Who’s to blame?

So a few days ago on Twitter this former British diplomat left some faint praise about my article The Loser Carousel. I don’t want to reveal his identity so we’ll just call him Lord Chucklehead. Anyway, he left a criticism that seemed a bit odd, and when he attempted to clarify by posting an article he’d written, I was a bit split on the matter. On one hand, this is a man with some terrible ideas. On the other hand, I think he was addressing a valid issue.

Essentially he was refuting the suggestion of a certain writer that the West bears responsibility for Putin’s Russia today. My problem with the right honourable Lord Chucklehead’s attitude, among other things, was that he seems to want to absolve the West of all blame for what Russia became, which I’m totally against. That being said, there are some apologists out there who want to put all the blame for Putin’s behavior on the West, and that is something that really should be laid to rest as soon as possible.

First of all, claims about “broken promises” regarding NATO expansion can be dismissed outright. No evidence has ever been provided to back up these claims of a secret promise, and the very idea is ludicrous seeing as how Warsaw Pact still existed at the time this promise “not to expand an inch” was supposedly made. It has also been claimed that Putin suggested that Russia could join NATO, but was snubbed. I’ve done some digging into this claim and it seems that the main evidence for this is some musings on the subject by Putin in an interview. I’ve read one claim that Russia did seriously discuss NATO membership, but its leaders wanted it to have unilateral veto power, i.e. more authority than other NATO members. If true, one can speculate as to whether they sincerely wanted to join, or if they didn’t purposely make an impossible demand to give the appearance that NATO was being unreasonable. Whatever the case, in my mind this simply isn’t enough for another indictment against the West.

Taking a page from Mark Ames, what about the 1990’s? Lord Chucklehead disagrees, mainly because he wasn’t an ordinary Russian citizen of course, but the West certainly bears a great deal of responsibility for what happened in Russia during that turbulent period, and what followed as a result. There were both sins of commission and omission. Western advisers and leaders pushed bad economic advice and looked the other way while Yeltsin used tanks against his own people and then against the people of Chechnya. They then helped Yeltsin win another term in an almost certainly unfair election, and of course it was Yeltsin who handpicked Putin as his replacement. Western banks were happy to take dirty Russian money while realtors were happy to sell property to the “New Russians.”

Of course sometimes the West got as good as it gave. Investors got ripped off, huge projects were written off, and in more colorful cases business partners were run out of Russia by threats of bodily harm. The West accepted dirty money and looked the other way when it came to Yeltsin’s crimes, but it didn’t make Russians sell each other out or turn to conspiracy theories and scapegoats as a substitute for solving their political and social problems. The Ames-style treatment of 90’s Russia infantilizes the country, reducing them to stock native characters who are unacquainted with thievery, corruption, and vice until the colonists show up and sow destruction among them.

Personally I think that if you’re going to put justified blame on the West for Putin you have to look at the period in the mid-2000’s, when oil prices were high and the Russian economy was booming. That was the time when Western leaders, particularly in Europe, were buddy-buddy with Putin. Meanwhile investors, bankers, and realtors were awash in more dirty Russian money than ever before. This is when Russia actually managed to slip tentacles into Europe, and the latter was happy to oblige. At the same time, the US, UK, and some of their allies engaged in a number of ridiculous military adventures that Putin and co. were no doubt looking at as IOU’s they could cash in later, when it was time for them to start launching their own military ventures. The “anti-Russian” think tank experts love equating Putin’s Russia with the Soviet Union because their bosses revile anything associated with socialism, but in reality Putin and his corrupt elite got to where they are because they understand capitalism. We live in a world where the market decides everything, and our leaders constantly remind us that this must be the case. In the mid-2000’s, the market decided in favor of Russia, and the rotten core in Moscow took full advantage of neo-liberal capitalism’s amorality.

As with so many Russia-related topics, what we have here is a spectrum. Respectable Putin apologists, the kind who don’t want to appear as outright cheerleaders, are likely to favor a narrative that puts all the blame on the West. On the other hand you have the various think tank experts in the West who seek to let their countries off the hook entirely. They want everyone to believe that this whole crisis is happening because Putin is a bad man. While they tout that line, they slip in all the other, wholly unnecessary political messages that suit the agenda of their bosses, i.e. rich assholes.

