Friday, September 12, 2014

Vanden Heuvel's vile apologia of Putin

Not to get too personal, but Katrina vanden Heuvel's husband is Prof. Stephen F. Cohen of NYU, the most prominent Putin/Russia apologist in the U.S. Here's how the Kyiv Post described Cohen:

Cohen represents the part of the American left that used to admire some aspects of the Soviet Union and transferred their allegiance to Putin, who has increasingly appealed to the Soviet legacy. While Cohen criticized some Soviet policies, he was an ardent fan of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and a vehement critic of anti-communist President Boris Yeltsin.

In 2008, Cohen asserted that Putin “ended Russia’s collapse at home and re-asserted its independence abroad.” He has paid little attention to problems with free speech, freedom of assembly, rule of law and separation of powers in Russia, as well as to pervasive corruption that has only worsened since Putin came to power.

Cohen has also accused Ukrainian authorities of “war crimes” while ignoring numerous reports on kidnappings, torture, rape and murder by pro-Russian insurgents.

So now to vanden Heuvel's apologia in the Washington Post of Putin's 7-month war of aggression in Ukraine. In it she accuses "NATO leaders -- including President Obama" of having "escalated tensions, while dismissing opportunities to bring the conflict to a reasonable conclusion quickly."  Vanden Heuvel continued:

There would have been no civil war if the European Union’s leadership had not insisted on an exclusive association agreement that prejudiced Ukrainian industry in the east and trade with Russia, or if the United States and European nations had used their influence with the demonstrators to abide by the Feb. 21 agreement then-President Viktor Yanukovych signed, which would have handed more power to parliament and called for elections in December, or if the United States and Europe had been willing to work with Russia to restore the Feb. 21 agreement and calm worries in Crimea and the east about the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

Instead the U.S. and E.U. have encouraged the most radical elements in the Kiev government in their campaign to subjugate the east with military force — to seek a military solution to what is essentially a political problem in a deeply divided and economically fragile Ukraine.

In a few sentences vanden Heuvel throws out several mistruths -- coincidentally, this paragraph is the Russian propaganda line, verbatim.

Mistruth 1: Negotiations between the EU and Ukraine (headed then by pro-Russian President Yanukovych) caused the civil war. Let's recall that those negotiations were ongoing since February 2008, after Ukraine's admission to the WTO, after which Yanukovych's government made public and private announcements to EU leaders that it certainly intended to sign such an Association Agreement (AA) and enter into a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU. So, if the EU had "insisted" on the AA, then it did so very patiently with a very willing partner, while painstakingly negotiating the 1,200-page draft document.

Of course President Yanukovych and his team led by Arbuzov understood that the AA would have been a net economic benefit to Ukraine. Yanukovych's government only changed its position on the AA on the eve of signing because of Russian threats of retaliation -- higher gas prices, WTO-violating trade sanctions against Ukraine, etc. 

For more info, read some of the myths surrounding the Association Agreement here; much more recent explanation of the EU's position, offers of macro- and technical assistance to Ukraine, post Feb. 21, here; and the EU's Guide to the AA here.  

Mistruth 2: The U.S. and EU used their influence to nix the agreement on Feb. 21, 2014 between then-President Yanukovych and political leaders representing the Maidan protesters. In fact, Russia, which was involved in those negotiations, refused to sign the Feb. 21 agreement, yet today Russia calls for all sides to abide by it!  And in fact, on Feb. 22, President Yanukovych, without a word of explanation, fled Ukraine and surfaced a few days later in Russia. Meanwhile, Ukraine's new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced that $37 billion had gone missing from Ukraine's state coffers -- certainly the reason Yanukovych fled in the first place, to avoid prosecution. Despite Yanukovych's theft and absconding from Ukraine, Ukraine's opposition continues to abide by the Feb. 21 agreement. To quote the EU:

Violence in the capital ceased and protesters withdrew from public buildings; a Law reinstating the 2004 constitution has been adopted; a comprehensive constitutional reform envisaged along with new electoral laws and a balanced Central Electoral Commission; democratic and inclusive Presidential elections have now taken place. Investigations into acts of violence have been ordered by the new Prosecutor General, with expert advice of the Council of Europe's International Advisory Panel, inaugurated on 9 April.

