As the world continues to deal with the ongoing covid-19 pandemic in the face of the omicron surge – Bermuda included – the world is also faced with simmering threats of major war in three regions:
- In Asia-Pacific there are growing tensions between China and the West over the perennial issue of Taiwan, fueled in particular now by the development of the AUKUS alliance, a sort of Pacific version of NATO, designed to contain China as opposed to Russia and driven by the USA.
- In the Middle East, tensions continue to mount between the USA and Iran as the negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal continue in Vienna.
- In Eastern Europe, tensions are growing between Russia and the USA (and subsequently the EU and NATO) over the situation in Ukraine.
There are of course some ‘lower level’ conflicts ongoing, such as Yemen, Palestine, the civil war in Ethiopia, various conflicts in the Sahel, Syria/Iraq and Afghanistan, and ongoing attempts to destablise Cuba and Venezuela by the USA. However, looking at the three ‘big’ tension areas, the common factor in all three is the USA (indeed, the USA is also a common factor in most of those other conflicts, with the potential exception of Ethiopia).
While it is unlikely we will see outright war between the big powers of the USA, Russia and China, it does seem pretty safe to say that we’re in a new phase of the Cold War 2.0.
In this post I want to dig a little deeper into the conflict currently at the forefront, the crisis in Ukraine. First, I think it’s important to make clear what the narrative is in the West and in Russia. For those interested in a bit of a deeper dive into Ukraine’s recent (2014) developments, see my then post about the events there – The Tragedy of Ukraine?
What we hear in the West
In the West, at least based on what I’m seeing in the media, the analysis of the situation can be summed up as:
- Russia has been engaged in hostile actions towards Ukraine since 2014 when it annexed Crimea and supported rebels in the south-east of Ukraine.
- Russia has massed over 100,000 troops on its borders under the pretext of ‘war games’ to launch an invasion of Ukraine.
- Russia’s actions are unprovoked and in general Russia is the aggressor.
- The 2014 event was a revolution against an authoritarian regime with no legitimacy.
And the Russian narrative
In Russia the narrative is very different, and it is important to understand this different perspective to better understand Russia’s potential actions:
- The US/West provided assistance and support to a coup against a legitimately elected government in 2014.
- This 2014 coup was in part led by far-right Ukrainian militias and parties and installed an illegitimate government.
- This illegitimate government persecuted Russian minorities by banning Russian language as an official language and also banned political parties representing the Russian minority (in particular the Ukrainian Communist Party) while at the same time provides support for far-right groups (historical and current).
- The government also sought to repress those who supported the democratically elected government overthrown by the coup.
- In the dying days of the USSR, the Russians were given assurances that NATO would not expand eastwards beyond the borders of East Germany. The subsequent eastern expansion of NATO is seen as both a breach of those assurances and as an attempt to contain and control Russia, in particular by preventing it’s ability to ever regain ‘great power’ status.
- The 2014 coup was engineered by the West to bring Ukraine under US control and bring NATO troops into Ukraine to threaten Russia.
- The actions of Russia following the coup were done to protect persecuted minorities in the face of an illegitimate government using far-right anti-Russian militias.
- The West has flooded Ukraine with western weapons to threaten Russian security and weaken Russian autonomy on the global stage – including arming and training far-right and neo-Nazi groups.
What’s the truth?
As you can see, there’s some rather fundamental differences in perspective between the West and Russia on this matter. Let’s try to find out whether there are factual bases to these different points of view, as understanding these are key to understanding especially Russia’s current actions.
A – Was a democratically elected government overthrown in 2014?
The short answer is yes, the government led by President Viktor Yanukovych was a legitimate democratically elected government.
Both his election to president in 2010 and the victory of his party in the 2012 parliamentary elections were reviewed by international observers and considered legitimate elections. This isn’t to say there weren’t problems during the elections, however the Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report for the 2010 presidential election concluded:
“The presidential election met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for
democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004. The process was
transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse
political views. However, unsubstantiated allegations of large-scale electoral fraud negatively
affected the election atmosphere and voter confidence in the process.”
And for the 2012 parliamentary election the results were mixed, but still accepted as legitimate.
B – Did the US/EU provide support for the actors involved in overthrowing the democratically elected government in 2014?
It’s certainly clear that the US and the EU were actively supporting the protests against the democratically elected government, including discussing the formation of a pro-Western government, giving vocal support for the protesters and even handing out cookies to the protesters advocating regime change. The US and the EU were certainly not passive observers.
It’s also true that the US has previously funded (to the tune of at least $65 million) pro-Western groups in Ukraine since at least 2004 – so it’s likely, especially in terms of US officials actively discussing the formation of a post-coup government before the coup, that the US was still funding such organisations in 2014.
