On Madmen, Russia and Ukraine

This entry provides a longer analysis and documentation of points I will make in a public forum sponsored by Shawnee State University on the conflict in Ukraine on 3-16-22.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is clearly a violation of international law, has destabilized the international order and resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe. Moreover, rather than achieving Russia’s stated goals of limiting NATO expansion, the invasion of Ukraine has strengthened the NATO alliance and is now used as a post hoc justification for NATO’s expansion. At present, the NATO alliance, led by the US, has limited its response to increasing arms shipments to Ukraine and enacting economic sanctions against Russia. However, there is building pressure for NATO to take additional actions, such as imposing a no fly zone over Ukraine. Senator Lindsay Graham (R) has openly called for regime change and assassination of Vladimir Putin.  The establishment of a no fly zone would entail direct NATO engagement with Russian forces and represent a significant escalation leading to the possibility of a of a nuclear exchange. Before such action is engaged in however, a more sober appraisal is called for. In making such an appraisal, I will focus on four main points.

1. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a violation of International Law and has created a humanitarian crisis. However, this does not detract from other violations of International Law committed by the US or US allies.

2.Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin. The comparison is invidious. Russia did not invade Ukraine because it fears Democracy.

3. Russia has legitimate security concerns with respect to the eastward march of NATO.

4. U.S. manipulation of Ukrainian politics has contributed to the instability and has not actually furthered the cause of Democracy. Russia has legitimate concerns regarding the treatment of ethnic Russians and the presence of fascist militias.

I conclude by arguing that direct NATO or US action in Ukraine is both unwarranted and would be reckless. Though the possibilities for a comprehensive settlement are dim, the US should support a negotiated settlement, leading to Ukrainian neutrality, implementation of the Minsk II accords and seek a comprehensive demilitarized security structure for Europe free of nuclear weapons.

Before proceeding further a few preliminary remarks are in order.  I will not attempt to evaluate the military situation. As of today, I remain skeptical of claims by all sides. Since we do not have access to the original plans of Russia and we do not have access to extensive classified documents of the US or Ukraine it is not possible to fully judge whether or not Russia’s reported difficulties represent a colossal intelligence failure on the part of Russia, or whether it  has simply confronted the expected obstacles. We should be especially skeptical of anecdotal reports.

In compiling this entry I have confined my claims to those facts that I have been able to verify  through sources that would generally be considered reliable or objective by most people and the sources are linked to in this document. I have  not relied an any Russian sources, unless I am directly referencing a specific Russian position. I do not agree that Russian sources are inherently biased or unreliable any more than US sources should be judged to be inherently biased or unreliable. Nor do I agree that Russian sources should be banned or censored, either officially or unofficially by social media outlets. All sources should be weighed and evaluated and where possible, verified independently, including US sources. The climate for objective analysis is at present the worst I have experienced as the US media on the whole, and is in many respects, worse than at the height of the Cold War. For this reason, I have relied exclusively either on sources that are from US mainstream media, pro US think tanks, or media outlets who have documented their arguments via reliable sources. This entry is directed primarily to those who have little background knowledge of the issues or of theoretical perspectives in academia. Consequently, I have mostly eschewed formal theoretical analysis.

Issue One: The International Legal Context

The Basis for Ukrainian Sovereignty

That Ukraine exists as a nation state in accordance with current international legal and customary obligations cannot be in doubt. The historical relationship between  modern day Russia and modern day Ukraine, as well as modern day Poland is complex and I will make no effort herein to unravel it. Nationalist narratives which telescope the existence of an essentialized nation back through history have played a particularly destructive role in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe over the last several decades. All nation states in existence today are a consequence of an historical process of social construction. The existence of sovereign, territorial nation states  with clearly defined borders is a consequence of a long process of state building which is often simplistically traced back  to the Peace of Westphalia. This process began prior to, and continued after the conclusion of the Thirty Year’s War.

