Dutch journalist Wierd Duk thinks the West bears great responsability for Russia's behaviour towards Ukraine. The Ukrainian writer and analyst Mykola Riabchuk is adamant about his 'colonial attitude' towards smaller nations, that don't seem to have a say in their own destiny. In fact Ukraine is conspicuously absent in Duk's narrative.

by Mykola Riabchuk

Reading Wierd Duk’s article on RaamopRusland is quite a painful experience. Especially if your observation position is not located on the comfortable European heights of Realpolitik but on the bottom of the Ukrainian battlefields, where a few thousand civilians, including 300 passengers of MH17, have become ‘collateral damage’ and more than one million IDP’s have lost their houses, jobs, and belongings. And where still every day soldiers are killed or wounded.

fotoos ipad 498War graves near Slavyansk in the Donbass, autumn 2014 (photo Laura Starink)

What is strikingly missing in Duk’s deliberations is Ukraine, and the silence is deafening. Omissions can be  as important in rhetorical strategies as words. In his article any reference to the war, to its victims and culprits, would immediately put in question his central argument: that the West shares equal responsibility for the crisis with Russia, and that the only way to improve the deeply deteriorated relations is to recognize Russia’s ‘strategic interests’ in the post-Soviet space.

The facts on the ground completely undermine this thesis of ‘equal responsibility’. For it is definitely not the West who bullies its neighbors, annexes its territories, and wages insidious undeclared wars against them just because of dissatisfaction with their domestic or international choices.

Whatever can be said about Western adventures in other countries (and Wierd Duk says a lot, using highly questionable analogies and equations from the Kremlin propagandistic playbook), the simple question remains: why should we, Ukrainians, be responsible for some (alleged) Western wrongdoings in other parts of the world, and why should these (alleged) wrongdoings legitimize Russian invasion, occupation and extermination of our people? Why would the fact that somebody presumably made mistakes give Moscow carte blanche to retaliate in my country? Why is ‘an awful lot of sticks’ that the West presumably ‘handed to Russia to beat its opponent with’ (as Duk argues) used not against thém but against us?

Only big players count

The problem with his (and all the Putinversteher’s) arguments is that they consider international relations exclusively in terms of 19th-century Realpolitik that divides the world ‘naturally’ into spheres of influence, and take only big and powerful players seriously. In this millenarian struggle of global rivals there is no room for smaller states, their national interests, sovereignty, and freedom of choice. They are objects, not subjects. Pawns on the global chessboard. ‘Lesser people of the lesser world,’ as Edward Said may have put it.

The very language that Wierd Duk uses to describe these pawns shows his implicit bias and ‘white-man’ supremacy. The former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, is derogatively dubbed ‘Misha’, and Polish former minister of foreign affairs Radoslaw Sikorski, ‘the glamourboy of Eastern-European diplomacy’, is nicknamed ‘Radek’. Would the author apply the same kind of nicknames to Putin (Vova), or Yeltsin (Boria), or Gorbachev (Misha)? Certainly not. Because he knows – and his readers too – who counts in this game, and who is just a clown.

shutterstock 333007016Governor of Odessa Micheil Saakasjvili, derogatively called 'Misha'

The same goes for politics: in the authors narrative it is only Russia that is entitled to legitimate ‘national interests’. Those of Ukraine and Georgia are downplayed as ‘overtures to the West’ (funny, yeah?), while Western policy vis-a-vis these states is similarly ridiculed as ‘the Western flirtations’ and ‘the carrot of NATO membership’ (which implies that these nations are not driven by any legitimate security concerns but are merely tricked by Western pimps and stupidly manipulated, like circus donkeys, by American ‘carrots’).

With a special excitement, the author quotes Putin’s infamous words about Saakashvili: ‘I’ll hang him by his balls!’ and explains that ‘Misha overplayed his hand by bombing targets in the separatist region of South-Ossetia’, so ‘the Russians struck hard and annexed two Georgian regions’ (in fact, Saakashvili ‘overplayed his hand’ far less than Vladimir Putin nine years earlier, when he invaded the separatist region of Chechnia, the closest analogue to South Ossetia. But again it is very unlikely that Duk would ever apply the same terms to the Russian leader.)

In Duk’s interpretation of the events, a simple hatred of the leader of a neighboring country or dissatisfaction with his policies is reason enough to ‘strike hard’ – without any international or, at least, the author’s condemnation. Rather, he tends to downplay any villainy the Kremlin commits: ‘After all, Putin had plans for Ukraine: the country was to play a vital role in the Eurasian Union (EAU) he had envisaged.’ Whether Ukrainians had any plans for themselves is no matter of concern to Duk.

