The Nation’s False and Dishonest Crimea Narrative

For those who believe that the recent annexation of Crimea by Russia might actually unite Americans of all ideological stripes in opposition to the thuggishness of the Putin regime, I give you this piece by editors of the Nation. It shows that even now, in the immediate aftermath of the annexation, while historical memories are still fresh, there are those who are willing to rewrite current events in order to advance a narrative filled with desperate attempts to explain away unjustified Russian bellicosity. And of course, it ought to surprise no one that the editors are willing to put forth false attempts at establishing moral equivalence in order to leave readers with the idea that the United States is really at fault in this story.

The urgent issue today is to stop the drift toward hot war. Yes, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea trespasses on international law, though it is difficult to bear US officials’ invocation of a principle that Washington itself has often violated (see, most recently, Kosovo and Iraq, the latter now marking the eleventh anniversary of an illegal US invasion and occupation). Financial and visa sanctions, while inflicting a cost on Russia, will not deter Moscow. As Putin argued in his March 18 speech before the Russian Federal Assembly, Russia feels “cornered” and has been repeatedly “deceived” by the West—particularly Washington—since the Soviet Union broke apart more than two decades ago, especially in light of the expansion of NATO to its borders.

The last I checked, there was no American annexation of either Kosovo or Iraq. The Clinton administration launched the air war over Kosovo in order to prevent a potential humanitarian catastrophe. Anyone with a passing knowledge of realist theory understands that the administration did this because it knew that it would not encounter much resistance from Russia, which traditionally has been an ally of the Serbs, and because the administration believed that it would be able to conduct its operations (through NATO air support) with a viable exit strategy from the conflict. No land was annexed, no people were displaced, no Greater America was established through the extension of American sovereignty over one millimeter of foreign territory. Ditto for Iraq. As for Russia feeling “cornered” and “deceived” by “the West,” the editors do nothing whatsoever to lend proof to the assertions; they merely repeat them and think that by repeating, they have established as immutable truths the claims that the West “cornered” and “deceived” Russia. This is not argument. It is not any kind of appeal to reason. It is apologetics on behalf of Vladimir Putin and his regime, pure and simple.

The only way out, the only possible return to stability and cooperation in East-West relations, is through diplomacy and negotiations. For this to happen, Washington and Moscow must recognize that the other side has legitimate grievances and interests. Certainly this must be acknowledged in Washington, where such admissions are hardly ever made.

It is one thing to claim that the Crimea and Ukraine are in the Russian sphere of influence; no one seriously argues otherwise. It is quite another to argue that somehow, the Russians have “legitimate grievances.” What grievances could possibly have led the Russians to violate the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which “included security assurances against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons? The editors don’t say, because they can’t.

Instead, Senator John McCain, his Democratic colleague Dick Durbin and an assemblage of politicians from both parties are recklessly stoking the flames of folly. They’ve demanded that the United States arm the new government in Kiev, with McCain calling for installation of missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Such bellicosity appeases the hawks at home but enrages the war party in Moscow, which is urging the Russian president to resist caving in to the West.

So now, we are led to believe that “the flames of folly”–and I suppose war–are being fanned not by an illegal Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, and a potential drive into Ukraine that might reach as far as Moldova, but because John McCain and Dick Durbin think that we ought to give aid to the government in Kiev in order to allow it to potentially maintain its sovereignty and independence against the forces of Russian imperialism. There aren’t too many people in the world who are able to maintain such a morally blinkered view of geopolitics, but by now, it should be entirely clear that the editors of the Nation are not like many people in the world.

Amid hysterical talk from frustrated Cold Warriors like McCain, Helmut Kohl, the father of the reunified Germany, admitted that there have been “great omissions” in European Union policy toward Ukraine. He noted a “lack of sensitivity” in the EU’s relations with Putin and Russia, warning against a reckless call to arms.

Assuming arguendo that anything in this vague bill of particulars is even halfway accurate, is Russia now deemed to be justified in having violated the Budapest Memorandum and trampling over the territorial integrity of another country? Show of hands for anyone who actually believes that kind of argument can be made with a straight face.

In such a charged environment, it’s all the more important to pay close attention to diplomatic initiatives, even if they come from the Kremlin. While it may not be an ideal solution, there is merit in the Russian foreign ministry’s “road map” calling for establishing an international support group—with the EU, United States and Russia as members—to help Ukraine stabilize itself. Among other crucial points, the proposal calls for a Ukrainian national assembly to draft a constitution that would create a new federal system in which regions would have a reasonable degree of autonomy, confirm Russian as a second official language and, critically, uphold Ukraine’s military and political nonalignment—that is, maintain Ukraine’s geopolitical independence from Russia as well as the West, which will require an end to NATO expansion.

Notice that nothing in this excerpt actually calls for the Crimea to be returned to Ukraine. The “diplomatic initiatives” that serve as the basis for the editors’ call for negotiations would effectively enshrine the annexation of the Crimea as a valid, irreversible act. Calling for Ukrainian “regions” to have “a reasonable degree of autonomy” sounds lovely in theory, but it can hardly be read as anything but an attempt to advocate a governmental structure that will allow the Kremlin to foment agitation among ethnic Russian populations within Ukraine for secession and unification with Russia. Vladimir Putin could hardly ask for more in the aftermath of the annexation, though I am sure that the editors will encourage him to try asking for more anyway.