The basis for contemporary Ukrainian sovereignty is simple and clear and requires no such narrative.  Nor can it be delegitimized by equally selective counter narratives. Ukraine,as a modern, fully independent nation state and its internationally recognized borders came into being in 1991 when the Soviet Republics accepted the agreement hammered out by the respective Republic Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and the results were recognized and accepted by the rest of the world. Though this action was probably illegal within the context of Soviet Law is moot.  Whether it was a bad idea or a good idea is equally moot. The partition of Pakistan and India was in my estimation, an immensely terrible idea. But attempts to redraw borders by force, however sensible or nonsensical such borders may be, can only lead to destabilization of the international order. Sovereignty does not necessarily guarantee the right of any nation state to join a power bloc or military alliance. In particular, with respect to NATO, the joining of NATO requires the acceptance of NATO of new members. In addition, no nation state has the right to require the extension or even necessarily the existence of NATO per se. Given a nation state’s acceptance into any power bloc or alliance however, such acceptance may legitimately raise security concerns by neighboring countries.

The issues of sovereignty and secession are complex. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the issue of nationalities again resurfaced. The Czech Republic and Slovak Republic separated amicably. Yet in the Ukraine and the Caucasus matters have gone less well. Georgia seceded from the Soviet Union; ethnic Russians or Armenians then attempted to secede from Ukraine and Georgia. Ethnic Armenians wish to secede from Azerbaijan. Russia fought a dirty war (twice) to keep Chechnya in Russia. The Chechen and Dagestan rebels in turn also committed atrocities and sponsored terrorist attacks on Russia. The Kurdish peoples wish to secede from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. In perhaps one of the oddest marriages of political convenience in history, the CIA arms and supports Kurdish Marxist guerillas in Syria. In Turkey, the PKK engages in acts of terrorism. The Turkish government, a member of NATO, has simultaneously fought a decades long war aimed not just against the PKK, but against the Kurdish people, and engaged in extensive human rights violations. The breakup of Yugoslavia resulted in a horrible civil war. The turn to ever narrower bases of nation statehood and sovereignty can be and has been a destabilizing force.

Potential violations of the laws of war

In the context of a generally anarchic world political system, the only basis for international law is explicit agreement amongst nation states to agree to adhere to specific principles. Signatories to these agreements are thus responsible under these agreements. The Russian claim is that they are fighting a war of preemption. Regardless of whether this claim is true or false, the UN Charter in Article 51 does not provide a basis for these actions. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is no more legitimate than was the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. As is also commonly understood, treaties, conventions and custom, often referred to as the Geneva Conventions define what we today consider to be acceptable conduct in the course of a war. Attacks on dual use civilian and military targets are not considered violations of the laws of war. Collateral damage of civilian targets is a horrible tragedy and inevitable outcome of war. It is not intrinsically a violation of the laws of war. As in all cases, allegations of war crimes should be investigated and adjudicated and those who engaged in these actions must be held responsible. As of today, there is good evidence that at least some Russian actions have violated such principles. However, these allegations must be proven. The ICRC has expressed some reservations about allegations that Russia is responsible for the shutting down of humanitarian corridors. The Biological Weapons Convention  prohibit the use of chemical and biological weapons or research into these programs. The US has accused Russia of potentially planning to use such weapons but has admitted to date that this is in actuality speculation. The status of the possibility of bio-weapons labs in Ukraine is complex. Russian allegations that the US is funding bio-weapons research in Ukraine has been dismissed in the US press. Yet Victoria Nuland, in testimony to the Senate has admitted that the US is funding research on pathogens in Ukraine. The US claim is that this research is merely preventive but this does not address the issue of whether such research has potential for dual use.

In principle, the organization best suited to adjudicate  claims of violations of International Law is the International Criminal Court. It should be noted that the US has refused jurisdiction. For International Law to have effective force, International Law must be evenly enforced and upheld, obligations must be reciprocal and such claims must be investigated and adjudicated, and such adjudication must be proportional and not applied selectively. Violations of International Law by one party do not justify violations of another party. We should condemn all such actions. The best way to prevent violations of the laws of war, is to work for a demilitarized security structure both in Europe and globally.

