Cold War Rematch in Kiev

APTOPIX Ukraine ProtestsIn a striking example of Cold War redux, the Ukraine has emerged as the latest geopolitical flashpoint between Russia and the United States, with Western Europe playing a secondary role. Ukrainians are caught in a tug of war, with Ukrainians in the eastern portion of Ukraine more aligned with Russia, and Ukrainians in the western portion of the country wanting to move closer to the democratic model of Western Europe and the United States. Protesters against the repressive government of Ukraine’s President Viktor F. Yanukovych are fighting for more freedoms within the structure of a pluralistic democracy, including checks on presidential powers. With the likely tacit blessing of autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is no stranger to using force to put down dissent, Yanukovych’s government has pushed back with increasingly repressive measures. These measures now include empowering the military to search, detain and shoot protesting Ukrainian freedom fighters as part of what the government is calling a nationwide anti-terrorism operation.

Protests in Ukraine began last November when Ukraine’s President Viktor F. Yanukovych decided to reject offers of a closer relationship and trade deal with the European Union, tilting towards Russia instead. Russia offered Ukraine an economic lifeline in the form of $15 billion dollars’ worth of credit, and put pressure on Yanukovych to rebuff Western Europe’s offers. After suspending its credit line briefly after the resignation under pressure of pro-Russian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov in January, Russia has now resumed its extension of credit with the purchase of $2 billion in Ukrainian government bonds. Russia took this action shortly after Yanukovych had met with Putin in Sochi on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies, and just one day before this week’s bloodiest clashes yet broke out in the capital city of Kiev.

In the worst outbreak of violence so far in the stand-off between protesters and Ukraine President Yanukovych’s government, at least two dozen people have been reported killed and hundreds injured during clashes that began on Tuesday February 18th. Fires set by protesters raged in Kiev as the protesters tried to stave off police assaults, which had begun when police officers in two armored personnel carriers attempted to ram through barriers set up by the protesters. The protesters pushed back, resulting in the vehicles bursting into flames. Riot police then came out in force, prompting protesters to burn tires and whatever else they could to create a fiery barricade around their principal encampment on Independence Square. The police continued their assaults into the morning hours of February 19th. The protesters, though badly battered, are not giving up just yet. Lawmakers in one region declared independence from Yanukovych’s government, in support of the protesters.

Only a few days ago, there was optimism that peace would be restored as a result of an agreement by representatives of the opposition to have protesters abandon their occupation of government buildings in return for amnesty from prosecution. Putin’s response to this prospect of more concessions by Yanukovych, and to a meeting this past Monday of protest leaders with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to request assistance, was his decision to resume providing credit to Ukraine. The pro-Moscow government supporters in Ukraine’s Parliament followed up Putin’s action with actions of their own favorable to Russia’s interests. They blocked attempts by opposition leaders to reform Ukraine’s constitution towards a more Western style model with reduced presidential powers. That is when all hell broke loose. The result was the “pyre of violent chaos,” as the New York Times described this week’s bloody clashes.

The New York Times front page article on February 19th linked Yanukovych’s meeting with Putin in Sochi with Yanukovych’s apparent reversal of his earlier pledges not to use force to disband the protesters. After all, Putin’s own hold on power is a clear demonstration of how force and repression are more reliable tools in the hands of an autocrat than giving in to the demands of freedom fighters.

Russia wasted no time accusing the United States of interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbor and fomenting discord. Washington is trying to tell “the authorities of a sovereign state what they should do next and how they should do it,” declared a Russian state-owned news agency. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow blamed the escalation of violence on Western politicians’ “policy of connivance.” Only a few days ago, before the latest outbreak, a leading Russian Foreign Ministry official had said that the United States was displaying an attitude of “puppeteering” by trying to impose a “Western vector of development” on Ukraine.

These charges took on extra urgency in Russian circles as a result of the leak (most likely by Russia itself, obtained from its surveillance) of the infamous audio recording of a phone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. While Nuland’s expletive denunciation of the European Union revealed the Obama administration’s impatience with the European Union’s failure to deal adequately with the crisis in Ukraine brewing in Western Europe’s own backyard, the recording also revealed discussions between Nuland and Pyatt regarding whom should and should not serve in a new government. Russia has used this conversation as proof that its suspicions of U.S. meddling in the internal affairs of Ukraine are well-founded.

