Advice to Canadian politicians and media: Proceed with caution on your support for Ukraine’s rebels

Posted on February 24, 2014, 12:26 am
11 mins

Anti-Government Ukrainians prepare to fight police in Kiev. Below: Rioters throw gasoline bombs at police in Ukraine; Alberta Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk. (Wikimedia photos.)

You can bet money that when trouble is brewing abroad things are always far more complicated than local enthusiasts for one side or the other make them out to be.

Here in Canada we have many citizens, including a number of prominent politicians who ought to know better, proclaiming noisy support for the violent protests in western Ukraine, demonizing Russia and demanding Canada play an active role in in ensuring the success of the rebels’ campaign.

Well, so be it. Revolutionaries usually seem romantic from the safe seats, even when they turn out not to be very nice people – Che Guevara is often cited in this regard. Alas, as it was in Sri Lanka, so it is in Ukraine and ever shall be, world without end.

It is ironic and even mildly humourous to hear people like Alberta’s Hair Apparent to the premier’s job, the magnificently coiffed Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, proclaiming support for free speech in Ukraine while spearheading an unconstitutional legislative campaign to suppress it at home.

What may not be as apparent, though, is why it is dangerous for someone with his influence to do so.

Even to a layperson who has not followed post-Soviet eastern European politics with much engagement, let alone passion, it is obvious that the situation in Ukraine is far more complicated than people like Mr. Lukaszuk and Cold-War-style Russia-bashers like federal ministers Chris Alexander and John Baird pretend it is.

How so? Well, here are four points to keep in mind as you try to figure out what’s happening in Ukraine:

First, many of the revolutionaries in western Ukraine, which includes the capital of Kiev, are not very nice people. 

Indeed, quite a few of them are neo-Nazis. This includes the far-right Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) that has played a prominent role in the rioting.

The western media has downplayed this to the point of ignoring it. A New York Times video shows young women bringing tea and food to PS fighters, declaring them to be the finest of Ukrainian manhood and expressing their hopes to marry one. So romantic! Nary a word about their political convictions, though.

The Globe and Mail has written one article that, while trying to soften them a little, actually discusses this reality. Otherwise, most such commentary is restricted to obscure corners of the Internet, ignored or inaccessible to many readers.

Protesters in Ukraine are often characterized as “pro-European,” which sounds suitably modern and progressive to Canadians. According to the Wikipedia’s piece on Pravyi Sektor, though, this isn’t true as far as the far-right PS radicals are concerned. They don’t like Western Europe because it’s not fascistic enough.

Second, both Ukraine’s geography and politics are divided along ethnic, religious and linguistic lines.

An informative map provided by the Washington Post illustrates this. The farther west you go, the more militant the anti-Russian sentiment. The farther east, the less it matters. In the west, Ukrainian is spoken; in the east, Russian.

So here we go again, as we disastrously did in Afghanistan – which, thankfully, was farther off the well-trod path to nuclear war – calling for intervention in a civil war we don’t understand and thinking it’s all about ideology and western democratic values.

“This is about politics, yes, but it’s also about identity, about the question of what it means to be Ukrainian,” writes the Post’s foreign affairs blogger, Max Fisher. “Ukraine’s ethno-linguistic political division is sort of like the United States’ ‘red America’ and ‘blue America’ divide, but in many ways much deeper – imagine if red and blue America literally spoke different languages.”

Writing in Slate, Fred Kaplan observes that “apart from right-wing nationalists, the Ukrainian people are evenly divided on whether they want to lean west at all. … The eastern and southern parts of the country have deep roots in Russia, dating back not just to Soviet times but to Peter the Great. Their land borders Russia, their factories and farms are intertwined with Russian markets.”

Religion can also be added to this volatile mix. In addition to being primarily Russian speaking, the east is dominated by the Orthodox churches. The Ukrainian-speaking west by the various schools of Catholicism. There is of course a long history of conflict between these two Christian camps. That said, this is another topic about which it is astonishingly difficult to find current information on the supposedly omniscient Internet.

Third, there are signs that the Ukrainian rebels in the country’s west who our media and politicians are romanticizing will turn on ethnic Russians and other minorities.

Certainly leaders of the rebel groups have publicly vowed to fight Russians and Jews to the death. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported Saturday that a prominent rabbi in Ukraine is advising Jews in Kiev to leave the city and, if possible, get out of the country.

Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman said “there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions,” Haaretz reported, also quoting Edward Dolinsky, head of the country’s umbrella Jewish organization, describing the situation in the country as dire. The Israeli Embassy in Kiev has advised Ukrainian Jews to remain in their homes.

Are our naïve politicians and media outlets celebrating racist and anti-Semitic proponents of ethnic cleansing?

Fourth, Russia cannot be expected to ignore the Russian community in Ukraine and its strategic interests.

Naturally, this will be described in Western media as the resurgence of Soviet imperialism, and there are indeed elements of this in the Russian response to date. But, really, would the United States or Canada do any different if a similar situation was developing on their borders?

Russia still feels the sting from what happened in the Balkans, when NATO was able to hammer the Russians’ Serbian cousins without consequences in 1999. Russian President Vladimir Putin proved Russia had had enough of that when he put a stop to Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia in 2008.

It is hopelessly naïve to assume Russia will now tolerate widespread ethnic cleansing of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and a strategic disaster right on its western doorstep. We may have forgotten what happened on June 22, 1941; the Russians assuredly have not.

“It is extremely unlikely that Putin will shrug his shoulders and let Ukraine go west,” observed Kaplan in Slate. “Ukraine is an existential matter for many Russians, especially for Putin, who has described the Soviet Union’s collapse as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th Century.”

A senior Russian official ominously told Britain’s Financial Times last week that Russia is prepared to fight to protect the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine’s Crimea region and the naval base there that is home to the Black Sea Fleet. About 60 per cent of Crimea’s population is Russian.

Ukraine “will lose Crimea first” because Russia will go in to protect it, “just as we did in Georgia,” the FT quoted the official, whom it did not identify.

Such a situation should in fact create a conundrum for Canadian policymakers requiring some finesse to unravel.

The question our leaders should be trying to answer is this: How can we encourage more democracy and strengthen democratic institutions in Ukraine, not to mention ties and trade with the west, while discouraging neo-fascism and racism, and reducing the possibility of understandable strategic paranoia by Russia?

We won’t get there, though, with the knee-jerk Cold War posturing we’ve been hearing from politicians like Messrs. Lukaszuk, Alexander and Baird.

And we won’t find the right balance by refusing to make distinctions between genuine supporters of democracy and neo-Nazi thugs, as in the romantic and deceptive picture painted for us by the Canadian media during the past few weeks.

I am no expert on Ukraine, as someone is certain to point out. But I know enough to see a warning flag that is apparently invisible to the Harper and Redford governments, led by their 1960s geopolitical mind-set to encourage violence abroad.

And how odd, considering the rage they express at much more peaceable and benign disagreements over oil policy, environmentalism and labour rights here at home.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

13 Comments to: Advice to Canadian politicians and media: Proceed with caution on your support for Ukraine’s rebels

  1. Lloyd Litke

    February 24th, 2014

    David – Thank you for your level-headed analyses of the Ukrainian situation. Whoever believes that “the enemies of my enemy are my friends” is an idiot: such a muddled world-view leads to horrible consequences, as the west blindly provides moral and financial support to murderous factions throughout the world. I naively thought that the Cold War was all but over. It isn’t. It’s alarming to see how quickly old propaganda resurfaces whenever politicians want to get attention.

    Reply
  2. jerrymacgp

    February 24th, 2014

    This has been a recurring theme in Western geo-politics ever since the end of the Second World War. Recent examples include the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, which toppled the Western-friendly Hosni Mubarak, but led to the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood being (reasonably democratically) elected (truly a “be careful what you wish for” event), and the current civil war in Syria, in which the opposition to the government includes not only those wanting genuine freedom from the odious Assad regime, but anti-Western Islamist radicals aligned with Al-Quaeda.

    However, an early example of this theme dates back to post-1945 Indochina, in which the United States, France and the United Kingdom short-sightedly failed to appreciate the long time enmity between the Vietnamese people and China, as well as the Vietnamese commitment to the cause of independence from the French colonial regime, policy failures which eventually led first to Dien Ben-Phu and later to the Vietnam War.

