Washington and Brussels are the heroes of the Ukrainian saga, if you believe the Western media. Russian President Vladimir Putin is cast as the Big Bad Russian Bear, US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are the Democratic A-Team. Russia is supposedly using dirty KGB-inspired tactics: secret agitators backed by masked paratroopers. The West makes the same tired claims to back democracy and freedom and denounces Putin’s foul play.
The hyperbole is extraordinary. Is it really appropriate to invoke the memory of Anschluss, or compare Putin to Saddam Hussein? Kerry has called Ukraine an “incredible act of aggression”, conveniently ignoring drone strikes, the Iraq War, and the numerous illegal coups the US has pulled off since World War II.
Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made the argument in March that Putin is “trying to re-establish Russian influence and a measure of control over the former states of the Soviet Union”. All this deceitful moralising, as well as attempts to classify Putin’s putsch in Crimea as some grandiose geopolitical strategy, ignores two crucial realities about this crisis.
The first is that Putin is acting out of political desperation. The second is that the West has been no saint in this crisis, and it may even have caused it.
Putin’s first two terms saw widespread political support built primarily on healthy economic growth, mainly thanks to booming oil prices. An avalanche of foreign investment allowed businesses and infrastructure to grow at pace. Everyone was employed, the middle class was growing and Putin of course claimed the credit.
Then came the financial crisis of 2008. A sovereign debt crisis in Europe left Russia exposed. Prices rose and profit margins for businesses grew unhealthy. Many who had made it into the middle classes found themselves back in the working poor.
For a while, Putin blamed the mess on European financiers. But this tale was discarded in December, when he admitted that most of Russia’s economic problems were homegrown; born out of broken promises he made to reform the economy and rout out systemic corruption.
And Russia’s economic misfortunes are not set to end soon – economists forecast growth rates averaging 2.5 percent, far behind most developing economies, and emergency cash reserves will reportedly run out in three years.
Alexei Krudin, an ex-finance minister, has blamed Putin for the economic crisis. He says more should have been done sooner. In December, the polling agency Levada put Putin’s approval rating at its lowest in 10 years. The boom years of his first two terms are a distant memory.
Putin, therefore, enjoyed his Kremlin Christmas overshadowed by the imminent prospect of political failure. Admittedly, the opposition movement in Russia is disorganised, underfunded or behind bars. But the memories of mass street protests in 2011 and 2012 are still fresh. Victimisation of the print press has grown more violent, control of TV stations has expanded and suppression of dissent has become ever more cruel. As Putin’s popularity falls, he must tell more lies to his people, shut up his critics – or simply distract the Russian public with military expeditions abroad.
Crimea as distraction
Crimea has been this distraction. There is no grand plan, Putin is not being a “playground bully” nor is he seeking to “re-establish Russian influence and a measure of control over the former states of the Soviet Union”. Crimea was simply an opportunity which Putin saw, a land grab which Putin knew would play well at home and, at least in the short term, save his political skin.
The second criticism of the standing Western narrative is that Putin is playing dirty. Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton have been at pains to call him out on this. But has the West not been doing the same? It all depends on the timeframe you use to judge the Ukraine crisis.
In 1990, the final leader of the dying Soviet Union was explicitly promised by then US Secretary of State James Baker that NATO would not take advantage of Russia’s weakness and expand their influence eastward. In a speech which he gave in the Kremlin, Baker confirmed that there would be “no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east”.
In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2009, Mikhail Gorbachev was gutted: The promise he had been made that day by Baker had proved a hollow deceit.
“One cannot depend on American politicians,” he said.
He was joined by then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who confirmed the West’s duplicity.
“None of the things that we were assured, namely that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards, and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration,” had happened.
Gorbachev and Medvedev were right to be angry. Despite Baker’s promise, NATO had expanded into Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania. All of these countries were formerly within Russia’s sphere of influence. And all of these countries were significantly more than “an inch to the east”.
On top of NATO’s rapid expansion, the West added to Russian trauma by trying to position missile defence systems in both Poland and the Czech Republic. The plan was eventually scrapped after Russian opposition was made clear. While Washington claimed the missile bases protected Europe from Iranian missiles (despite Tehran not owning any missiles with sufficient range), Russians believed they presented a clear security threat. Imagine if Putin had announced he was building missile bases in Mexico.
Finally, fast-paced but accurate investigative journalism by the American writer Steve Weissman has revealed how in the months and even years running up to Euromaidan, US money had been vociferously funding anti-Yanukovich political activities in Ukraine. Shadowy think-tanks linked to the US State Department have funded over 80 “pro-democracy” projects in Ukraine, as well as almost completely funding an opposition TV station.
As Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fell, Putin took his opportunity in Crimea. In press conferences, he has laid out the historical events above. He credibly claimed Russia had been the victim of a Western plot to surround and contain Russia. He also pointed to wilder theories about the CIA’s involvement and neo-Nazi gangs roaming Kiev.
The West has concentrated on mocking the latter while conveniently ignoring the legitimate gripes Putin raises – the possibility that the West, through meddling and provoking incessantly, may have caused this crisis.
In the face of clearly hypocritical Western lecturing – Putin’s ratings at home have soared. And the people of Ukraine have also been betrayed – their push for democracy co-opted by US interests, and their economy having lost up to $80bn, according to latest reports. Will Western leaders be held to account? Probably not if this thundering and incorrect narrative continues to play out across the media. This is why Western leaders are so keen to demonise Putin – it gets them off the hook.