By the time I found this article by Rory Finnin on Stopfake.org it wasn’t too fresh, so to speak, but it’s definitely worth reading. It is concise but hard hitting. To get the gist, I quote its introduction:
“There has been a lot of debate in the Western press over whether to supply Ukraine with defensive arms. How to make sense of all the editorialising? Which op-eds and columns should one take seriously? Consider the following questions.”
Obviously it may be a bit late to consider the arms debate, but Finnin’s checklist is something that was needed last year if not even earlier. For every Russia commentator, there’s maybe a dozen pundits who don’t specialize in the region yet lend their instant expertise to whatever happens to be in the news at the moment. Just to appear extra savvy, some of them will read the Wikipedia page on Ukraine and drop little nuggets of Ukrainian minutia such as how you should always call it Ukraine instead of “the Ukraine,” because the lack of the definite article in English means it’s an independent country and not just a region. You know, just like Siberia, Normandy, Flanders, or Scandinavia!
As if that weren’t bad enough, from the pro-Russian media you have bloggers who may never have visited Russia or Ukraine being given smart-sounding titles like “political analyst” or “geopolitical expert.” Some of these people never heard of Donetsk or Lugansk before 2014, and then suddenly they’re speaking with authority about “the Novorossiyans.”
In this climate, it would have helped to ask questions like those that Rory has provided. I’d like to share some of those questions which I find most relevant with the reader, and add a few of my own.
1. Has the author published anything about Ukraine prior to 2013? This war is not being fought in a vacuum. Knowledge of the ‘theatre’ of conflict matters. Abstract models and theoretical systems do not wage war; people do.
Indeed. When you see a person suddenly start speaking on Ukraine in an obvious attempt to sound authoritative, you should ask how much background knowledge they have on this subject.
2. Does the author characterise Ukraine as a country with agency, independence and sovereignty in the content of his/her analysis? That is, are Ukrainians subjects of the story? A prescriptive assessment about a war is intellectually suspect when it casts the country in which the war is taking place as a passive object or superfluous detail.
This is something that gets lost both in pro-Russian geopolitical narratives and left-wing narratives in the West. For the former, human beings are not important. They exist only to advance geopolitical goals. For the latter, the Western left has long been bogged down in hopelessly outdated anti-hegemony politics. In their mind, Russia’s success in Ukraine will somehow hold back an unnamed disaster in their own country. Surely if the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics had been wiped off the map, Obama would announce the prohibition of trade unions and the return of workhouses in the United States. They tend to look at whoever the US media seems to be pillorying at the moment and then they work backwards to turn that figure into some kind of resistor against the IMF and global capitalism. More on that later.
6. Has the author referred, for instance, to a present attempt to ‘march NATO and the European Union up to Russia’s doorstep’ (John Mearsheimer) without noting that NATO and the EU have been on Russia’s doorstep since 2004, when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined NATO and the EU? If so, the analysis is uninformed.
Indeed. The US even had an airbase in Kyrgyzstan from 2001; it was finally vacated by the US Air Force in 2014. In 2010 the Russian government caused a scandal when they publicly talked about setting up a NATO logistical base in Ulyanovsk. Russia used to be a member of US CENTCOM from its founding in 2001, and it aided the NATO mission in Afghanistan in various ways. But the kicker is this- During those years of Russia NATO cooperation, when NATO forces were just as much on Russia’s doorstep as they are now if not more so, life in Russia was awesome. Living standards were rising thanks to high oil prices, a flood of foreign investment, and Putin being sane. The oligarchs made out so well they were even able to let some money trickle down to everyone else. Clearly NATO’s proximity to Russia wasn’t harming the country.
7. Does the author argue that the crisis in Ukraine began, for instance, ‘when the United States and European Union tried to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit’ (Walt) without appearing to know that 1) the ‘orbits’ of Russia and the EU already intersect in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement they concluded in 1997 and that 2) the putatively ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions actively sought EU Association themselves?
This is a really good question because even a lot of pro-Maidan journalism perpetuated this myth and even praised the idea that Ukraine was “escaping” Russia’s sphere of influence. Pretty soon the association agreement was being sold as inevitable EU membership, and this myth still survives today even in Ukraine it would seem. Opponents of Maidan in Russia also took this to mean EU membership, which in their mind of course boils down to one thing- gay marriage.
Now I have my own question that I would have liked to add, and which I recommend readers use in debates with leftists. It goes like this:
You say that the West facilitated Maidan because Viktor Yanukovych was opposed to neo-liberal capitalism, the IMF, etc. What concrete examples can you give of his opposition?
I guarantee you that your listener will either proceed to bullshit you with claims pulled straight out of their ass or simply stare like a deer in headlights, because in there is no such record of heroic resistance to capitalism when it comes to Yanukovych and his government. Unlike leaders such as the late Gaddafi or Chavez, Yanukovych never made any pretense to being any sort of socialist or even a social democrat. See for yourself, item number 4. Here, I’ll even pick out a quote from the article for you:
“President Viktor Yanukovych had made restoring relations with the IMF a major priority on taking office.” –AFP
So much for that.
In short, I think questions like these ought to kept in mind when reading about any major foreign policy debate, not simply the question of arming Ukraine.*
*For the record, I vote “no” for reasons I have written about in the past.