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Fact check of a Washington realist’s views of Ukraine

Portraying Ukraine as unstable and on the verge of greater instability has been raised by realist scholars since the early 1990s and continues to dominate much of the pro-Putin western critics of Ukraine and realists writing in the West on the Russian-Ukrainian war.

January 4, 2019 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Photo (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

In the tradition of the Vox Ukraine think tank, I will undertake a check of Keith Darden’s claims made during the debate on Ukraine’s elections held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on December 3rd 2018. The Russian-Ukrainian war has led to an explosion of the number of Western scholars who claim to be “Ukraine experts” many of who claim this because as Russianists they allegedly have the ability to be “experts” on the entire former USSR.

Pro-Putin western critics of Ukraine and realists have a standard template when discussing the Russian-Ukrainian war. These include (1) blaming the West and Ukrainians for the crisis, not Russia; (2) describing Ukraine as severely divided and “artificial” and the conflict as a “civil war”; (3) downplaying Russian military involvement; (4) claiming the Crimea was always “Russian” and “returned home” in 2014; and (5) exaggerating Ukrainian nationalism while minimising or denying Russian nationalism.

Portraying Ukraine as unstable and on the verge of greater instability has been raised by realist scholars since the early 1990s and continues to dominate much of the pro-Putin western critics of Ukraine and realists writing in the West on the Russian-Ukrainian war. Both pro-Putin critics of Ukraine and realists view Ukraine as bitterly divided, regionally very different and inherently unstable. It is not that much of a leap of faith to see that this view is very similar to the traditional Russian nationalist view and that of current Russian leaders of an “artificial” Ukraine which is a “failed state”.

Darden focuses on President Petro Poroshenko’s election campaign slogan of “Army, Language, and Faith!” claiming that the latter two are divisive because “language and faith are not things that unify Ukrainians”. Darden was clearly unaware, until I pointed this out in the discussion, that the majority of Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) parishes are to be found in “orange” western and central Ukraine and therefore the claim that autocephaly will lead to an east-west conflict is not true. He was also unaware of the tremendous changes in public opinion towards the ROC and Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarch (UOC-KP) that had begun taking place in the decade before 2014 and which had sped up since Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. Only nine per cent of Ukrainians wished to maintain a link to the Moscow Patriarch. Today, the ROC, with only 13 per cent support among believers, is a minority church in Ukraine and therefore it is not entirely accurate to say, “There are a lot of Ukrainians who are tied to parishes that are loyal to the Moscow Patriarchy” and “it’s definitely a divisive issue in Ukraine”. In fact, the opposite is the case as the steep decline in trust towards the ROC is because of the “open support of Moscow and personally the Patriarch for the Russian Federation’s aggressive actions against Ukraine”. In discussing the religious question, Darden said untruths or at best made exaggerations.

Language

Language is the traditional bugbear of western Russianists and realists who raise exaggerated concerns about threats to Russian speakers. In fact, only two per cent of Ukrainians in a recent poll are concerned about the protection of the Russian language in Ukraine. Darden makes a claim which is an outright untruth and resembles more that of Russian disinformation than that of a serious western scholar. He said, “Russian is no longer permissible on the airwaves in Ukraine or there are significant restrictions on the use of the Russian language in publications and in the press and in the media.” The main audience of Ukraine’s second most popular television channel, Inter, is in eastern Ukraine and a large proportion of its broadcasts are in Russian. Ukraine has two outright pro-Russian television channels owned by Vikor Medvedchuk – 112 and NewsOne. The majority of magazines found in any media kiosk in Ukraine are in the Russian language; for example, three of Ukraine’s five political weeklies are in Russian.

Opinion polls do not show a high majority opposed to expanding the use of the Ukrainian language. Polls also show only a minority of Ukrainians who believe Russian language speakers are repressed. If you are ideologically driven in one’s analysis of Ukraine and analyse Ukraine through Russian eyes, then such facts as opinion polls are irrelevant because what you believe is “true”. Then they are no longer scholars but purveyors of fake news.

Western Russianists routinely complain about alleged Ukrainianisation of Russian speakers but always ignore Russification of Ukrainians in the Russian Federation, its second largest national minority, and the denial of all of their cultural and educational rights. The overwhelming majority of western democracies have language policies that support one or two state (often referred to as official) languages. The Russian Orthodox Church has 11, 300 parishes in Ukraine; the Ukrainian minority in Russia has not a single UOC-KP Church and all of the UOC-KP Churches in the Crimea have been closed by the Russian occupation authorities.

