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Ukraine and Inter-Imperialist Rivalry


“Russia plus Ukraine is the Russian empire, which can never be a democracy.”

David Frum, neocon ideologue, advocating preemptive expansion of the U.S. empire

Many are declaring the Ukraine crisis the nadir of post-Cold War U.S.-Russian relations. Surely it is that. But the clash over Ukraine between Presidents Bush and Putin is not one pitting “freedom” vs. “dictatorship,” or capitalism vs. something else, as the neocons might have us believe. Rather, it pits U.S. ambitions for hegemony over the innermost circle of Russia’s historical sphere of influence (including Belarus and Moldova as well as Ukraine) against Russia’s ambitions to maintain a buffer zone against a relentlessly expanding NATO.

Mainstream journalism dwells on a closely contested election, evidence of vote fraud, and inconsistencies between exit polls and announced election results. Colin Powell protests that the vote did “not meet international standards.” Critics of Bush foreign policy are having a field day noting the irony of the charges in light of the last two scandal-dogged U.S. elections, and particularly the large discrepancies between exit polls and announced results in the last vote. But no foreign government is in a position to reject the substandard American elections, while the U.S. is strong enough to challenge lots of regimes’ legitimacy—before moving in to change them.

The outgoing regime of President Leonid Kuchma and his Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, stands for a closer relationship with Russia. Yanukovych ran a tight race with opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who favors NATO and EU membership, concluding with a reported victory of 49.46 to 46.61%. Yanukovych has been politically aided by Moscow, Yuschenko by Washington. Ian Traynor in the Guardian reports a “U.S. campaign behind the turmoil in Ukraine,” and labels the Yushenko campaign “an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing that, in four countries in four years [Serbia, Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine], has been used to try to salvage rigged elections and topple unsavoury regimes.” He points out that “Richard Miles, the U.S. ambassador in Belgrade, played a key role” in toppling Milosevic in Serbia, and later as U.S. ambassador to Tbilisi, toppling Shevardnadze in Georgia. Then “the U.S. ambassador in Minsk, Michael Kozak, a veteran of similar operations in central America, notably in Nicaragua, organised a near identical campaign to try to defeat the Belarus hardman, Alexander Lukashenko.” This one failed, but the experiences gained have “been invaluable in plotting to beat the regime of Leonid Kuchma in Kiev.”

Washington’s propaganda apparatus made it clear in advance that the only legitimate victory would be that won by its man. This article of faith ignored the very substantial social base that Yanukovych enjoys, especially among the ethnic Russian voters in the eastern half of the country.

I’ve seen a host of reports defending and attacking the integrity of the Ukrainian electoral process, including some surprising ones. The British Helsinki Watch Group found more irregularities on the opposition side, whereas a majority in the Ukrainian Parliament target the government.
I have no personal opinion on the count, but just assume massive fraud on both sides. I have no greater hostility for one or the other candidate. The fundamental issue here in any case isn’t who got how many ballots. Just imagine what would happen if Porter Goss received a CIA report suggesting that Yanukovych indeed won more votes, that Goss duly reported that to Condoleezza Rice, and that Condi decided to bring it to her boss’s attention. Especially if Karl Rove was in the room at the time. Would Bush and Powell reverse course and announce that the election had in fact met “international standards”?


The Turf Battle

No, it’s not the question of electoral purity, surely a matter of indifference to both Putin and Bush. It’s a matter of turf. Look at Ukraine on a map. This nation of 48 million is Europe’s second largest country, almost as big as Texas, and is bordered by Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary. It’s a European, Slavic country with strong linguistic and cultural ties to Russia; indeed the first Russian state (Kievan Rus) grew up in Ukraine and the name itself means “borderland.” With Belarus and Russia, it launched the Confederation of Independent States (CIS) in December 1991, confirming its intimate links to the other two even before the breakup of the Soviet Union. With its rich soil, it was the Soviet breadbasket. Hugging the northern coast of the Black Sea, including the Crimean Peninsula, it constitutes what the CIA Factbook calls “a strategic position at the crossroads between Europe and Asia.” Its natural resources include iron ore, coal, manganese, natural gas, oil, salt, sulfur, graphite, titanium, magnesium, kaolin, nickel, mercury, and timber.

U.S. policy is very clear. Washington wants to gain control over the flow of oil from the Caspian Sea, especially Turkmenistan, and to do so, vies at every step with Russia. Backing regime change in Georgia earlier this year, it has increased its leverage in that former Soviet republic. It woes the former Soviet republics to join its NATO military bloc, which with the end of the Cold War would seem to have little raison d’être except to contain friendly capitalist Russia. While Eastern European allies once buffered the USSR from NATO, the alliance now borders Russia in the Baltics (Estonia and Latvia), and Washington would like to expand it to include Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan, encircling Russia’s western flank. Meanwhile it stations U.S. troops and acquires military bases in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, pursuant to the unpredictably expanding “War on Terrorism.” A compliant Ukraine abetting its objectives would be a major prize for the Bush administration.

