This is a guest post by friend of the blog, Jamie Mayerfeld. I’ve been sitting on an unfinished draft piece on the same subject: the remarkably bad DSA IC statement on Ukraine. So when I saw that Jamie had posted a good discussion of it on Facebook, I asked if I could put it up at LGM. This is an expanded, hyperlinked version of his original post. I’ve added some of my own comments.
JM: For months, Russia has been ramping up its threat to invade Ukraine. Unfortunately, some commentators on the left and right distort the facts in order to blame the crisis on the United States and NATO. One example is a dishonest January 31 statement by the International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America. When I say the statement is dishonest, I mean that it uses omissions, distortions, misleading assertions, and deceptive language to misrepresent reality. We don’t need to enter the minds of the authors to characterize the statement as dishonest. When you fail to take minimal steps to align your utterances with reality, you are being dishonest, no matter what internal discourse is unfolding in your head.
The statement lays blame for the crisis on “US brinksmanship,” on “US militarization and interventionism in Ukraine and Eastern Europe,” and on “NATO expansionism.” It cites 70,000 U.S. troops long ago stationed throughout Europe as a provocation, yet never mentions that Russia has recently moved over 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border. It does not mention the new demands issued by Moscow in conjunction with its troop movements – that NATO make a promise to “never, never, ever” let Ukraine join the alliance and that NATO withdraw military infrastructure from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and several other member states. The statement does not mention that Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 in violation of international law and specific treaties; that Russian troops or Russian-armed surrogates continue to occupy Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk; and that the war started by Russia in 2014 has caused massive devastation and suffering, including 14,000 deaths.
The statement says that Western actions include “stationing US troops in Ukraine.” The statement provides no link to this assertion, but it could be a reference to the fact that, as reported in the Washington Post, in Ukraine “approximately 200 American troops are training and advising Ukrainian forces.” If you write a statement arguing that blame for the crisis lies in “US brinkmanship,” and in support of this view you misleadingly assert that the United States has stationed troops in Ukraine and simultaneously fail to mention that Russia has recently moved over 100,000 troops to the border of Ukraine, you are being dishonest.
The statement repeatedly accuses the United States of interventionism in Ukraine. That’s not true on any ordinary sense of the word “interventionism.” By contrast, since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, Russia has steadily intervened to undermine democracy in Ukraine. It heavily infiltrated Ukraine’s security services. It stood squarely behind the 2004 Viktor Yanukovych presidential campaign, which used fraud in an attempt to steal the election. There is reason to believe that Russian officials were behind the poisoning of the 2004 presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko (which nearly killed him). Putin encouraged Ukraine’s president Leonid Kuchma to use force to suppress pro-democracy protestors in 2004 as he later encouraged Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych to use force to suppress pro-democracy protestors in 2014.
The DSA statement refers to “the 2014 US-backed Maidan coup, which destabilized the country and resulted in the ongoing internal conflict between Kiev and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine.” This misrepresents what happened. After Yanukovych became president in 2010, his administration grew increasingly corrupt and authoritarian. When in late 2013 he made the surprise announcement to abandon a promised EU association agreement, protests broke out because of fears that this would place Ukraine under Putin’s control and put an end to democratization efforts. Yanukovych repressed the protests with great violence, fueling the revolution that drove him from power. The revolution had broad support. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in what came to be known as the “Revolution of Dignity.” Today Ukraine has meaningful democratic elections that would be unlikely if the Maidan Revolution had not occurred and Yanukovych remained in power. It’s true that prominent U.S. government officials were sympathetic to the revolution. That doesn’t mean it was a “U.S.-backed coup.” Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, and Chile 1973 were U.S.-backed coups. Ukraine 2014 was not. The DSA’s formulation is misleading and dishonest.
It is misleading to say that the Maidan Revolution “resulted in the ongoing internal conflict between Kiev and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine.” There was local participation in the eastern rebellion, but it was also encouraged and largely orchestrated by the Russian government. In the following months, the Russian government sent weapons, money, supplies, and personnel to strengthen the rebellion. The unrest would never have turned into the bloody conflict it became without Russian support. Because the eastern rebellion is now fought by Russian proxies, who are trained, funded, and coordinated by the Russian government, it is deceptive to refer to this as an “internal conflict.” Russia is using its proxies to attack Ukraine.
The statement is dishonest when it claims that NATO’s expansion violated “internationally agreed upon commitments.” This language leads the reader to imagine a treaty or a formal written document like the Helsinki Charter, but there was nothing of the kind. The reference is to verbal promises reportedly made by U.S. secretary of state James Baker to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during German reunification talks in 1990.
