Looking at some recent media opinion on the Ukraine conflict it’s easy to discern a number of tendencies, one or two of which coincide while others are beginning to diverge in a pattern that to some extent mirrors the divisions and differences currently being played out on the international scene. By examining this pattern it may be possible to obtain some idea of where Western policy on the crisis really lies: after all, the policy of national governments is not usually produced in a vacuum and often comes into being as a fusion of official discussion, “think tanks”, and public media debate.
In the National Interest, Steven Pifer sees the crux of the present standoff in Russia’s denial of involvement in the conflict, a denial for which he seeks the reason. It may, he suggests, have its roots in the anxious desire of the Kremlin authorities to conceal from the Russian public the steadily rising level of Russian casualties:
If Mr. Putin continues or deepens his military involvement in Ukraine, and the casualties mount, what will that do to the support that his Ukraine policy has enjoyed from the Russian public? And could the potential erosion of public support finally lead him to a different course?
Here the outlined position is fairly clear: the West should wait and see if tensions caused by issues of domestic public opinion may bring Russia’s leadership to soften or modify its stance. On the other hand, it might be wondered whether a U-turn of this kind can really be expected from a Kremlin that is prepared to turn a blind eye to the downing of a civilian airliner, or convinced that the humiliation of Ukrainian prisoners of war on the streets of Donetsk does not represent a violation of human rights.
For Anatol Lieven, writing in the New York Times, the matter is simple and straightforward: in view of the fact that the Kremlin will not allow the Donbass separatists to be crushed, the West must take realistic steps:
The choice today is not between a united Ukraine fully in the Western camp, or a Ukraine which has lost part of its territory to Russia. As recent military developments have demonstrated, the first outcome is simply not going to happen. The choice is between a Ukraine with an autonomous Donbass region, along with a real chance of developing the country’s democracy and economy in a Western direction, or a Ukraine which will be mired in a half-frozen conflict that will undermine all hopes of progress. The way out of this disaster is obvious — if only Western governments have the statesmanship and courage to take it.
This is essentially an argument for appeasement, which the author makes little or no attempt to conceal. Meanwhile, in another NYT opinion article, Ben Judah puts the West’s dilemma in a slightly different light: Russia and Ukraine are now at war and Putin, he tells us, has presented the West with “two dire choices”:
Either we arm Ukraine, or we force Kiev to surrender and let Mr. Putin carve whatever territories he wants into a Russian-occupied zone of “frozen conflict.”
While Judah’s sympathies undoubtedly lie more with Ukraine than with Russia, his real concern is apparently to confront Western Europe and America with the nightmare scenario of what he believes will happen if both elements of the choice turn out to be disastrous. Since arming Ukraine will be only a part of the solution – the arming will have to be backed up by the dispatch of American and British special forces, and even by a readiness “to deploy NATO troops if Russian tanks roll toward Crimea” to secure the building of a land bridge to the mainland – there is much doubt as to whether the West will be prepared to take this route. The alternative, then, is to make Ukraine surrender:
But we must not let thousands of Ukrainians die because we dithered. We must be honest with them if we are not willing to fight a new Cold War with Russia over Ukrainians’ independence. But if we force Ukraine to surrender, rather than sacrifice lives in a fight for which we have no stomach, then we must accept that it is a surrender, too, for NATO, for Europe and liberal democracy, and for American global leadership. That is the choice before us.
In response to this it might be argued that to put the matter in such stark and apocalyptic terms is an unproductive oversimplification: after all, the resolution of the present conflict is, by its very nature, bound to involve a number of factors that cannot be predicted with any certainty right now. There is also some confusion in Judah’s use here of the term “Cold War” – given the context of the article, it seems more probable that the author really means “hot war”, but for some reason holds back from this. The real intention of the piece appears to be to cast the West as weak, indecisive and hypocritical.