Similarly a very friendly Ukraine would serve Russian “national interests.” Moscow envisions a modest revival of the late USSR, the demise of which Putin calls “a tragedy,” centering around Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The neocons absolutely oppose this. David Frum (former Bush speech writer, author of the notorious “axis of evil” line, implacable foe of a Palestinian state, public proponent of the allegation that Yasser Arafat died of AIDS, Richard Perle associate) has recently written the National Review Online that “independent Russia can be a normal country with a democratic future: [but] Russia plus Ukraine is the Russian empire, which can never be a democracy.” (Emphasis added.) Frum is not necessarily expressing the thinking of administration officials; obviously the latter find no contradiction between the empire in general (surely not the one they’re busily expanding) and “democracy” as they perversely conceptualize it. And they realize that the differences between Russia and the U.S. at this point are not ideological, Russia having long since thoroughly and very painfully embraced capitalism. But I expect that such officials will publicly opine that, indeed, a bloc led by Moscow, even limited to the immediately adjoining Slavic lands with intimate historical ties to Mother Russia, is somehow antithetical to democracy and must be prevented. They will emphasize Putin’s manipulation of the Russian press (hoping no doubt it doesn’t raise the issue of the U.S. press’s slavish deference to Bush), and the lack of political opposition in Russia (as though there were some here).

Inter-imperialist rivalry is again the order of the day, as it was before the Russian Revolution, before the socialist alternative and the Cold War. Powerful nations struggle, not over radically different ideas about society, but over mere lucre: markets, labor-power and resources. Few governments want the U.S. to control Iran and Iraq; other major powers seek at least a share in the pie. So they keep standing in Washington’s way, or trying to. So far Russia has been patient, allowing France to lead international opposition to the war against Iraq. Putin has accommodated U.S. expansion, trading support for most aspects of Bush’s Terror War for Washington’s acceptance of Russia’s “anti-terrorism” Chechnya policy. But it’s one thing to concede Southwest Asia to the American juggernaut, another to fork over the borderlands, even if the loss takes the form of some paltry poll result.


U.S. Rejects “Irresponsible” Democracy Anyway

Recall how Henry Kissinger, back in June 1970 declared of the Chilean elections, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” He was speaking about a country in the Western Hemisphere, which U.S. administrations have always considered their turf, and he as Secretary of State had no problem abetting the fascist coup of Sept. 11, 1973 which toppled the “moderate Marxist” regime of Salvador Allende. The CIA had put at least $ 10 million into anti-Allende propaganda. Then as now, the U.S. government interferes in foreign politics in pursuit of what it believes are its interests. It does so now with far greater means and efficacy than can Russia.

U.S. governments since 1823 have asserted their right to lead the hemisphere and thwart the efforts of external (European) powers to interfere. Chile is 4000 miles from Texas, but when a presidential candidate marginally more sympathetic to the USSR than to Washington took power, Washington toppled him without moral qualms. Russia has long dropped the Brezhnev Doctrine (a variation of the Monroe), but understandably wants its closest neighbors to be friendly. Ukraine is to Russia what Mexico (rather than Chile) is to the U.S., and Putin’s behavior should be seen in that light, as he twice congratulates Yanukovych on his triumph even as U.S. and UE leaders announce they refuse to accept the Ukrainian election result.

A falling out among thieves is not necessarily a bad thing, and I would just as soon that Putin, who has curried favor with the Bush administration in the past even by collaborating disinformation, give the hyperpower a run for its money in this contest over the Ukraine. A contest not between two politicians, but two powers, one triumphantly ascendant, the other cautiously defensive but following repeated setbacks and humiliations maybe prepared to mount a fight in its own neighborhood. One can only hope that the big power contention doesn’t impose a great price on the people of the Ukraine, and that they make use of the situation to truly advance their interests.

* * * *

My surname is Swiss, and my roots mostly Scandinavian, but I have German ancestors too, who emigrated to the U.S. not from Germany directly but from the Ukraine. There were many ethnic Germans there, their ancestors invited by Russia’s Czarina Catherine in the late eighteenth century. Many left for the American Midwest in the late nineteenth. These “Russian Germans,” who contributed enormously to the history of Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota and the Dakotas, often left to avoid conscription. Family lore indicates my ancestors were draft-dodgers. They didn’t want their youth fighting for Imperial Russia, so they came to America seeking freedom.

I understand that attitude, which brought a lot of immigrants here. I do not want my teenage kids ever fighting for one imperialism against another, in some far-flung place. What irony there would be in their coerced involvement in such a fight, especially if it took place in this currently contested spot important to my family history. I can’t believe it will come to that, but after all, there are crazy people in power, surely crazier in Washington than in Moscow or Kiev.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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