Opinion

John Lloyd

The claims for Russian imperialism

By John Lloyd
March 4, 2014

The more or less liberal, democratic, capitalist countries that make up seven of the Group of Eight (G8) have condemned Russia and are discussing boycotting the June G8 meeting in Sochi. There is even talk of expelling Russia from the group.

This western government consensus against Russia’s actions is based on evidence that prompted the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to say that it is “hard to avoid concluding that Russia does not want peace and does not want a diplomatic solution.”

It is time, since this is what news media in democracies do, to question that consensus. Let’s consider the case for what’s being called Russian neo-imperialism.

Claim — President Victor Yanukovich was democratically elected by the people of Ukraine in 2010.

He was, by a reasonable margin. Though his main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, alleged fraud, she later withdrew her claim. But after growing corruption, tightened authoritarian rule and the murder by apparently state-sponsored thugs of more than 80 people protesting against Yanukovich’s rule, the parliament in Kiev voted by a substantial majority to strip him of office. Later, with a similar majority, it voted to accept the new government that is now in place.

Claim — The protesters were led by, or at least had among their number, a large contingent of far rightists who are violently anti-Russian and anti-Semitic.

There are such forces in Ukraine. They were part of the protests and they at times received praise from the demonstrators for their courage. But, according to the historian Timothy Snyder, the far-right party Svoboda (“Freedom”) is a small electoral force. The more militant Right Sector has so far stressed “that their goal is political and not ethnic or racial,” Snyder writes. The latter is, he admitted, “the group to watch,” since its rhetoric has been strongly hostile to all foreign, and especially Russian and Jewish, influence. But it does not lead the movement, and the ousting of Yanukovich cannot be represented truthfully as a “fascist coup.”

Claim — Russians in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have cause for alarm and need protection.

There have been fiery speeches against Russian “imperialism.” The day after the deputies fired Yanukovich, they passed a law banning the teaching of Russian. This was condemned by, among others, the Foreign Minister of Poland, Radek Sikorski and was quickly scrapped. A likely contender for the next president of Ukraine, the former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko who is a Russian-speaker, has stressed unity and balance in the parliament.

There have been no recorded attacks on Russians anywhere, including where they are a minority — as in the west of Ukraine. As Power said at the U.N., “the Russian military action is not a human rights protection mission.”

Claim — The European Union was the real imperialist actor, and in wooing Ukraine it damaged Russian interests.

It’s probably true that the EU was at least naïve in offering an “association agreement” to Ukraine and failing to anticipate the Russian response. But the draft agreement was initialed by President Yanukovich in 2012. Russia didn’t like this and in 2013 it temporarily banned some Ukrainian products from its market, yet it was reasonable to suppose President Vladimir Putin would reluctantly acquiesce in time. Instead, Russia became more upset.

Andreas Umland, a German political scientist who lives and works in Ukraine, told me he believes that, as Russia’s economy falters, Putin needs a foreign policy success to offset the threat to living standards. “He began to stress the importance of the Eurasian Union (a free trade area planned to take in most of the former states of the Soviet Union) and he needs Ukraine for this to be credible. He needs a political success. It became quite existential for the regime,” Umland said.

Claim — Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has had a history of promises betrayed by the West.

The largest complaint — made by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and repeated often by Putin — is that the West promised that NATO would not expand east to the Soviet border, and it has. There is substantial cause for Russian anger here. It seems likely that at least one western foreign minister — the German Hans-Dietrich Genscher – has made such a pledge, along with probably James Baker, then the U.S. Secretary of State.

All that can be said against the Russian position is that NATO has never threatened Russia; that the former Communist states of central and Eastern Europe demanded membership; and that, even in the present situation, NATO has threatened no retaliation.

Many also blame the West for forcing Russia, immediately after the collapse of the USSR and under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, to adopt economic “shock therapy” in the form of privatization and deep cuts to social programs. But Russia — and all of the Soviet Union — was bankrupt, and only a desperate effort to create a market got things moving again. The widespread impoverishment and misery was the result of the bankruptcy of the economic system. After the initial marketization, the economy became, under Yeltsin and then Putin, a “managed capitalism” with the state in control.

Claim — The West should be nice to Russia not only because Russia is going to have a hard time, but also because it’s dangerous.

In some ways, this is the most substantial point. The strength that Putin likes to project is increasingly illusory. Russian growth is less than two percent today, the population is falling fast, there is little modernization, the economy is buoyed by oil and gas prices that are likely to fall and corruption sits at the heart of every enterprise. Western sanctions will deepen this disastrous situation, and though they should be imposed, it’s still more urgent to find a new form of relationship.

