Some Experts on Russia are Misleading You!

8 March 2014 

By Masha Karp

Apart from direct Russian propaganda on Ukraine, which finds its way into the British and American press, we daily encounter much more sophisticated and seemingly scholarly attempts to distort the picture of relations between Russia, Ukraine and the West coming from prominent Western commentators. Whether deliberately or just out of ignorance, they are trying to convince their audiences that the best way to deal with one of the scariest aggressors in the post-war world is by trying to appease him. Their main points are:
  • The West shouldn’t meddle. It’s all our fault that we mentioned the EU and NATO to Ukrainians. 
  • Ukraine should not have to choose sides. It should be neutral and the West should help it remain so. 
  • Ukraine is a deeply divided country split between pro-Russian and pro-Western sympathies 
  • The West can’t do anything. You do not expect us to invade, do you? 
They always start with saying that the West is to blame. Anatol Lieven, a well-known writer on Russia and professor in the War Studies department of King’s College, London accuses the West together with Russia of “overplaying their hands” and then the US, Britain and other NATO countries of making “a morally criminal attempt to force their choice by the offer of a NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine”, while the former Ambassador to Russia, Sir Rodric Braithwaite says that “the West began its ill-judged attempts to draw Ukraine into its orbit regardless of Russian sensitivities”.

What strikes me is how deeply contemptuous of Ukraine all those statements are! They actually do not differ much from Kremlin propaganda, which asserts that protesters – any kind of protesters: those on Maidan or Russian opposition activists – would never protest had it not been for Western money. Some Westerners are even haughtier – they think that people of Ukraine want to join the EU or NATO because the West told them to do so! Tens of thousands of people stood on the Maidan for three winter months and risked being beaten up, tortured and shot, - and eventually a hundred of them sacrificed their lives! - not because they wanted to live in a free and functioning state, but because the West had “meddled”. Otherwise, the Western experts believe, these people would have quietly stayed at home quite happy to live in a corrupt country with no independent judiciary, where human rights are not respected – a country like Putin’s Russia or Yanukovich’s Ukraine. Well, some do, some don’t. In Ukraine, where unlike Russia, the media for the last 15 years have been free, they preferred the Maidan.

Another former Ambassador to Russia, Sir Tony Brenton suggests in his letter to "The Financial Times" that it might help to get Russian forces out of Ukraine if the West gave Putin “assurances on the future neutrality of Ukraine” and adds that it would be “a fond delusion” to argue that “big states no longer decide the destinies of small states in this way”. It is interesting psychologically why the former Ambassador, who should know better, calls Ukraine with a population of 46 million “a small state”. The reason for this, I suppose, is that Ukraine used to be part of the Soviet Union and presumably, according to Sir Tony Brenton, and other supporters of the theory of the West’s decisive role in all events, this is where it belongs. In the pre-revolutionary Russian empire Ukraine was even denied its own name – it was simply called “Small Russia” – Malorossiya. Maybe this played some part in Sir Tony Brenton’s thinking?

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Ukraine is no longer part of the Russian or Soviet empire and it is not “Russia”, but Putin’s Russia that wants it back. The distinction is crucial. It is not a “battle for Ukraine” that the West and Russia are waging, as it obviously seems to “the experts”, but a battle fought by the Ukrainian people for their right to choose whether to adopt “the Western way” or “Putin’s way” for their country. The West might follow Tony Brenton’s advice and assure Putin of anything it wishes, but the people of Ukraine have shown that they do not want be “neutral” in this choice. The people of Russia actually face the same dilemma, only so far they have been lagging behind.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there were strong hopes in Russia that it would become, as Russians would call it, “a normal country” - i.e. based on the rule of law, transparency, tolerance, and respect for human rights - in other words, Western–oriented. The hopes were justified, but Russia failed to make them come true – the former nomenklatura managed to grasp Communist party assets and the strong KGB system recaptured the country pretty soon after.

Since 1999 the country under Putin’s leadership (first as Prime Minister and then as President) has been gradually returning to its old familiar totalitarian and imperial Soviet self - the Chechen and Georgian wars were unmistakable signs of this. Russian human rights activists, journalists and sensible people in the West had been warning time and again about the dangers of Putin's regime, but hardly anybody paid any attention till 27th February 2014 when the world suddenly woke up to see Russia invading Ukraine.

Having failed to change itself, Putin’s Russia, naturally, wants to stop others from changing too - just think what a bad example Ukraine’s “Western choice” will set for the Russian opposition!