Russia has a significant stake in what happens to Ukraine. It shares a border with Ukraine, which heightens Russia’s national security concerns if Ukraine were to integrate economically and militarily with the West rather than turn towards Russia for support. Ukraine is also of commercial significance to Russia, both in terms of providing pipeline transit for energy Russia sells to Europe and providing access to the sea for its maritime export trade.

During several centuries up to the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Russia has been able to exercise control at various times over at least some portions of Ukraine. Putin, who admires Stalin as a leader, is trying to re-build a mini version of Russia’s former empire at least in what has been called the “near abroad” of former neighboring Soviet satellites. This would bring Ukraine back squarely into Russia’s sphere of influence.

Western European countries have expressed support for the opposition in Ukraine, while calling for restraint. They have also threatened sanctions against government officials responsible for the crackdown, but have not followed through, at least up until now. A concrete financial aid package for Ukraine outbidding Russia’s extension of credit has also not yet been forthcoming. Some of this might change as a result of the latest bloody clashes and Yanukovych’s evident determination to suppress the protests with a major display of force. However, as the recorded conversation of Assistant Secretary of State Nuland with Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt made clear, the Obama administration is not willing to let the European Union take the lead even though Germany in particular has more energy and economic interests at stake than the United States does.

The United States’ interest in Ukraine has little to do with energy or trade, in my opinion. Concern for the human rights of protesters fighting for greater freedoms may be part of what is driving some members of the Obama administration to seek greater involvement in the crisis. However, there may well be a more realpolitik strategy at work as well.

The Obama administration may be trying to resurrect a Cold War strategy to counter the Soviet Union championed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor whom has served as a senior adviser to President Obama on matters of national security and foreign policy. Brzezinski believed in exploiting the soft underbelly of the Soviet Union in the lead-up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the Carter years, by which he meant at the time to stir up opposition within and nearby the Soviet Union among the Muslim population to weaken the Soviet state through implosion.  In Afghanistan, which had a pro-Soviet government at the time, Brzezinski’s idea was to funnel U.S. aid to the Muslim opposition in order to suck the Soviet Union into a costly war in Afghanistan that he believed would help demoralize the Soviet Union and lead to its break-up.

The following is an exchange between Brzezinski and an interviewer for Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998, as published by the Information Clearing House:

“Question:  The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [From the Shadows], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?

Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Question: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?

Brzezinski: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”

Fast forward to today, when Vladimir Putin is flexing his muscles in areas of strategic concern to the United States, such as the Middle East. He outflanked Obama on dealing with the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles, buying more time for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power. Putin is also making sure that Assad is armed with sophisticated weapons, prompting Secretary of State John Kerry this week to lamely complain that Russia is “enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem.”

Putin is also being courted by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, the Palestinians and Iran, who sense the diminishing of U.S. influence in the region and are looking to go with a winner.

A mini Cold War is returning under Obama’s watch as Russian autocrat Putin seeks to widen Russia’s sphere of influence in a bid to return to at least a modest version of the Soviet Union’s glory days.

The one card that the Obama administration may be playing is to dust off a modified version of Brzezinski’s underbelly strategy and put Russia on defense. The purpose would not be to induce a Russian invasion this time, which would unhinge Western Europe and potentially set off other unintended consequences. Rather, the Obama administration may be hoping to divert Putin’s attention away from the Middle East and cause him to redirect money and resources closer to home, in order to prop up Russia’s allies in Ukraine and prevent it from being pried away by the West from Russia’s sphere of influence. Covert support to the protesters may be part of this strategy. So far, however, Putin appears to be winning with little cost and no discernible effect on his involvement in the Middle East or power at home.

The fate of the freedom fighters protesting the Putin-style model of repression in Ukraine remains to be seen.

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  • Trapnel

    Leaving aside the pros and cons of this murky business, it is fascinating to watch the at times medieval, Boschian/Brueghelian anarchy of the opposing sides: the chitinous, beetle-like ranks of the police confronted by chain-swinging and stave-bearing protestors, one actually wearing a plate armour helmet, protestors filling shopping trolleys with Molotov cocktails and in turn, police hurling back same. No sign yet of trenches or siege towers but give it time. The police seem woefully underequipped – why were water cannons or cavalry charges not used to prevent the situation spiralling out of control? Now, on live youtube, Ruptly TV, a scene of devastation in Maidan Square focused on a pile of burning tyres, smoke and trash. A fine illustration perhaps of misguided meddling in other peoples’ affairs.

