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Taking sides in Ukraine

Most commentators have turned a blind eye to some of the more unsavoury aspects of either Putin and the Maidan, depending on their ideological background. Hypocrisy is everywhere, but that doesn't mean we should be ambivalent about what's happening in Ukraine. 

Charles Turner
21 April 2014

Shortly before her death, Susan Sontag published an essay on that indispensable chronicler of Stalin’s rule, Victor Serge (1890-1947).  Reflecting on the fact that works like Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1949) were for some time regarded with hostility on the American left, she writes: ‘The decades of turning a blind eye to what went on in communist regimes, specifically the conviction that to criticise the Soviet Union was to give aid and comfort to fascists and warmongers, seem almost incomprehensible now.  In the early 21st century, we have moved on to other illusions – other lies that intelligent people with good intentions and humane politics tell themselves and their supporters in order not to give aid and comfort to their enemies.’ It’s a typical late Sontag passage, challenging and measured. Yet it doesn’t quite hang together. Indeed, the second sentence gives the lie to the first: she says that turning a blind eye persists, albeit now directed at – or away from – new targets (she was probably thinking of militant Islam), but if that is true then what happened before may be all-too-comprehensible, the continuity of practice suggesting that turning a blind eye may be a standard feature of a certain type of political commitment. After all, the first version of it that seemed incomprehensible in 2004 had persisted into the 1970s, decades after people had felt the need to choose communism as the lesser of two evils; though the two most notorious right-wing regimes of the 1930s and 1940s had gone, there were still other examples aplenty of ‘fascist’ regimes. So Trotskyists, for instance, uneasy heirs of Victor Serge, didn’t so much turn a blind eye to what went on in communist regimes as squint at it through a lens that allowed them to call it ‘state capitalism’, thereby making themselves critics of Moscow without aligning themselves with cold war hawks and their dictator friends.

The current Ukrainian crisis has seen blind eye turning on all sides. Much of it has been directed by left liberals at or away from Russian foreign policy, on the basis that open criticism of Russia might make one a bedfellow of those hypocrites in the White House. Hence Russia’s armed seizure of Crimea and organisation of a farcical referendum is regarded as troubling, but not something we need to shout too loud about because Crimea is really Russian anyway (or at least has been since 1783); hence Putin’s support for the despotic regime of Bashar-al-Assad is passed over in silence for fear that criticism of it will make one a supporter of the Syrian opposition, and hence the United States that is arming it; and when Putin calls the extremists in Kyiv who ousted President Yanukovych ‘fascists’, it rings alarm bells loud enough to cancel out the sound of those that Putin himself triggers.  

The charge of ‘hypocrisy’ can be directed everywhere.

From the other side there is not so much blind eye turning as dewy-eyed romanticism, led by the Yale historian Tim Snyder: where Putin saw only extremists in Maidan square, Snyder implies that Ukraine is already ready to join the EU because the leader of a group of frightening looking men in combat fatigues is really a gay hairdresser from the Donbas, while the new deputy minister for whatever is a Jewish transvestite whose mother was a disabled German preacher.  I was never much impressed by this sort of argument: in 2000 a Polish friend tried to impress me with the fact that in that Catholic country the president was a former communist (Aleksander Kwaśniewski), the prime minister a Protestant (Jerzy Buzek) and the foreign minister a Jew (Bronisław Geremek). Five years later it was being ruled by a coalition of the surreal Kaczyński twins, Andrzej Lepper’s thuggish Self-Defence party and the far-right League of Polish Families. 

I have also seen articles that begin with questions like ‘how should people on the left respond to events in Ukraine?’, but these are worse than useless: the real task is, with old Kant, to think for oneself. In the current crisis I think that that entails more than seeing faults on all sides, easy though that is.  The charge of ‘hypocrisy,’ for instance, can be directed everywhere: John Kerry invokes the sanctity of territorial boundaries while approving drone attacks in Pakistan, Vladmir Putin warns that the (temporary) Ukrainian government might wage war on its own people while he himself supports Assad in Syria, and the new EU-friendly Ukrainian prime minister was on television a few years ago advocating a blanket ban on the use of the Russian language.

No, what Putin fears more than anything is even more of his doorstep being occupied by democracy

So here, for what it’s worth, is what I think. Firstly, the absurd spectacle of John McCain and some naïve Euro MPs in Maidan Square notwithstanding, and while there may be many Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine who do wish to be citizens of the Russian Federation, the use of military force – and that is what the seizure of government buildings in Eastern Ukraine is – to make the latter point is no more justified than would be Hungary’s occupation of southern Slovakia to protect the rights of the Hungarian minority, and is no more right than was the use of military force in Iraq. Anyone who marched in London against that, on principle should march against this. Secondly, Putin’s Eurasian Union project, devised by an admirer of Carl Schmitt, can only work –  and here Snyder is right – if it consists of a series of autocracies: what he fears above all is not fascism in Ukraine or the spread of NATO; he has had that on his doorstep since 1999 when the accession of Poland took it up to the border of Russia’s Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, formerly Prussia’s second city Königsberg, and the home of old Kant; and his late lamented Soviet Union had NATO on its doorstep for thirty years with Turkey’s membership. No, what Putin fears more than anything is even more of his doorstep being occupied by democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and a respect for human rights. Were Ukraine to enter the EU, or even prepare to do so, its people might at least have a hope of aspiring to these. As part of the Eurasian Union – or as is possible if Russia invades, part of the Russian Federation – that hope would vanish. The third alternative, being put about by people in the West who enjoy these benefits already, namely that Ukraine might act as a buffer state between the EU and NATO and the Russian Federation, is grotesque. The interwar period alone shows that the history of weak European states going it alone without being part of a larger economic and security structure is dismal: this is why when they were invited to join the EU and NATO in the 1990s the governments of Eastern Europe of all stripes were not the victims of soft power but rather accepted with alacrity. Ukraine, the Ukrainian people, should be given the chance to choose which way it wants to turn. It can be given that chance, and that might include either the federalization of the country, or the option to split in two, with Russian speaking Eastern Ukrainians not free but secure under Putin’s gathering wing, and a rump Western Ukraine a full member of the EU and NATO with all the risks – and possibilities – that that entails. But it cannot do this with a gun pointing at its head.  On this occasion the one pointing the gun is in Moscow, not in Washington.    

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