This means finding a solution to the Ukraine issue, which can command the assent of the new government in Kiev and the governments of Russia, the EU and the U.S. But don’t hold your breath. Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told  President Barack Obama after talking to the Russian president, is in “another world” — a world where everything depends on a projection of strength at whatever cost, with no prospect of the Russian parliament voting him out.

PHOTO: A pro-Russian man (not seen) holds a Russian flag behind an armed servicemen on top of a Russian army vehicle outside a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava March 1, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Comments
21 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

meh. this is still all about “Ukraine” vs “Kiev Rus.”

Putin has a lot of options to make mischief on an already economically depressed (to say the least) Continent.
What will Europe do I think is a real wild card here.

I’m not sure if this a very happy place right now given the massive unemployment. I think it’s very easy to see this situation as “static” but events have in fact moved with striking rapidity to this point “geo politically speaking.”

The war games have now ended…those Russian forces are now ready to fight. So far the only consensus is that “none dare oppose them.” So you can strangle Ukraine like a python…or launch an outright assault after somebody breaks a fingernail.

so far “game, set, match” Putin.

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive
 

There exists significant and honest disagreement with several of your claim responses…and this reality creates a serious problem which will be very difficult to solve in a tidy fashion. Failed US-led coup hijacked by extremists who are formally integrated into positions within the new putsch government. This is a violent, illegal government overthrow John. How else would you describe this transfer of power? If you accept this form of transfer in Ukraine, would you accept it in the UK? Do we throw law and democratic mechanisms out the window when they don’t suit our mood of the moment? The Ukraine parliament has no legal authority to depose a sitting Ukrainian President. I cannot believe the Western media are ignoring brutish lawlessness, with almost zero dissenting voices. Sad day for the fourth estate, law, and human freedom. What about the Ukrainians who did not support the thugs who violently overthrew their government? Does anyone care about their freedom?

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive
 

There are plenty of Tea Party supporters in the US who believe Obama is massively corrupt and harming them in a significant way. Their remedy is the ballot box, not the putsch!

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive
 

tired of seeing a lot of comments by paid Kremlin agents.
In reality, despite enormous propaganda and straight lies on Russian TV, 73% of Russians do not support intervention.
So this is disaster for Putin whatever outcome is.
And taking into account his living “in another reality”, I think he will let the sanctions happen. That’s when Russians will see the consequences of having stupid man at the top.

Posted by one_some | Report as abusive
 

A remarkably lucid account. Perhaps the only one I have seen.

Claim: Russia invaded Ukraine.
Truth: Russia has a treaty agreement that allows them to station up to 25,000 troops on the Crimea. They currently have around 15,000. Despite claims to the contrary, they do not appear to have sent in re-enforcements. What they have done is lock down the bases where those troops have deployed, locking out the Ukrainians. Not exactly a blitzkrieg.

What also seems to be true is that Yanukovich’s ouster is a little strange. The vote to throw him out depended on support from his own party, Party of Regions. Those votes came through suddenly, and the Party of Regions is now remarkably quiet. Ukraine is bankrupt, to an extent previously unknown, but with a week or two of reserves at best. By suddenly turning him out, the Party of Regions avoids having to default on Ukraine’s interest payments to Russia (Ukraine’s principal lender), and shifts responsibility for a mess to the new government. It also is suddenly a sweetheart of the west, getting financial support that was previously unavailable. If the US support comes through, the US taxpayer is going to be on the hook for loan guarantees, and the prospects of Ukrainian default, on loans from Russia, is pretty good. Today a ‘senior State Department official’ acknowledge that a large part of the money that the US proposes to give to Ukraine will end up in the hands of… Putin.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive
 

In short this a replay of Czechoslovakia of 1930s. It did not shoot back and England and France declared peace in our time. The Ukraine does not shoot. Germany and EU says keep cool do not provoke reaction. The EU downsized it’s military, as did France and England in the 1930s. The only difference is Russia de-industrialized. Germany in the 1930s was industrializing. Russia still has a massive amount of military man power in a ready state even if out numbered in population 2 or 3 times by the EU area. So Russia’s army will be weak in the long term but not now.

If the Ukrainian does not shoot there is little reason to send weapons and allow them to recruit trained aircrews and other critical men form the EU’s armies (that could make things very costly for Russia). Also Putnam planed every thing but getting the backing of the majority Russian populous for his adventures. Hitler got the backing first.

