(2/3) Words made flesh – Russia, the West… and Ukraine

In the second of a three-part series, Paul Hansbury says that the ongoing propaganda battle about Ukraine is being won by a Russian narrative that has effectively shifted attention from the domestic to the international stage.

A regional rivalry has been globalised.  Throughout the cold days and nights of December and January the protestors in Ukraine, we were told, wanted closer ties to the EU and an end to the corruption that has plagued domestic politics for the past twenty years (the Western narrative).  Between then and now the international dimensions of Ukraine’s crisis have come to dominate the propaganda war ; how and why was the propaganda battle shifted to the realm of global geopolitics?

A number of key themes running through the Russian narrative are worth isolating, since it would seem that the West has repeatedly allowed Russia to set the agenda in this regard.  First, injustice is a recurring theme in the Russian narrative.  Injustice lies behind Russia’s claims that it is “protecting Russian citizens.”  Yet it must be remembered that this was not only cited by Medvedev as one justification for military intervention in Georgia, but could be used as a pretext for any cross-border incursion in the former Soviet Union.

Sadly, this injustice is not primarily about the lives of Ukrainian citizens, but refers instead to perceived broad historical and international trends.  Putin reeled off his grievances following the annexation (Western narrative) or reunion (Russian narrative) of Crimea by/to Russia (see Part 1 for a comment on the terminology used).  Putin’s references to Kosovo are better understood as a grievance than any serious analogy.

More seriously, Russia sold the claim of historical injustice in the case of Crimea – and pushes further by calling into question the whole post-USSR settlement.  The Russian narrative asserted that the Crimean residents were largely Russian-speakers (or largely ethnically Russian) and desired to be part of Russia.  The last clause may well be true but it does not follow from the first, and Western commentators were surprisingly uncritical of the 97% referendum result despite Russia’s history of manipulating vote outcomes.  In view of the fact that no one is seriously contesting the absorption of Crimea into Russia, the Russian narrative has won this part of the battle.

Second, the Russian narrative used demonstrations in Crimea to frame current events with reference to the global order, emphasising the roles of the USA and NATO.  This was in keeping with the worldview of Alexander Dugin, a Kremin ideologue, who in 1999 said, “Any conflict… must be connected to those global forces which compete at a planetary level” [cited in Ted Hopf (2002), p.232].

One argument is that NATO expansion has gone too far and that it is necessary to protect Ukrainians and Russians from the West’s malign influence, which has supported a fascist coup in Kyiv (note the neat conflation of NATO, the USA and the EU).  Russian commentators have claimed that NATO has long been striving to block Russia from its Crimean naval bases.  This is a tried-and-tested trick in the propaganda battle because it is not difficult to convince anyone that NATO has vested interests; war is its raison d’etre, Russia its old foe.  Russia and NATO is an old problem and a compelling argument can be made that NATO is the bigger part of the problem (read this 1997 piece by Rodric Braithwaite).  It has certainly preoccupied Putin, who reportedly said in 2008 that if Ukraine acceded to NATO Russia “could annex Crimea and the east of the country.”

The 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act was a missed opportunity to convince Moscow that NATO was not a threat to its security.  Instead of giving privileged access to Russia, the Founding Act only underscored Russia’s sense of being permanently excluded.  Russia’s long-held refusal to seriously distinguish between the USA and NATO exaggerates the impact of this aspect of its narrative.  The EU may now be stirred into the same alphabet soup.

Ukraine’s role in events is minimised again since this is an argument about the international system.  As the Greek historian Thucydides famously said: ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’ (also quoted in the Braithwaite piece).  Yet if the focus of current events had been kept on Ukraine and its people, and their relationship with the EU, NATO need not have been dragged in to play.

Third, both narratives accuse the other side of intervening.  Either there are Russian agents in eastern Ukraine, or if not on the ground then they are nonetheless coordinating operations (the Western narrative), or there are US-hired private security contractors – mercenaries – in eastern Ukraine (the Russian narrative).  There is persuasive evidence on either side.  On the one hand, a purportedly intercepted Skype call shows Alexander Dugin instructing a protestor (in Russian here).  On the other, the CIA has acknowledged that its Director secretly visited Kyiv last weekend.  In any case, we have been coaxed into talk of great power rivalry, which has only boosted Putin’s domestic popularity.

In fact, it is patent that both sides have intervened in Ukraine.  It is patent that both sides are intervening in Ukraine.  It is patent that both sides will continue to intervene in Ukraine.  “Doing nothing” was never much accepted as a policy recommendation – or else what is power for?

Intervention takes different forms and one of those forms, financial aid, is a particularly tricky issue.  On the one hand, the EU is accused of financially supporting NGOs that organised the Maidan protest (the Russian narrative).  On the other, Russia has financially supported the Ukrainian economy for much of the past twenty years.  Some intervention is ok, some is not.  If we understand our world to be a highly interdependent one, then it is very difficult to attribute blame in this way.  There will always be antecedent circumstances that need taking into account, and the “causal arrow” is easily reversed.  Besides, a Ukraine with strong ties to both the EU and Russia would seem not only necessary, but also an asset for Ukraine and the states on either side.


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