Monday 14 April 2014

Ukraine: A Thought Experiment

1. You run an authoritarian regime in a vast country beset with economic problems, corruption, and ethnically-based insurgencies.

2. The nation on your doorstep - which formerly used to be an integral part of the multinational state ran from your capital for 70 years - has been intriguing with your long-term opponents in the international arena. Former client states and allies are now under the umbrella of their transnational military alliance and supra-national political project. There is ample evidence they were materially supporting opposition social movements in said neighbouring state.

3. After a mass insurgency, the friendly government of that country conclude an agreement with opposition forces. The very next day the administration is overthrown and replaced by a coalition ranging from the centre right to the fascistic. At least one of these organisations claims historic links to nationalist movements who rose up against your predecessor as it fought for its very right to exist. Furthermore, foreign dignitaries and emissaries flood into the revolutionary capital, get pictured meeting new ministers and touring the barricades.

4. This is a massive foreign policy disaster. But large numbers of your citizens are also resident in the country, particularly in the south and east, closest to your borders. This is part a legacy of forced population transfers in an earlier period, and part internal migration within the departed multinational state.

5. One province, heavily dominated by your citizens and who, in turn, fear that the new regime - particularly the blood-curdling rhetoric of its fascist wing - might bring misfortune down onto their heads unofficially secede and petition for protection from your country. Coincidentally large numbers of troops were in the area and they march in, sparking off an international crisis.

6. Over the next fortnight a great deal of hypocritical cant is spoken at UN meetings. In the international press, your opponents' destabilisation of your neighbour is lauded as democratic, and striking a blow for freedom. There is little to no memory of their pushing their sphere of influence eastward, of threatening to set up missile defence systems all along your borders. You meanwhile have acted out of compassion. You had no choice but to move to protect your people and prevent bloodshed before it began.

7. The population of the break away province vote to join your country. It matters not that the plebiscite had irregularities - the sentiments of all the people appearing in your broadcaster's reports are real enough. Formal annexation takes place.

8. The revolution in the west of the country has stirred up concerns in other provinces where your nationality has an outright majority. Simply stepping with "protection" here would be a step too far.

9. Groupings pledging allegiance to your country take to the streets in a number of eastern towns and cities. Some of these do involve agents provocateurs, but in most cases it's like casting a match into tinder. Mostly the protests have been ineffectual, amateurish and easily put down by the usurpers in the west. But over this weekend a series of loyal militias have taken over key local government buildings in several cities, one proclaiming itself an independent people's republic. The coup government, with their backers, say they're going to mobilise the military and put these uprisings down. While there is little sign of that army yet, events on the ground might force you to send the 40,000 strong protection force you've massed on the borders in to calm the situation down. Your enemies are forcing your hand, so what do you do?

I don't have special insight into the minds of Russia's strategic thinkers, but from Western and Russian media reports this narrative - a mixture of realpolitik and ideological rendering of one's own geopolitical interests - is a model that fits what has been happening on Putin's part so far. I'm sure in the huddled map rooms of NATO, Whitehall and the State Department this sort of thought-building is commonplace. Unfortunately, the media and political coverage falls far short - there's no appreciation of nuance, let alone thought given to how our governments' actions are interpreted.


Robert said...

The hypocrisy and double standards from Western politicians and media pundits has been drearily predictable.

Had the West treated Russia decently after the collapse of the USSR Russia might have become an ally and friend of the United States as Germany did after the war. However Germany was only treated magnanimously by the US because the Cold War and the fear that the West European working class might be go communist persuaded Washington to come up with the Marshall Plan and accept a large dose of social democracy in that half of Europe it dominated.

When the Soviets collapsed and the Red Army was no longer on the Elbe the ruling class felt free to move hard right. That plus the end of Maoism in China and socialism in India put millions of cheap labourers on the world market and the entire planet lurched to the right. Hence the triumph of neoliberalism.

The end of communism may not have been much of a loss, although many people across the former USSR are now worse off than they were under the Soviets. However when communism fell social democracy also took a major hit.

Robert said...

The hypocrite is someone who demands standards of others that he is not willing to apply to himself. Therefore if something is wrong when Eurasia or Eastasia do it it is wrong when Oceania (the "West") does it. And if it is right when Oceania does it it is right when Eurasia or Eastasia do it.

This should be branded on the backside of neocons such as William Hague and also on some of the liberal pundits commenting on Russia at the Guardian.

Speedy said...

Haha. So you are sayin Farrage was right?

He was and you are - i spent a fair amount of time i. Russia during the collapse of the SU and saw scenes of poverty and chaos i will never forget. And neither i am sure will putin.

As naomi klein points out in the shock doctrine, when drunk boris asked for the kind of economic assistance the other fsu states had received he was told instead, politely i am sure, to f-off.

It turned out the us had only doled out for smooth transition etc cos it was feared of russian communism. Once russia was no longer communist it had nothing to fear.

Understand this and you understand putin.

Alex Ross said...

Is the point of this experiment to get me to reflect from a moral point of view or a strategic one?

I can understand how understanding Russian motives and realpolitik might be instructive for those trying to think about a pragmatic and peaceable outcome to the current conflict.

