Originally published in Consortium News, and Antiwar-com:
Behind the Crimea/Russia Reunion
As the Russians like to say, “It is no accident” that he chose today – marking the second anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea three weeks after the U.S.-sponsored coup in Kiev on Feb. 22, 2014, and just days after a referendum in which Crimean voters approved leaving Ukraine and rejoining Russia by a 96 percent majority.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a crowd on May 9, 2014, celebrating the 69th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Crimean port city of Sevastopol from the Nazis. (Russian government photo)
The 12-mile bridge is a concrete metaphor, so to speak, for the rejoining of Crimea and Russia. When completed (the target is December 2018), it will be the longest bridge in Russia.
Yet, the Obama administration continues to decry the political reunion between Crimea and Russia, a relationship that dates back to the Eighteenth Century. Instead, the West has accused Russia of violating its pledge in the 1994 Budapest agreement — signed by Ukraine, Russia, Great Britain and the U.S. — “to respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine,” in exchange for Ukraine surrendering its Soviet-era nuclear weapons.
Did Moscow violate the Budapest agreement when it annexed Crimea? A fair reading of the text yields a Yes to that question. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances, including alarm among Crimeans over what the unconstitutional ouster of Ukraine’s president might mean for them, as well as Moscow’s not unfounded nightmare of NATO taking over Russia’s major, and only warm-water, naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea.
But what is seldom pointed out is that the other parties, including the United States, seem to have been guilty, too, in promoting a coup d’état removing the democratically elected president and essentially disenfranchising millions of ethnic Russian Ukrainians who had voted for President Viktor Yanukovych. In such a context, it takes a markedly one-dimensional view to place blame solely on Russia for violating the Budapest agreement.
Did the Western-orchestrated coup in Kiev violate the undertaking “to respect the independence and sovereignty” of Ukraine? How about the pledge in the Budapest agreement “to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by the Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty.” Political and economic interference were rife in the months before the February 2014 coup. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Who Violated Ukraine’s Sovereignty?”]
Did Ukrainian President Yanukovych expect to be overthrown if he opted for Moscow’s economic offer, and not Europe’s? Hard to tell. But if the putsch came as a total surprise, he sorely underestimated what $5 billion in “democracy promotion” by Washington can buy.
After Yanukovych turned down the European Community’s blandishments, seeing deep disadvantages for Ukraine, American neoconservatives like National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland pulled out all the stops to enable Ukraine to fulfill what Nuland called its “European aspirations.”
“The revolution will not be televised,” or so the saying goes. But the Feb. 22, 2014 putsch in Kiev was YouTube-ized two-and-a-half weeks in advance. Recall Nuland’s amateurish, boorish – not to mention irresponsible – use of an open telephone line to plot regime change in Ukraine with fellow neocon, US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, during an intercepted conversation posted on YouTube on Feb. 4.
Nuland tells Pyatt, “Yats is the guy. He’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the guy you know. … He has warned there is an urgent need for unpopular cutting of subsidies and social payments before Ukraine can improve.”
Arseniy Yatsenyuk (aka “Yats”) was quickly named prime minister of the coup regime, which was immediately given diplomatic recognition by Washington. Since then, he has made a royal mess of things. Ukraine is an economic basket case, and “Yats” barely survived a parliamentary vote of no confidence and is widely believed to be on his way out.
Did Moscow’s strong reaction to the coup, to the danger of NATO setting up shop next door in Ukraine come as a surprise to Nuland and other advisers? If so, she ought to get new advisers, and quickly. That Russia would not let Crimea become a NATO base should have been a no-brainer.
Nuland may have seen the coup as creating a win-win situation. If Putin acted decisively, it would be all the easier to demonize him, denounce “Russian aggression,” and put a halt to the kind of rapprochement between President Barack Obama and Putin that thwarted neocon plans for shock and awe against Syria in late summer 2013. However, if Putin acquiesced to the Ukrainian coup and accepted the dangers it posed to Russia, eventual membership for Ukraine in NATO might become more than a pipedream.
Plus, if Putin swallowed the humiliation, think of how politically weakened he would have become inside Russia. As NED’s Gershman made clear, not only did American neocons see Ukraine as “the biggest prize” but as a steppingstone to ultimately achieve “regime change” in Moscow, or as Gershman wrote, “Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”
In a formal address in the Kremlin on March 18, 2014, the day Crimea was reincorporated into Russia, Putin went from dead serious to somewhat jocular in discussing the general issue:
“We have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia. …
“We are not opposed to cooperation with NATO … [but] NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way around.”
A little-known remark by Putin a month later (on April 17, 2014) was unusually blunt in focusing on one of the main reasons behind Moscow’s strong reaction – namely, Russia’s felt need to thwart Washington’s plan to incorporate Ukraine and Crimea into the US antiballistic missile deployment encircling Russia. Putin was quite direct:
“This issue is no less, and probably even more important, than NATO’s eastward expansion. Incidentally, our decision on Crimea was partially prompted by this.”
This is a serious bone of contention, with far reaching implications. In short, if the Russian military becomes convinced that the Pentagon thinks it has the capability to carry out a strategic strike without fear of significant retaliation, the strategic tripwire for a nuclear exchange will regress more than four decades to the extremely dangerous procedure of “launch on warning,” allowing mere minutes to “use ‘em, or lose ‘em.”
Russia has been repeatedly rebuffed – or diddled – when it has suggested bilateral talks on this key issue. Four years ago, for example, at the March 2012 summit in Seoul, Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev asked Obama when the US would be prepared to address Russian concerns over European missile defense.