More recently new Parliamentary elections have been called for October 26, giving all Ukrainians yet another opportunity to have their voices heard. 

Mistruth 3: The U.S. and EU did nothing to calm worries in Crimea and the east of Ukraine about the rights of Russian speakers. Vanden Heuvel is partly right: the U.S. and the EU did do almost nothing to counter the Kremlin's vile propaganda that Russian speakers would be forced to speak Ukrainian, or worse, be killed by roving bands of Right Sector "fascists." I witnessed this propaganda firsthand in Crimea, where many sincerely believed that battalions of Right Sector vigilantes were coming to kill them and rape their daughters for speaking Russian. With Russia's help, so called "self-defense militias" were formed to repel this non-existent threat; in the end these militias ended up rousting pro-Ukrainian citizens and kidnapping and killing Crimean Tatars and other "anti-Russian" citizens. Not a single attack or even appearance of Right Sector in Crimea ever occurred.  

Ditto in eastern Ukraine: Human Rights Watch, the OSCE and other observers have not documented the kind of anti-Russian pogroms that Putin's media fabricated on Russian TV channels and social media.  

Indeed, the sad irony of all these phony accusations is that the city of Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, is mostly Russian-speaking. The charges by Russia of fascism and discrimination were all a lie designed to lubricate the penetration of "little green men" -- Russian soldiers, spies, mercenaries and irregulars -- into eastern Ukraine.

Mistruth 4: The U.S. and EU have encouraged the most radical elements in the Kyiv government. Ask any pro-Russian who those radical elements are and they will tell you Oleh Tyahnybok's right-wing Svoboda party, and Dmitry Yarosh's Right Sector militia and political party. Vanden Heuvel doesn't offer any evidence of her accusation, and it's hard to imagine how she could, since these two parties do not represent Ukraine's President, Prime Minister; and only Svoboda has about 35 seats out of 450 in the Supreme Council (Parliament). One can only wonder what the vanden Heuvel thinks the devilish West must be doing in Ukraine behind the scenes?....

Mistruth 5: The U.S. and EU have encouraged a "military solution" in eastern Ukraine "to what is essentially a political problem."  Fact: Starting in March 2014, pro-Russian militias, headed by Russian agents and special forces, seized government buildings throughout eastern Ukraine. This looked like a repetition of Russia's Crimea scenario, where Putin at first denied (in March 2014) and then admitted (in April 2014) that most of the "local self-defense militias" were in fact Russian troops. A few days later, "little green men" were fixed in eastern Ukraine. 

As in Crimea, admissions in eastern Ukraine follow denials. Now rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine and in the Kremlin say Russian troops "on vacation" are fighting against Ukraine. But we need not rely on their admissions/denials: NATO has estimated that over 3,000  Russian troops are active in Ukraine. And in Russia, associations of soldiers' mothers, brave journalists and human rights activists have cataloged hundreds of secret burials of Russian regular troops KIA in Ukraine -- and met with harassment from the Russian government for revealing the truth.

Just imagine if NATO soldiers "on vacation" turned up fighting in the ranks of Ukraine's military -- what apoplectic fits of outrage vanden Heuvel and her husband would have!  But of course they are not, and the U.S. and NATO have so far refused to offer any lethal military assistance to Ukraine.   

Next, vanden Heuvel throws out a red herring, NATO: 
Our responsibility goes beyond the immediate crisis, too. There would not have been such a concerted Russian nationalist response to the crisis had the West not sowed the seeds of suspicion and mistrust over the past 18 years by growing NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe.

Yet by her own admission this whole "civil war" in Ukraine started over the EU Association Agreement that had nothing to do with NATO! So there's no real point in discussing it.