From a moral (or let's say genuinely 'empathetic') point of view, I stop at your point (1). Russia is not a *proper* state (i.e. one with a pluralist democratic culture, free expression and freedom of the press, respect for basic human rights, respect for the self-determination of its own national minorities, respect for the independence of it's former "colonies" etc.). Therefore, I struggle to take it's expressions of "hurt" and "injustice" with any degree of seriousness...and find it difficult to believe that the blame for Russia's rather bizarre blend of authoritarianism and nostalgia lies squarely with the “evil” west.

To add to this, if Russia was a grown-up democracy, which treated it's former imperial possessions on the basis of respect and equality, I very much doubt that the basic elements of this conflict would exist - the very real (and often very popular) need for neighbouring states to want to look to NATO for military protection (e.g. in the Baltics and Georgia) and to look to the EU for a more democratic and less corrupt model of governance (which, despite many very valid criticisms from the left, has actually worked significantly well in many states formerly under the influence of the USSR).

Robert said...

Agreed Speedy.

I visited the USSR in April 1991 just before the August coup. You could see that the Soviet Union was dying at that stage but it hadn't yet gone into total meltdown.

Putin is right to say that the collapse of the USSR was one of the great catastrophes of the twentieth century. This doesn't mean Putin is a communist sympathiser - he certainly isn't; he's a man of the Right but he has concluded with good reason that the West was not just anti Soviet - it's anti Russian.

Ever since I realised what was being done to Russia I was on the left.

The plundering of Russia by the US was the triumph of short term greed over long term interest. Now Vladimir Putin is no friend of ours and he is doing his best to form a strategic partnership with the Chinese.

If in the future the West finds itself confronted by a Russian-Chinese alliance with a combined military and economic strength equal or greater than our own chickens may come home to roost.

Anonymous said...

Russia would be forgiven for going into Ukraine, attack Kiev and put on trial those unelected criminals who now run the country.

The thing is that Russia is not that mad. We are judging Russia by the standards of lunacy that exist in the West.

The West are utter lunatics. Thankfully Russia represent sanity.

So I expect Russia to issue strongly worded statements but continue to stay out of Ukraine itself.

But Ukraine itself is on the brink.

Robert said...


Most of Russia's former Soviet neighbours do not have nice governments.

Latvia and Estonia deny citizenship to their Russian minorities even those who were born there.

If Russia denied citizenship to any of its ethnic minorities you would never hear the last of it in the Western media.

But this didn't stop Latvia and Estonia being allowed into both NATO and the EU.

Ukraine's economy is a basketcase largely because the oligarchs have been allowed to run amok and all the politicians since independence have been their puppets. In Russia Putin, for all his faults, was able to curb the oligarch class and persuade them to start paying some taxes and stop trying to buy up the Duma. For most Russians things have become enormously better under Putin than they were when the West was running the country via Yeltsin and his oligarch mates.

Now I know higher oil and gas prices have helped Russia recover but under Putin the oligarchs weren't simply allowed to steal all Russia's wealth the way Chernomyrdin et al did. Nigeria proves that higher oil prices don't necessarily benefit the general population of a country.

Yes there are huge problems with crime and corruption in Russia but the situation in Ukraine is far worse.

In an ideal world you would have a democratic progressive government in Ukraine rather than the current bunch of neoliberals and neofascists now ruling in Kiev. The next best thing would be a Putin type figure who could do to the Ukrainian oligarchs what Putin did to Khodorkovsky.

Alex Ross said...

Roger –

I think the Latvian/Estonian issue of citizenship is more complicated than that. Ethnic Russians are not “stripped” of citizenship – although they are not automatically granted it. They can be naturalised by proving basic competence in the official state language, and signing up to some basic tenets of citizenship (which I think in both cases include defining the Soviet Union as an “occupying power”). Once naturalised, all their subsequent offspring will be citizens. The majority of Ethnic Russians have gone through this process, whilst many have refused (for a variety of reasons – political, not seeing the benefits of citizenship vis a vis non-citizen status as worth the effort, or wanting to hold Russian citizenship (dual citizenship not being permitted)). Human rights groups have protested that the process is too arduous to ensure full civic participation – and they are probably right. But, also, I think the processes in both countries are very specific to dealing with settled populations resulting from occupation and need to be understood in that context.

So, I don’t think the Russian analogy works. If Russia, for example, was to deny citizenship to Chechens, Tartars (or other victims of mass deportation) then it would be more akin to Germany stripping it’s Jewish citizens of citizenship!!

Clearly Ukraine is not in the same position as the Baltics (and increasingly Georgia and possibly Moldova) in terms of acceptance of the rule of law, anti-corruption, the ability to have peaceful democratic transitions of power and economic viability…That said, I don’t think an authoritarian “Putin mk2” would be accepted by many liberal, western looking Ukrainians who have much higher (perhaps, unrealistic) aspirations. As a disclaimer, the only Ukrainians I actually know are very liberal, educated and middle class, so my outlook of the situation is not without its cognitive biases. However, I think they are too important a constituency to be ignored or easily steamrollered (although I do somewhat fear that they’ll be disappointed, with either the division of their country or a further decent into violence).