In the discussion I asked Darden if he knew that Ukrainian language policies were more liberal than those in Canada’s Quebec where three quarters of electronic media have to be in French. Darden brushed aside Canada’s international reputation as a multicultural country and claimed, “Canada is a restrictive country on language.” All federal employees of the state throughout Canada need to know Canada’s two official languages – English and French.


Ukraine’s Election Campaign debate by the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. December 3rd 2018

State of denial

A moral equivalency of laying blame for the war on Russia and Ukraine is part of the standard template used by western pro-Putin critics of Ukraine and realists who view what is taking place in Ukraine as a “civil war”. Darden clams that Ukrainians “hold both sides, to some extent, responsible.” Again, Ukrainian opinion polls do not show this. Over three quarters of Ukrainians blame the Russian leaders and Russian state for military aggression, not Kyiv, and 72 per cent of Ukrainians blame Putin for the war. The Razumkov Centre reported “a stable negative attitude towards Russian leaders and government institutions” believing this to be stable trends in public opinion. Ukrainian polls show that two-thirds to three-quarters believe Russia is the “aggressor state”.

Darden’s claim that the Anti-Maidan in Donbas “fed secession” is only true up to a point as it was primarily Russian intelligence, military supplies and Russian special forces that decisively transformed public protests into a violent insurgency. Anton Shekhovtsov writes that it was never a “spontaneous local uprising” and in its first stages was “characterised by significant involvement of various representatives of far-right movements.” A PBS documentary on Kharkiv in March 2014 interviewed local pro-Russian vigilantes who were trained and being paid to attack EuroMaidan supporters. It is interesting that Darden barely touched on Russian military aggression and his focus on the Azov Sea was not on Russian naval piracy but on martial law.

When western Russianists analyse Ukraine, they have an intrinsic tendency to wish to turn the clock back while going into a state of denial about the impact of the war on, for example, Ukrainian national identity; thus, ignoring important western scholarship on how war and conflict have shaped state building over the centuries. Charles Tilly’s famous quote that “War made the state and the state made war” is applicable to Ukraine. This denial of changes is added to by a lack of knowledge of domestic Ukrainian politics.

A major impact of Russia’s military aggression has been on the pro-Russian political forces who for a host of reasons such as loss of voters, divisions within them, disintegration of the Party of Regions political machine and illegality of the Communist Party are hampered in winning votes in elections. Darden spoke to this question as though nothing had changed in Ukraine and added to this by being unaware of the deep divisions in the pro-Russian camp. Darden was, for example, unaware of the split in the Opposition Bloc and the ejection of its “gas lobby”.

Martial law and elections

Another factor that is traditionally raised by western pro-Putin critics of Ukraine and realists is of a Ukraine unable to reform and where democratisation has not progressed. Darden’s claim that elections in Ukraine are not “always free and fair” is an untruth and exaggeration. Ukraine has held six presidential and seven parliamentary elections since 1991 and the OSCE and Council of Europe have only questioned two held in 2004 and 2012. Ukraine which emerged from a totalitarian USSR should be receiving high praise for holding 11 out of 13 free and fair elections.

Darden’s over-focus on martial law was closely tied to his dislike of Poroshenko who he accused of introducing it to improve his election ratings. Poroshenko, according to Darden, is “putting martial law in the regions where he is least popular”.  Again, perhaps Darden does not understand the legal procedures for introducing martial law in Ukraine and ignored how they were implemented.

Late on Sunday evening on November 25, 2018, Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council (RNBO) met to discuss Russia’s naval piracy in the Azov Sea. This was, as all experts have pointed out, the first occasion where Russia had openly (as opposed to denying their presence in the Donbas) used its military forces against Ukraine. As Commander-in-Chief, Poroshenko had little choice but to look at the worst-case scenario that Russia’s naval piracy could be a pretext for a Russian land invasion of Ukraine. At the time of Russia’s naval piracy, there were 80,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, 1,400 artillery and rocket pieces, hundreds of tanks, over 2,000 APC’s and other military vehicles, and hundreds of airplanes and helicopters as well as tens of ships in the Black Sea. Initially, the RNBO therefore requested martial law to be introduced throughout Ukraine. This proposal undermines Darden’s claim that martial law was a cynical election ploy by Poroshenko as if true, it would have suppressed the vote in western and eastern Ukraine.

