The Double Standards of Crimean Cold-War Diplomacy

News Abroad
tags: Russia, Ukraine, Crimea, Vladimir Putin

Cynthia V. Hooper is an Associate Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet History at College of the Holy Cross and an affiliate at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. She is currently completing a book entitled Terror From Within: Policing the Soviet Powerful, Under Stalin and Beyond.

Image via Wiki Commons.

Ukraine’s new president claims that “no one in the civilized world” could dare to recognize the validity of a referendum Crimean leaders have called for March 16 on plans to re-join the Russian Federation. And yet Crimea -- already granted the status of an “autonomous republic” within Ukraine, and with a 58 percent ethnic Russian population -- appears poised to approve the move. Diplomatic failures over the past weeks and days have made this once unimaginable outcome loom likely, as the rhetoric on each side grows ever-more unyielding. Ukrainian authorities brand those in favor of the referendum “traitors and separatists,” while Crimean residents who support secession condemn the new leadership in Kiev as corrupt and neo-Nazi. Meanwhile Russia, determined to protect its crucial naval and air bases in the Black Sea, not to mention its oil and gas pipelines that run across Ukraine, continues to stir the pot -- dispersing troops throughout the peninsular region, blockading Ukrainian soldiers and demanding they disarm, and bolstering the pro-Moscow Crimean leadership behind the scenes.

In consequence, the U.S. faces a major conundrum, even as it scrambles NATO reconnaissance planes and hosts Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister at the White House. Having starkly cast its lot some two weeks ago on the side of Kiev politicians who ousted then-president Viktor Yanukovych, the Obama administration finds itself denouncing a similar endorsement of popular will when it comes to the Crimea. In negotiating such an apparent double standard, U.S. officials must find a way to clarify both to their own citizens and to the world how a country that can be so zealous in the championship of overseas democracy can also so quickly and confidently decipher what is a legitimate protest against an illegitimate regime from what is an illegitimate protest against a legitimate power.

Certainly, watching demonstrators on the Maidan last month as they were shot down by soldiers and, in some cases, set aflame, one could not but feel sympathy. The pictures of suffering, and the David-vs.-Goliath images of rocks against high-tech riot gear and guns called to mind a host of noble associations: the Hungarian revolutionaries of 1956, fighting Soviet troops door-to-door for eighteen days and all the while begging for western aid that never came, or the students of the Prague Spring in 1968, running from Soviet tanks as they rolled down the streets of the Czech capital’s Wenceslas Square.

This time, incredibly, the protestors won, with disgraced leader Yanukovych fleeing the country just before the Ukrainian parliament deposed him on February 22.  He was accused of corruption. He was accused of murder. His official residence was found to contain not one, but two gold-plated toilets. A despicable man had been removed from power. How could his defeat not be celebrated as a glorious victory?

Yet successful revolutions come in two parts. First, those opposed to the regime must overthrow the status quo. But then they must be able to build a new order and -- if the promise behind their movement is to be realized -- make that order a better, more just, and more prosperous one. The difficulty of so doing is one reason many revolutions end in a sense of betrayal, with leaders who once claimed to be “for the people” ultimately feathering their own nests at those same people’s expense. To borrow from George Orwell -- the inspirational idea that “All animals are equal” only lasts, unsullied, as long as none of the pigs whom an uprising has brought into power think to tack on the caveat “but some are more equal than others ,” and to secretly maneuver to secure their own place at the top of a new food chain.

This is not to say that citizens do not have the right, even perhaps the moral obligation, to stand up and be counted -- or that when such struggles happen overseas, the U.S. should not endorse them. However, certainly in the case of Ukraine today, our admiration for the Kiev protestors should not have automatically translated into uncritical acceptance of the country’s interim regime, or blanket condemnation of those who challenged that regime’s legitimacy. For two weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has contended that Yanukovych was illegally ousted in a coup carried out after he had agreed to early elections and a return to tight limits on executive power. On Thursday, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger was more circumspect, but, when pressed, admitted that “strictly technically speaking Yanukovych was not removed by the procedures foreseen in the Constitution.”

