April 30, 2014 · 0 Comments
Above: Kiev, Maiden.
[All photos taken by the author.]
By Matthew Stevenson:
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His new book, Whistle-Stopping America, was recently published. He first traveled to the former Soviet Union in 1975.
Mr. Biden’s remarks, made during a meeting with Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, signaled strong American backing for the shaky new government in Kiev that Moscow does not recognize and condemns as the illegitimate fruit of a putsch engineered by the West.
In recent weeks, officials in Washington, including President Obama, have issued a string of warnings to Russia threatening increasingly harsh economic sanctions if the Kremlin does not help to de-escalate the crisis in eastern Ukraine. But those seem to have gone largely unheeded.
—New York Times, April 22, 2014
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, made a similar proposal. “Hitting four of the largest banks there would send shock waves into the economy; hitting Gazprom would certainly send shock waves into the economy,” he said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS.
Antony J. Blinken, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, was booked late Friday onto Sunday talk shows to defend the president’s approach. Mr. Blinken said existing sanctions were having an impact on the Russian economy. “All of this is creating a dynamic in which what Putin has promised to his people, which is growth and prosperity, cannot be delivered,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
—New York Times, April 27, 2014
The same mobs in Kiev who have American policy makers gushing over the inalienable rights of freedom fighters and self-determination, when they set up their roadblocks of automobile tires and sandbags in eastern Ukraine, they become Russian mercenaries who are a threat to world peace.
I came to this observation traveling from St. Petersburg to Kiev, by way of southern Russia and eastern Ukraine.
To get around I took trains and mini-vans, and crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border between Belgorod (Russia) and Kharkiv (Ukraine), where, at least in the Western press, there are large concentrations of Russian forces getting ready to pounce on Ukrainian independence. (I saw none in my travels.)
My conclusions? The real conflict will never get into the press releases.
In my travels, I came to view the crisis less in geopolitical terms and more in line with what the Soviets used to call agitprop, from “agitation and propaganda.” In this case war is the extension of public relations by other means, what in the 1920s was called agitprop theater.
For the Obama administration, Ukraine is tailor-made for its primetime diplomacy. The storyboards of an evil Putin play well even with an American electorate unsure if Donbas is a region or dress designer. (In one Washington Post poll, only one-in-six asked knew where Ukraine was.)
From any microphone in the world, President Obama can threaten “additional sanctions” against the Russian oligarchy, and Vice President Biden can jet into Kiev with messages about how the “American people stand with the people of Ukraine.”
Short of closing the Bosphorus Straits or sending NATO to Luhansk, however, for the Obama presidency Ukraine will remain a folk opera—one of those musicals in native dress you have to endure on package tours around Europe.
For Putin, saber-rattling Ukraine is better media time than even the winter games, a chance to dominate the world stage, to be taken seriously, without having to put up another Olympic village for $51 billion.
Day-to-day in the Kremlin, Putin presides over an empire in decline. For Russian men, the average life expectancy is about 64, and Potemkin’s village is now the glitter around Moscow, covering up the grim reality of the provincial cities.
Economically, Russia’s trade zone with Belarus and Kazakhstan cannot compete with Europe, and China’s economic boom makes Russia, by comparison, look like a collective farm.
For that reason, I doubt Russia needs to annex another coal region with high unemployment.
At least as the avenger of the 1854 Crimean War, Putin can lay claim to Empress Catherine-like greatness, although the word on the Moscow street is that he took Yalta and Sebastopol so that Russian oligarchs can cash in on the bourgeois pursuits of gambling and casinos.
Even the provisional government in Kiev has interests in dragging out the crisis. It came to power, not through elections, but from street demonstrations, funding for which came from sources as diverse as local oligarchs, nascent political parties, foreign intelligence agencies, the Catholic church, and neo-fascist elements. Each tent in Kiev represents a marker in the great game.
The freedom fighters still encamped around Kiev’s main city square (Maidan) look less like Jeffersonian democrats exchanging copies of Montesquieu’s treatises and more like those second-amendment militias in Montana, to whom all governments are evil. The political scientist Daniel Warner describes Maidan as “Woodstock meets Occupy Wall Street.”
Dozens of tents are pitched in the square, and the occupants, many dressed in thrift shop army fatigues, have the angry, down-and-out look of Coxey’s Army more than the delegates to the Continental Congress.