The logic is pretty familiar: it is not the rapist who bears the guilt but his victim who declined to respond properly to his expectations. And, of course, the West bears its share of blame because it manipulated a gullible maiden by inculcating in her poor head Western ideas of freedom, dignity and sovereignty – as we all know absolutely inappropriate in this part of the world.

Subtle rhetorics

Wierd Duk is not a Kremlin propagandist, so he does not try to absolve Putin from all his wrongdoings. His rhetorical strategy is much subtler: first, he relativizes everything by putting equal responsibility on the West and Russia, – as if Western soft power in Eastern Europe in any way  matches the hard power of Russian commandos, kalashnikovs and rocket systems. And secondly he carefully twists the language to downplay Putin’s crimes as minor excesses of an authoritarian strongman. Just look how selectively he compiles a list of Putin’s wrongdoings to ridicule any comparison of the Russian leader with real criminals:

‘Here [i.e. in the West] Putin's way of dealing with corrupt oligarchs, the arrest and conviction of women’s punk band Pussy Riot ... the attacks on the free press and on opposition leaders, and the controversial Russian anti-gay legislation were reason enough to accuse Putin of being a contemporary Adolf Hitler,’ writes Duk.

Nemtsov brugBridge in Moscow where opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was killed

Putin certainly is not a Hitler – for too many and too obvious reasons. But if anybody would judge Mr Putin seriously, he would hardly put on top of the list of offenses his anti-gay legislation or the persecution of Pussy Riot. I personally would start with Putin’s analogue of the Reichstag fire – the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, with quite a strong evidence implicating the complicity of the FSB. Next I would probably list the genocidal war in Chechnia, where whole villages were erased from the earth (journalist Anna Politkovskaya and a few other investigators paid with their lives trying to collect evidences of these crimes). Apart from Politkovskaya, Nemtsov, Magnitsky and Litvinenko I would mention dozens of other opponents of Putin – victims of what Wierd Duk so elegantly calls ‘the attacks on the free press and on opposition leaders’. Finally, I would definitely mention Putin’s unprovoked war with Ukraine, that is far more serious than anti-gay legislation or ‘dealing with corrupt oligarchs’, of which clan Putin himself is part and patron.

All the subsequent arguments in the author’s article are derivatives of his general world-view where national interests of big powers reign supreme and where no notions of justice, equality, sovereignty are applicable to the smaller and weaker states. Within this world, Russia may look paranoid, but at the same time its worries about presumed, however incredible, stationing of Western troops in Ukraine are legitimate. On the other hand, Ukraine’s worries about the all too real deployment of Russian troops in Crimea, Transnistria and Belarus are groundless, as are its endeavours to enhance its own security.

The largely mythical ‘encirclement’ of Russia by imagined enemies is taken utterly seriously, while the real encirclement of Ukraine by troups of a profoundly hostile and aggressive state are being  dismissed as mere ‘Russophobia’.

Classical supremacist approach

Needless to say that such an approach is classically colonial – insofar as it divides people into those who are entitled to sovereignty and those whose freedom depends on the sovereigns’ goodwill and arbitrarily established ‘spheres of influence’. All the talking about EU or NATO expansion as allegedly harming ‘Russian interests’ implicitly means that only Russia has ‘national interests’, but the same does not apply to Estonia, Poland, Georgia, or Ukraine.

Hence all calls to accommodate Russia by acknowledging her ‘strategic interests’ boil down to grant it a free hand to manage post-Soviet space as it pleases. Duk doesn’t state this explicitly, but it is exactly what he implies: Putin’s Russia would hardly accept anything less than a carte blanche.

oorlog bij SlavjanskWar Damage in the Donbass (photo Laura Starink)

In fact, Mr Putin and his coterie are anything but paranoid. They may inculcate paranoia in Russian society for some personal, pretty cynical reasons, but themselves they are ‘keenly aware of Russia’s external unassailability as a nuclear superpower’. As the German political analyst Andreas Umland aptly states: ‘Excessive emotion and geopolitical angst are less responsible for Russian foreign policy adventurism than tactical calculations aimed at the – at least, short-term – stabilization of the Russian kleptocracy. In Ukraine, the Kremlin is not pursuing misunderstood national interests, but rather the well-contemplated personal interests of its rulers’. The Russian analist Lilia Shevtsova puts it this way: ‘In many respects Russia uses its foreign policy as an instrument for survival of the Russian personalized power system’. ‘As in the Soviet past,’ argues research fellow of Chatham House James Sherr, ‘national interest means regime interest first and foremost … Moscow’s cardinal anxiety is not that its political order is vulnerable, but that it is illegitimate. To preserve its legitimacy, it must ensure that no alternative takes root on its doorstep.'

