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Geopolitics versus the political marketplace: the origins of the war in Ukraine

These two books on the war in Ukraine open up fresh questions into how we interpret the causes of conflict. 

Mary Kaldor
27 May 2016
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Winter 2014: Maidan, Kyiv. CC BY-ND 2.0 streetwrk.com / Flickr. Some rights reserved. Richard Sakwa’s Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands and Andrew Wilson’s Ukraine Crisis: What it means for the West are blow-by-blow accounts of the origins of the crisis in Ukraine.

But they put forward two starkly opposed narratives. Richard Sakwa’s book is the geo-political reading favoured by Putin that Russia was reacting to the westwards expansion of NATO. The other, from Andrew Wilson, is what I call the “political marketplace” reading that Russia could not accept a democratic revolution in Ukraine, which would expose the dealings of both Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs.

Long telegrams

According to Sakwa, it was the expansion of the EU and NATO to the east that provoked the Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. He quotes George Kennan, credited with the containment strategy towards the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, who described NATO enlargement as a “tragic mistake”. The eastwards expansion of the European Union, according to Sakwa, gave precedence to a western concept of “Wider Europe” instead of a common project of “Greater Europe”.

The United States and the European Union poured millions into democracy promotion in Ukraine, which fed what Sakwa calls a monist (ethnically purist and pro-Western) conception of the Ukrainian nation, and this directly threatened the Russian geo-political position. As evidence., he quotes Putin’s remarks on May 24 2014 when he said that: “some of the events in Ukraine directly threaten our interests, first of all with regard to security. I”m talking about Ukraine’s potential accession to NATO. As I said earlier, such an accession could be followed by the deployment of a missile strike system in Ukraine, including Crimea. Should this happen it would have serious geopolitical consequences for our country. In fact, Russia would be forced out of the Black Sea territory, a region for legitimate presence in which Russia has fought for centuries.” 

Russia, Putin argued, had given forewarning of its opposition to NATO enlargement in the 2008 war with Georgia. In other words, as John Mearsheimer puts it, in a celebrated article in Foreign Affairs, the Russian annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine are “Geopolitics 101”.

By contrast, Andrew Wilson’s book, represents what might be called the “political marketplace” reading. The political marketplace is a term coined by Alex de Waal to describe how elites bargain for power through money and violence. Both Russia and Ukraine are rentier states in which the rents are largely diverted to enrich the elites. In Russia, the rents come from oil and gas, whereas in Ukraine, they largely come from outside assistance.

Wilson provides a vivid account of both systems. Russia, he argues, uses a combination of what Russians themselves call “political technology”, “information war” and “geopolitics” as a mask to hide the kleptocratic nature of the regime. In particular, after the “unprecedented opposition movement against him in 2011-2012”, Putin needed in addition to “arrests and media clampdowns… to shift the narrative”. Political technology has to do with the manipulation of public opinion through media manipulation; as one of its foremost exponents puts it, political technologies “abolish the difference between the true and the not true”.

Political technology, according to Wilson, is required to disguise the weakness of the system that it is “founded on a big lie” and to put forward the story that Putin is the good Tsar reining in the oligarchs and defending conservative values. Geopolitics is the “foreign policy equivalent of political technology”. And “information war” is the “latent information management of the opponents internal economic and cultural processes” and “information- psychological aggression based on economic, political and diplomatic pressure” Put these together, says Wilson, and “you have a sociopathic state.”

In Ukraine, Wilson describes the extraordinary scale of corruption, listing the various techniques used to steal from the public purse – phantom coal mining, bribery and extortion, shadowy companies known as firmy-prokladky, takeovers of companies through violence or threat of violence, control over the judiciary so as to legalise raiding and so on. The Orange Revolution of 2004 was so corrupted by power that it led to the return of Yanukovych in 2010, a convicted criminal and veteran of gang warfare in the Donbas, who amassed a huge fortune in his last years of power and played off the west and Russia to increase aid revenue. Yanukovych’s estate Mezhyhiva “eventually had a five-storey main house, a three-storey guest house, a golf course, a yacht club with boating house, a helipad, a racecourse and stables, a zoo with kangaroos that failed to survive the Ukrainian winter, seventy cars in his “garage”, and greenhouses to supply food for Yanukovych directly (given his notorious fear of poisoning).