Another recent article on the Ukraine crisis in which the West appears in an unflattering light is Keith Gessen’s report in the London Review of Books on a visit to Donetsk. This is a lively, autobiographical piece which seeks to portray the human reality of South Eastern Ukraine in closeup, including interviews with members of the anti-Maidan movement and the armed Moscow-backed insurgency. The general drift of the article is to demonstrate that “these are people, too”; that however misguided their views and actions, they deserve a public hearing. Admirable and vivid though the character portrayal and description are (“But among the young professionals I also met a journalist from Lviv. She wasn’t just dressed better than anyone in Donetsk, she was dressed differently, as if on a civilisational level. She looked like she was from France.”), the reader may be somewhat taken aback at Gessen’s summary of what he claims to have been told by “respectable people in Kiev” in response to the armed separatist threat:
Wouldn’t it be a better long-term solution just to kill as many as you could and scare the shit out of the rest of them, for ever? This is what I heard from respectable people in Kiev. Not from the nationalists, but from liberals, from professionals and journalists. All the bad people were in one place – why not kill them all?
At best, this seems like selective reporting – at worst, like a not too sophisticated attempt to blacken the name of all the Ukrainian people who support the Maidan and are trying to save their country.
By contrast, Timothy Snyder takes a passionately supportive view of Ukraine’s democratic independence movement. In Politico he perceives the origins of Putin’s foreign policy in a twentieth century English novel:
In Orwell’s 1984, one of the world powers is called Eurasia. Interestingly enough, Eurasia is the name of Russia’s major foreign policy doctrine. In Orwell’s dystopia, Eurasia is a repressive, warmongering state that “comprises the whole of the northern part of the European and Asiatic land-mass, from Portugal to the Bering Strait.” In Russian foreign policy, Eurasia is a plan for the integration of all the lands from—you guessed it—Portugal to the Bering Strait. Orwell’s Eurasia practices “neo-Bolshevism”; Russia’s leading Eurasian theorist once called himself a “national Bolshevik.” This man, the influential Alexander Dugin, has long advocated that the Ukrainian state be destroyed, and has very recently proposed that Russia exterminate Ukrainians.
Of all the articles reviewed here, Snyder’s is perhaps both the most succinct and the most receptive to what Ukraine’s Maidan movement is trying to achieve: above all, to break away from ways of perceiving the world that amount to “doublethink” and are characterized by the output of the Moscow propaganda machine, which simultaneously presents Ukraine as a “repressive state” and as a “state that does not exist”.
Perhaps the most puzzling recent article on the topic is one by Edward Lucas. Although a large part of it is devoted to a dissection and analysis of what the author calls “Russian revisionism” –new rules of international security that Russia is trying to impose on the rest of the world – its title is “Russia Is Winning”, a sentence that recurs in the body of the piece. The author’s vehement insistence that in spite of its obvious failure to persuade the world community of even a small part of its blustering claims Russia is stronger and tougher than the West, tends to make the rest of the article seems somehow irrelevant: the lengthy and detailed suggestions on how to bolster Western security and the security of the Baltic States, the calls for the rebooting of NATO , the attack on the ‘Snowdenistas’ are like the a suddenly deflated balloon when the reader is told that
Russia is an integrated part of the world economy and of international decision-making on everything from space to sub-sea minerals. It cannot be simply isolated and ignored. But that does not mean that we cannot raise the cost of doing business for the Putin regime.
If isolating Russia is too difficult to achieve, and the West must “do business” with Moscow, albeit at an increased price, it’s hard to see how the rest of the author’s prescriptions can be fulfilled. One has the sense of a deep anger behind the extended paragraphs, and an intimation if not of despair, then of resignation. Since Russia is winning, the article seems to say, then the West will have to make the best of a bad job – the proposed measures are needed, but because of the West’s weakness of will and the “withering of transatlantic ties” many of them will not be implemented, and the West itself will ultimately suffer defeat. It reads like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and its pessimism is not calculated to help and support either Ukraine or the West itself.
Perhaps this is a misreading, and I hope that is so – but I can only give my personal reaction.