As Noam Chomsky (and many others) has demonstrated in his voluminous writing, violations of the laws of war and of human rights globally by Nation States or organizations deemed to be in opposition to US interests are widely trumpeted in US press and often sensationalized. Violations of the laws of war and of human rights by our allies, are often overlooked. Here are a few examples of actions by the US or its allies that have resulted in civilian deaths. There is overwhelming evidence that Saudi Arabia has consistently and willfully violated the laws of war in its war in Yemen, which continues, de facto, to be backed by the US. While the US press rightly calls our attention to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which is in actuality significantly worse than in Ukraine, has not been addressed. The 100 day campaign of the bombing of Belgrade in 1999 resulted in a reported 1500 civilian casualties and significant damage to Serbia’s civilian infrastructure.  The US military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq both resulted in extensive civilian deaths.  There is a significant question as to the moral authority and consistency of the US and NATO to claim to be upholding international law. We must also address the issues of proportionality: the creation of refugees is not a repeat of the systematic liquidation of Jews, Gypsies and other groups, in WWII. I emphasize however that US actions cannot and should not be used to justify Russian actions, or vice versa.

Issue Two: Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin. Such comparisons are inaccurate and invidious.

The Character of Stalinist Regimes

Unfortunately, an analysis of the basis and nature of what has various been called “Actually Existing Socialism”, “State Socialism”, “A Degenerate Worker’s State”, “State Capitalism” is beyond the scope of this entry. My own view is that both Karl Kautsky and Nikolai Bukharin were correct in describing the Soviet Union as a Tributary form of social organization. The crimes of Stalin and his regime, too numerous to list here, conservatively resulted in the deaths of several million people, including a substantial portion of the old Bolshevik Party. Yet as monstrous as Stalin was, the Soviet Union fought a war for survival against Nazi Germany, not just as a nation but in all likelihood for the physical existence of the Slavic people and in the process lost approximately 27 million lives. Condemnation of Stalin, which is essential, cannot however be used as praise for the Nazi regime or to excuse Nazi collaborators in Ukraine during WWII.

Stalin’s regime created a “New Class” which administered the economy and received extensive privileges from their position and manipulated official Marxism-Leninism as a quasi-religious mechanism of legitimization. The ideals of the 19th century Socialist movement were transformed into their opposite. Following a long reform and counter reform cycle, Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985 and set in motion an unprecedented process of economic and political change, with the goal of creating a mixed market Socialist economy and a democratic political system. In that process, he was opposed by sectors of the ruling Soviet Communist Party, especially those closest to the Soviet Security State (see Stephen Cohen Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives ). As part of this process,  Mikhail Gorbachev sought to create a more equal federation. In this process, he was betrayed, not just by the Soviet Security State, but by cynical opportunists such as Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma, who used their positions in the Nomenklatura to set up their own personal empires and enable the theft of the resources of entire countries.

Dissolution of USSR and Rise of Putin

After the failed coup by the Soviet Security State, Boris Yeltsin (President of the Russian Soviet Republic), Leonid Kuchma (President of the Ukraine Soviet Republic) and  Stanislau Shushkevich , (President of the Belarus Soviet Republic), negotiated a treaty, without legal authority to do so, that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev made a conscious and deliberate decision not to use force and to avoid civil war.  As a young KGB officer Vladimir Putin made a decision to support Gorbachev’s reforms against the Party’s old Stalinist Guard and later allied himself with the new government of Boris Yeltsin, who at that time, was hailed as a noble democratic-capitalist reformer, despite his bombing of the Russian Parliament. The “reforms” of Yeltsin, carried out with the pressure of the IMF and the US and after the bombing of Russia’s Parliament at Yeltsin’s orders, led to the near collapse of Russian society and the economy (see as previously cited Cohen, but also Roy Medvedev Post Soviet Russia). As a KGB officer, Putin had sided with the reform process and then later with Boris Yeltsin.  Putin’s ultimate accession to the Presidency of the Russian Federation is a complex tale of political opportunism aided in part by prosecuting a brutal war in Chechnya against separatist Islamic extremists. Putin’s goal was to restore the authority of the Russian state and to restore some semblance of social order to Russia, which he did successfully. There are many things for which to condemn Putin. But the comparison to Stalin is absurd.