Most U.S. officials such as ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power have finessed this point entirely, arguing that Yanukovych’s record of embezzlement and his apparent responsibility for “shoot-to-kill” orders that claimed the lives of at least ninety demonstrators are reasons enough to justify his removal. But while the ousted president is certainly an unsavory character, his record as a schemer and crook is nothing new. Ukrainians successfully protested against his shameless election stealing in 2004, setting off the so-called “Orange Revolution” -- only to put him back into top office six years later, in elections that the U.S. acknowledged were open and fair.

But be that as it may. Sometimes people pick bad leaders, and sometimes those people have the right to remove said leaders by any means possible. However, while we don’t have to agree with Putin on this point, we also should not pretend that he does not have one.

Washington should also be more open in acknowledging the ways democratic movements can be manipulated, and thus more watchful and guarded in assisting in moments of critical political transition. Star Wars-educated Americans who grew up routinely hearing the USSR referred to as an “Evil Empire” instinctively grasp the idea that the world is full of tyrants who desire to crush democracy.. What we are less aware of is that there are just as many tyrants who seek to manipulate democratic movements, rushing to associate themselves with “the people” and champion their cause -- particularly in P.R. battles for Western support -- until their own positions are secure. But in regimes with a record of personalized politics, long-standing patterns of corruption, and feeble institutions too weak to compel rulers to follow their own rules, the “people” can all too easily become just another chess piece in a different kind of game between rival camps of equally unscrupulous “pigs” jockeying for power.

The current group of Ukrainian politicians most vociferous in their support of Maidan demonstrations and most militant in their condemnation of Moscow are either woefully inexperienced, if well-intentioned (think former boxer Vitali Klitschko) or almost as corrupt as the leaders they are replacing. Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, these days busy warning Europe that “Russia is holding the people of Crimea at gunpoint,” is a case in point. Tymoshenko is a charismatic woman with an appreciation for hyperbole and a talent for working TV cameras. Thrown into jail when Yanukovych came to power, she was freed from prison in a wheelchair after two years in captivity, mere hours after her arch-rival abandoned his post. Tymoshenko, too, evokes immediate sympathy. (For the U.S. audience, it also doesn’t hurt that, with her trademark hairstyle, she looks a bit like an older, blonder Princess Leia.)

But Tymoshenko is also -- or certainly was until recently -- a mega-billionaire, albeit one fond, during her unsuccessful 2010 presidential campaign, of falling on her knees at the start of stump speeches and begging forgiveness from the Ukrainian people. She made much of her money,, in the mid-1990s while president of United Energy Systems, a company that controlled almost all of Ukraine’s natural gas imports from Russia (at the time basically all the natural gas her country consumed). In so doing, she reaped spectacular benefits from that same “special relationship” with Russia that she now so publicly decries.  

Maybe we should not judge Tymoshenko on the basis of her past, but we should not ignore that past entirely, either. Nor should we turn a blind eye to the fact that just as many oligarchs are associated with Kiev’s current interim government as were with Yanukovych and his ruling faction. Even Putin, in a March 4 news conference, claimed to understand the baseline grievances of the people on the Maidan. The demonstrators, he said, were “calling for radical change rather than some cosmetic re-modeling of power” not because they wanted closer ties to the European Union but because they were tired of “seeing one set of thieves being replaced by another.”

Self-serving as such an explanation may be, it is -- as with most of Putin’s pronouncements -- not without a grain of validity. He of all people, should know, for he, too, is an expert in the manipulation of democracy and the manufacture of popular consent. Even with Russia currently taking an economic hit, Putin’s government is riding high. But his impressive approval ratings are bolstered by careful information and population control. Inside Russia, local authorities have refused permits to those wishing to organize demonstrations against Crimean intervention, so that the few protests which have occurred have been unpublicized, sparsely attended, and technically illegal. Meanwhile, demonstrations in favor of intervention have been encouraged, featuring pop stars, patriotic slogans, and a generally jubilant “we-beat-you” vibe. A week ago, well-known opposition figure Alexei Navalny was placed under house arrest and barred from using telephones or the Internet without permission -- presumably to prevent him from even blogging about his take on current affairs. The TV news programs remain firmly under government purview, and are full of horror stories about “Bandera-German-fascists” brutally attacking Russian speakers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s apparent ability to fan popular fears of an invisible enemy has something to do with the immediacy of World War II in Russian popular imagination and the resentment many Russians still carry for Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who is typically portrayed as a Nazi collaborator. Even in the years after Hitler’s defeat in 1945, Bandera supporters continued to wage guerilla war for an independent Ukraine, slaughtering pro-Soviet peasants and promoting racist ideals, in particular hatred of Poles and Jews. This is the specter conjured up on Russian TV today: a return to a past nightmare of gang violence and pro-fascist banditry.