Is it even important to accurately apportion all the blame? I think so. My dealings with some Ukrainians have taught me this. Some of them are naive and still curse the West for “betraying” them, while others still wait and wonder why NATO is treating Moscow with kid gloves. They deserve to know the truth, which is that the reason why the EU and US are tiptoeing around and trying to find a way to appease Putin is because Russia is a massive market for them and they want to get back to mutually beneficial relationship they had with Russia a few years ago. When I say mutually beneficial, I of course mean that the beneficiary on the Russian side is Putin and his circle of oligarchs. Regardless of that, however, Russia just holds so much more economic potential for the West than Ukraine, and thus they’re going to keep going soft on Putin. Convinced that Russia is nothing but a continuation of the Soviet Union, and believing capitalism, indeed Reaganism and Thatcherism to be the polar opposite of Soviet socialism, many Ukrainians are in for a very rude awakening. If they were more aware of the relationship between Russia, Putin, and the West, they might realize how important it is for Ukraine to rely on itself and to seek out economic alternatives that make this possible instead of trusting NATO to come to the rescue.

Obviously that example could lead to a very long discussion and debate so I’ll cut it short here. That is merely one example of why properly apportioning blame is important. Ukrainians, Russian oppositionists, and others need to have a sober view of their problems and the West. They need to know who they can trust, and it’s generally a bad idea to trust governments who made all kinds of deals with your enemies or turned a blind eye to some of their most egregious actions.

Also, Westerners cannot allow the aggressive actions of Russia distract us from the problems in our own countries. When our leaders point their fingers at Russia, we might not want to engage in false equivalencies or whataboutery, but this doesn’t mean we can’t point out their responsibility for the way Russia’s government behaves. Instead of “What about Iraq,” we might ask: “Where was all this concern when Western corporations were dumping money into Russia by the boatload and corrupt Russian oligarchs were packing your banks to the brim with dirty, stolen money?” It was their “end of history,” cash-uber-alles policies that made things like Putin’s Russia possible, and no one should ever forget this.

At the same time, we can’t let the Putin fan club pull the “Look what the West made us do” canard. Fairy tales about broken promises and sob stories about snubs don’t justify what the Kremlin has done to Ukraine, nor what it’s doing to the people of Russia.

There’s more than enough blame to go around. Let’s just make sure we sort it out correctly and everyone gets their fair share.

34 thoughts on “Who’s to blame?

  1. Sohryu_L

    Many Ukrainians also believe Poroshenko’s real name is Valtsman and he sold Ukraine to Putin in exchange for the Lipetsk chocolate factory. Many Ukrainians also believe they should shoot all the oligarchs and former Party of Regions parteigenosse and nationalize their property (see, an alternative to the horrible neoliberal market capitalism!).

    I, on the other hand, already said somewhere that sanctions were more important than Javelins. It’s not like Ukraine can’t make its own hand-me-down Javelins, thank you very much.

    1. gbd_crwx

      I won’t comment on your second paragraph, I know to little. But I have been wondering about the second. On the Ukrainian defence industry’s homepage, they are promoting ATGMs that should be more than able to knock T72’s. I don’t understand why they would need a foreign system, unless the production facility have been lost.

      1. gbd_crwx

        Damn, the first sentence should be: I won’t comment on your FIRST paragraph, I know to little

      2. Sohryu_L

        Stugna ATGMs will knock T-72s cold, but they’re only starting to trickle into frontline units. Plus they’re laser guidance and not fire-and-forget like Javelins are.

        There is also a rumor that Stugna is basically a hand-me-down Javelin, but I’m not particularly inclined to believe that.

      3. Jim Kovpak Post author

        The problem is that these late model T72s are armed with very good reactive armor and they might also possess active countermeasure systems which can be a problem even for tandem-warhead ATGMs and RPGs. Of course how reliable that system is- who knows?