In remarks picked up by camera crews, Obama asked for some “space” until after the US election. Obama can be heard saying, “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” Putin claims to have seen no flexibility on this strategic question.
The Obama administration and its stenographers in the mainstream US media would like the relevant Ukrainian history to start on Feb. 23, 2014 with “Yats” and his coup cronies deemed the “legitimate” authorities. To that end, there was a need to airbrush what George Friedman, president of the think-tank STRATFOR, publicly called “the most blatant coup in history” – the one plotted by Nuland and Pyatt in early February 2014 and carried out on Feb. 22.
As for Russia’s alleged designs on Crimea, one searches in vain for evidence that, before the coup, the Kremlin had given much thought to the vulnerability of the peninsula and a possible need to annex it. According to the public record, Putin first focused on Crimea at a strategy meeting on Feb. 23, the day after the coup.
Yet, given the US mainstream media’s propagandistic reporting on the Ukraine crisis, it is small wonder that the American people forgot about (or never heard of) the putsch in Kiev. The word “coup” was essentially banished from the US media’s lexicon regarding Ukraine.
The New York Times went so far as to publish what it deemed an investigative article in early 2015 announcing that there was no coup in Ukraine, just President Yanukovych mysteriously disappearing off to Russia. In reaching its no-coup conclusion, the Times ignored any evidence that there was a coup, including the Nuland-Pyatt phone call. In regards to Ukraine, “coup” became just another unutterable four-letter word.
Last year, when Sen. John McCain continued the “no coup” fiction, I placed the following letter in the Washington Post on July 1, 2015 (the censors apparently being away at the beach):
“In his June 28 Sunday Opinion essay, ‘The Ukraine cease-fire fiction,” Sen. John McCain was wrong to write that Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea without provocation. What about the coup in Kiev on Feb. 22, 2014, that replaced President Viktor Yanukovych with pro-Western leaders favoring membership in NATO? Was that not provocation enough?
“This glaring omission is common in The Post. The March 10 World Digest item ‘Putin had early plan to annex Crimea’ described a ‘secret meeting’ Mr. Putin held on Feb. 23, 2014, during which ‘Russia decided it would take the Crimean Peninsula.’ No mention was made of the coup the previous day. …” (emphasis added)
And so it goes. More recently, in Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy magnum opus in The Atlantic on Obama’s foreign policy, there were two mentions of how Russia “invaded” Crimea, two allusions to Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine, but not a word about the coup in Kiev.
In Catholic theology, the theory that some people can be “invincibly ignorant” can lessen or even erase their guilt. Many Americans are so malnourished on accurate news – and so busy trying to make ends meet – that they would seem to qualify for this dispensation, with pardon for not knowing about things like the coup in Kiev and other key happenings abroad.
The following, unnerving example brings this to mind: A meeting of progressives that I attended last year was keynoted by a professor from a local Washington university. Discussing what she called the Russian “invasion” of Crimea, the professor bragged about her 9-year-old son for creating a large poster in Sunday School saying, “Mr. Putin, What about the commandment ‘Thou Shall Not Kill?’” The audience nodded approvingly.
This picnic, thought I, needed a skunk. So I asked the professor what her little boy was alluding to. My question was met by a condescending smirk of disbelief: “Crimea, of course.” I asked how many people had been killed in Crimea. “Oh, hundreds, probably thousands,” was her answer. I told her that there were, in fact, no reports of anyone having been killed.
I continued, explaining that, with respect to Russia’s “invasion,” what you don’t see in the “mainstream media” is that, a treaty between Ukraine and Russia from the late 1990s allowed Russia to station up to 25,000 Russian troops on the Crimean peninsula. There were 16,000 there, when a U.S.-led coup ousted the democratically elected government in Kiev on Feb. 22, 2014. (I had grabbed the attention of the audience; yet stares of incredulity persisted.)
In contrast to Crimea’s bloodless political secession from Ukraine, the Ukrainian government’s “anti-terror operation” against ethnic Russians in the east who resisted the coup authorities in Kiev has killed an estimated 10,000 people, many of them civilians. Yet, in the mainstream US media, this carnage is typically blamed on Putin, not on the Ukrainian military which sent to the front neo-Nazi and other right-wing militias (such as the Azov battalion) contemptuous of ethnic Russians. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine Merges Nazis and Islamists.”]
A few weeks before the professor’s remarks, after a speaking engagement in Moscow, I had a chance to do a little souvenir shopping on the Arbat. The behavior of the sales people brought me up short. It was decades since I had served as a CIA officer in the Soviet Union; the shopkeepers then were usually taciturn, allergic to discussing politics, and not at all given to bragging about their leaders.
This time it was different. The sales people wanted to know what I thought of President Putin. They were eager to thrust two coffee cups into the shopping bag that I had filled with small gifts for our grandchildren. On one the Russian words for “polite people” were emblazoned under an image of two men with insignia-less green uniforms – depicting the troops that surrounded and eventually took over Ukrainian installations and government buildings in Crimea without a shot being fired. The other cup bore a photo of Putin over the Russian words for “the most polite of people.”
The short conversation that ensued made it immediately clear that Russian salespeople in Moscow – unlike many “sophisticated” Americans – were well aware that the troubles in Ukraine and Crimea began in Kiev on Feb. 22, 2014, with “the most blatant coup in history.” And, not least, they were proud of the way Putin used the “polite green men” to ensure that Crimea was not lost to NATO.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He is a 30-year veteran of the CIA and Army intelligence and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). McGovern served for considerable periods in all four of CIA’s main directorates.