    • Nabuquduriuzhur

      Yanukovych has played a complete fool in this business. He’s used his office to feather his own nest and those of a number of officials and relatives. He has reached out to Russia for several reasons, and between the corruption and pro-Russia stance, he’s managed to anger all of the Ukraine except the pro-Russia eastern area. I suggest reading on Ukraine’s history to see why they hate Russia so much. WWII demolished them and the So v iets were even worse than the Ger m ans.

      I’m not certain about the comments about Putin because like so many others, the media has made a mythos about him. He’s not a dictator, but is much like a 1905+ constitutional monarch Tsar who was bound by the law. It needs to be kept in mind that the powers he has accumulated were voted to him by the Duma to combat ma fia and ma fia-dominated industry such as Yukos Oil. The Duma can also vote those powers away if he screws things up. Or remove him from office if he really messes up. It’s not like Khruschev and before, when the Chairman of the Pol itb uro could do what he pleased. And even Khrushchev was brought down by the stupidity of almost causing a war by arming Cuba with nukes. There are limits to what anyone can do.

      What’s truly terrible is that many freedoms are now greater in Russia than the U.S. That seems incredible to me, but it’s happened.

      Oddly enough, Khrushchev became a street preacher in his internal exile and it’s ignored today that Putin is also a believer. Much of what is said about Putin in the media is because the media hates believers. Indeed, many of the comments and actions attributed to him may well be of the same ilk as the set of popular myths created by the democrat/in ter n_atio nal soc_iali sts about G.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, etc. (I’ve even seen it claimed that Cheney was responsible for the drawdown of the Trinity River in 2003 by 90% but I can attest that Norton gave that order.)

      Because our media is so corrupt, it’s difficult to tell which stories are true and which are not. They are not above lying and any time they hate someone like Bush or Putin, it’s time to take a closer look. Remember that they hate non-soci ali sts. I would guess they hate how Putin has dismantled the Sov i et system the media admired so much and decentralized most of what used to be controlled by the State.

      It was striking some years back when one of our television networks interviewed Putin and didn’t understand why he had a Bible in his room— a complete reversal of 25 years ago when the S ovi et media would have badmouthed one of our presidents (except Clinton and Obama, neither of whom is Christian) for having a Bible close at hand where it was read daily.

      It’s a mistake to use muslim-dominated Chechnya as an example of what would happen in the Ukraine. The Chechens had unnofficial independence until the other nations who were being terror-bombed by them finally convinced the Rus sia ns to act. Given his track record, I would guess that Putin will offer asylum to the ethnic Russian refugees that will soon be streaming from eastern Ukraine. He will offer food and other supplies, but isn’t going to invade. Invasion would not get him what he wants from the Ukraine and would cause severe problems for Rus sia.

      Putin might have allowed Yanukovych to flee to Russia before this week, but now that Yanukovych and his government have committed murder on a large scale, it’s not likely that Russia will let them in when they lose this civil war. Not only would they be a liability, but Putin is more principled than the so ci alist media gives him credit for.

  • Omar

    Guess what? The United States should colonize Russia and govern the giant landmass as the “American Raj”, modeled after the former British Raj in South Asia. In the 2016 election, the next President of the United States will also be named the Emperor of Russia. We should capture “Puta” (aka Putin-“Puta” is the Spanish word for bitch), force him to resign, send him to Guantanamo Bay (we should turn Gitmo into a patriot education camp), where he will be imprisoned with Islamist terrorists, and we should force him to adopt a democratic, pro-American and pro-Western viewpoint. The American flag will fly over Moscow and everywhere else in Russia, as we will force the Russian population to swear their allegiance to the United States with penalty of imprisonment if people there refuse. The United Russia Party and the Russian Communist Workers Party will be banned and politicians from those parties will have a choice of either joining the new American viceroy government in Moscow by swearing allegiance to the United States, or being thrown in Gitmo to be made into American patriots by forced patriotic education camp. It will also be illegal to display the Soviet flag, with penalty of imprisonment and Gitmo patriotic education camp. The viceroy of the American government in Moscow will be the owner of the Brooklyn Nets NBA team. The viceroy would share Yeltsin’s politics, both domestic and foreign policies. We should also force the local population to give a belated apology to the late Czar’s royal family for what the Bolsheviks have done to that family back in 1918. If America colonized Russia and does all of the above, Russia will never even think to become anti-Western ever again. Russia will become a much better place if it gets ruled from Washington.