Sakwa does not dispute the internal character of Ukraine, which he describes as an “oligarch democracy” because of the competition among oligarchs. But he argues that Putin got rid of the independent oligarchs and “became a far less pluralistic polity, with the media also brought into the statist fold” and he suggest that what “Russia lost in democratic competitiveness, it gained in managerial competence”. Sakwa also says that the price that was paid for the relatively bloodless revolution in Russia “was the entrenched position of Soviet era elites, officialdom and corporations.” For some reason not explained, Sakwa sees the internal character of the regimes as quite distinct from external policy, which is characterised by geo-politics. “The argument that Putin and Yanukovych united in defence of kleptocratic regimes is a thin one” he says. “If Ukraine could overcome corruption, oligarchic predominance and the decay of institutions, that was fine, as long as these were not accompanied by a geo-strategic shift towards NATO.”

For Wilson, on the other hand, western behaviour may have helped to justify the Russian narrative but, for him, geo-politics is “the big lie” and the main explanation has to do with the risks of democracy and transparency for the position of Putin himself and those around him. “Russia intervened,” says Wilson, “because it wanted the uprising to fail”.

Geopolitical logic

These different readings can be illustrated by their different interpretations of key events, and in some key aspects, different versions of truth. First of all, there are different understandings of the proposed Association Agreement with the European Union that precipitated the crisis. The Association Agreements were part of the Eastern Partnership, the successor to the European Union’s neighbourhood policy agreed in May 2008; the Eastern Partnership involved a deepening of bilateral relations short of full membership.

For Sakwa, the EU deal “had a profound geo-political logic from the first”. It was incompatible with Putin’s plans for a Eurasian Economic Union and it contained distinctly geo-political clauses. Thus Article 4 relating to political dialogue calls for “convergence on foreign and security matters”, while Article 10 included military and technological co-operation. By contrast, Wilson quotes a Russian joke: “Russia offers you a deal you can”t refuse; the European Union offers you a deal you can”t understand”. The decision to postpone signing the deal in November 2013 and instead sign the Kharkov Accords, which included substantial aid and a big discount on the price of gas, was the consequence of Russian bribery and pressure and the extent to which different sources of aid could be extracted for personal gain.

Secondly, there are differences about the nature of the Maidan movement that erupted after the failure to sign the Association Agreement and about how the movement eventually brought down the Yanukovych regime. Both agree that the movement was a genuine democracy movement. Wilson tells how the protestors held up banners saying “we are not paid” because paying for protests had become part of the political marketplace in Ukraine. Sakwa talks about the protests as the “direct expression of popular sovereignty” and the way in which “the language of 1989 movements” included “a romantic but effective belief in people and civil society.”

Participation in the square was a “transformative experience” and the atmosphere was “legendary”. Wilson says that uprising was a “combination of old-style passive resistance, an Occupy Wall Street movement and a Cossack rebellion”. But Sakwa argues that, especially after the violence began, when protestors were beaten on 30 November, the demonstrations got taken over by right-wing “monist” groups, who led the confrontations with the police , who organised a quasi-militaristic defence of the Maidan and led the seizure of administrative buildings through out Ukraine; some of them, he says, were inheritors of the war-time fascist movement.

Wilson agrees that there were troublemakers and he suggests that the “fake nationalists” were a product of “political technology”. The march, for example, that was organised in honour of Stephen Bandera (the war-time Ukrainian fascist leader) “had to be a provocation”.

Moreover, right-wing groups had little support among most of the protestors and were “mysteriously absent” during the main violence. Historically, Ukraine’s experience with fascism, he argues, was no deeper than many other east European countries. “Ukraine has right-wingers like everywhere else but the idea of a re-birth of war-time fascism was absurd”. According to Timothy Snyder: “The revolution in Ukraine came from the Left. Its enemy was an authoritarian kleptocrat, and its central program was social justice and the rule of law.”

Done deal

On 21 February, 2014, after an escalation of the violence, the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France, Poland and Russia agreed a deal that would have allowed Yanukovych to remain in power for a transitional period. Sakwa says that the Maidan rejected the deal. Wilson says that the Maidan Public Council reluctantly approved the deal by 34 votes to 2. Later that night, the security forces protecting Yanukovych melted away and at 4 am Yanukovych fled. Sakwa offers no explanation. Wilson says that Yanukovych had “finished packing. Preserving what he could of his wealth seems to have mattered more to him. Ukrainian prosecutors estimate that he took $32billion (out of his supposed $100 billion graft) to Russia with him. Much of it literally crossing the border in trucks.”

