The ongoing Ukrainian crisis has produced, especially in the last month, an explosion of odd bedfellows, stupendous displays of credulity and motivated thoughtlessness (I like this better than motivated cognition) among the so-called alternative media and on the right generally. Infowars syndicates material from the Progressive, Gates of Vienna runs stuff from Russia Today, and Marie Le Pen’s FN endorses Russian seizure of Crimea. Rumors and unsubstantiated claims are reprinted (and translated) until the Chinese whispers chamber magnifies them into established fact. Now that I think of it, the phenomenon is quite a nice CT scan of the various parts of the body politic, if only one had the time and capacities to interpret it.
Let’s work through a couple of examples. First is the often-quoted purported admission by Ms. Nuland that USG has spent $5 billion on revolution in Ukraine. Having seen something of said revolution, I prefer to believe my own lying eyes rather than the legions of nameless commenters on the internet, but this ‘fact’ was apparently too juicy for anybody to bother with actually checking what relationship it had to reality.
To begin, here is the original speech by Ms. Nuland on Ukraine. I spent all of 15 minutes finding it on teh internets, obviously too much to ask of the average content creator in the Twitter age. The part that raised up all the stink is the following two sentences:
Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the United States has supported Ukrainians as they built democratic skills and institutions, as they promote[d] civic participation in governance, all of which are preconditions for Ukraine to achieve its European aspirations. We’ve invested over 5 billion dollars to assist Ukraine in these and other goals that will ensure a secure and prosperous and democratic Ukraine.
Now, I bear small love towards USG in general and Ms. Nuland in particular; I thought her handing out cookies on Maidan in December (another beloved staple of Putinophiliac propaganda; one gets the distinct impression that for three months Maidan subsisted exclusively on Ms. Nuland’s cookies) was cheesy. However that may be, her original statement is very far from what Putinophiliacs, of all stripes, commonly make of it. I won’t insult your intelligence by pointing out the specific differences. Instead, I’ll note that Ukraine’s economy is bigger even than Fairfax County, where a billion dollars is petty cash, and list some details on how much has actually been spent, and on what.
The most recent and relevant data can be seen on USG’s retarded ‘user-friendly’ website, where you can see a detailed list of USAID disbursements for 2013, totaling a little less than $160M. The biggest single item is $37M added to EBRD funding for Chernobyl NPP’s New Shelter, a largish piece of pork for European atomics and construction companies. The first items which could be plausibly considered related to the recent events is $6M for something called Ukraine Media Project, and $5M for a fair judiciary project. Field note: in modern Ukrainian justice, $5M only gets you in the door in a high-stakes case, although methods are less crude than the cartons of cash emblematic of the halcyon days of the ’90s; frequently, a friend or relative of the judge manages a ‘charity’ and you are expected to make a generous contribution.
For older and slightly less detailed data, you can turn to USAID loans and grants website. This Excel table shows data for FY2001-2012. You can see for yourself the scale of the machinations of the National Endowment for Democracy, Millennium Challenge Corporation and other worthy outfits. The fuss raised in some quarters over these pathetic puddles of mouse piss strongly reminds me of the screeches of AGW credulists over the funding of the Heartland Institute.
To check up on the whole interval since the breakup of the Soviet Union, head over to this custom query builder. It does not compute totals, but you can do the sums and see that Ms. Nuland was not far off the mark with her figure. Then you will be equipped to tell the $5B-for-Maidan people to eat it, but of course they won’t listen.
Now the funny thing is that until Russia more-or-less kicked out foreign aid in 2012, it used to receive at least 3-4 times as much economic and military aid from USG as Ukraine did (1, 2, 3). Much of it went towards managing and securing Russia’s crumbling nuclear weapon infrastructure (that’s what
Kevin DrumEzra Klein’s ‘loose nukes’ probably meant), but, Russia being what it is, the money frequently went to such mundane but useful stuff as fighting AIDS or building sewage treatment plants in St. Petersburg. Funny how Russians have billions for Gazprom City but somehow can’t scrape together funds to manage city wastes without EBRD’s help. (Reportedly, this project only got off the ground when the Finns across the bay got disgusted with St. Petersburg’s untreated effluvium and started making noises. Russians’ noises about, e.g., their hospitals are easily ignored and the money is much better spent building roads for the Olympics at ten times the market price.)