This is a familiar Moscow talking point, but there are several problems with it. Gorbachev has changed his story about what happened, sometimes denying that these guarantees were offered. It appears that Baker offered these guarantees verbally early during negotiations but then stopped. No such promises made their way into the German Reunification Treaty of 1990 or any subsequent treaty or formal agreement. There is consequently no basis for referring to “international agreed upon commitments.” Let us also note that Soviet Union, the recipient of the reported promise, no longer exists, but has been replaced by 15 successor states, three of which are in NATO because they demanded admission. Let us further note that Baker’s reported guarantee was extorted by an unjust Soviet demand to block German reunification and keep Soviet troops in Germany against the will of the German people.
The DSA statement is misleading when it says that “NATO is a mechanism for US-led Western imperialist domination, fueling expansionism, militarization, and devastating interventions.” The main reason for NATO expansion is that the new member states have clamored to be admitted. And for many of these states – Poland, Czech Republic, the Baltic states – fear of Russia is the main reason they have demanded to join NATO. It is fear of Russia that now leads a majority of Ukrainians to support joining NATO.
The statement is misleading when it says that the U.S. has been “training far-right extremist groups with neo-Nazi sympathies such as the Azov Battalion.” The U.S. Congress has forbidden aid to the Azov Battalion, and the State Department has labeled it a “nationalist hate group.” The Branko Marcetic article in Jacobin linked by the DSA statement argues that US funding and training has ended up reaching parts of the Azov Battalion. This could be true, but the DSA statement misleadingly implies that it is U.S. policy to train the Azov Battalion.
The statement is inaccurate when it refers to “NATO’s militarization in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.” There is no NATO militarization in Ukraine. Ukraine is not part of NATO. Ukraine asked for a NATO membership action plan in 2008 and was refused.
DHN: After Germany and France rebuffed then-President Bush’s efforts to offer MAPs to Ukraine and Georgia, the U.S. managed to secure language in the Bucharest Summit Declaration that committed NATO to future membership for the two countries:
NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO. Both nations have made valuable contributions to Alliance operations. We welcome the democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia and look forward to free and fair parliamentary elections in Georgia in May. MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership. Today we make clear that we support these countries’ applications for MAP. Therefore we will now begin a period of intensive engagement with both at a high political level to address the questions still outstanding pertaining to their MAP applications. We have asked Foreign Ministers to make a first assessment of progress at their December 2008 meeting. Foreign Ministers have the authority to decide on the MAP applications of Ukraine and Georgia.
Western analysts did not take this commitment seriously. It seemed very unlikely that the U.S. would ever gain unanimous support for making Ukraine and Georgia member-states. Yanukovych’s victory in 2010 made the matter of Ukrainian membership effectively moot. The Ukrainian parliament passed a law in 2010 taking NATO membership off the table.
It’s not totally unreasonable, then, for Moscow to see the fall of the Yanukovych as reviving the possibility of NATO membership. But, as Jamie notes below, Moscow has only itself to blame for Ukraine’s decisive tact toward the U.S. and NATO. The current threat of invasion reflects, at least in part, the failure of Moscow’s original post-2014 Ukraine strategy.
JM: The statement is misleading when it says that “public sentiment in Ukraine remains contested” regarding NATO. It fails to mention that public sentiment in Ukraine has swung sharply in favor of joining NATO and today 64% of Ukrainians support joining NATO while 19% are opposed.
The article’s first link is to an article that falsely asserts that “Washington used Nazis to overthrow the government.” The linked article continues: “The Washington-backed opposition that toppled the government was fueled by far-right and openly Nazi elements like the Right Sector.” That is misleading. Yes, Right Sector was active in the street fighting, but it didn’t fuel the 2014 revolution. The revolution was overwhelmingly fought and supported by Ukrainians who wanted to preserve democracy and had nothing to do with the far right. When the extreme right parties ran in the next election, they received less than 2% of the vote, a plunge from earlier elections. Their electoral support has remained low.
The statement is also misleading because of its failure to mention the revanchist nationalist discourse flowing from the top of the Russian government. In 2008, Putin told George W. Bush that Ukraine is “not even a state.” Last summer Putin published a 5000-word historical essay arguing that Russia and Ukraine are “one people” and sent it to every soldier in the Russian army.
DHN: The so-called “anti-imperialist left” has a troubling pattern of failing to apply its own standards to countries that oppose U.S. foreign policy. Repeating the phrase “CIA propaganda” doesn’t change the fact that Russia is more reactionary, more kleptocratic, and more imperialist than the United States – and that Putin’s preferred outcome for Ukraine will leave it more corrupt and less democratic than if it continues its pivot toward the EU and NATO.
JM: There should be a serious conversation about what all the relevant parties should do to resolve the crisis. I believe the way out of the crisis is dialogue rooted in values of human rights, international law, ethno-linguistic fairness, and democracy. There are positive steps Ukraine could take to reassure residents in the breakaway region who are alienated from the Kyiv government. Meanwhile, Russia needs to drop its threats and work to restore peace in eastern Ukraine.
Statements that distort the facts are not constructive.