      4. gbd_crwx

        If my open sources on the internet are correct Shtora is some kind of jamming system, soviet designed and thus should be available to both sides, (Apparently it may also help the tank crew find from where the missile was fired)

        Arena is basically a giant shotgun that destroys any incoming projectile and is fairly new (I think the Ukrainians have got something similar called knife in Ukrainian but not as advanced), so any tank equipped with this should be a clear sign that it’s not an Ukrainian tank.

        But I think if “the west” should help Ukraine, it should be help with fighting corruption and I guess maybe those modern productions strategies to increase quality and production (lean, 5S and so on)

        Btw do you have any opinion of the shelling of rebel civilian areas, do you think it’s clumsy attempts at counter battery fire or just that they don’t care?

  2. Callum Carmichael

    Regarding Western military assistance to Ukraine, I think talk of missiles misses the point. The most important characteristic of an army is its training and motivation. The Ukrainian Army has serious issues with both.

    I remember reading an article about the US training mission to Ukraine where the Americans basically said that even the National Guard troops with combat experience didn<t really know what they were doing. The had no combat first aid training, and no procedures for important, dangerous tasks like EOD. When asked what the procedure was for a dud grenade, a Ukrainian soldier said "I dunno, just pick it up and put it in your pocket".

    Motivation could be addressed by paying the troops on time, improving confidence in the competence of the VSU leadership, and "quality of life" stuff like comfortable clothing, better food, etc.

    You're better off with a well trained, well-motivated force with relatively obscolete equipment than the other way around.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Indeed. This is the same thing I say whenever someone starts bragging about Russia’s new weapons. Weapons are only as good as the people operating them.

      1. gbd_crwx

        Sorry if I did derail the discussion somewhat. I agree with you fully on your post. My missile question was more something that have been nagging me since I couldn’t understand why they were asking for something they clearly should be able to provide for themselves. (And speaking of EOD I saw a movie from Ukraine about that which left me wondering if they were competing for the Darwin awards)

        @Jim: Speaking of training and Russias new weapons.I got the impression that the budget increase of the RF armed forces were not solely spent on equipment but on training too?

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Well any time the government earmarks money for anything, tons of it goes missing on the way down to the people it’s intended for. Also, they’re most likely to focus on their best units to the detriment of the rest. The only decent fighting units Russia has are spetsnaz, naval infantry, and the VDV(airborne). Incidentally these are the type of people they’re losing in Ukraine. What is more, while they gain real combat experience, it’s against a much weaker, far more poorly trained force.

      3. gbd_crwx

        Ahh,corruption of course…does anyone know if it is worse or better than other parts of the society? What are young Russians view on conscription? (Is there any difference between the countryside or big cities?)

  3. Estragon

    “Some [Ukrainians] are naive and still curse the West for “betraying” them, while others still wait and wonder why NATO is treating Moscow with kid gloves”

    You’d think enough people would have learned by now that the West is *not* coming to their aid when they get into a tight spot. Apparently, Georgians suffered from the same delusion. And look what happened to them.

    At some point, East Europeans have to realize that the West doesn’t love them nearly as much as they love the West.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Indeed. But if you bring up the economic ties between Russia and the West, you get accused of being an FSB agent. At least that’s what happened to me in Kyiv.

  4. gbd_crwx

    “Also, Westerners cannot allow the aggressive actions of Russia distract us from the problems in our own countries. When our leaders point their fingers at Russia, we might not want to engage in false equivalencies or whataboutery, but this doesn’t mean we can’t point out their responsibility for the way Russia’s government behaves. Instead of “What about Iraq,” we might ask: “Where was all this concern when Western corporations were dumping money into Russia by the boatload and corrupt Russian oligarchs were packing your banks to the brim with dirty, stolen money?” It was their “end of history,” cash-uber-alles policies that made things like Putin’s Russia possible, and no one should ever forget this.”

    I wonder if the hegemony of neo-liberal thought in the 90-ties and early 00-ies could have contributed to this?

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Oh definitely. But there are limits to that explanation. The drive for oil is what leads to nations tolerating Saudi Arabia’s bullshit, but the Saudi regime can’t use that to excuse it’s actions. Understanding and justification aren’t always the same.

      1. gbd_crwx

        Nono, I’m not excusing anything. I too know that explanation is not the same as excuse.

