Ukraine: The Sovereignty Argument, and the Real Problem of Fascism
The two most important questions shaping the discussion of events in Ukraine should, in my opinion, be:
1. How (relatively) important is Kiev’s claim on sovereignty over the Crimea, transferred from Russia to Ukraine by the stroke of Nikita Khrushchev’s pen in 1954?
2. How (relatively) important is it that neo-fascist groups, in particular the Svoboda Party, played a significant if not decisive role in the toppling of the elected President Viktor Yanukovich, installing Arseniy Yatsenyuk (who has announced in advance an “unpopular” austerity regime); and now hold major cabinet posts, including minister of defense, and control the National Security Agency?
To the first issue one can answer that, according to international law, in particular the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the Russian Federation must respect Ukrainian sovereignty within its existing borders (however unfairly drawn those borders may seem to some). The principle of respect for sovereignty seems straightforward enough.
But consider the case of Croatia. In 1990, its parliament declared the country’s independence in what Washington considered a violation of international law. “You can’t just do that,” thought U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, who made it clear the U.S. opposed the breakup of Yugoslavia. But U.S. ally Germany–the newly reunited Germany under the revanchist Helmut Kohl, swaggering towards Balkan hegemony–got its way. Once all hell broke loose due to sectarian conflict–which had been kept in check by Marshall Joseph Broz Tito’s secular regime–the U.S. moved in to split up a once-proud neutral country in Europe that had never been a threat to itself. All due to “humanitarian” concerns, we were told.
Recall how the U.S. wrested Kosovo away from Serbia in 1999, although there was absolutely no question then that Kosovo was and had been part of Serbia for many centuries. In the process it bombed a European capital (Belgrade) for the first time since 1945, creating a protectorate in Kosovo hosting a massive U.S. army base.
Even after driving out Serbian forces, the U.S. hesitated to promote Kosovo’s independence until 2008, when Condoleezza Rice proclaimed it “sui generis…because of the special circumstances out of which the breakup of Yugoslavia came.”
Russia warned at the time that this was setting a dire precedent. Sure enough, when former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili foolishly attacked South Ossetia (which had declared independence from Georgia in 1990) in August 2008, he prompted a brief war with Russia and the establishment of the two de facto independent states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These are recognized by a handful of countries including Russia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. The U.S. cried foul. Sen. John McCain thundered “We are all Georgians now” and demanded intervention. But the U.S. could do nothing.
One might argue that, to insure global stability, respect for existing legally recognized borders should be an absolute. But the leaders of big powers don’t believe that. They simply argue for that principle when it suits their needs.
To the second question one can answer that it is very important that neo-fascists have a high profile within the new Ukrainian regime strongly supported by Washington. The fascist element is not, as the State Department (and even some people on the “left” suggest), a minor factor in all this, exaggerated by the Kremlin to discredit a mass movement. As we will show, it is quite central.
One can further question whether Kiev’s sovereignty claims over Crimea (and for that matter over the whole region east of the Dnieper River, which was Russian territory to the early twentieth century and is largely populated by Russian speakers) trump Russian concerns that forces promoting Ukrainian ultranationalism and anti-Semitism have taken over in Kiev. Does a sovereign Ukraine have the right to go fascist, to marginalize and mistreat minorities?
Neo-fascists in Cabinet Posts
Some have noted that, for the first time since 1945, neo-fascists hold cabinet posts in a European country. They include the Ukrainian interim defense minister, Ihor Tenyukh (a naval commander who has studied at the Pentagon and favors NATO membership); deputy prime minster for economic affairs Oleksandr Sych (chief Svoboda ideologist who as a member of parliament co-authored a bill banning abortion, who’s said that women have the right to avoid pregnancy by “leading an orderly life”); minister of agriculture Ihor Svaika (an agro-oligarch); and minister of ecology Andriy Moknyk (who has served as Svoboda’s envoy to Italy’s neo-fascist Forzo Nuovo. Group).
Other appointments worth noting include the National Security Council chief, Andry Parubiy (co-founder of Svoboda, leader of the U.S.-backed “Orange Revolution” in 2004, and “security commandant” during the Maidan protests directing attacks by the paramilitary organization “Right Sector”); and Deputy NSC chief, Dmytro Yarosh (founder of the “Right Sector”). The Prosecuter-general, Oleh Makhnitsky and Minister of Education Serhiy Kvit are also members of the Svoboda Party.
Imagine a National Security Council controlled by people whom (it now appears) hired snipers to fire on the Maidan crowd, with the intention of blaming this on Yanukovich’s security forces.) This is not business as usual. This is a leap into darkness.