Later, vanden Heuvel writes [emphasis mine]:

[T]he hawkish outcry for a more confrontational stance toward Putin has yet to give way to common sense. Across the political spectrum, prominent figures are demanding harsher sanctions targeting Russia, as well as military assistance and NATO membership for Ukraine. These demands seem to increase regardless of what Moscow does and regardless of the fact that Russian cooperation is essential for the stabilization and rebuilding of the shattered Ukrainian economy. Never mind that Putin has just helped broker a long-sought cease-fire; sanctions, we are told, must be broadened and deepened. Punishing Russia is far more important than a political settlement in Ukraine.

Even most Russians would have to smile at, "Never mind that Putin has just helped broker a long-sought cease-fire..." since Putin is the one providing weapons and troops to fight Ukraine's military. So of course Putin can "broker" peace -- he only has to broker with himself!

Vanden Heuvel's denial of Russia's deep and sustained military action in Ukraine deprives her arguments of any credibility.

Indeed, vanden Heuvel also ignored the despicable Russian missile attack on MH flight 117 that killed 298 people, mostly Europeans, and how this attack hardened Europe's resolve to impose harsher sanctions against Russia for its aggression against Ukraine!

Now a final word about the ceasefire and "political reform" in Ukraine. As I've said before, President Poroshenko and just about every political party in Ukraine, including Svoboda (!), has come out in favor of decentralization of Ukraine's government, i.e. more local government control. But the kind of "federalized" Ukraine that Russia wants would be unacceptable; it would technically be a confederacy and make Ukraine ungovernable and disunited ... which is exactly what Putin wants.  

Again, vanden Heuvel ignores this, ignores the fact that such a confederate political structure exists exactly nowhere on Earth, and for good reason: both times it was tried in the United States it failed miserably, most tragically during the U.S. Civil War that took 750,000 lives.   

UPDATE (09.15.2014): My post drew a heated response from a few Russian academics that I know. (So far every Russian studies professor that I've come across is extremely defensive of Putin's policies in Crimea and Donbas. Funny how that works....).

First, I was criticized for daring to question Prof. Stephen Cohen's objectivity and "putting labels on people." 