As for the USA we are limited weapons and troops backing up our allies in the Pacific who have history of shooting back Taiwan. Russia is a job for the EU. Unless agents could convince China that now it the time to take back the lands the Czars took from them because Russia is weak.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive
 

In short this a replay of Czechoslovakia of 1930s. It did not shoot back and England and France declared peace in our time. The Ukraine does not shoot. Germany and EU says keep cool do not provoke reaction. The EU downsized it’s military, as did France and England in the 1930s. The only difference is Russia de-industrialized. Germany in the 1930s was industrializing. Russia still has a massive amount of military man power in a ready state even if out numbered in population 2 or 3 times by the EU area. So Russia’s army will be weak in the long term but not now.

If the Ukrainian does not shoot there is little reason to send weapons and allow them to recruit trained aircrews and other critical men form the EU’s armies (that could make things very costly for Russia). Also Putnam planed every thing but getting the backing of the majority Russian populous for his adventures. Hitler got the backing first.

As for the USA we are limited weapons and troops backing up our allies in the Pacific who have history of shooting back Taiwan. Russia is a job for the EU. Unless agents could convince China that now it the time to take back the lands the Czars took from them because Russia is weak.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive
 

I think this situation is making the US look very two-faced and arrogant to a lot of the world.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

“initial marketization” — requires definition / expansion. (A whole world of corruption and cronyism is encapsulated in these two words.)

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive
 

Did anyone notice – that’s a women in that Russian? tank. If that’s the case, Putin’s projection of machismo and strength isn’t all that sexist after all? The Ukraine flag?

A caption under that photo would be clarifying.

@one-some – everybody seems to be paid except me. How do you price this stuff anyway? What’s the difference between paid agents and embedded journalists or paid for news stories planted by the government in networks and print? There’s a word I heard last night in a email to my old Dad. He wrote about “acceptable corruption”. You can make fortunes at it, apparently, and everybody’s doing it.

It would be better to consider all comments priceless and be content at that, but that doesn’t even buy a latte let alone a condo somewhere.

Isn’t it strange that the scenario about fascists trying to start a world war between rival superpowers comes straight out of a movie I saw recently on Hulu or Crackle, that I can;t recall the name of. The “Tale wagging the Dog” was also cited by commenters during the early stages of Iraq II.

Art imitates Life imitates art imitates life – until it is hopelessly confused. That’s very dangerous and the dead won’t care what the answer really was.

Why not a plebiscite and let the Ukraine establish some benchmark of popular will. But would that ever be possible without both sides bribing and rigging the results? Kerry is a fool, to start right out with bribes. Anyone offering a bribe for loyalty already knows he stands to gain far more than the bribe is worth.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

Lavrov: Western actions regarding the situation in Ukraine are not constructive

PARIS. March 5 (Interfax) – Western actions regarding the situation in Ukraine do not promote an atmosphere of cooperation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Paris after talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“We held a meeting with John Kerry regarding the situation in Ukraine, regarding the actions that our partners are trying to take along the lines of OSCE, the Russia-NATO Council and other international organizations. Actions that do not help create an atmosphere of dialogue or constructive cooperation,” he said after the talks.

Posted by letitbe | Report as abusive
 

Unfortunately Mr. Lloyd misses the crucial point so easily absolving people in Kiev. The facts are: Russian-speaking people in the eastern part of Ukraine were alarmed by the developments in Kiev and propoaganda of the Right Sector and Svoboda during the Maidan events. Why one can claim these were extremal forces their propaganda was blunt and noisy. Then there was quick sequence of revolutionary events: the first law of the new parliament was about repelling the official status of the russian language. In the new government no people from the eastern regions. The new government is 100% western oriented and nobody listens what people from the east have to say. All this happened not by accident by under influence of the extremists.

That all was looking like indeed dark prophecies the Right Sector are coming true. And that created a deep psychological rift: eastern regions people suddenly rejected whatever degree of “ukraininess” they could have and became 100% Russians. Such psychological transformations are known from other places notably Yougoslavia and they are are not reversible. Russia and Putin are followups of this process. Thus the role of extremists was much bigger and gravier than seen on the face.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive
 

@paintcan those are the soulful eyes of the Russian man even though he is in the uniform.

Posted by letitbe | Report as abusive
 

Putin’s grandiose plans will only further weaken and undermine the sclerotic Russian economy. Russia cannot afford to be an imperialist power with its lousy demographics, massive corruption, and slowly declining revenue from oil and gas exports. Putin’s grand plan for a Eurasian trade group is a half-baked idea at best.
And it is disturbing to see some comments justifying an armed invasion of Ukraine and suggesting that the fact that some Russians were disgruntled in the East was somehow a legitimate reason for outside aggression by Russia. The latter was simply pretext for an invasion planned long ago, which the Russians practiced in the Zapad exercises this past year. And by that logic, Russia has a practically universal, self-proclaimed right to violate sovereign borders in order to do what’s best for its ethnic brethren. Who is next on the menu, Lithuania?Estonia?