The Svoboda (“Freedom”) Party so well represented in the interim cabinet was founded in 1991 as the successor to the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) founded in 1929 by a man named Stepan Bandera. Svoboda still idolizes him. Former Ukrainian prime minister Victor Yushchenko in deference to their sentiments declared Bandera a “Hero of Ukraine” in 2010, producing protests from the European Court of Justice. The pro-Russian administration of the next prime minister—the recently deposed and widely vilified Yanukovich—reversed the decision a year later.
Some commentators are saying that, depending on one’s perspective, Bandera was a fascist or a national hero—as though there were some real moral ambiguity here. Bandera’s career was in fact complex, and he was actually detained by the Nazis between July 1941 and September 1944. But before that he solicited and received Nazi money and support for two battalions to be deployed against the Soviet Red Army. (One of these was the Nachtigall Battalian, which according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, rounded up around 4000 Ukrainian Jews for the Nazis in Lviv in July 1941.) And in 1944 he was allowed to set up an office in Berlin to coordinate sabotage of Red Army operations in Ukraine and encourage the Ukrainians to fight against the Soviets.
The faction of the OUN headed by Bandera held a conference in German-occupied Krakow in May 1941, where it declared: “The Jews in the USSR constitute the most faithful support of the ruling Bolshevik regime, and the vanguard of Muscovite imperialism in Ukraine…The OUN combats the Jews as the prop of the Muscovite-Bolshevik regime and simultaneously it renders the masses conscious of the fact that the principal foe is Moscow. . . Jews are hostile to us must be exterminated in this struggle, especially those who would resist our regime: deport them to their own lands, importantly: destroy their intelligentsia that may be in the positions of power … Jews must be isolated, removed from governmental positions in order to prevent sabotage, those who are deemed necessary may only work with an overseer… Jewish assimilation is not possible.”
In June 1941 OUN activist Yaroslav Stetsko wrote Bandera: ‘We are creating a militia which would help to get remove the Jews and protect the population.” That same month as Nazi troops invaded the Ukrainian SSR, Bandera declared an independent Ukrainian state. The “Act of Proclamation of Ukrainian Statehood” proclaimed that that the party would “work closely with the National-Socialist Greater Germany, under the leadership of its leader Adolf Hitler which is forming a new order in Europe and the world and is helping the Ukrainian People to free itself from Moscovite occupation.”
Svoboda and Contemporary Anti-Semitism
So much for the historical OUN, Svoboda’s parent organization. But skipping forward: last December Svoboda Party officials in Lviv changed the name of the city’s Peace Street to Nachtigall Battalian Street. “‘Peace’ is a holdover from Soviet stereotypes,” a Svoboda spokesperson explained.
Should that not send a chill up all our spines? Imagine authorities in Berlin renaming a street Schutzstaffel Strasse.
According to the Nation, the Svoboda Party wants to ban abortion, gun control, foreigners’ adoption of Ukrainian children, and “the Communist ideology.” It has organized violent attacks on gay pride events.
Party leader Oleh Tyanhybok, a member of Parliament, routinely trashes “the Kikes” and calls for the liberation of Ukraine from the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” He idolizes the OUN. “They did not fear,” he declared in 2004, “but took up their automatic rifles, going into the woods to fight Muscovites, Germans, Jewry and other filth which wanted to take away our Ukrainian nationhood. It’s time to give Ukraine to the Ukrainians.”
Tyanhybok visited Germany in 2010 to stand in solidarity with John Damanjuk, the Ukrainian-American convicted of abetting mass murder in Nazi German death camps in Poland. Around that time close aide Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn established a think tank originally called “the Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center.” (No, I am not making this up. The name has changed in pragmatic deference to international public opinion, but the think tank’s still there.)
Right Sector activist Oleksandr Muzychko, known for fighting in Chechnya against Russian forces in the mid-90s, and brandishing a Kalashnikov in a regional parliament session, stated baldly in 2007 that he would fight “communists, Jews and Russians for as long as blood flows in my veins.”
In 2010 the official Svoboda website carried a statement reading in part:
“To create a truly Ukrainian Ukraine in the cities of the East and South, only one lustration will not be enough, we will need to cancel parliamentarism, ban all political parties, nationalize the entire industry, all media, prohibit the importation of any literature to Ukraine from Russia… completely replace the leaders of the civil service, education management, military (especially in the East), physically liquidate all Russian-speaking intellectuals and all Ukrainophobes (fast, without a trial shot. Registering Ukrainophobes can be done here by any member of Svoboda), execute all members of the anti-Ukrainian political parties…”
The above-mentioned founder of the Right Sector and Deputy National Security Chief Yarosh has called upon Chechen Islamist militants to attack Russia in support of Ukraine. (Thus the U.S. has mid-wifed into power a soul-mate of the Tsarnaev brothers.) Shouldn’t this be an issue?
For what it’s worth, the World Jewish Congress declared Svoboda a “neo-Nazi” party last May. The U.S. State Department apparently does not agree.
