The State Department’s Ukraine Fiasco

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Consortium News

The State Department’s Ukraine Fiasco

American diplomacy, by definition, is supposed to advance the national interests of the United States, not contribute to international crises that undermine those interests. Yet, by that standard, the U.S. State Department and Secretary of State John Kerry have failed extraordinarily during the current Ukraine crisis.

Besides ripping Ukraine apart – and getting scores of Ukrainians killed – the U.S.-supported coup in February has injected more uncertainty into Europe’s economy by raising doubts about the continued supply of Russian natural gas. Such turbulence is the last thing that Europe’s fragile “recovery” needs as mass unemployment now propels the rise of right-wing parties and threatens the future of the European Union.

Any new business downturn in Europe also would inflict harm on the U.S. economy, which itself is still clawing its way out of a long recession and needs a healthy Europe as an important trading partner. But the crisis in Ukraine, spurred on by Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and other anti-Russian hardliners, is now complicating the U.S. recovery, too.

There’s also the problematic impact of pulling Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and locking it into Europe’s: the scheme would shift the financial burden for Ukraine’s impoverished population of 45 million people onto Europe’s back, even as the EU is straining to meet the human needs of the jobless in Greece, Spain and other countries devastated by the Great Recession.

One of Ukraine’s principal exports to Europe has been low-wage Ukrainian workers, including participants in the criminal underworld, most notably prostitution. The willingness of Ukrainians to take the lowest-paying jobs across Europe has exacerbated the Continent’s unemployment situation and is sure to become an even bigger problem if a bankrupt Ukraine is more fully integrated into Europe.

Plus, the State Department’s endless stoking of tensions between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin has caused other complications for U.S. foreign policy, including what is emerging as a historic rapprochement between China and Russia, a coming together highlighted by the signing of a major new gas deal on Wednesday.

The $400 billion pact means that Putin, in effect, has countered U.S. efforts to use limited U.S./EU sanctions to isolate Russia by deftly playing the China card and  aligning the two emerging countries as an economic and political counterforce to American dominance.

Though the natural gas deal has been in the works for months, the Ukraine crisis provided the urgency to get the agreement signed. The crisis also provided the impetus to solidify the closer geopolitical bonding between China, the world’s ascending economy, and Russia, its resource-rich neighbor.

The two longtime adversaries, who faced off as communist rivals during the Cold War, have joined together recently as a bloc on the United Nations Security Council to block Western initiatives on Syria, for instance. That means that instead of isolating Russia at the UN, the State Department’s hawkish approach to Ukraine has had the opposite effect. Russia now has a new and powerful ally.

The Ukraine crisis could inflict other collateral damage on President Obama’s initiatives toward resolving thorny disputes around Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear program. In both areas, President Putin provided important assistance to President Obama in securing agreements: Syria to surrender its chemical weapons and Iran to accept constraints on its nuclear activity.

Though the Russians have not pulled out of those U.S. collaborations yet, the strains over Ukraine – if they are not eased – could undermine valuable cooperation toward reaching resolution of those two complicated and dangerous Mideast problems.

Pouring Fuel in the Fire

Yet, even as President Putin and other Russian leaders have tempered their rhetoric regarding Ukraine in recent weeks, the U.S. State Department continues to talk tough, bombarding Putin with both warnings and insults.

Typical were the comments in the lead story of the Washington Post on Saturday with writer Karen DeYoung quoting State Department and other U.S. officials berating Putin despite his conciliatory remarks about his willingness to work with the new Ukrainian government that will emerge from a disputed election on Sunday.

She wrote: “Western governments express deep uncertainty at what Russia will do, and it was symptomatic of their equally deep mistrust of Putin that few took him at his word [about working with the new government]. U.S. officials parsed his language as leaving a hole big enough to drive a brigade of Russian soldiers through.”

The Post quoted the harsh rhetoric emanating from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who told the Russians: “Pull the rest of your troops back. … Put your money where your words are. Come on.”

DeYoung herself termed the Russian military deployment along Ukraine’s eastern border “threatening,” but didn’t mention the Russian rationale for the initial deployment, as an effort to deter the slaughter of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine who objected to the violent overthrow of their elected President Viktor Yanukovych. This context of what’s happening in eastern Ukraine is almost always missing.

Instead, the major U.S. news media, particularly the New York Times, has made great fun by mocking Putin as a liar for saying that, first, he had ordered Russian troops to pull back from the border, and then that he ordered some to return to their bases. The Times conflated these two different statements as one and then favorably quoted NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as saying there was no evidence of a Russian pullback. Gotcha, another Putin lie!

Yet, while showing their trust in Rasmussen’s honesty and forthrightness, the Times and other mainstream outlets haven’t bothered to inform their readers that this was the same Anders Fogh Rasmussen who as Danish prime minister last decade was a staunch supporter of the Iraq War and a gullible believer in President George W. Bush’s claims about Iraq’s non-existent WMD.