The next day, MPs voted to oust him but both Sakwa and Wilson agree that the numbers were insufficient for impeachment; in other words it was unconstitutional. So was this a coup, an uprising, or an abdication? Sakwa favours the term “coup”; Wilson prefers abdication.

Sakwa makes much of the role of the right in the immediate aftermath of Yanukovych’s departure. Particularly significant was the role of the Right Sector (a coalition of various right-wing groups including neo-Nazis) and Svoboda (Freedom), the extremist nationalist party. Between them, says Sakwa, they took between five and eight Ministerial posts and Svoboda took five governorships. On 23 February, the Parliament rescinded a law on the right of the regions to reinstate a second language, thereby entrenching the “monist” conception of Ukraine. (It was vetoed by the acting President five days later.)

Wilson agrees that the involvement of Svoboda and the language law were “disastrous” mistakes but points out that in the subsequent elections, there was minimal support for the far right. Far from a “monist” conception of Ukraine, the Maidan marked the birth of a “political nation.” Pro-European sentiment had to do with the desire for transparency, accountability and basic rights rather than any cultural or ethnic notion.

The third set of events was the annexation of Crimea that quickly followed the departure of Yanukovych. The factual accounts in the two books largely tally although there is some debate about how far in advance the annexation of Crimea was planned. There is agreement that this was Russian inspired; both accounts mention the visit of Putin’s chief political technologist Vladislav Surkov to Crimea and both accounts agree that well-organised Russian forces took control of strategic objectives on 28-29 February; they were known as the “little green men” since they did not wear insignia. Sakwa says this was not a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty because technically Russia had the right to deploy up to 25,000 troops in Crimea, and there were only 12,500 based in Sevastopol-sic!).

Both Sakwa and Wilson agree that the referendum was conducted in haste under Russian pressure and although the official referendum committee claimed a turn-out of 89% with 96.7% in favour of joining Russia, both books report the estimate of the Russian Presidential Council that turn-out was between 30% and 50% with some 50%-60% voting in favour of unification with Russia. They both mention that the Tartar Mejlis (the Parliament of the Tartars) urged people to boycott the vote.

Dissatisfied and expropriated

But there the similarities end. For Sakwa, the annexation of Crimea is understandable in geopolitical terms. There was deep concern that the new Ukrainian government would withdraw Russia’s basing rights in Sevastopol. “Sevastopol is more than just a naval base, but an extensive network of airfields, radar stations and ship repair yards… NATO may no longer have been Russia’s enemy but the prospect of its ships, missile defence units, and various other bases along Russia’s borders represented a strategic defeat and existential threat of the first order.”

For Wilson, the annexation of Crimea was the victory of criminal thugs and Mafia gangs (known as the Macedonians) allied to Russian nationalists (who had only gained 4% of the vote in earlier parliamentary elections) over a coalition of Maidan activists and Crimean Tatars who were poised to take over after Yanukovych’s departure. Indeed, reports published since Wilson’s book point to a massive expropriation of property going in Crimea along the lines of the stealing that characterised the Yanukovych era in Ukraine as a whole.

Finally, the biggest differences have to do with the interpretation of the war on the east. Both agree that there was deep dissatisfaction and alienation in the Donbas, the area that contains the two oblasts Donetsk and Luhansk. It is supposed to be the industrial heartland of Ukraine, but population has dramatically declined, governance is weak if non-existent and criminality is rampant. It is also the area where Yanukovych gained his criminal and political credentials. Nevertheless, local political mobilisation was not easily organised.

The seizure of administrative buildings and key strategic points such as airports in April was only possible with the help of Russian volunteers — veterans from Chechnya, Bosnia (on the Serb side) or Transdniestria. In particular, Igor Gurkin, whose nom de guerre was Igor Strelkov, a former colonel in the Russian army, claims to have been “the one who pulled the trigger on this war”. Strelkov organised a Donetsk People’s Army and helped to establish the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics that later, in May, proclaimed a Union known as Novorossiya. This was a concept Putin had put forward on 17 April, referring to the historical region of imperial Russia north of the Black Sea and that, if implemented, would have provided a land link between the Donbas and Crimea.