To which I replied:
Well, Cohen said that "the U.S. would go down in history as having blood on its hands" in Ukraine. That was an amazingly unobjective  statement considering that Russian troops and weapons are killing people in Ukraine, and not a single U.S. soldier or weapon is there!  Cohen can't even bring himself to say directly that Putin is fighting a war in Ukraine (check out 19:20):
Cohen is certainly knowledgeable but also clearly a russophile to a fault.
Also debatable -- in fact, unknowable -- is Сohen's assertion that Ukraine would still be in a civil war even without Russian interference. We can never know that for certain because Russia has been there from the start.  But I would say look at places like Kharkiv that seemed to be tipping toward Russia but then came back strongly in favor of Ukraine.  I have no doubt that now many people in Luhansk and Donetsk hate Ukraine after all the fighting and Russian propaganda, but I would wager that most of them want a return to нормальная жизнь, regardless of who can give it to them. 
Perhaps worst of all, he's from Kentucky and yet said that "we" fought for the South in the U.S. Civil War, which is false!
Second, I was challenged on the merits of what I wrote above. I won't write down what my interlocutor said, in the interest of space. You can glean it from my replies:
1) The EU certainly seemed to take [President Yanukovych] and Arbuzov at their word that they were serious about it. What they thought in private -- I don't know. The EU didn't realize what an unreliable counterpart Yanu was. More important, many Ukrainians took Yanu at his word that he intended to sign the AA. Even the folks who hated him and PR [Party of Regions] thought that at least Yanu was doing one thing right -- moving Ukraine toward the EU. And when Yanu broke that promise too, it was the last straw. I was there and you had to see the despair then anger of many Ukrainians who just couldn't tolerate Yanu's deceit toward the Ukrainian people.
This is of course what started Maidan, not Western NGOs, agents or any baloney like that. I hope you're not one of those people who believe such simple fairy tales. Again, I have friends who were joining up on Maidan via Facebook and VK when there were only a few dozen, and they thought that nobody would come. But eventually more people did come, and it was all driven by Ukrainians, not the West, mostly through social networks. I saw this movement evolve before my eyes on FB. So yes, "the whole thing started because of DCFTA," but for the reasons I just explained, because of the stifled will of the Ukrainian people.
What "consequences" did the EU threaten Ukraine with?  Besides that, it's elementary that Ukraine couldn't be part of the tomozhenniy soyuz and enjoy special trade status with the EU. 
2) There is no evidence that [President Yanukovych] was under threat; and anyway, he could have gone to another city to stay, for instance Donetsk or Simferopol, but instead he went to Russia. As policemen say, "If you're not guilty, why are you running away?" Yanu stole from Ukraine for years and he knew the new government would uncover it soon. He didn't want to go to jail so he ran away. No innocent and responsible president flees his own country; this is what African dictators do, not European leaders. 
3) The law on language was reversed and never implemented. Yes, the new gov't went too far there but cooler heads prevailed. Re: pogroms, numerous statements of Ukrainian Jews and rabbis have confirmed that there was no more anti-Semitism on Maidan than at any other time; in fact many Jews (I know them personally) were there; and even some Israeli Jews returned from Ukraine to participate.  So please let's not support this Kremlin myth with any more wasted words, since Russia has more anti-Semites and neo-Nazis than Ukraine by many times. 
By the way, I see you ignored that pogroms against Crimean Tatars started right away -- in fact Aksyonov was known in years past for clearing out Tatar samozakhvat. Tatars got the message when Putin named him acting PM of Crimea. The Tatars' "Nelson Mandela" [Mustafa Djemilev] is once again exiled from his homeland. Kidnappings and murders of Tatars, pro-Maidan activists and Ukrainian Orthodox priests in Crimea remain unsolved, and Putin's "brownshirt" militias still rove Crimea's streets. Anti-fascists indeed! 
4) Yarosh can say whatever he wants, it's up to reasonable people to assess the situation rationally. Vizitka Yarosha was the joke of the year. Putin needs a bogeyman and Yarosh is the closest thing.
5) Are you seriously denying that regular Russian troops have not been sent to fight in Ukraine -- that is, sent a second time, after Crimea? If you can't be honest about that then we probably cannot find common ground about anything else.
6) The plane [MH flight 117] was hit by an object moving at high speed. Of course it was a missile and the Ukrainians had no reason to shoot down an airplane over their own skies, since Russia has not yet sent aircraft to Ukraine. The terrorists were shooting down Ukrainian aircraft. And at first the rebels admitted on social networks that they shot down the plane, that they had the missile systems from Russia.  You must know about this but you choose to ignore it.  They are the culprits. Or do you believe it was a conspiracy to garner sympathy for Ukraine? Or do you believe what the Russian media says -- the first missing plane from Asia was diverted to the U.S., everybody onboard was killed by the CIA, then at the right moment the plane was sent over Ukraine to be exploded with a payload of corpses?  It's disgusting that such filth could be discussed on television, but that's Russia for you. 
7) I'm sure you understand what I was saying, but I'll explain. Putin may call it "federalization" but what he talked about -- autonomous economic and foreign policies for Donetsk and Luhansk -- is not a federation, it's a confederation. All federal systems have a strong central government that makes economic and foreign policy, period. So Putin can call a duck a zebra but we still know it's a duck.
I didn't call anybody subhuman, but all the Russian spies and soldiers fighting in Ukraine should leave or face death. Unfortunately Russia is the stronger country militarily and without Western help Poroshenko cannot defeat them, hence the ceasefire and negotiations.  This is a war by Russia against Ukraine. (Incidentally, many Russians say it's a war by the U.S. against Russia, but the logic is the same: Russia vs. _____.)

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
September 9, 2014 | Washington Post

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