Russia today is  best described as a stage managed Democracy. It has a multi-party Parliament and opposition parties are free to organize and stand for election. Vladimir Putin’s party is not the Communist Party of Russia, which retains representation in the Duma. Putin’s party is Russia United. There is nothing left wing or progressive about Putin’s governance. Nor does the appellation of fascist make sense, unless we are to use the term to describe any conservative regime that exhibits  nationalist or authoritarian tendencies. The presence of press censorship, repression of dissent, imprisonment of Victor Navalny and others should all be condemned. But these actions must be put into perspective. Russia today has more actual freedom than it has had historically. Putin is not Stalin or Hitler-he is not even Brezhnev. Human rights violations and suppression of Democracy on a much larger scale have occurred, and continue to occur in the US sphere of influence. The lack of full Democracy in Russia is in no sense similar in nature to the totalitarianism of the Stalinist, or for that matter, even faintly to the post Stalinist era of Kruschev, Kosygin, Brezhnev, Chernenko and Andropov (see for example Stephen Cohen’s book War With Russia for analysis of Post Soviet Politics) .

Issue Three: Russia has legitimate security concerns with respect to the eastward march of NATO.

Formation of NATO

Following the end of WWII, successive sham elections and coups brought Soviet backed, Stalinist parties to power in areas of Soviet occupation and it became clear that Soviet troops would not be withdrawn to the Soviet Union, but would continue to occupy these countries and  maintain a westward position in Europe, thus creating what US and European leaders viewed as a military threat to Western Europe. To counter this perceived threat, the US created the NATO alliance to contain, or even possibly “roll back” the Soviet threat. A detailed analysis of the history of the Cold War is beyond the scope of this entry.

Dissolution of Warsaw Pact and Expansion of NATO

In 1991 the Soviet Union agreed to the reunification of East and West Germany, via the incorporation of the East into the West. The Soviet Union also agreed to withdraw its troops. As part of this process, Secretary of State James Baker provided verbal assurances that NATO would not move one inch to the East. These assurances however were not formally written into any subsequent agreements with the Soviet Union or Russia. Just prior to its collapse, the Soviet Union, supported the US action in Kuwait. At the same time, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, President of the Russian federation, made multiple concessions to the US and NATO. With the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, Yeltsin’s near slavish capitulation to Western economic and geopolitical interests and the withdrawal of Russian troops back to Russia, the “Soviet threat” was gone (see previously cited works by Stephen Cohen). There was a tremendous opportunity for the US and Russia to negotiate demilitarized and nuclear free security structure. The US instead chose to pursue militarization of the Continent. The Eastward expansion of NATO was explicitly aimed at a renewed policy of “containment” of Russia, despite the disappearance of the very conditions that had created a need for “containment”.

After Vladimir Putin assumed the Presidency of Russia, he repeatedly protested the eastward march of NATO. Russian fears of NATO are in actuality well founded. NATO does not just bring with it Article 5, which requires all of NATO to defend a NATO member in a conflict. It also brings with it an extensive military infrastructure of weapons systems, levels of military preparedness, integration into command structures, forward military bases, and nuclear weapons. The Eastward expansion of NATO cemented a militarized European Security Structure and was rightly viewed as a security threat by Russia.

Russian actions in Chechnya in the 1990’s and later actions by Russia in Georgia in 2008 are often pointed to as the basis for NATO expansion. But NATO expansion had already been initiated prior to these conflicts. Understanding these conflicts however requires an extensive and detailed analysis of how they unfolded. Russia’s actions in Chechnya were clearly condemnable even though they were aimed at combating Islamic extremism (see previously cited Caucasus Emirates). Both the US and Russia have a joint interest in combating Islamic extremism. Both the US and Russia have engaged in strategies and tactics that have targeted civilians and been counterproductive, resulting in creating sympathy for extremist groups. The US currently is militarily involved in multiple African countries and has pursued a policy of endless war.

