Friday, March 07, 2014

Ukraine, Russia and domestic polemics

Timothy Snyder has a three-part article on the Ukraine situation at the New York Review of Books:

Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine 02/19/2014

Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda 03/01/2014

Crimea: Putin vs. Reality 03/07/2014

The first one is a bit confusing in that it reads a bit like "fascists, fascists, which one's the fascist"? But he does provide some helpful summaries of the repressive measures taken by Viktor Yanukovych's government after the crisis heated up. And he describes the concept behind Putin's Eurasian Union goal, which Snyder takes to be a version of "National Bolshevism."

He marvels that some people on "the Western left" are sympathetic to false pro-Putin claims, without describing who he's including in "the Western left." Apparently the LaRouchies are kinda-sorta supporting Putin's positions. Maybe that's who he means by "the Western left." (?!) I've seen more drooling over Putin's manly manliness from American conservatives like Victor Davis Hanson than from anyone I would identify as "left."

In the second piece, he gets more specific, though it's still not clear where he places the LaRouchies:

Interestingly, the message from authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Kiev was not so different from some of what was written during the uprising in the English-speaking world, especially in publications of the far left and the far right. From Lyndon LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review through Ron Paul’s newsletter through The Nation and The Guardian, the story was essentially the same: little of the factual history of the protests, but instead a play on the idea of a nationalist, fascist, or even Nazi coup d’état.
Snyder makes an insistent case that the overthrow of Yanukovych was "a classic popular revolution" - whatever he counts as "classic" - against "an unmistakably reactionary regime." But after berating the Russian/Yanukovych framing of the overthrown as a fascist/Nazi coup or something along those lines, Synder writes:

The Ukrainian far right did play an important part in the revolution. What it did, in going to the barricades, was to liberate itself from the regime of which it had been one of the bulwarks. One of the moral atrocities of the Yanukovych regime was to crush opposition from the center-right, and support opposition from the far right. By imprisoning his major opponents from the legal political parties, most famously Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych was able to make of democracy a game in which he and the far right were the only players.

The far right, a party called Svoboda, grew larger in these conditions, but never remotely large enough to pose a real challenge to the Yanukovych regime in democratic elections. In this arrangement Yanukovych could then tell gullible westerners that he was the alternative to the far right. In fact, Svoboda was a house opposition that, during the revolution, rebelled against its own leadership. Against the wishes of their leaders, the radical youth of Svoboda fought in considerable numbers, alongside of course people of completely different views. They fought and they took risks and they died, sometimes while trying to save others. In the post-revolutionary situation these young men will likely seek new leadership. The leader of Svoboda, according to opinion polls, has little popular support; if he chooses to run for president, which is unlikely, he will lose.

The radical alternative to Svoboda is Right Sector, a group of far-right organizations whose frankly admitted goal was not a European future but a national revolution against all foreign influences. In the long run, Right Sector is the group to watch. For the time being, its leaders have been very careful, in conversations with both Jews and Russians, to stress that their goal is political and not ethnic or racial.
After seeing how the Western powers picked allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, I think it's a very sensible caution for citizens of those Western countries to wonder just who Our Side is in this particular crisis.

In the third part he writes, "The Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula is a disaster for the European peacetime order." It certainly is a major disruption with far-reaching consequences for people in Ukraine, including the Crimea. But I don't see how in current circumstances it's going to be a "disaster" for the EU countries unless some wild escalation of sanctions and counter-sanctions starts taking place.

And he writes, "After the regime tried and failed to put down the protests by shooting protestors from rooftops on February 20, EU negotiators arranged a deal whereby Yanukovych would cede power to parliament. Rather than signing the corresponding legislation, as he had committed to do, Yanukovych fled to Russia." He seems to mean this as an indictment of Yanukovych's conduct, and that may be justified. But it also emphasizes how actively the EU was involved in backing the opposition in some form or another in seeking regime change. And that's also a legitimate matter for public concern, in the US and in Europe. I don't recall the German Bundestag authorizing Chancellor Angela Merkel to undertake regime change in Ukraine.

And there's the seemingly unavoidable Hitler analogy - unavoidable in the sense that the US only ever faces "Hitler" as a threat in foreign policy, at least in the eyes of analogy-makers:

Putin and others blur the category of citizenship by speaking of Russian “compatriots,” a category that has no legal status. By compatriots Putin means people the Russian government claims as Russians—or who, according to the Kremlin, self-identify as Russians—and who therefore need its protection. This sort of argument, the need to protect the Volksgenossen, was used to significant effect by Adolf Hitler in 1938 in enunciating German claims to Austria and then to the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s substitution of ethnicity for state borders led then to the Munich conference, appeasement, and World War II. Russian historian Andrei Zubov has developed the comparison with Nazi aggression further, likening Putin’s action to the Anschluss, and recalling that the Anschluss led to a war that turned against its authors. The parallel has also been noted by the chief rabbi of Ukraine.
Snyder also seems to think the Russian propagandists have super powers:

An excellent propaganda apparatus, such as the Russian one, can find ways to repeat its message over and over again in slightly different ways and formats. Plenty of people in the West now spread Russian propaganda, sometimes for money, sometimes from ignorance, and sometimes for reasons best known to themselves. Those who repeat the Russian propaganda conceits do not need to convince everyone, only to set the terms of debate. If people in free societies have their discussions framed for them by rulers of unfree societies, then they will not notice the history unfolding around them (a revolution just happened in Europe!) or sense the urgency of formulating policy in a desperate situation (a European country has just invaded another!). Propaganda can serve this technical purpose no matter how absurd it is.
I guess if you want to frame this as a New Cold War, then "Russian" propaganda is just as sinister as "Communist" propaganda. Although who all these people "in the West" are who so eagerly "spread Russian propaganda" are, I really don't know. Unless it's those publications he named in Part 2, and even that was a broad assertion.

Snyder seems to really want to pump up the role anti-Semitism in Russia. I was struck by this passage: "In the years before Stalin's death Israel became part of an international plot that was directed by fascists in the capitalist West." And the so-called "Doctor Plot" incident does seem to have been the start of some kind of anti-Semitic campaign in the USSR at that time.

But that was scarcely the whole story. I quoted an article on the founding of Israel over five years ago, Israel's founding and the Soviet Union 01/19/2009: "Establishment of the state of Israel on 14 May [1948] was internationally an important achievement for the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and its satellites supported the Jews in every way throughout the war in Palestine." (Rami Ginat, "Soviet Policy towards the Arab World, 1945-48," Middle Eastern Studies Oct 1996) And I also wrote there:

But Britain and France weren't ready to recognize Israel at that time. Both nations were trying hard to hang on to their worldwide empires and didn't want to give the Jewish-Zionist national liberation movement in Palestine that much of a victory.

The Soviet Union did. And the Truman administration decided to support the creation of Israel, not because it was particularly popular, on the contrary. Truman was persuaded it was the right thing to do for a number of reasons.

But it's important to note here that aligning diplomatically with the USSR on this issue, when Britain and France were taking a different position, showed that Truman wasn't simply dogmatically committed to opposing the Soviet Union above all other considerations. Although, as Neff points out in the quotation above, Truman's administration put trying to limit Soviet influence in the Middle East as a higher priority than arming Israel in the face of the Arab War with Gamal Abdel Nasser's infamous threat to drive the Jews into the sea. The Soviet Union, not the US, was their most important international ally at the time. Czechoslovakia was their most important arms supplier.
There's more to understanding these situations that taking sides on the crisis of the moment.

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