Another famous example is the recording of a call between Ms. Ashton and Mr. Paet, Estonian foreign minister, intercepted by Russian security services and published on YouTube, apparently, in a fit of public-spiritedness in the interest of justice and world peace. This recording is often cited as an admission by the parties responsible that the sniper shootings at the Maidan on the 20th of February was a false flag operation by nefarious Maidan leadership. First, here is the text of the call, transcribed by yours truly, with the exception of the first two minutes covering the secretaries’ back-and-forth and the salutations.
A: I just wanted to catch up with you on what you saw when you were there.
P: Okay. I returned last night so I was one day.
A: Yuh. Yuh. Impressions?
P: Impressions are sad. I met with representatives of Regions Party, also new coalition representatives and also civil society, there is this lady called Olga who is head of the doctors, yes, you know her.
A: Olga, yuh, yuh, I do.
P: Yes. So that, well, my impression is, in recent sight[?], that there is, well, no trust towards also these politicians who return[?] now to the coalition. Well, people from Maidan and from civil society, they said they know everybody who will be in the new government, all these guys have dirty past (A: Yeah.) so that, well, they made some proposals to the same Olga and some others from civil society to join new government, but this Olga, for example, she says directly that she is ready to go to the government only in the case if she can take with her her team, foreign experts, to start real health care reforms. (A: Yeah.) So that, well, they sicdit[?] that the trust level is absolutely low, on the other hand all these security problems, these integrity problems, Crimea, all this stuff. (A: Mhm.) Regions party was absolutely upset, they said that, well, they accept that now there will be new government, there will be extraordinary elections, but there is enormous pressure against the members of parliament, that there are uninvited visitors during the night to party members, well, journalists, some journalists who were with me, they saw during the day that one member of parliament was just beat in front of the parliament building by these guys with the guns on the streets, so that all this mess is still there, and of course this Olga and others from civil society were absolutely sure people will not leave the streets before they see that the real reforms will start (A: Yuh.) so that it’s not enough that there is just change of government. (A: Yeah.) So this is the main impression, so that from EU’s and also, well, Estonians’ point of view, of course, we should be ready to put this financial package (A: Yuh.) together, also together with others. (A: Yuh.) This very clear message is needed that it’s not enough that there is change of government but the same real reforms, rail[?], real, you know, action to increase the level of trust, otherwise it will end badly. (A: Yeah.) Because the Regions Party also said that, well, you will see that if the people from the Eastern part of Ukraine will really wake up, and, and, and will start to demand their rights, some people also admit they were in Donetsk, there people said that, well, we can’t wait, how long still the occupation of Ukraine lasts in Donetsk (A: Yuh.) that it is really Russian city and we’d like now to (A: Yuh.) to see that, well, Russia will take over, so that, well (A: Yuh.) short impressions.
A: No, very very interesting. I just had a big meeting here with Olli Rehn and the other Commissioners (P: Yeah.) about what we can do. I mean, we [inaudible] financial package is short, medium-long term. Every (P: Yes.) how we get money in quickly, how we support the IMF and how we get kind of investment packages and business leaders and so on. On the political side, we’ve [?] resources we’ve got, and I offered the civil society and to Yatsenyuk and Klichko and everybody I met yesterday (P: Uhm?) we can offer you people who know how to do political and economic reform. The countries that are closest to Ukraine have been through dramatic changes and through damn big economic reforms, so we’ve got loads of experience to give you, which we’re happy to give. I said to the people in Maidan, yes you want real reforms, but you got to get through the short term first, so you need to find ways in which you can establish a process that will have anti-corruption at its heart, (P: Mm.) that will have people working alongside until the elections, and that you can be confident in the process. And I said to Olga, you may not be health minister now but you need to think about becoming health minister in the future, because people like you are going to be needed to be able to get, to make sure that it will happen. But I also said to them, if you simply barricade the buildings now, and the government doesn’t function, we can’t get money in, because we need a partner to partner with.
P: Yeah, absolutely.