Ridiculing 'right-wing hawks'

Wierd Duk will certainly disagree with these and many more observations of international experts on the essence of Putin’s regime, but it is ridiculous to dismiss any criticism of the (de facto) rogue state as the mere grumbling of ‘right-wing hawks’, ‘rabid neocons’ and ‘faithful devotees to the approach of Washington’. In this pitiful way he chooses to discredit two European politicians he particularly dislikes.

One of them, Radoslaw Sikorski, is labeled ‘neocon’ for being ‘a member of the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative think-tank’ in 2002-2005. And Carl Bildt is incorporated in this club for his ‘lashing the Kremlin and Putin in savage tweets’ (as if Mr Putin provides no reasons for this) and for not allowing the ceremony of handing an award to Edward Snowden to take place in the building of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (as if any responsible government would allow such a controversial event in its premises).

Sikorski en BildtPolish and Swedish former ministers of foreign affairs Radoslaw Sikorski and Carl Bildt

All these efforts to compromise Sikorski and Bildt as ‘rabid neocons’ serve the ultimate goal to discredit the program of Eastern Partnership (the EU cooperation program with 6 Eastern European states that they are credited for) as allegedly anti-Russian and Washington-masterminded. One may wonder why the author chooses this weird tactics of polemics – instead of directly analysing, for instance, the documents of the Eastern Partnership.

The desire to discredit the program by discrediting its designers (for leftists the word ‘neocons’ must sound very dirty) played a bad joke with the author: in fact most American neocons – from Patrick Buchanan, Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer to Nicholas Gvozdev, Doug Bandow, Sara Palin and Rudy Giuliani – are admirers of Putin. (Read Paul Krugman’s ‘Putin, Neocons and the Great Illusion’ in the New York Times of December 24 2014; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/22/opinion/paul-krugman-putin-neocons-and-the-great-illusion.html).

In fact Putin has admirers not only among American neocons but also among many global conservatives, fundamentalists, neofascists, and autocrats. So, when Wierd Duk complains that ‘Putin gained respect from various parts of the world: from China and other BRICS countries, but there was growing mistrust from Western nations’, he unintendedly reveals the essence of the problem. In reality Putin is respected and envied by many of those who support power politics and authoritarian rule; and he is dismissed and mistrusted by those who still are committed to moral principles and liberal-democratic values.

Irrelevant backyard states

If indeed values and moral principles are irrelevant in the world of Realpolitik, as Putinversteher usually imply, then why not accept their call to strike a deal with Russia for the sake of mutually beneficial economic cooperation and the much-trumpeted common fight against international terrorism? Who cares if this goal is attained at the detriment of irrelevant states in its backyard, that are doomed to be clients of Moscow or Washington anyway? The balance of costs and benefits looks attractive, even though at a closer glance some uncomfortable questions emerge.

Firstly, it is rather naive to expect that Putin’s Russia will be satisfied with any concessions of the West and will stop to push the red line.

Secondly, as Russia’s relations with international terrorism always were murky and ambiguous at best, cooperation with Russia might appear to be a big bubble – as the recent experience in Syria graphically shows. In most cases, Russia is rather a part (or even the source) of the problem than of the solution.

Thirdly, economic cooperation, however lucrative and unproblematic it may seem, has a drawback, as aptly defined long ago by journalist of The Economist Edward Lucas: ‘What Western businesses and financiers fail to grasp in their dealings with Russia and similar countries is the asymmetry created when one party cares only about profits, and the other has another agenda. If you rely on Russia for your oil reserves, or for a big proportion of your sales, you turn yourself willy-nilly into a hostage. The demands may not be conspicuous. They may not come immediately. But just as water flows downhill, so the power of the Kremlin finds the weakest spot and exploits it.’

And last but not least, there are no guarantees that small and redundant nations in Russia’s backyard will be ever successfully pacified and domesticated by the old-new master. A dozen of East European nations sold out to Stalin by Western allies in 1945 in Yalta never stopped fighting for independence. They grabbed the first opportunity to become independent, and subsequently did everything to safeguard themselves from new Western betrayals by joining EU and NATO. Neither Ukrainians nor Georgians will ever accept any deals behind their backs. They will fight for their freedom and independence as they did in the darkest times of the Soviet dictatorship, totally forgotten by the ‘civilized world’. Hopes to achieve some sort of stability in the region by simply turning the troublemakers over to Putin for a Chechnia-style correction are not just immoral. They are plain stupid. 

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