This specter is, at best, grossly exaggerated, so much so that beloved Russian TV personality and pediatric doctor Evgenii Komarovskii, who lives and broadcasts in Ukraine, recently posted an “Appeal to Russian Parents,” warning his fans not to believe everything they hear. He explained that he has noticed a tremendous division in Russia society between those who obtain their news from the Internet, and so tend to be more critical of the Kremlin’s actions, and those who rely on TV and so sincerely think that all Russians in Ukraine, like himself, are in grave danger. Calling the situation in Russia “an information genocide,” Komarovskii noted that these imaginary “Bandera gangs” repeatedly conjured up in the press are like “an evil witch flying around that everybody had heard stories of but no one has ever actually seen.”

And yet, even amid such manipulations, Putin is acting with mass support, both at home and inside the Crimea. Without doubt, Russian troops on the peninsula have mobilized in violation of international law, marching off their bases to occupy key military installations and communication hubs. However, while these soldiers are exacerbating tensions, they are not inventing either popular support for Moscow or suspicion of Kiev out of thin air. Meanwhile, Putin is intensely attune to the hypocrisy of a U.S. striving to paint itself as the world’s moral leader, qualified to pronounce which expressions of popular will are good and which are regrettably less so. The Russian press is already asking how Washington, back in 1999, could have supported the right of Kosovo, a predominantly Albanian enclave, to secede from Serbia, and not endorse Crimea’s right to do the same in Ukraine today. The only difference, many media reports suggest, is that Serbia was a Russian ally, and the new Kiev government a would-be Western one.

On Thursday, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton compared Putin’s insistence on his right to take military action in Ukraine in order to protect the lives of Russian people to the language used by Adolf Hitler to justify his 1938 invasion of the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia home to many ethnic Germans the Führer falsely claimed were being massacred. Such historical parallels can be instructive, but making such comparisons publicly cannot but antagonize Russian leaders, who already feel that much of the Soviet Union’s contribution to defeating Hitler has been written out of Western textbooks. Meanwhile, Russians are drawing their own points of historical comparison, with pundits arguing that Putin’s words echo those proffered by President George H.W. Bush following his 1989 invasion of Panama, when Bush announced he was acting to protect the lives of U.S. citizens and the interests of the U.S. in the Panama Canal.

The point is not to argue whose is the better analogy. The point is that the willingness of most U.S. politicians and media analysts to immediately frame the Ukraine situation in Cold War terms of absolute evil against absolute good has squeezed out all space for civil debate and now threatens to drive this standoff over a cliff. We cannot take such explicit sides in a conflict that risks immuring us in double standards.

Realpolitik dictates that any stable Ukrainian state will have to be able to coexist with its neighbors in both East and West. We cannot afford a global war with Russia, a civil war in eastern Europe, or the billions upon billions of dollars that would be necessary to prop up a Ukrainian nation stripped of any and all Russian support (and sporting a rather dubious record of financial aid accountability). Last week, Putin claimed he had no intention of annexing the Crimea or intervening in eastern Ukraine, except as a last resort. But each day that passes makes that prospect more likely, although it serves the long-term interests of neither side. We need to work towards an endgame that will involve Russia, not exclude it, allowing increased autonomy for the Crimea and guarantees that Russian rights to its bases on the peninsula -- in place now at least until 2042 -- will not be revoked.  And we need to acknowledge that “building democracy” can and often does involve a disturbing number of shades of gray.

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