C – Were far-right militias and organisations involved in the 2014 overthrow of a democratic government in Ukraine?
While the bulk of those supporting the West and opposing the elected government came largely from what can be called the middle class, they also were supported by Ukrainian oligarchs with Western interests. And also involved – and providing the spear tip of the ‘revolution’ were far-right paramilitaries, including straight-up neo-Nazi organisations. The majority of these far-right groups collaborated during the protests under the name of The Right Sector.
Key groups that fell under the banner of the Right Sector included Tryzub (a far-right paramilitary organisation founded in 1993 by the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists – the name is the acronym for the Stepan Bandera All-Ukrainian Organisation; Stepan Bandera was the leader of the Ukrainian Nazi collaborators during WW2); the Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian People’s Self Defense (a far-right anti-Russian organisation); and the White Hammer (the paramilitary wing of the Patriots of Ukraine, a fascist neo-Nazi organisation, as you might gather from the name ‘white hammer’). These paramilitary groups seized weapons from Ukrainian military depots and used them to attack the elected government – indeed, the actions of these far-right paramilitary groups were crucial in the overthrowing of the elected government as a result.
D – Is the West arming and training far-right and neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine?
Yet again, the answer is yes. But it’s a bit more complicated.
You see, after these far-right paramilitaries helped overthrow the democratically elected government, the new government that was ushered in subsequently made these paramilitaries part of their official National Guard and defense forces. They were not distributed throughout but allowed to retain their identities – just with official training, weapons and salaries. As the civil war developed, these paramilitaries became full-on far right military battalions – the most famous of which are probably the Azov Battalion and the Donbas Battalion. The Azov Battalion is essentially the White Hammer paramilitary mentioned above. These far-right battalions have since been implicated in war crimes and persecution of the ethnic Russian minority in Ukraine see both here and here for example.
Since 2014 the West has been arming (see more recently here and here and here) and and providing training, including war games, for the Ukrainian military – including these far-right organisations.
E – Have the ethnic Russian minority of Ukraine suffered persecution since 2014?
Sort of. This one is difficult to really gauge.
What is true is that the areas dominated by ethnic Russians (Crimea and eastern Ukraine in particular) were opposed to the overthrow of the elected government and considered the subsequent government as illegitimate and hostile to them. The presence of anti-Russian far-right groups were no doubt a huge factor in that not exactly unreasonable fear…
The subsequent legitimation of those far-right groups and their deployment to suppress protests in Russian dominated areas, with resulting abuses noted above, has certainly not been perceived as a good faith move by the post 2014 government. Neither was the decision of the post 2014 government to https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/eastern-ukraine-russia-conflict-language-culture-news-10099/repeal the 2012 Regional Languages Law which recognised a federal approach to languages, allowing Russian speaking regions to use Russian as their official language.
I realise I haven’t answered all of the questions I set out to do here. Quite frankly I feel this article is long enough already. Nonetheless, I think I’ve cleared up some key issues that are somewhat absent from the Western media narrative about the Ukrainian crisis.
Once you realise that the West backed the overthrow of a legitimated democratically elected government in 2014, and that that overthrow depended on armed far-right paramilitaries having seized military depots, and that those same far-right paramilitaries are now part of the Ukrainian security forces being armed and trained by the West, and that these paramilitaries are explicitly anti-Russian (even going so far as to have gone an ‘hunting trips’ to target Russian soldiers in other theaters of war), it’s a bit easier to understand why Russia is a little bit concerned. I’m pretty sure that if – hypothetically – Canada saw an anti-American revolution and was receiving weapons and military training from Cuba, Vietnam, China and North Korea, the USA wouldn’t just sit back and be chill about it.
For clarity, none of this should be seen as a defense of Russia and Putin. All I have set out to do here is to make more clear Russian perception (which is more or less rooted in fact) of what’s on their doorstep, and how that is factoring into the calculus of the Kremlin. And to further understand that calculus you do have to understand that Russia is understandably suspicious of NATO’s actions (like, what really is the point of NATO other than to contain and threaten Russia anyway), especially the increased militarization of NATO’s eastern flank, be it in the Baltics of the Black Sea (one need only do a cursory look at NATO developments in Romania and Bulgaria to get a sense of the latter).
Ultimately, the West is looking to justify increased military activity on its eastern flank based on Russia’s actions, and at the same time Russia is justifying increased military activity on its western flank in reaction to NATO. The two are playing each other for their own ends. Neither side are without blame. But the people of Ukraine and elsewhere are but pawns on this chessboard of imperial adventurism.
Sadly, Ukraine is just a game, even if the bloodshed and misery is all too real.
Should war break out – and with it the potential for escalation beyond Ukraine itself – neither side is blameless or the ‘good guys’, even if the West is responsible for setting everything in motion in the first place.