Russian actions in the Georgia-Armenia-South Ossetia and the role of all parties in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are more complicated. This is a good example of how secession from the Soviet Union in turn sets off a more complex chain of internal ethnic groups then wishing to secede from the newly formed nation state, to form their own nation state or to stay in the old nation state. As in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, the US directly and overtly supported a policy of regime change in Georgia. Nor did the regime change in Georgia lead to more and better democracy. During the most recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish supplied drones were used with devastating effect against Armenian forces and have subsequently been supplied to Ukraine. The Caucasus region as a whole is rich in minerals, gas and oil.  Put into context, competition between the US and Russia in this region is reminiscent of the Great Game.

Issue Four: The Political Situation in Ukraine

Economic and Political Reform in 1990’s

As was the case in Russia and other post-socialist countries the transition in Ukraine was marked by a lack of clarity of what the transition was from, what direction it should go and how far to go in any direction (see Mikhailo Minakov Three Decades of Ukraine’s Independence for an insightful and objective overview, see also Pekka Sutela The Underachiever ). The nature of the transition was strongly conditioned by initial conditions at the outset of the “reform” process as well as the strong pressure brought to bear by multi-lateral organizations, the governments of the US and EU, and even NGO’s. Intensive diplomatic and financial pressure was brought to bear to ensure the transition would be to a neo-liberal variant of Capitalism and that this process would take place by shock therapy. As in Russia, Democracy in Ukraine was subordinated to the creation of  Capitalism. What emerged was not Liberal Democratic Capitalism under the rule of law, but predatory Capitalism characterized by primitive accumulation. This primitive accumulation took place via the theft of public property by former Nomenklatura or people with connections to Nomenklatura and the creation of the Oligarchs in both Ukraine and Russia.  The two successive terms of Leonid Kuchma following his 1994 victory over Leonid Kravchuk were marked by a reversion to press censorship, extensive corruption and even poorer economic performance than other transitional economies. Given the divisions in Ukrainian society between ethnic Ukrainians, dominant in the east, and ethnic Russians dominant in the East and South, it is not surprising that these differences were reflected in Ukrainian electoral politics. The electoral divide, in my estimation, was more cultural than political- ideological. Moreover, in my observations and research on post-socialist societies I have found that  political ideology in Ukraine and Russia does not necessarily map easily into the “left”- “right” divides of Western Europe and the US. This is true, even in cases where the political party organization resembles party identities of Western Europe.  All sides in Ukrainian politics have proven equally corrupt and all sides have ties to the Oligarchs.

Orange Revolution and Maidan Revolution

In 2004 Victor Yuschenko, an advocate of closer ties to Europe ran against Victor Yanukovych, an advocate of maintaining stronger ties to Russia. The events of 2004, as is the case with the later events of 2014, are marked by claims and counter claims of both sides. After Yanukovych initially was declared the winner of the elections, mass protests, backed by the US and US backed NGOs alleged fraud and the protests resulted in the Ukrainian Supreme Court ordering a new election. Yuschenko was poisoned during this election. Though it was alleged that the poisoning was  done at the behest of Yanukovych and/or Russia, this was not proven. The poisoning of Yuschenko created extensive sympathy for Yuschenko. The new election was won by Yuschenko, after which followed several temporary governments. Like the later 2014 Maidan Revolution, this Orange Revolution received significant overt aid and support from US diplomats. The period was not marked by significant improvement over the Kuchma era.  In 2010, Yanukovych won election against Yulia Tymoshenko who was subsequently imprisoned on charges of corruption. Though the charges may have had merit, the prosecution of Tymoshenko was clearly selective and political.

Despite the overt interference and effort to influence electoral outcomes in Ukraine (as well as elsewhere) directly by the US and US NGO’s, and the countervailing influence of Russia, Ukraine had become an imperfect, corrupt democracy with a poorly performing economy that maintained an economic structure in which the majority of Ukrainians lived at or below the poverty line. Voters in the West generally viewed the road to improvement as lying in membership in NATO and the EU while voters in the East favored maintenance of closer ties with Russia. In 2013 and 2014, these tensions exploded, led to a State of Civil War in the Donbas region, the Russian seizure of Crimea and the sequence of events that have led to the current Russian invasion.