A: And I said to the opposition leaders shortly to become government, you need to reach out to Maidan, you need to be, you know, engaging with them, you also need to get ordinary police officers back on the streets under a new sense of their role for the people feel safe. I pled to the Party of Regions people, you have to go and lay flowers where the people died, you have to show that you understand what you have, what had happened here, (P: Absolutely.) because what you’re experiencing is anger of people who’ve seen how Yanukovich lived and the corruption, and they are seeing you’re all the same. And those people who’ve lost people and who feel that, you know, he ordered that to happen, there’s quite a lot of shock, I think, in the city, a lot of sadness and shock, and that’s going to come out in some very strange ways if they’re not careful. (P: Mhm.) I think all of this, we’ll just have to work on it. We’ve done a big meeting here today, (P: Okay.) to try and get this in place [inaudible] very interesting, your observations.
P: It is, and, well, actually the only politician people from civil society mention positively was Poroshenko. (A: Yeah, yeah.) So that he has some sort of, how to say, trust among all this Maidan people and, and civil society. In fact it was quite disturbing, the same Olga told that, well, all evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers from both sides, among policemen and people from the streets, that they were the same snipers, killing people from both sides. (A: Well, that’s… yeah. That’s) So that [inaudible] and she also showed me some photos, she said that has medical doctor, she can, you know, say that it is the same, same handwriting, the same type of bullets, and it’s really disturbing that now the new, new coalition, that they don’t want to investigate, what exactly happened. So that there is now stronger and stronger understanding that the hiring[?] snipers, it was not Yanukovich, but it was somebody from the new coalition. [9:09]
A: I think we do want to investigate, however, I don’t know [inaudible] gosh.
P: Yeah. So that it was indeed[?] disturbing that if it starts now to live its own life very powerfully, that it already discredit dates[?] from very beginning also this new coalition.
A: I mean this is what they’ve got to be careful of as well, that they need to demand great change, but they’ve got to let the Rada function. If the Rada doesn’t function, then (P: Absolutely.) complete chaos. So that it’s all, you know, being an activist and a doctor is very very important, (P: Mm.) but it means you’re not a politician, and somehow they’ve got to a kind of accommodation for the next few weeks. (P: Absolutely.) have the country that she’s going[?] to run, and that’s the[?] elections when things can change, (P: Mm.) and that’s [inaudible] going to be quite put[?]. I’m planning to go back early next week, probably on Monday. (P: Mm.) [inaudible]
P: It’s really important that now when people from Europe and also West show up there, so that it’s absolutely [inaudible]
A: [inaudible] from where Slav[?]‘s going with the Visegrad group on Friday, [inaudible] William Hague on Sunday, (P: Yes.) I’m back again Monday…
P: Yes, I’ve heard also that Canadian minister is going on Friday, and yesterday also William Burns was, was there so we met (A: Yeah.) and we met also with Burns there in Kiev yesterday. (A: Yeah. Good.)
A: [inaudible] and I know John Bird was going, I’ll get hold of him. (P: Um-hum.) Okay, my friend, [inaudible] to you.
P: Well. Thanks for these comments, and I wish you well. Nice Australia.
A: Uh? What?
P: Nice Australia. Enjoy.
A: Oh, I’m not going to go, I’ve got to delay it ’cause I’m going to do more Ukraine instead.
P: Okay, good, good.
A: Alright, speak to you soon.
P: Thank you and all the best. See you.
Even in this transcript, it is clear that Mr. Paet doesn’t state anything about snipers: he merely repeats some hearsay while discussing very low levels of trust in the politicians in the ‘new coalition’, and expresses his dismay at the idea that such rumors might gain wider circulation and damage the ‘new coalition’. (This is inconsistent with his earlier statement about very low trust towards it — which is quite true and mostly deserved — but no matter.) In response to this recording, Olga Bogomolets, the doctor he refers to, most importantly stated (1, 2, 3) that she didn’t examine any bodies of the policemen killed by snipers. (Their bodies weren’t available to Maidan medics for obvious reasons.) Also, she’s a dermatologist, not a military doctor or a forensics expert. She would be an idiot to pronounce on bullet types etc., still less from seeing only photos of killed policemen. As for wound locations, any competent sniper shooting to kill will target the same locations, dictated by human physiology.