For instance, Prime Minister Rasmussen declared, “Iraq has WMDs. It is not something we think, it is something we know. Iraq has itself admitted that it has had mustard gas, nerve gas, anthrax, but Saddam won’t disclose. He won’t tell us where and how these weapons have been destroyed. We know this from the UN inspectors, so there is no doubt in my mind.”

Pretty much everything in that statement was wrong — and Rasmussen appears to have been wrong, too, about Russia’s pullback of troops, which has now been confirmed, at least in part, by the Pentagon. But, for days, the Times let Rasmussen, in effect, call Putin a liar without any independent checking, just one more sign of the long pattern of U.S. media bias against Russia during the Ukraine crisis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Twisting Putin’s Words on Ukraine.”]

Blaming Russia

In line with that bias pervading the mainstream U.S. media for months, the Post’s DeYoung added her own inflammatory rhetoric, stating “if Russian-inspired violence breaks out, it could be the start of far more serious and widespread international upheaval.” All violence, it seems, must be “Russian-inspired.”

DeYoung is presumably referring to the resistance in eastern Ukraine against the imposition of the coup regime’s authority. The U.S. media has repeatedly treated these ethnic Russians in the east as Putin’s “minions,” being armed and directed by Russian special forces although no evidence has emerged to support that allegation.[See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Retracts Russian-Photo Scoop.”]

But DeYoung’s characterization of “Russian-inspired violence” fits with Official Washington’s “group think” that has treated the Ukraine crisis as instigated by Putin supposedly so he can begin reclaiming territory lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

But the evidence clearly indicates that the uprising in Kiev was driven by a mix of popular dissatisfaction with Yanukovych, Western support and encouragement for the disorders, and violent neo-Nazi militias that despise the ethnic Russians in the east and spearheaded the Feb. 22 putsch that drove Yanukovych from office.

Still, the U.S. mainstream media has insisted on whitewashing the neo-Nazis brown shirts because their key involvement complicates the preferred American narrative of white-hat idealistic protesters taking on black-hat Yanukovych, backed by even blacker-hat Putin. Any reference to the well-documented role of neo-Nazis militias in the putsch is dismissed as “Russian propaganda” or the “Russian narrative.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine’s Inconvenient Neo-Nazis.”]

So, instead of a balanced account, the American people have been fed Official Washington’s “group think” of some master conspiracy engineered by Putin that requires your believing that Putin first orchestrated the EU’s reckless association offer to Ukraine last year, then got the International Monetary Fund to insist on draconian austerity measures which Yanukovych rejected, then arranged the angry demonstrations at the Maidan while also secretly training neo-Nazi militias in western Ukraine to provide the muscle to carry out the February putsch – all the while pretending that he was trying to save Yanukovych’s government and appearing to be distracted by the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Of course, this grand conspiracy theory never made any sense and also lacked any evidence. What really happened was that neoconservatives in and around the State Department and Congress fed the flames of western Ukraine’s discontent against Yanukovych’s government that had been elected primarily with votes from the southern and eastern ethnic Russian sections.

The Neocon Role

There were, of course, legitimate complaints about Ukraine’s pervasive political corruption, which has been an endemic problem since the hasty privatization that followed the Soviet collapse in 1991 and turned Ukraine into a country dominated by a handful of extremely wealthy oligarchs.

But the evidence is clear that powerful neoconservatives in Washington, including some still ensconced at the State Department, helped organize U.S. support for the protests that led to Yanukovych’s ouster.

In late September, the neocons were furious over Putin helping Obama find a way out of an impending U.S. attack on Syria, an intervention that the neocons hoped might notch another “regime change” on their belts. So, their focus quickly turned to driving a wedge between the two leaders, with Ukraine becoming that wedge.

Carl Gershman, a leading neocon and longtime president of the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy, took to the op-ed page of the neocon-flagship Washington Post to urge the U.S. government to push European “free trade” agreements on Ukraine and other former Soviet states and thus counter Moscow’s efforts to maintain close relations with those countries.

The ultimate goal, according to Gershman, was isolating and possibly toppling Putin in Russia with Ukraine the key piece on this global chessboard. “Ukraine is the biggest prize,” Gershman wrote. “Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”

In furtherance of these goals, NED funded scores of projects in Ukraine, training activists, financing “journalists” and organizing business groups, according to NED’s annual report.

After Yanukovych rejected the IMF’s terms for European association as too drastic – because they would hit the already hard-hit Ukrainian people even harder – his removal from power became the State Department’s goal, as Assistant of State Nuland urged on the demonstrators in the Maidan by passing out cookies and reminded Ukrainian business leaders that the United States had invested $5 billion in their “European aspirations.”