Here again, attempting to describe these events impartially faces significant obstacles given the extensive claims and counterclaims (see for example Branko Martecic A US Backed Far Right Revolution Helped Bring us to the Brink of War ). The following is my best effort. The rejection of a deal offered by the EU to the Ukraine for closer ties and trade agreements, leading to EU membership were rejected by Yanukovych. A substantial portion of Ukrainians in the West responded with massive, peaceful protests in the Maidan Square of Kyiv.  As in 2004, the protests were encouraged and overtly supported financially and diplomatically by US diplomats and US backed NGOs.  However, the Government responded with forcible efforts to evict protestors from the square and passed laws restricting public demonstrations. In 2014, events took a darker turn. There was significant violence, resulting in extensive fatalities by and among both Ukrainian security forces and protestors. Violence from the side of the protestors side was initiated by the neo-fascist groups who had hijacked the protests. In May of 2014, protests in Odessa by ethnic Russians were met by violence against such protestors, including the burning alive of 30 protestors by fascist militia. Ethnic Russians protested in the Donbas region and were met with violence by fascist militia. The end result was Civil War in Donbas. This was followed by secession in Luhansk and Donetsk aided by Russian military intervention and efforts by the Ukrainian military to retake the region. Russian forces seized Crimea. This was followed by a referendum  in Crimea in which the majority of the inhabitants voted to secede from Ukraine. Yanukovych was forced to resign, fled to Russia, and following new elections, Petro Poroshenko was elected President. Poroshenko was widely regarded as corrupt.

The term of Poroshenko was not only marked by continued corruption, but also abuse of the decommunization laws to preclude criticism of WWII fascist militias, the glorification of these militias, extensive violence by the reborn fascist militias, prohibitions on the use of Russian, discrimination against ethnic Russians and a frozen conflict in the Donbas region.The various fascist militias were directly integrated into the Ukrainian military structure. The initial war in Donbas, in combination with continued shelling and the use of landmines by both sides has resulted in approximately 14,000 deaths, many of whom were civilians. The accounts of who is responsible for the deaths, how many have been killed and on which side of the line of control, is sharply disputed.

Russia has claimed that there were Ukrainian preparations for a renewed offensive in the Donbas region, though this is difficult to verify. However, the US clearly continued to contribute to the conflict. Just prior to the beginning of the conflict Yahoo News published a story on CIA training of paramilitary groups in Ukraine. The initial report focused on the “defensive” nature of this training. However, a more recent story made clear that the nature of the CIA training was extensive and extended to offensive capacities and that some of this training was focused in the Donbas region. The CIA involvement is particularly problematic as there have been little effective controls over what groups are actually the beneficiaries of this training. This raises the question as to whether or not the CIA was training the fascist militias. What is note entirely clear is how deeply and extensively these groups have penetrated the Ukrainian security state.

In 2018 Poroshenko was defeated by Volodymir Zhelensky, who ran as a reform and peace candidate. Though the fascist bloc of political parties attained only 2% share of the vote in the 2018 elections, the fascist militias exercised an inordinate and disproportionate influence on Ukrainian politics. Regardless of his intentions, he was unable to bring these groups to heel. In a visit to the Donbas region he was confronted by armed groups opposed to the peace process.Zhelensky, who is Jewish and speaks Russian, ran on a platform of reconciliation. His efforts at disengagement were met with any angry backlash in the Ukrainian Press. It is possible that a more diplomatic effort by Putin and de-escalation may have served to actually create more political space for Zhelensky to maneuver.

Summary

The events that have brought us to the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine are neither the results of a madman intent on strangling democracy. They are rather, understandable outcomes of geopolitical processes which both shape and are shaped by the internal politics of nation states and the actions of nation states. Not all nation states are equal in this process. It is my hope that a better understanding of the complexities of this situation may contribute in some small way to a better outcome for Ukraine and a less militarized security structure in Europe.

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