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Friday, August 8, 2014

Rebuttal to The Nation's "Why is Washington Risking War with Russia?"

On July 30th, 2014, The Nation, a "weekly journal of opinion, featuring analysis on politics and culture founded in 1865" published an article titled "Why is Washington Risking War with Russia?", which you can read by clicking on the link. 

This article then appeared in the August 18th-25th edition of the magazine, and was written by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen, who you can also read more about if you click on the links provided. 

In this entry I would like to provide a rebuttal to their recently published article by going through it paragraph by paragraph. From now on, the article's text is italicized, my writing is not. 

As The Nation has warned repeatedly, the unthinkable may now be rapidly unfolding in Ukraine: not just the new Cold War already under way but an actual war between US-led NATO and Russia.

First of all, there are no references or links to previous articles in this excerpt where The Nation claims they have been an active voice against further escalation of the insurgency in Ukraine. If you're going to claim that you've been warning your readers about something that could happen, it's a bit strange to then not provide those publications.  
Secondly, the pro-Russian insurgents have been steadily losing territory in Eastern Ukraine. Presently there are two rebel strongholds left: the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukrainian troops have recently entered the city limits of Donetsk, where they are shelling, and have surrounded Luhansk, which has suffered greatly during this conflict. The premier of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" has resigned, according to ITAR-TASS, a Russian news source.

It is true that the Kremlin has been conducting larger military exercises near Ukraine's eastern border recently, but Russian military exercises near the border are not a new occurrence, so claiming the currently planned ones are an indication of escalation is ambiguous. In the previously mentioned article, NBC News claims "The West has criticized Russia for staging earlier military exercises near Ukraine."

The shoot-down of Malaysian jetliner MH17 on July 17 should have compelled the US-backed government in Kiev to declare a prolonged cease-fire in its land and air attacks on nearby cities in order to honor the 298 victims, give international investigators safe access to the crash site, and begin peace talks. Instead, Kiev, with Washington’s backing, immediately intensified its attacks on those residential areas, vowing to “liberate” them from pro-Russian “terrorists,” as it brands resisters in eastern Ukraine, killing more innocent people. In response, Moscow is reportedly preparing to send heavy weapons to the “self-defenders” of the Donbass.
I don't disagree with the desire to give respect to the victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight that was shot down over the Donbass. That is of great importance. However, that plane crashed near Torez, which, as of now, is either under rebel control or is very close to rebel-controlled territory. From Kiev's perspective, I would argue that a ceasefire would be strategically hurtful. It could give the rebels in the Donbass time to regroup, restock, and even grow in size, especially when they still hold two large cities (Donetsk's population is around 950,000, Luhansk about 420,000) in a region known for weapons production and a porous border nearby. Ukraine's army has the momentum in this fight as of now, I doubt they want to halt operations when they believe they are close to victory.   
Now, according to a story in The New York Times of July 27, the White House may give Kiev sensitive intelligence information enabling it to pinpoint and destroy such Russian equipment, thereby, the Times article also suggests, risking “escalation with Russia.” To promote this major escalation, the Obama administration is alleging, without firm evidence, that Russia is already “firing artillery from its territory into Ukraine.” Virtually unreported, however, is repeated Ukrainian shelling of Russia’s own territory, which killed a resident on July 13.

A quick google search of "Ukraine shells Russia" yields the information that this did indeed happen, in an article published by Reuters. In fact, the first sentence in the article explains that a Russian man was killed by the shell. To say this was "virtually unreported" when it was one of the first results in the search, reported by a widely cited American news agency, is misleading. Perhaps it didn't receive the coverage on television that it could have, but it was not "virtually unreported". 

In fact, Kiev has been Washington’s military proxy against Russia and its “compatriots” in eastern Ukraine for months. Since the political crisis began, Secretary of State John Kerry, CIA Director John Brennan and Vice President Joseph Biden (twice) have been in Kiev, followed by “senior US defense officials,” American military equipment and financial aid. Still more, a top US Defense Department official informed a Senate committee that the department’s “advisers” are now “embedded” in the Ukrainian defense ministry.