    • Softly Bob

      Not if it is ruled by the current Washington regime. The Russians are better off under Putin.

      • Omar

        I know. That’s why I’m waiting for the next election. After our next presidential election, Russia should be colonized.

    • uptownsteve

      Colonize Russia? Are you insane? We couldn’t even colonize Iraq. You righties are certifiable.

      • Omar

        We didn’t colonize Iraq. We freed the country from your beloved Saddam Hussein, who was a brutal dictator who leftists like you love. Besides, if the British were able to force the collapse of the Mughal Empire in South Asia and colonized the subcontinent, we can certainly colonize Russia. Russia has fewer people than the United States, by the way.

        • Hassan

          The British knew how to rule others and improve their conditions. All the USA knows is to bomb, destroy and treating the natives as less than human. The British are respected, while the USA is almost universally despised.

          • Omar

            Shut the f**k up, you Islamist jihadist monkey. The United States is the greatest democracy in the world, while your beloved Islamist Iran is the worst country in the Middle East and is despised almost worldwide.

          • hiernonymous

            “Shut the f**k up, you Islamist jihadist monkey.”

            I highly recommend the decaf.

      • Softly Bob

        I think this is one case where you fail to appreciate the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ aspect of his comment.

  • Ammianus

    …Realpolitik in the Obama and Carter administrations? I’m dubious about these assertions. What evidence do we have for the latter apart from a 1998 Brzezinski interview?

  • Jason P

    When we pried the Muslims from Russia’s sphere of influence we got the Muslim problem. Let’s return it to them.

    Russia already has the problem: Chechnya and Dagestan. We should give them the green light to get back into the other “stans.” However, we may have to sacrifice the Ukraine in the process. The Ukraine has been part of Russia for 300 years … it’s a small price to pay to get Russia back into the fight with Muslims. We made a mistake when we back the Muslims in Afghanistan … let’s tacitly back Russia this time.

  • Ellman48

    “These measures now include empowering
    the military to search, detain and shoot protesting Ukrainian freedom
    fighters as part of what the government is calling a nationwide
    anti-terrorism operation.”

    What will such measures be called when they occur in our country? After all, with the IRS and USPS buying extremely large quantities of ammunition and the police being militarized all over the nation, one has to wonder what our government is preparing for. Will we have martial law before Obama’s term expires? Is talk about the 2016 election and Hillary nothing more than a clever diversion and distraction?

    What will it take for the American people to respond as the Ukrainians did, and how will our unconstitutional regime react?

  • Ellman48

    “Putin is also being courted by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf
    States, the Palestinians and Iran, who sense the diminishing of U.S.
    influence in the region and are looking to go with a winner.”

    Well, congratulations are definitely in order for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. To drive Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., into Putin’s waiting arms is truly a remarkable achievement! Difficult to imagine that any other pair could have accomplished this!

  • Ellman48

    “The fate of the freedom fighters protesting the Putin-style model of repression in Ukraine remains to be seen.”

    No, their fate is sealed. Obama will back off his latest ‘red line’ very quickly. As usual, first he postures as a savior, then quickly retreats and seizes a different issue altogether to divert attention from his failure. He’s done this a countless number of times but even the conservative media don’t seem to recognize the pattern he always follows. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian ‘freedom fighters’ will suffer the same fate as the Iranian ones did after their ‘purple revolution’ petered out.

    Interesting, as a side note, is it not, how Obama supports or neglects ‘freedom fighters’ as he wills with no explanations offered as to why one group is supported and another is not. But then, asking for consistency from him is too much to ask.

  • Bamaguje

    “former CIA director, Robert Gates, stated.. that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet intervention.” – Nouvel Observateu.

    So without Soviet provocation, America funded and equipped the Afghan Jihad which later gave rise to Taliban and Al-Qaeda… leading to 9/11.

  • netclimber

    The Russians may want to direct their attention to their SSE. The Soviet Union is dead. They (Russia) may very well be too, if their southern neighbors decide to visit. The cycle has passed. It’s now Europe’s turn. What a waste.

  • brigin

    So the rebels fighting the democratically elected government in the Ukraine are “freedom fighters”? I prefer the old fashion term “terrorists” in this case

  • Alexeev

    Speaking of Obama and Putin, this image is worth a thousand words :-)