Now let’s take up the plausibility of opposition leaders hiring the snipers. I’ll borrow some ideas from Ms. Latynina’s March 8 talk radio show.
First, it is inconsistent with previous events: it was clearly Yanukovich government’s special police forces who cleared out and beat the students on November 30, attempted to clear out the Maidan camp on December 10, shot rubber bullets and car-stopping rounds over the barricades in mid-January, stripped people naked and posed them for victory videos etc., and it was his party people who hired thugs to beat up Maidan people in random locations, set fire to cars, kidnap and kill members of Automaidan etc., and after all this didn’t work for him, suddenly, the opposition hires snipers to shoot people in the Maidan? Not very likely.
Second, with all the mutual suspicions between opposition leaders, it is difficult to see how any one of them could hope to keep such an explosive thing secret. Note that even a month after the event, Russian propaganda does not make any concrete allegations: just repeating the same vague general statements to keep the fires going.
Third, what could have been their motive? To infuse fighting spirit into Maidan defenders? They have been showing a profound lack understanding of same for three months; they could hardly expect to predict what their reaction would be. In fact, the very next day, February 21, when in the evening they were on the Maidan stage proudly announcing the EU-brokered power transition deal, Mr. Klichko was shouldered aside by a Maidan platoon leader who said, in effect, fuck your agreement, if Yanukovich isn’t out by tomorrow morning we’ll go and take him out. The opposition leaders tried to argue, but it was no use, they were booed off and that platoon leader became the hero of the day. That was a colossal live-action flop if I’ve ever seen one, but it followed other smaller ones of a similar nature.
Fourth, Russia was and is waiting for situation in Ukraine to deteriorate sufficiently for them to take over Ukraine on the pretext of protecting the populace from lawless gangs. In February, Yanukovich government was looking for a way to announce a state of emergency; it needed a compliant Rada and he could not push it through over the resistance of his own party, most of whom have a fine survival instinct and little personal loyalty, without a lever — he had already been obliged in late January to rush personally to the Rada to bully them into refusing to vote for a mere opposition-sponsored Maidan amnesty law. Clearing Maidan out would have given him this lever, or, if Maidan got out of hand, he would have been in a position to declare emergency and move in the army. But what good would any of this be to opposition politicians? If emergency were declared and/or Russia came in, they would be among the first to be proscribed, just as Ms. Tymoshenko was when Mr. Yanukovich came to power in 2010.
Now Mr. Yanukovich certainly understood the Maidan situation even less than the opposition politicians, and he (as well as not a few of the latter) despises the people from the bottom of his heart. That these cattle should have the cheek to demand rule of law (make no mistake: this, rather than democracy as such or the ill-fated EU agreement, was and is Maidan’s principal demand) and an end to luxury lifestyles funded by pillaging state budget and private business on the Russian model, was unthinkable. It is also extremely likely that his information was one-sided; ensuring a supply of objective information is difficult even for smart and level-headed leaders, who aren’t apt to assault the messengers with fists (he famously broke his ex-wife’s jaw in 2004 for trying to reason with him). I can totally imagine him believing that, though batons and rubber bullets didn’t work, destroying the barricades with APCs and shooting a couple hundred people would. What finished him was, probably, that the actual ready army units ultimately refused to involve themselves. Except some top officers in charge of procurement, the Ukrainian army was never integrated into the feeding system and had little reason to like or support a cheap crook like Mr. Yanukovich.
Now consider Russia’s position. Russia has nothing to lose by destabilizing the political situation in Ukraine, as long as natural gas pipelines remain reasonably secure. On Ukraine’s part, blowing them up would anger customers on both sides and thus would probably be counterproductive. Russia has many cards to play, from rabidly pro-Russian organizations like Kharkov “Oplot” all the way to paid ultranationalists, although I believe the most potent card is the homesick feelings of millions of members of that new historical entity, the Soviet People. They really do fear and hate Ukrainian nationalists of any stripe, even though most of them have never seen one. They will ignore low living standards, thieving local officials, corrupt police and general degradation, as long as nobody forces them to speak Ukrainian and lets them keep their Lenin statues and fond memories. Ukraine’s various law-enforcement structures are another strong card; they are very well adapted to the Russian system, whereas under rule of law they would be useless and, quite possibly, open to criminal prosecution. If Russia wanted to stimulate Mr. Yanukovich into shooting people in Maidan with snipers, it would have no need to do anything so blatant as sending its own soldiers or hiring mercenaries; controlling Mr. Yanukovich’s information would have done the trick with little risk, and opportunities were ample, seeing as, for instance, Mr. Yanukovich’s closest aides, Mr. Klyuev and others, are great friends of the pro-Russian politician Mr. Medvedchuk, an ex-KGB man whose daughter’s godfather is Mr. Putin himself.