The initial Ukrainian response was weak, apart from volunteers many of them from the far right. When the Ukrainian army did succeed in retaking some key areas in July with a conventional military attack that caused many civilian casualties, Russia stepped up the provision of equipment and troops so as to reverse the situation, including probably the missile system that shot down the Malaysian airliner MH 17 on July 17.

There is disagreement about the numbers of Russian troops; they were known as “holiday-makers” because they were supposed to have been volunteers who apparently used their vacations taking all their equipment with them to fight in Ukraine. As the war intensified, the scale of population displacement and casualties rose dramatically, creating a humanitarian catastrophe. Sakwa claims that it is unclear how much Russia was involved before August; moreover he regards the right-wing militias including the Azov battalion that sported a swastika and the subsequent Ukrainian response as responsible for the escalation of the war and Russian involvement.

For Wilson, the Russian “volunteers” were clearly part of Russian “political technology. In both Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Russia had violated the Budapest memorandum of December 1994 signed by the US, the UK, Russia and Ukraine, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee of territorial integrity. He quotes another Russian joke that Russia has “broken the West’s monopoly on violating the bases of international law”.

Both books contain an interesting discussion about the “new type of war” proclaimed by various actors in this drama. The political technologist Vladislav Surkov apparently wrote a short story shortly before the annexation of Crimea about “non-linear war”. Actually the term had been used earlier by the Russian Chief of the General Staff, Valeri Gerasimov, in a speech to the Academy of Military Science in January 2013. In an eerie anticipation what was to happen in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Gerasimov argued that in “the 21st century, we have seen a tendency towards blurring the lines between the state of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template”.

He went on to describe how “a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days... sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.” He said that “frontal engagements of large formations of force ….are becoming a thing of the past” and that instead the use of special forces, exploitation of internal opposition “as well as informational actions, devices and means” are the methods of contemporary warfare.

The argument is that western support for colour revolutions or for Ukrainian democracy is this sort of war, to which Russia is responding and imitating. Surkov says that non-linear war is a “conflict of coercive communication- armed politics — in which actions are designed to send a political message rather than to defeat an enemy militarily.” As one commentator has put it: “Look closer at the Kremlin’s actions during the crisis in Ukraine and you begin to see a very 21st century mentality, manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning global media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances. Could it be that the West is stuck in the “old ways” while the Kremlin is the geo-political avant garde, informed by a dark subversive reading of globalization.”

Political marketplace

The political marketplace reading of the evolution of the crisis in Ukraine, with all its manipulative undercurrents is much more convincing than the more orthodox geopolitical account. Of course, it is the case that NATO expansion was a mistake since NATO is a classic geopolitical organisation. It is also the case that the west violated international law in Iraq, Kosovo and other places.

But western mistakes and, indeed, crimes, do not justify Russian crimes. Indeed, Russian behaviour has given rise to a counter geopolitical narrative in the west that Russia is a revisionist power intent on regaining the Soviet Empire. It is a narrative that, in turn, justifies NATO enlargement and the deployment of troops and missile systems further east and thereby feeds and reinforces the Russian narrative; the veterans of the Cold War are in their element. This geopolitical story, it can be argued, provides a framework for the political market place and for the perpetuation of wars, which sustain kleptocracy and stifle genuine democratic developments.

Perhaps the worst mistake of the west in the aftermath of the Cold War, which is not discussed in either book, were the neoliberal economic strategies imposed on countries emerging from communism. Instead of substantial amounts of aid and a managed process of reform that took into account social factors in societies where employment and public services had been guaranteed, western donors proposed what was known as “shock therapy”.

The standard recipes of privatisation, macro-economic stabilisation, and liberalisation were welcomed by former communist elites who were able to make use of the neoliberal framework to transform themselves into oligarchs by expropriating public property and stealing from ordinary people. What happened was not a transition to democracy and legitimate capitalism but to kleptocracy and the political marketplace.

What do you think? Join us at the London School of Economics on 8 June for "Politics of Plunder" to discuss offshore practices, authoritarianism and the post-Crimea world order. Find more of openDemocracy's coverage here.  

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