        And now to something completely different. Do you think it would be possible to add a list of most recent comments on the blog in the right column of the front page?

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        I think I replied to the wrong comment with that joke about America. I think I might take your advice, so long as it doesn’t clutter up the side bar.

      3. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Are you sure it’s not just because Sweden is a slave to America? It must be, seeing as how any country that doesn’t want to join Russia’s new empire and engage in a pointless rivalry with America is obviously a puppet state according to the Russian government.

      4. gbd_crwx

        No in the case of Sweden it’s our old resentment post-Poltava, not being a great power anymore. Just look at our despicable behaviour against Russia, cheating on the Nöteborg treaty, interfering in the time of troubles, opposition to submarines running aground close to naval bases and so on. And then we shouldn’t even talk about the Ruriks, bloody foreigners oppressing Russia for more than 600 years 🙂

  5. Mikhail

    So basically the Western ranting about corruption that allegedly permeates Russia is also a double-standard. Because they profited from it and they are knee-deep in that corruption themselves.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Indeed they did- that still doesn’t justify Russia’s corruption. Tell me Mikhail- do you like the fact that your leaders, who don’t even want to see you, steal from companies owned by the state? Do you enjoy paying bribes? Do you like knowing that they preach all this anti-Western, anti-consumerism bullshit to you while they live in palaces bought with wealthy stolen from YOU, collect Western-built luxury cars, and send their kids to New York and London?

      Do you have any dignity at all or are you completely broken?

    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      This is why it’s so funny when some vatniks try to puff up and look all defiant toward the West. Your defiance is really submission to a gang of people who are, quite frankly, idiots. They would never succeed as leaders in any other developed country- they’d end up in jail. But you’re so upset about the West which really hasn’t done anything to you, that you’re willing to bend over for these people again and again.

      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        That’s what this is really all about. The Russian government, through its media, wants everyone to just shut up so they’ll be free to steal and enjoy their ill-gotten gains while the population suffers. And the population should shut up and take this because if they don’t, things will get worse- because they’ll make sure of it(like in Ukraine).

  6. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning)

    Pinged this earlier at a Putin fan >

    “Russia has about the worst income inequality in the world and its health system is a disaster going downhill. Just the other day there was a mass demonstration by scientists protesting about the lack of state support. Corruption is vast. Trade unions are repressed. The country doesn’t make anything and depends on fickle natural resources. Military spending is going through the roof.

    Tell me again about how wonderful Putin is.”

    Couldn’t have done it without you Jim. This is for you:

  7. Siddharta

    I have the feeling that the West simply not cares about Ukraine and that they just carried out the sanctions because they wanted to play a role in this conflict and would lose credibility if they had done nothing. Ukraine is not important from a economic or geopolitical point of view for the West in my opinion and the Nato gave up Ukraine already a long time ago and is now just interested in fortifying the defense positions in their east European member states. Ukrainians bitterly need better anti-tank weapons but they even more need better training. Ukrainians can just hope that Russians start not another massive offensive and are satisfied with their current “gains” . Russians would defeat them not because their army is much better but mainly because they have much more canon fodder and tanks. But the West will just talk about respecting Minsk2 and say that they are not happy with this new escalation. It may sound harsh but Ukraine is doomed in my opinion

      1. Siddharta

        Here in Germany i got the impression that neither politicians nor the media show much interest for this confict and for supporting Ukraine. Many Germans would supprt more aid for Ukraine and harder sanctions against Russia but politicians in Germany are very soft towards Russia. The media already swallowed many kremlin myths about the divide between ukrainian vs. russian speakers, Neo-Nazis being a important political power and often bash Ukrainian government what is in many cases justified but sometimes unfair because Ukraine is an extremely difficult and dangerous situation. Poroschenko is probably the best Ukrainian president in history (to be better than the other presidents is not very difficult of course) and Ukrainians indeed started many reforms but in Germany you just here that they are doing nothing and are bankrupt anyway. Anyone who publicly says he support military aid for Ukraine is defamed as warmonger by media and some politicians. It is really absurd that the victim of a foreign impression got an arms embargo, this just shows that the West is more interesting in preserving economic ties with Russia than with defending Ukraine

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