U.S. Support for Oleh Tyahnybok
How do U.S.officials–who insist that Ukraine in its current shape, the result of a Soviet decision in 1954, must be preserved—relate to the Svoboda Party? Suffice it to say that Tyahnybok has appeared at a public rally with U.S. Sen. John McCain, and had a cordial meeting last month with U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland. (Nuland is a neocon Cheneyite holdover in the Obama administration, a consistent liar who has campaigned for endless war on Iraq, Iran, Libya, etc. Her husband, pundit Robert Kagan is also well-known for his support for wars based on lies).
Nuland was famously recorded discussing with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine plans for regime change in Kiev. In the days leading up to the coup, she dismissed the EU’s advocacy of a role for Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s rival Viktor Klitschko (whose party has in fact been excluded from the present cabinet). “Fuck the EU!” snapped Nuland. More interestingly, he also declared that the newly installed Yatsenyuk needed “Tyahnybok on the outside” and needs to talk to him “four times a week.” (In fairness, she urged similar consultations with Klitschko.)
This may be the first time that a Jewish U.S. assistant secretary of state has directed a puppet leader to consult weekly with someone who publicly castigates “Jewry and other filth.” Quite remarkable (although drawing little attention so far from U.S. journalists).
By the way–Nuland told a US-Ukraine Foundation Conference last December that the US had invested $5 billion to “build democratic skills and institutions” in Ukraine. (Imagine if the Russian Federation were to invest $ 5 billion in the outcome of the next U.S. election. What would be the response?) The U.S. is up to its eyeballs in this regime change, and has in fact cultivated relations with thugs.
While Svoboda has only received about 10% of the vote in recent parliamentary elections, it was deeply involved in the street violence that toppled Yanukovich, executing a coup. One (anarchist) protestor in Maidan Square told Salon that 30% of the demonstrators were “fascists.” There has been a credible report, based on a leaked phone conversation between EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton and Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, that the sniper fire that occurred in Maidan Square, attributed by the opposition to Yanukovich’s security forces in order justify the coup, was actually arranged by neo-fascist forces. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov demands an investigation. But this report has not been mentioned prominently in the U.S. press, which wants to keep things simple.
Talking heads acknowledge that Ukraine is ethnically and linguistically divided. They acknowledge that Crimea was long Russian territory, that the majority probably want reunification of Russia, and that in fact things are kind of complicated. (Of course they are always complicated, although in some conflicts the U.S. corporate media in the service of policy-makers–taking advantage of the abject historical and geographical knowledge of the people of this country, and exploiting that ignorance—routinely project “good vs. evil” conflicts out there in the world, requiring urgent U.S. bombing.)
But the talking heads will seldom point out that this whole “crisis” results from Washington’s relentless push, from the first Bill Clinton administration, to rub Moscow’s nose in the dirt while planting the NATO flag up to its borders.
Main U.S. Goal: Expansion of NATO
Some basic facts:
NATO was founded in 1949 as a “mutual defense alliance” (that is, an instrument of U.S. hegemony in the North Atlantic, back when the U.S. GNP was half the world’s) versus the USSR and some conception of an international communist threat.
The USSR, noting the history of the US-Soviet anti-fascist alliance, requested to join NATO in 1954. The bid was dismissed by the NATO chief at the time who said it was “like an unrepentant burglar requesting to join the police force.” A spurned Moscow organized the Warsaw Pact defensive alliance (a very natural response) in 1955.
There was never a war between the two blocs. The status quo in Europe held until uprisings in East Europe, encouraged by the U.S., brought down the Soviet bloc, and caused the dissolution of the USSR into its component parts. It all happened at lightening speed between 1989-1991. There was no revolution, just a collapse accompanied by the celebration of dormant (sometimes toxic) nationalisms. The results have left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, and throughout the former Soviet Union (if not the entire former eastern bloc), there are widespread feelings of nostalgia for a more comfortable, secure past.
(A December 2013 Gallup poll showed that 56% of Ukrainians feel the breakup of the Soviet Union was more harmful than beneficial to their country. In Russia the figure is 55%, Kyrgystan 61%, Armenia 66%. In the 11 former Soviet republics surveyed, the average percentage lamenting the dissolution is 51%.)
As the Soviet leadership faced the profound humiliation of the collapse of the alliance, George W. Bush (commander in chief during the first Persian Gulf War, who proclaimed “a New World Order”) assured Mikhail Gorbachev that following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact the U.S. would not expand eastwards. But during the Bill Clinton era, the U.S. did precisely that.
And it has ever since. Nine of the current 28 NATO countries were formally Soviet allies, and three more were once republics within the USSR. There are NATO bases and missile sites on the Russian border. The Russian Federation forces of course have nothing comparable near the U.S. The U.S. has over 700 military bases outside its borders and troops stationed in over 100 countries. The Russians have a dozen bases outside Russian territory, all on the periphery of the country.