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive
 

“German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Barack Obama after talking to the Russian president, is in “another world””

The Germans have not confirmed this. Their reaction is that the details of the conversation between Merkel and Obama were private, and they would not discuss details.

This is actually pretty stunning, and was picked up on by the BBC, although blown passed by the US media. At best, the details of a private confidential discussion with a foreign head of state were taken out of context and leaked by the White House to bolster its actions.

This may just be part of why the EU does not seem eager to follow our lead in punishing Putin. That, and senior State Department officers saying F the EU. I would imagine the irony of Nuland also saying ““I’m not going to talk about our private diplomatic communications,” Nuland told the BBC,” was not lost on many in EU diplomatic community.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive
 

So NATO is pretty OK with Russia invading Ukraine and taking over Crimea. Some bablings here and there about even kicking off Putin from G8 country club, that is really a stand. A lof of (unintended) long term consequences of this situation for Europe, for EU, for NATO, for US, for world.
1. EU is just for show, nothing more than a close trade treaty. Diverging economic interests of big EU countries will be won one by another by Russia. Expect loosening of Union. EU will be critically dependent on Russian natural gas imports starting in early 2020′s. It would be bad to be small EU country, as rules will be made for big one.
2. NATO is also just for show. The real test for NATO will be invasion of Russia on parts of Estonia and Latvia, not now, in a few years when Europe is totally energy dependent on Russia. Consequences for European countries should be building real pan-European military forces, not large, just 20 divisions, 200 000 soldiers would be enough, about 1000 aircraft and good navy of about 500 000 tons. Something with a budget of 100 billion EUR a year. But it would not happen. So for small Eastern European NATO countries the only solution are US bases on their territories.
3. Europe became really dangerous place, for the first time since 1938. It was the longest time, over 70 years, in history without a major war in Europe. If Russia can take Crimes, Germany can take Austria and parts of Czech Republic/Poland. Expect a rise of strong nationalism, out of fear of being invaded by stronger ones. Say goodbuy to free movement of people and land in Europe. Nobody in Poland and Czech Republic will allow Germans to buy land or settle because history has repeated itself here for 10 times, and can one more in current conditions.
4. US will have no actual pivot to Asia and will lose world policeman status. the Big Bad Guy for the next 5 years is Putin and Russia and you cannot convince US public it is China. China produces cheap stuff for US, no invasions. China is very happy with recent Putin move. Opportunity window for rise of China once again is open till at least 2020.
5. World. China was given another very nice gift (first was 9/11, next war in Iraq, next world financial crisis, next wars in Libya and Syria, current one is Russia taking over Crimea). All this gifts distracted US from the main goal since 1995: containment.
In 1995 Chinese economy was 6% of US, now it is 60% in nominal terms. In PPP China is already stronger.
China does not need any futher opportunity windows.
Russia will stay as the Big Third Position Power (After US and China) for the next 30 years. It will again dominate Europe, this time economically.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive
 

Sorry John…I knew you were wrong. The Mainstream Media, Reuters in fact, finally report the Ukraine facts on the ground, and it’s damning for the US. A good article on it: “Finally, the Ukraine Truth Reported in Western Mainstream Media…and the US Should Disengage Immediately from the Disaster we Created” http://jackworthington.wordpress.com/

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive
 

What also seems to be true is that Yanukovich’s ouster is a little strange. The vote to throw him out depended on support from his own party, Party of Regions.

Posted by NemGiaSoc.com | Report as abusive
 

Those masked soldiers show true Putin’s face.

There’s one fairly easy thing that has to be done: get the pictures of a dozen of these troops without masks, then publish them in the media all over the world with their names and ranks in the Russian Army… beside a video where Putin is saying that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine. And all deceitful Putin’s propaganda goes to hell… for “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” (Daniel Patrick Moynihan)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive
 

Putin is part of a gang that runs Russia. Nothing is democratic in Russia.
Putin extended his gang to Ukraine through Yanukovich.
Normal Ukrainians rose up to eliminate this rot.
Normal Russians should also rise up for a better life.
The world should support the Ukrainians who risk their lives to make their world a better place.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive
 

So much for Putin’s saccharin words in the New York Times about the rule of the law, the importance of the United Nations, the illegitimacy of the use of force,etc. By Putin’s new standards his neighbors have a similar right to lop off bordering regions of Russia to support their ethnic kin.
The Russians will pay a heavy price for their aggression and xenophobic nationalism.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive
 

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