They overthrew one government and are standing by—chopping wood, grilling sausages, listening to music (admittedly classical), stacking bricks—to see what happens in the May 25 presidential election.
To be clear, the February martyrs of the Maidan (about 110 were killed), whose pictures line makeshift altars around the square, were not paid to give their lives in political opposition.
They took to the streets against the government of Viktor Yanukovych, which in their minds had become corrupt and dictatorial and was ready to consign Ukraine to a Putin revival of the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. But in the chess culture of Ukraine, knights and bishops go forward with different goals than pawns.
For a struggling, divided Kiev government (about 20 candidates have declared for the presidency, and at least eight parties are represented in the parliament), what can be more uplifting than solidarity phone calls from President Obama or pep talks from the U.S. vice-president?
The problem with the American embrace is that it validates the Russian belief that NATO, the EU, and the United States want Ukraine in their sphere of influence. Otherwise, why would the director of the CIA have come to Kiev during the recent crisis?
Imagine the American reaction if an interim government in, say, Quebec welcomed the head of the Russian secret service, the FSB?
The extent to which the crisis is being waged by social-media geopolitics can be seen in Kiev’s Hotel Ukraine, a dreary Intourist relic of the Soviet era overlooking the Maidan that during the street demonstrations allegedly rented out rooms to government snipers.
Now that tourists rarely visit Kiev, the hotel is headquarters for something called Ukraine Crisis Media Center, a slick public relations operation where journalists can stop by for a quick coffee and a quote.
On paper, the group is staffed with patriotic volunteers, there to keep alive the martyrdom of the Maidan and to warn about the evils of Russian aggression. In practice, the “media center” has the look of serious American front money.
The day I went to the center it featured short introductory remarks by the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a press conference from the ranking (minority) member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee). Would they have turned up if the “media center” was in the hands of those Maidan protesters in jungle fatigues and swinging axes at firewood?
Corker explained that he had come to Kiev to “show support for the people of Ukraine” and to applaud their courageous right to “self-determination” (the Maidan variety, not those barricaded in the Slaviansk city hall).
Corker blamed Putin for all elements of the crisis—the takeover in Crimea and the protests in the East—and endorsed additional economic (“sectoral”) sanctions against the Russian oligarchy’s banks and corporations.
For its aggression, Russia and its president needed to “pay a price.” I heard this more in the context of U.S. electoral politics: if the Obama administration “loses” Donetsk, it should “pay a price” at the polls. Why else would a U.S. senator be drawing lines in the steppe?
A Tennessean who was born in South Carolina, Corker spoke in a mellifluous southern accent about Americans wanting Ukrainians “to realize their dreams.” He is as eloquent as his former senatorial colleagues—Senators Obama, Biden, and Kerry—who can also speak Sympathetic Soundbite in full, rounded paragraphs without saying very much.
Corker swooned: “I have never met an executive leader who would impress me more than the current Prime Minister of Ukraine. He is committed to bring a positive change to his country regardless of all the difficulties he has to face.”
Only with the word Maidan did Corker struggle, pronouncing it “MAY-din, which made it sound vaguely country western.
At no point was any mention made of other causes of the current crisis: NATO designs to push its military frontiers to Ukraine and Georgia, despite earlier assurances from President Bush (Sr.) not to advance NATO east of a reunited Germany; the U.S. seeing Ukraine as a fertile market, not just for its intelligence services, but its gas exports and energy companies; and elements of the non-elected government having spoken with the same reverence about fascism that earlier citizens accorded their Nazi liberators in 1941.
For these thirty minutes, Ukrainians might well have been homespun Tennessee constituents. They were simple, hardworking folks who needed American support and sanctions to “self-actualize” their future and throw off the Russian yoke. Yes, there was the local problem of corruption, but that was a “remnant of the Soviet-era,” much like the plumbing, I guess.
The senator took a few questions and then was whisked away with the U.S. ambassador, perhaps to a dinner with Ukrainian government officials, delighted that a possible future chairperson of the Senate foreign relations committee has such a high opinion of their skills.
Maybe the senator, like many in Kiev, was off to see the vacated house of the former president Yanukovych, who departed in a hurry for his Russian exile, leaving behind his gilded furniture and private zoo.
Instead of housing the president, the house is being transformed into a Museum of Corruption. Admission costs 20 Ukrainian hryvnia, although according to local wits, you can also get in by paying 10 hryvnia to one of the guards.