Indeed, Kiev cannot wage this war on its own citizens—a UN spokesperson says nearly 5,000 civilians have been killed or wounded, which may constitute war crimes—without the Obama administration’s political, economic and military support. Having also created hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees, Ukraine is bankrupt, its industrial infrastructure damaged, and it is in political disarray, using ultranationalist militias and conscripting men up to 60 years of age.
All of this is unfolding in the context of Washington’s misleading narrative, amplified by the mainstream media, that the Ukrainian crisis has been caused entirely by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “aggression.” In reality, his role has been mostly reactive:

First of all, to say "Kiev is waging a war against its own citizens" is misleading and even a bit insulting. Kiev is not waging this war to repress Ukrainian citizens, it is trying to take back control of a region that was forcibly pushed into scam independence referendums that very few in the international community recognized as legitimate and fair by violent pro-Russian rebels. Pew Research Centre indicates that a majority (70%) of Eastern Ukrainians, despite being understandably wary of the recent revolution, do not want to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia. Only 18% believed that Ukraine should allow regions to secede. 

Secondly, "aggression" and "reactive" are not mutually exclusive. Putin acted in an aggressive, reactive way, by sending Russian troops to grab de facto control of the Crimean peninsula in March and proceeding with an independence referendum that was boycotted by Crimean Tatars and again recognized by very few members of the international community. 

In November 2013, the European Union, with White House support, triggered the crisis by rejecting Putin’s offer of an EU-Moscow-US financial plan and confronting Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, with an unnecessary choice between “partnership” with Europe or with Russia. The proposal was laden with harsh financial conditions as well as “military and security” obligations. Not surprisingly, Yanukovych opted for a considerably more favorable financial offer from Putin. Imposing such a choice on the president of an already profoundly divided country was needlessly provocative.

If Yanukovych believed the union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan was more financially favorable to Ukraine as a whole, why did he tell Ukrainians that he would sign the deal with the European Union? 

By February, street protests against Yanukovych’s decision turned so violent that European foreign ministers brokered a compromise agreement tacitly supported by Putin. Yanukovych would form a coalition government; Kiev street militias would disarm; the next presidential election would be moved up to December; and Europe, Washington and Moscow would cooperate to save Ukraine from financial collapse. The agreement was overthrown by ultranationalist street violence within hours. Yanukovych fled, and a new government was formed. The White House quickly endorsed the coup.

Yes, the revolution did turn violent.  But who had the guns? Who was cheered by pro-Kremlin separatists in Crimea and by Putin supporters in Russia? Berkut (the riot police) was.

And yes, ultra-nationalists like the Svoboda (Freedom) political party and Right Sector exist in Ukraine. They're crass, anti-Russian, even Nazi-like at times and have brawled with other parliamentary factions in Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada. They do exist. But they are fringe parties in Ukraine. In the last presidential election in May, Oleh Tyhanybok of Svoboda won 1.16% of the vote and Dimitry Yarosh of Right Sector won 0.7% of the vote, despite very high turnout in Western Ukraine, which is more nationalistic than the east. 

Map of turnout in the 2014 Presidential Election (in Ukrainian). Credit to the original author Nazar.galitskyj

If any professional “intelligence” existed in Washington, Putin’s reaction was foreseeable. Decades of NATO expansion to Russia’s border, and a failed 2008 US proposal to “fast-track” Ukraine into NATO, convinced him that the new US-backed Kiev government intended to seize all of Ukraine, including Russia’s historical province of Crimea, the site of its most important naval base. In March, Putin annexed Crimea.

What is left out here is that Ukraine gave Crimea autonomy and allowed Russia to house its Black Sea Fleet there when it was under Ukrainian control. This article leaves out crucial information and conveys misleading messages. 

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