessionist sentiment in some quarters that culturally and linguistically identify themselves as Russian. Fast-moving developments in Kiev and actions taken by the new regime have enflamed the crisis, and any Russian intervention should be seen against the backdrop of eastern and southeastern Ukraine’s rejection of an unconstitutional transfer of power that directly threatens the integrity of the state.
Russia as a stabilizing force
The request by the legitimate President Yanukovich and the government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to bring a limited contingent of Russian forces into the region to ensure the safety of ethnic Russian citizens living within Crimean territory is a reasonable request in light of the chaotic socio-political situation currently facing Ukraine. It should be understood that the movements of Russian forces in Crimea have been entirely lawful, and within legal boundaries established by existing security pacts with Ukraine. For western capitals to threaten sanctions and accuse Russia of a belligerent ‘invasion’ of Ukraine is completely unjustifiable, and tinged with political bias.
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements alluding to Russia behaving like a 19th century power by ‘invading’ Ukraine on a trumped up pretext encapsulates Washington’s infinite potential for hypocritical double standards and pathological dishonesty. The egregious violations of international law by the United States and its NATO allies are abundant and need not be evoked to rebut Kerry’s desperate and deceptive accusation.
The outrage expressed by western capitals over the so-called ‘Russian aggression’ is in stark contrast to the restraint showed when Saudi Arabia militarily intervened in Bahrain in 2011 to put down peaceful protests. Recent interventions by France in its former colonies, Mali and the Central African Republic, have roused no international condemnation, despite notable local sentiment in those countries that view Paris as an aggressive actor.
The western stance on when intervention is and isn’t legitimate is highly selective, and for the interventionist countries to use their soft power monopoly to portray Russia as a meddler intent on aggressively undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty is truly a politically loaded and dangerous notion.
The Obama administration, in an attempt to offer President Putin ‘a face-saving way out of the crisis,’ has proposed that European forces take the place of Russian forces in Crimea to guard against threats to the population, knowing full well that Moscow would never accept such an arrangement in a region like Crimea, which shares historic political, economic, cultural, and strategic military ties.
The area in which Kiev’s new authorities need Washington and Brussels most is in dealing with Ukraine’s impending debt crisis, and indications suggest that any economic assistance from the West would come with punishing terms and conditions, structural adjustments and austerity measures that would generate widespread social discontent in the country, and threaten the already shaky legitimacy of the putsch authorities.
Internal divisions within the defense sector and the bureaucracy of Ukraine, such as the prominent defection of the newly appointed head of Ukraine’s navy, Admiral Denis Berezovsky, and other significant figures in support of Crimea’s pro-Russian stance suggests that the anti-Kiev sentiment is deepening and showing no signs of abating.
Residents of the Crimea will take part in a referendum on March 30 to reevaluate the status of the peninsula, and the outcome is widely expected to result in the region seeking greater autonomy from Ukraine with a move towards federalism. If Russian authorities feel that all possibilities for dialogue have been exhausted, and a peacekeeping mission must be launched in earnest, there is every indication that Moscow will act within international law and show maximum restraint. Just as radical forces have become empowered as a result of western policy elsewhere, the result of the illegitimate putsch in Kiev is that those countries who claim to defend the post-World War II international order have empowered forces that sympathize with, and seek to propagate, fanatical prejudice and extremism, on the false notion that such radical groups will move aside peacefully to allow nominal western-aligned moderates and neoliberals to rule. It hasn’t worked elsewhere, and it won’t work in Ukraine.
Nile Bowie is a political analyst and photographer currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Bowie grew up in New York City and is the son of two art photographers who established themselves by photographing America’s poor and destitute. Bowie left the United States in his teens to pursue photojournalism and has resettled in South East Asia. As a political analyst, he has explored issues of American foreign policy and its influence on militarism in the Islamic world, China’s emerging role as global power, and inter-Korean stability and security, contributing to outlets such as Russia Today, the New Straits Times, the Asia Times, the Tehran Times, and the Center for Research on Globalization. He can be reached on Twitter or at [email protected]
First published in Russia Today.