A settlement is possible if all countries’ security interests are taken into account. This would mean that Ukraine would hold elections with participation and guaranteed protection for ethnic Russians; would have a nonaligned government (stripped of neofascists); would pledge never to join NATO; and would develop economic relations with Russia and the EU (unavoidable if Ukraine is to survive economically).

It should, of course, be left to the Ukrainians to decide with whom they want to establish close diplomatic and economic ties, but the editors believe that the United States should lend its backing to Putinesque imperialism and force the Ukrainians to agree to diplomatic and economic terms that may not actually be in Ukrainian interests. This puts the lie to the editors’ claim that they are interested in establishing an arrangement in which “all countries’ security interests are taken into account.” Also, who are these “neofascists” who are supposedly populating the Ukrainian government (which is supposed to be “nonaligned,” mind you, to satisfy the editors’ desire to back up the Putin regime’s demands)? The editors don’t say. David Frum calls shenanigans on the claim that “neofascists” are running rampant in Ukraine, and unlike the editors of the Nation, he actually backs up his claims.

There is also good reason to think Putin—who emphasized that Russia has no designs on other regions of Ukraine—is ready to negotiate. A successful outcome could include Moscow’s recognition of a legitimate Kiev government; demobilization of troops; resumption of gas discounts as well as favorable trade relations to prevent Ukraine’s economic collapse; and perhaps even establishing a special relationship between Crimea, now annexed by Russia, and Ukraine (though, of course, without affecting Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol).

It is so charming that the editors seem to believe that Putin was telling the truth when he “emphasized that Russia has no designs on other regions of Ukraine,” worrisome news to the contrary notwithstanding. Even if Russia makes no further moves, claiming that Russian actions are somehow okay because only Crimea was annexed doesn’t even remotely amount to a serious argument.

Even more is at stake in this profound crisis. Washington needs Russia’s cooperation in addressing global and regional issues such as the Syrian civil war, now in its third year; negotiations with Iran; exiting Afghanistan; the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorists; relations with China; and managing North Korea.

It is so charming that the editors seem to believe that Russian “cooperation in addressing global and regional issues such as the Syrian civil war . . . negotiations with Iran; exiting Afghanistan; the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorists; relations with China; and managing North Korea” are forthcoming if the United States will just be willing to let the Putin regime have Crimea and be able to continue bullying Ukraine. Of course, even before this crisis, the Russians have been manifestly unhelpful in managing the Syrian civil war, helping out in Afghanistan, assisting in the fight against terrorism, helping the United States manage relations with China and working to calm the situation on the Korean peninsula. But leave it to the editors of the Nation to pretend that recent history simply does not exist.

We cannot afford a new Cold War. This crisis must not be framed as a US-Russia showdown or as a question of American “weakness” or “fecklessness.” Resolution will demand leadership on both sides. Obama and Putin must transcend their respective war parties and hardliners at home—as Ronald Reagan did, from 1985 to 1988, when he met Mikhail Gorbachev halfway—and provide real leadership so that a broad, pluralistic and democratic center in Ukraine emerges that is committed to establishing a new constitutional order: one that is capable of reconciling the interests and concerns of all parts of that country.

All of this is rhetorical pabulum that pretends that the nature of the Ukrainian government–and not Russian aggression–is the real obstacle to a just and comprehensive diplomatic solution. I would ask the editors of the Nation to be ashamed of the fact that they wrote a truly terrible editorial that sought to pass off as respectable the most pathetic justifications for belligerent and imperial behavior on behalf of Moscow, but I am pretty sure that the editors of the Nation have no conception whatsoever on how to feel shame.

It should be noted that much of the Nation’s coverage of Russia is shaped by the writings of Stephen Cohen, who is married to Nation editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel. Isaac Chotiner calls Cohen “Vladimir Putin’s American apologist,” and it is not hard to see why:

Cohen’s discussion with Fareed Zakaria was brief but telling. After first denying that Putin was a “rank dictator” and saying that he is not “a thug” or “anti-American” (would Putin even deny this last bit anymore?), Cohen got to the main point of his argument:

Remember that was the second time in the 20th century that the Russian state had collapsed, the first time in 1917. So to recreate stability, prosperity, greatness, whatever that means in Russia at home and, in the process, restore Russia’s traditional zones of national security on its borders, that means Ukraine as well. He did not create this Ukrainian crisis. It was imposed on him and he had no choice to react. That’s where we stand today.

Notice that Cohen initially argues that some sort of control over Ukraine is a requirement of Russian greatness. And then, after explaining this, he says the whole crisis was “imposed” on Putin! This is apologetics done well: first you explain why bad behavior is actually sensisble, and then you say that the bad behavior wasn’t really under the control of the bad actor.

Cohen also makes a comparison with the United States:

What if, suddenly, Russian power showed up in Canada and Mexico and provinces of Canada and Mexico said they were going to join Putin’s Eurasian economic union and maybe even his military bloc? Surely the American president would have to react at least as forcefully as Putin has.

Zakaria, to his credit, pointed out that the United States would obviously not act similarly, but let’s say (for fun) that Cohen is right and that the United States would in fact invade part of Canada in such a scenario. What would be Stephen Cohen’s response? Would he get on television and explain American history, and American grievances, and American nationalism? Would he call for more “understanding” of American warmongering and aggression? Would he scold the liberal media for criticizing the United States? Of course not! He would be screaming at the top of his lungs about American imperialism and whichever bloodthirsty (albeit fairly elected) American leader happened to be in power.

Indeed. And so would the rest of the Nation’s editorial board. Because apparently, imperialism and bellicosity are only okay when practiced by the Putin regime.

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