Reckless in Kiev: Neocons, Putin and Ukraine

Why Obama and Putin must desist from reckless military interventions in other countries’ affairs.

Moscow has largely failed to contain Western Ukrainian tendencies despite its sticks and carrots, writes Bishara [EPA]

Like most of the people speaking about Ukraine,I am no expert. But I know one or two things about the history of the Cold War to recognise a polarising cliche when I hear one, or a demonising characterisation that leads to further escalation of a dangerous situation.

Already, the ripples from Ukraine are having long terms strategic ramifications regardless whether a diplomatic solution is reached soon. Alas, much of that depends not on Ukrainians but rather on Moscow and Washington – my very focus here and in the next episode of EMPIRE . Both have cynically pulled and shoved this country in the name of freedom and security, euphemisms for imperial interests, and pretexts for intervention.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made bold moves and a few conciliatory statements since the crisis deteriorated, with lots of improvisation in between, in an attempt to achieve the twin goals of preserving Russia’s interest in Ukraine and stemming the tide of Western expansion in Ukraine and former republics of the Soviet Union. And in the process reconstitute Moscow’s area of influence  His abrupt and repressive ways are questionable; indeed reprehensible.

Counting the Cost – The price of military intervention

How Washington reacts depends largely on its original motivations and goals for getting so deeply involved, and on whether the White House was privy to what US diplomats, notably Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt,, were cooking in Kiev. In other words, what did Obama know and when did he know it?

Putin: Ukraine as a redline

After so many east European nations and former republics of the Soviet Union deserted Moscow in favour of the West, Putin has made it clear over the last decade that Ukraine, like Georgia, is a Russian redline.

And like all imposed lines, it’s red on one side, green on the other, in this case, allowing Moscow to intervene while denying Washington the same power or privilege.

This is of course a familiar notion in global power politics. (In Palestine, the green line is red to the Palestinians, green to Israelis.) But geopolitical familiarity shouldn’t be confused with international legality.

Ukraine, a country of 45 million, has been a major Russian economic and strategic partner, and  is the last major buffer zone separating it from NATO. So it comes as no surprise that Moscow, the powerful former patron, subordinates Ukraine’s sovereignty to its own national and strategic interests, two decades after it gained independence.

Post-Cold War agreements, that granted Ukraine its independence and disarmed it of its nuclear weapons, allow Russia to maintain as many as 25,000 Russian troops in the Crimea region, the region with a Russian majority witnessing much of today’s tension.

Headed by a former KGB agent, Russia is most likely to be clandestinely and deeply involved in the internal affairs of its neighbour. Or as the Europeans have come to realise, Westerners come and go but Russian secret services have been at home in Ukraine.

Headed by a former KGB agent, Russia is most likely to be clandestinely and deeply involved in the internal affairs of its neighbour. Or as the Europeans have come to realise, Westerners come and go but Russian secret services have been at home in Ukraine.

Nonetheless, Moscow has largely failed to coopt or contain Western Ukrainian tendencies, despite its sticks and carrots including Putin’s December offer of $15 bn in loans and discounted gas prices.

Putin, who remained rather cool in response to Western meddling in Ukrainian affairs, has finally fired back rather aggressively after the removal and flight of President Viktor Yanukovich – referring to it as coup d’etat.

Nuland: ‘Yats is the guy’

Victoria Nuland is the gal who made headlines after her infamous “F*** the EU” remark during a phone conversation with US ambassador to Ukraine Geofrey Pyatt. The exchange that appears to have been monitored and leaked by Russian intelligence – was posted on youtube under the Russian title – “Maidan Puppets”.

Although Nuland’s profanity got all the attention, her arrogance during the conversation was far more telling and dangerous. Like an imperial commissaire from a past era, she assigned roles in the future government, and made it clear who would and who wouldn’t join, dismissing Vitali Klitchko and anointing Arseniy Yasenyuk – who did become the present prime minister, all the while casually referring to them as “Klitsch” and “Yats”. She insisted, “Yats is the guy” to lead. The same Yats who’s in Washington this week to discuss the future of Ukraine.