Sen. John McCain, a leading neocon hawk, also showed up in Kiev to rally the protesters, speaking next to a Svoboda party banner honoring World War II Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera whose paramilitary force helped exterminate Jews and Poles. Bandera is a hero to the right-wing nationalists in western Ukraine though despised by the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.

In an intercepted phone call, Nuland was caught telling U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt that her preference to replace Yanukovych was Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whom she called “Yats.” After the Feb. 22 coup, Yatsenyuk emerged as the new prime minister with the neo-Nazis gaining control of four ministries, including the office of national security headed by neo-Nazi Andriy Parubiy. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine, Through the US ‘Looking Glass’.”]

One of Yatsenyuk’s first moves was to approve the IMF austerity plan, while Parubiy incorporated some of the neo-Nazi militias into the National Guard and dispatched them as storm troopers to confront the resistance to the coup regime in the east.

Amid all the political chaos and violations of the Ukrainian constitution (which was ignored in the abrupt impeachment of Yanukovych), Crimea arranged a hasty referendum which showed some 96 percent support for seceding from Ukraine and rejoining Russia, a request that Putin and the Russian government accepted.

Typically, the New York Times and other major outlets summarize the Crimean switch as a Russian “invasion” with Putin supposedly dispatching troops to seize control of the peninsula with the help of a “sham” referendum.

Almost never does the U.S. press note that the Russian troops were already in Crimea under an arrangement with Ukraine allowing Russians to maintain their historic naval base at Sevastapol. The vote also clearly reflected the popular will of the Crimean people given their historic ties to Russia and the chaos in Ukraine.

Medvedev’s Comments

“We did not annex any part of Ukraine,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told Bloomberg News this past week, “The population of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea held a referendum and voted for self-determination and for joining Russia in accordance with the existing procedure. And that’s what they did.

“They started by proclaiming independence and after that, they asked to join Russia. We satisfied their request. The Russian Constitution was amended so that Crimea could join Russia as the result of a popular vote. Crimea is a special and unique story.” That was a reference to Crimea being a longtime part of Russia.

Regarding any other parts of Ukraine, Medvedev added, “Any conjectures about Russia wanting to annex some territories are mere propaganda. … It is essential to calm tensions in Ukraine. We all see what’s happening there: the situation is nothing short of a civil war, as a matter of fact. This is what we should all be thinking about.”

Pressed by Bloomberg’s Ryan Chilcote on guaranteeing that Russia would not accede to requests from Ukrainian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Medvedev responded, “we (I’m referring to all those who sympathize with Ukraine – European countries and as far as I understand, the United States and, of course, Russia, which is the closest to Ukraine) should do all we can to de-escalate tensions – a measure that everyone is talking about now.

“In other words, we should do everything to stop the spread of civil war on Ukrainian territory. As for the positions of people in Lugansk, Donetsk and other [eastern] parts of Ukraine, our stance is simple – their positions deserve respect. If they hold some referendums, we should understand what they want and why they express such views.

“So in the future, the main point is to make sure that Ukraine’s central, de facto authorities and those who live in these parts of Ukraine establish a fully-fledged dialogue based on mutual respect and understanding, a dialogue that takes into account the position of eastern Ukraine. This would ease tensions; otherwise the conflict will continue, and we will most likely hear the same appeals [for secession] that were discussed at the referendums.”

Medvedev added: “Let our partners in the dialogue, namely the EU and the United States, guarantee us something, for example, that they won’t interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs. Let our Western partners guarantee us that they won’t lure Ukraine into NATO, that the Russian language won’t be prohibited in eastern Ukraine, and that some senseless movement such as the Right Sector won’t start killing people there. Let our partners guarantee this.”

The key Ukraine question now is: Can Putin and Obama overcome Official Washington’s chest-thumping hysteria and deescalate the violence — along with the rhetoric — for the good of all rational parties in the dispute?

I’m told that Putin, though stung by Obama initially joining the anti-Russian stampede, has begun working again with Obama with the goal of a possible summit meeting in Normandy on June 6 during the ceremonies honoring the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Yet, even if the pieces of a shattered Ukraine can be glued back together, one still has to wonder why the U.S. State Department and other parts of Official Washington undertook this provocative project in the first place: contributing to the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government, violently destabilizing the country, heightening tensions with Russia, stirring up new threats to the EU and U.S. economies, and pushing Russia and China back together.

It may be understandable at some level that the still-powerful neocons saw the Ukraine wedge as a useful tool in splintering the Putin-Obama cooperation that had eased tensions over Syria and Iran – two of the neocons’ top targets for “regime change” – but it remains a mystery how anyone could think that the Ukraine adventure has served U.S. national interests.

Robert Parry

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat. His two previous books are Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'.

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