No one in his or her right mind (this excludes the hysterical hawks in Congress and the neocons who help shape their views) would suggest that Russia poses a gathering threat to U.S. “national security.” But rational Russians might well question why NATO wants to encircle them. Russia’s been invaded from the west innumerable times (including 1610-12, 1708, 1812, 1941-45). It is arguably more vulnerable that the USA, surrounded by deferential neighbors and two oceans. Its people no doubt feel consternation at the tightening of the NATO noose.
Would people in this country feel otherwise, had the Warsaw Pact survived and expanded–even with verbal assurances that the expansion wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular—to embrace the countries of the Caribbean and Central America, and made overtures to Canada? Isn’t the expansion of an explicitly military alliance to one’s very borders a legitimate source of alarm?
In 1991 George Kennan, Truman-era U.S. diplomat and “father of containment” during the “Cold War,” watching the expansion of NATO, predicted “the beginning of a new cold war.” He added, “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely, and it will affect their policies.”
What Russians Think
Of course it did! As we saw in Georgia in 2008 and as we see now. Why, many Russians must think, is the west so intent on incorporating Ukraine, fountainhead of Russian culture, into the western zone? Don’t they know that the Russian state traces its origins to Kievan Rus in the early ninth century, before there was a “Russia” or “Ukraine”? Don’t they know that Ukraine only emerged as a state after the Mongol invasions, and then as a satrapy of Poland, before joining Russia in 1654 by the Treaty of Pereyaslav? And then not as an independent kingdom but as a Russian principality?
Don’t they realize that that Russian principality of Ukraine for over two centuries was centered in the region west of the Dnieper River, and that the Russian speaking eastern section was only added after the Bolshevik Revolution, with the inception of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic? And that the Crimean Peninsula had been Russian territory since 1783, until 1954 when it was turned over, perhaps foolishly and capriciously, to Ukraine?
Russians may well ask: Don’t these people in the west realize that the U.S. has zero moral authority in this world, after its wars based on lies, and after having produced nothing but ruin and misery from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya?
Don’t they care about Babi Yar? Do they even know what this was? No doubt they don’t. So why does a clueless fool like Obama–who would, had he not been checked by his own people’s revulsion at more war, and deft diplomatic steps by Vladimir Putin, launched missile strikes against Syria last year (once again on the basis of lies)–tell the people of Russia and the people of the Ukraine how to balance issues of international law with the morally unassailable cause of repressing European fascism?
Fascism Isn’t Dead
Because fascism isn’t dead, you know. The Golden Dawn Party, with its Nazi-like banner, holds 18 seats in the Greek parliament. The National Front of France holds seats in parliament. Fascism is recrudescent in a number of European countries, where the brown shirts surely look to Kiev with admiration and hope.
In Ukraine, neo-Nazis have achieved respectability, and can boast fine friends. Oleh Tyahnybok must feel deeply validated by Victoria Nuland’s stated opinion that the new puppet leader of Ukraine, Yatsenkyuk, “needs to be talking” to him “four times a week.”
Vladimir Putin has emphasized the involvement of “fascist hooligans” in the toppling of Yanukovich. Fox News calls this “playing the Nazi card to marginalize Ukraine’s revolution.” Fox is merely echoing the State Department of John Kerry and Victoria Nuland. It’s all about sovereignty, folks, they’re saying, and don’t worry about the fascist stuff.
And don’t worry about your emails and phone calls, collected and saved by the U.S.’s NSA with an efficiency the Nazi Ministry of State Security could never have imagined. Don’t worry about a president who would have attacked Syria, on the basis of dubious reports, unilaterally and illegally, had not Putin (the adult in the room) checked his hand. (Yes, popular opposition was important too.) Don’t even imagine there’s any fascist wind blowing across this great country—that would be such stretch, wouldn’t it?
Instead, line up behind the leader who openly promotes U.S. “exceptionalism,” attempts to implement the official Pentagon strategy of “full-spectrum dominance,” supports the eventual entry of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and may well contemplate ultimate expulsion of the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol. That’s the general, implicit cable news message.
To which one might respond–joining in this instance with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the World Jewish Congress–that no, there is a real fascist threat here. The Russians are not imagining it. That doesn’t mean one unites with Putin, the soulless autocrat who has used his KGB connections to contain opposition and consolidate the current capitalist-imperialist Russian state. (Putin is reportedly influenced himself by the writings of Aleksandr Dugin, a professor who promotes a “Eurasianism” with its own clear fascist underpinnings.)
It means–certainly for people in this imperialist country, against which all others pale–that one shouldn’t take sides in this confrontation. And one certainly shouldn’t be naïve about the nature of the new regime in Kiev.
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 Japan; Male 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: email@example.com