Martial law does not automatically lead to the suspension of elections – as seen in France which had a state of emergency over two years. Darden ignored parliament’s resolution stating that the presidential election would go ahead on March 31st 2019. Darden asked how “it’s not very clear how restricting freedom of assembly and freedom of speech assists in the war effort” – but, there are no restrictions. The same question could be asked how France’s fight against terrorism was assisted by its two-year state of emergency; the difference between both cases is that in France this was introduced after 251 deaths and in Ukraine after over 10,000.

Ukraine’s president and parliament discussed the RNBO’s resolution on Monday, November 26th 2018 and after negotiations changed it to martial law in ten oblasts and for one month. Darden links martial law only with Poroshenko ignoring the parliamentary vote by a large majority of 276 deputies to introduce martial law.  Of these, only 120 votes came from the Poroshenko Bloc with an additional 81 from Arseny Yatseniuk’s Popular Front, 23 from Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyy’s Samopomych, 16 from the Radical Party and 13 from Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchina. The highest support for martial law by the number of deputies who voted for it in the faction was Samopomych.

It is an untruth to claim that “Virtually all of the deputies in the south and the east, even if they were part of Poroshenko’s party” did not vote for martial law. Only 14 of the 134-strong Poroshenko Bloc faction did not vote for martial law and 11 of these were absent. Forty votes came from two oligarch factions with links to Poroshenko’s arch opponent, eastern Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi and from independents. Martial law was supported by a cross party coalition and thereby Darden’s claim is not true that martial law “works for Poroshenko and the people closest to him”. If the aim of martial law is to suppress the eastern Ukrainian vote, as Darden repeatedly alleged, five political forces will gain and not only Poroshenko.

Darden’s realism came through in his proposals for ending the war when he said that Ukraine is “going to have to accept some degree of what Russia is asking for the constitution of Ukraine.” Darden was unaware of the huge progress made in decentralisation since 2014 and therefore urged Ukraine to take a path that it is already successfully taking. He was seemingly unaware that USAID has a large project supporting decentralisation in Ukraine entitled Policy for Ukraine Local Self Governance (PULSE).

Darden takes his argument one step further by supporting federalism in Ukraine ignoring the fact that all opinion polls since 1991 have shown a majority of Ukrainians do not support it; in fact, the greatest opposition to federalism has come from eastern Ukrainian political leaders. Darden nevertheless said “Ukraine could do with some federalism – it wouldn’t kill them. And if that can be part of an arrangement with Russia, that would be okay.” Similar to western pro-Putin critics of Ukraine and realists, Darden appears to believe that a one-way peace could be achieved with a Ukraine that “doesn’t have to be include Crimea”; in other words, trading Ukrainian recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea in return for Russian withdrawal from Donbas.

This proposal again ignores Ukrainian opinion polls which heavily oppose such a deal. 69% of Ukrainians believe the Crimea is part of Ukraine and 66% do not support its recognising Russian sovereignty in exchange for peace in the Donbas.

This also assumes that the word of Putin and Russian leaders can be in any way trusted which their huge volumes of lies and fabrications show is simply not the case. Darden believes that Ukraine could accept the loss of Crimea by making Russia pay for it. But what if Russia ignores the court rulings – as it so far has? More importantly, Darden completely ignores the central question of how Russia’s annexation of Crimea violated international law and international order. If Putin is allowed to get away with the annexation of Crimea then why cannot other countries follow suit, including Russia elsewhere?

Western pro-Putin critics of Ukraine and realists are in agreement with western historians of Russia who allege that the Crimea was always “Russian” and that its population wants to be part of Russia. Such claims assume that the history of Crimea began in 1783 when the Russian Empire annexed it and if the same analogy were used in Australia, US and Canada their histories began with Captain Cook, Jamestown and Quebec respectively. In denying the rights of First Nations, including Tatars in Crimea, such claims are patently racist. It is also not true that, “The population of Crimea doesn’t want to be a part of Ukraine.”

Darden never explained on what basis he was making this claim as no opinion polls prior to 2014 showed a majority of Crimean’s supported secession and irredentism while the March 2014 referendum was held under the gun and was not recognised as legitimate by the OSCE.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science National University “Kyiv Mohyla Academy” and Non-Resident Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS. Joint author of The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order.

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