Finally, what about the EU and USG? I understand people like to compare events in Ukraine to the Arab Spring and Syria, but I don’t think the comparison is valid. First, on the geopolitical level Ukraine is more important than Syria or Egypt. Second, after the USSR broke up, Ukraine was left with a lot of nuclear weapons and, in 1994, was persuaded to give them up in exchange for security and territorial integrity guarantees from three nuclear powers, U.K, United States and Russia (lots of Ukrainians now regret this bitterly). Even if Russia has now decided to revoke its signature, reasoning, in Mr. Lavrov’s proprietary logic, that since the post-revolutionary government is not a signatory to the relevant agreement, Russia is no longer bound by it, the United States risks seeing all its non-proliferation efforts crumble to the ground if its guarantee to a country which voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons turns out to be a worthless piece of paper. I don’t know how even Obama’s PR experts can spin that as a diplomatic victory, to say nothing of such quaint stuff as real-world effects. Second, creating a Libya- or Syria-style imbroglio in Ukraine is less than ideal ideologically, because Ukrainians are (a) white, (b) European, (c) Christian and (d) nationalistic. No combination of these elements is going to appeal to diversicrats, and in fact we have seen in January strongly-worded pronouncements by the White House and the State Department condemning violence and specifically indicating the Right Sector alongside government-hired thugs and special police forces. Also, any action or military help on the ground in Ukraine is bound to elicit huge push-back from Russia, so unless USG were prepared to make an enemy of Russia, the result of such an imbroglio would be Ukraine’s being swallowed up by Russia, except maybe a rump state of three western oblasts which would be too much bother to pacify. Since this same result (maybe with the addition of some political fig leaves) would have probably been achieved had Mr. Yanukovich continued in power, assuming USG or EU wanted this result, their actual actions don’t make sense. As for intentionally making an enemy of Russia, just recall USG’s obsequiousness to Russia in the talks around Syria and Iran.
Now let’s turn to the EU. The EU likes Ukrainian nationalists even less than the United States, having some trouble of the same sort inside the EU (Greece, Northern Italy, Flanders etc.) Since they brokered the February 21st deal, they were obviously willing to keep Mr. Yanukovich in power until early elections in December (in effect, pushing them forward four months) in exchange for letting opposition politicians into government as figureheads (guaranteed with Mr. Yanukovich around) and screw the hoi polloi on Maidan. The opposition politicians cooperated eagerly and earned the citizens’ contempt thereby. This was not to be, however, and they found themselves in actual power, for which they were completely unprepared. They floundered and meandered, lost Crimea, wasted time and people’s trust, and if this is all a cunning scheme by the EU then I want to know what its objective is. I don’t see any. If they wanted Ukraine that badly, they had merely to drop the demand that Mr. Yanukovich free Ms. Tymoshenko during the association agreement negotiations last autumn, and maybe throw in a couple billion euros more money. Why start the hullaballoo?
Anyway. The most depressing thing about all this is the spectacle of intelligent people, especially people who ought to know better, who distrust Western media as self-serving and ideologically driven (both true), lap up any rumors and even material published by Russia Today, the Russian state news agency and the direct organizational successor of Sovinformburo, or Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Russian government, if they show USG/EU in a bad light. (This is especially aggravating when these people’s knowledge of Ukraine could be put down on the back of an envelope.) At times, they almost slide into the NWO conspiracy-theory gutter. I am strongly reminded of leftist intellectuals during early and middle Soviet era, admiring USSR’s democratic, egalitarian and peace-loving nature and all that crap. This time it’s the rightist intellectuals who admire Russia’s autocratic, traditionalistic and peace-loving nature, with just as much (meaning little) grounds for it. Pfui.