If this sounds like a brazen old-fashion interference in another country’s affairs, well, it is. It’s also rash and counterproductive. When the foreign diplomats in question join demonstrations and give out cookies to protesters, as Nuland and others did, they’re in effect saying; to hell with Russia.

Judging by her record, Nuland is happy to provoke a crisis leading to a break up with Russia. But   – at least  – she and the State department, and yes, the CIA should have known that Russia wouldn’t allow it. Or did they know it?

Enter a major crisis that could escalate into a military confrontation. It’s “deja vu all over again” – with the neocons providing the pretext to America’s military interventionists to make the case for muscular intervention or even war, such as Nuland’s former boss, Dick Cheney, the godfather of the 2003 war on Iraq. Cheney was quick to point out that Obama’s weakness prompted Putin to act and that military rather than diplomatic moves are need to deter Putin.

Cheney recommended at least three immediate military steps: Deploying missile systems in Poland, preparing for NATO military exercises close to the Russian borders, and arming and training Ukrainian forces.  

It’s the closest thing to what American Russia expert Stephen Cohen called: “Two steps from a Cuban Missile Crisis and three steps from war with Russia for the first time.”

If it walks like a

A woman for all seasons when it comes to Washington politics, Nuland was at home in the Clinton and Bush administration as she is today at the Obama administration. She served as assistant Vice President Dick Cheney, ambassador to NATO, and an Obama State Department spokesperson before taking on her current position in September 2013.

But there should be no mistaking her ideological leaning. Not only because she’s the spouse of leading neoconservative, Robert Kagan. Or, that she’s the sister-in-law of another prominent Neocon, Fredrick Kagan and wife Kimberly, both think-tank type military historians.  

Russia declares support for Crimea breakaway

They all belong to a Washington clique of neoconservatives that continue to affect foreign policy who, like most of the other collaborators in the movement, haven’t served in the military and are referred to by their detractors as “chicken-hawks”.

“F*** the EU” is the new improvised version of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and the neocons’ hostility towards “Old Europe”. In his 2003 book, “Of Paradise and Power”, Robert Kagan highlighted the difference and division between the US and Europe – Americans from Mars, Europeans from Venus.

The Kagans reckon Europe should be marginalized because it’s too soft, overly diplomatic. A charge the Europeans reject. Especially when it’s the Polish, America’s close friends in Europe, who have spearheaded EU diplomacy in Kiev before and after the crisis broke out in Ukraine.

Another example of neocon-leaning activist, who has been playing an important role in Ukraine and paving the way for the anti Russian movement, is Carl Gersham, the head of the National Endowment for Democracy, NED.He served as head of the CIA associated Radio Free Europe at the height of the Cold War. Paradoxically, he’s been at the helm of this democracy promoting organisation 30 years or longer than most of the world’s autocracies.

If you look up Ukraine at NED’s website, you’ll see the almost 70 programmes listed in 2012 that are financed by the organisation. Thats not to say that Ukrainians have been merely instigated or that those who receive funds are suspect. Certainly not. They do have legitimate reasons to protest against corrupt leaders and in favor or better standard of living.  But from Putin’s perspective, Gresham’s activities constitute meddling in Ukraine’s affairs, plain and simple. 

For the record, I don’t fault the neoconservatives for their idealism or declared position on the promotion of human rights, freedom and democracy. I am personally a staunch supporter of these principles in international relations. What I do question is their double standard – for example on Israel/Palestine – and methods – all too eager to use military force. The neocons are pretty messianic in the way they see the battle for universal freedom as integral to American power and the fulfillment of its destiny.

Fortunately, President Obama has refrained from escalating militarily, preferring instead to remain diplomatically engaged. Unfortunately, however, the damage is already done. And it’s doubtful the Russian Western relationship could get back on track any time soon.

That’s why Presidents Obama and Putin need to make it clear they regret their diplomats’ political intrusion in Ukraine, and reject reckless foreign military interventions in other countries’ affairs.

And they must avoid war at any cost. A redline for both sides.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.