Putin’s Russia has had trouble with Ukraine’s push for change for many years. During the 2004 elections Putin personally went to Kiev 19 times trying to ensure that his protégé Victor Yanukovich got elected. Yanukovich failed then – the Orange revolution would not let him rig the elections. But in 2010 he came back and, although he always pretended he was acting in the interests of his country, he governed “in the Russian style.” He changed the constitution to give the president more powers than the parliament, put his political rival in prison, drowned the country in corruption and, finally, refused to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. Here the discontent of the Ukrainians boiled over and they went to the Maidan again. 

None of this is mentioned in the detailed article by Anatole Lieven. Sometimes he simply repeats Russian propaganda. “As the demonstrations in Kiev have amply demonstrated, the 'pro-Western' camp in Ukraine contains many ultra-nationalists and even neo-fascists who detest Western democracy and modern Western culture.” Not a word about the majority of people on the Maidan – neither ultra-nationalists or neo-fascists – who were ready to sacrifice their lives so that they and their children could live in a different, “normal” “Western” country”. Lieven never calls events in Ukraine “a revolution” either, which is of course the most apt description for them. He talks instead about “the overthrow of the elected government by ultra-nationalist militias, which have also chased away a large part of the elected parliament.” He stops at simply saying that what happened in Kiev was “a coup” – this would simply parrot what the Kremlin says, so he has to be more careful in choosing his words. But he conveniently forgets that it was President Yanukovich, who gave up his duties and left his government in a difficult situation, instead of acting on the agreement he had signed.

Can Ukraine “avoid having to choose sides” as Lieven suggests? The answer is no. “The Western way” and “Putin’s way” are incompatible. You can’t simultaneously try to build a “European state” and be bogged down in the corruption and lawlessness inherent in the kind of state Russia now has. Ukraine and the neighboring Poland started in 1991 with the same GDP – in the intervening years Polish GDP has become three times larger than that of Ukraine. But this would not have happened had Poland remained Soviet as Putin wants Ukraine and Russia to be. On the other hand, just imagine that the hopes of 1989-91 that Russia would itself choose “the Western way” came true. Would Russia be so unhappy about the changes in Ukraine? Would it mind so much that Ukraine was moving towards Europe if it would like to move towards Europe itself? It is the old Soviet-style regime of Putin’s Russia that wants to drag Ukraine into the past, and it is bad both for the Russians and for the Ukrainians.

However for those who do not care about the Ukrainians and would like to stop Ukraine’s development towards becoming “westernized”, “Russia” always remains the same. Having put behind them the ideology of the Cold War years, they pretend not to notice the trajectory that the Russian state has taken in the last 25 years in the direction of becoming increasingly closed, repressive and aggressive. They ‘d rather talk of “Kiev Rus”, “the cradle of [Russian] civilization” and the Russians’ missing Crimea “as an amputated limb”, as Sir Rodric Braithwaite does. In fact they care as little about the real life of the Russians under Putin as they do about the Ukrainians.

As for Ukraine being divided – the Russian invasion has taken care of that. Previously, the country, had been split – although not geographically or linguistically as it is often claimed, but ideologically. That is, there were different opinions within the country as to which direction the country should move in, what future the people should choose for their country. Indeed, Ukraine was as diverse as many large countries are. However, now the country has united against a common enemy. The Russian takeover of Crimea has accomplished one more thing. While in 2008 around two–thirds of Ukrainians opposed NATO membership, after the invasion, according to a recent poll, the situation has changed dramatically. People are seeking protection, although the government in Kiev says that it is not considering NATO membership as an option at the present time.

And finally, for the West to say that it can’t do anything to stop the aggression, when it has obligations under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, amounts to a complete surrender. Just looking at Britain we see that there has been a number of reasonable suggestions put forward recently as well as an impressive amount of proof that Britain is reluctant to stop Putin out of sheer self interest. (1) This is, of course, disgusting, and does not at all mean that the West, as some experts have claimed “does not have the instruments to impose its will.” The West does have the means, but it does not wish to use them. 

Meanwhile, the West's feeble attempts at employing exclusively diplomatic means to solve the problem have so far led to Russian troops invading Kherson region in Ukraine, and to OSCE observers being denied access to Crimea for a third day running.


(1) See, for example: Oliver Bullough, British Officials Oppose Sanctions Because Russia's Elite Are London's Cash Cows, New Republic, 4 March 2014
Michael Weiss, Britain’s KGB Sugar Daddy, The Daily Beast, 7 March 2014; Ben Judah, London's Laundry Business, The New York Times, 7 March 2014.

The views expressed in blogs published on Rights in Russia are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of Rights in Russia.