    Reply
  3. rangerkim

    February 24th, 2014

    Thanks David, for such a sober second look at an event in a part of the world that has often supplied the spark of international conflagration.
    It is worth noting that while, as they say, democracy is one of the worst ideas for managing society, except for all the rest no thinking person is going to willingly accept modern western capitalism as a positive contribution to the national economy. It’s easy enough to forget that there are many pretty and fragrant flowers under the sun.

    Reply
  4. ronmac

    February 24th, 2014

    If Cdn politicians do weigh in on this they should be adding their voices to those calling for the partitioning of the country. Ukraine is split down the middle with the eastern part largely Russian-speaking and pro-Russian and will want no part of being hauled onto the banquet table of the EU banking cartel.

    Reply
  5. G. W. Markle

    February 24th, 2014

    The Euro zone was touted as a means of uniting Europe in a shared prosperity. As it turns out, it’s been just another plot to conquer Europe, this time by financial predators, a plan to consume each and every country, all of its resources, its infrastructure, its industry, education, healthcare, and its pensions. The banks have deliberately encouraged debt, and now, as intended, and according to plan, they’ve created a debt crisis, a major step in the goal of achieving global financial control.

    Now it seems they want to share this debt with the rest of the world, and in the process, consume the resources of countries beyond the Euro zone. It seems inevitable that every nation will come under the control of these predators as debt loads increase and bailouts prompt a surrender to privatization.

    It’s the population of these countries that will suffer the most, now being left with an insurmountable debt, no social services, no employment, no resources, and no democratic recourse. It seems as though the world is now being held for ransom by these terrorists, under the guise of creating a global economy. The parasites want more and they’re pushing the world to the limit. The beast must be fed, or the markets will tumble.

    The most frightening aspect of this scenario is that it fits in so nicely with the Harper government’s “economic action plan”, to sell off and sell out Canada in a futile attempt to appease an insatiable beast.

    Reply
  6. Marco Burak

    February 24th, 2014

    David, you have nailed it. Bravo. I am ancestrally half Ukrainian. Much of the Ukrainian diaspora on the Canadian prairies originates from western Ukraine, which helps explain the position of Lukaszuk and others. When I was a kid, I attended Saturday morning Ukrainian school and a quasi militant organization that masqueraded as boy-scouts. We were routinely taught virulently anti-Russian and anti-Semitic garbage. I view this ‘revolution’ in Ukraine with a great deal of skepticism.

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    • February 24th, 2014

      Thank you, Marco. For the record, Mr. Lukaszuk was born in Poland and came to Canada at a young age. Messrs. Baird and Alexander were both born in Canada and, by the sound of their names, are probably of Scottish origin. Mr. Alexander is an interesting case, having been a member of the Canadian foreign service who served for a time at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. Of the three of them, he has the least excuse for this nonsense.

      Reply
      • Marco Burak

        February 24th, 2014

        Yes, I understand; to clarify, I merely meant that perhaps these politicians were aligning themselves with their constituents, some of whom are of western Ukrainian descent.

        Reply
  7. Ed

    February 25th, 2014

    Do you think the Russians will starve and kill another million Ukrainians to get it back like they did in the 1930’s?

    Reply
  8. William Munsey

    February 25th, 2014

    Well done, David. “Munsey” doesn’t sound very Ukrainian… because one Scottish grandparent snuck into the party. Well done.

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  9. Mike Smith

    May 27th, 2014

    And how does all of this look in hindsight? Who are the rebels now? Why are their numbers comprised of so many foreigners from places like Russia, Moldova, Georgia and Chechnya? Who is the aggressor? Is it the EU and their bankers? Did the EU invade Crimea? Did those “fascists” in western Ukraine really pose a threat to ethnic Russians? Or is it closer to what Putin has admitted, that Crimea is historically and strategically important to Russia? Things to ponder as you espouse arguments and apology normally propagated by Kiselev and RT.

    I love also this declaration by the so called mayor of Slovyank:
    “”We have volunteers who came to us from Moldova, from Russia, from Belarus, from Kazakhstan, from the North Caucasus.”
    The foreign threat is from abroad but it isn’t from the west. And who rallied all these armed insurgents together?

    Again in hindsight what is the real threat to Ukrainian unity and peace? What is driving the situation toward near civil war? There are a minority of authentic separatists from the east involved in this. And they were never even close to being “ethnically cleansed.” Pure propaganda.

    Reply

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