Is Ukraine one “regime change” too many?

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Is "regime change" in Ukraine the bridge too far for the neoconservative "regime changers" of Official Washington and their sophomoric "responsibility-to-protect" (R2P) allies in the Obama administration? Have they dangerously over-reached by pushing the putsch that removed duly-elected Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has given an unmistakable "yes" to those questions - in deeds, not words. His message is clear: "Back off our near-frontier!"

Moscow announced on Saturday that Russia's parliament has approved Putin's request for permission to use Russia's armed forces "on the territory of the Ukraine pending the normalization of the socio-political situation in that country."

Putin described this move as necessary to protect ethnic Russians and military personnel stationed in Crimea in southern Ukraine, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet and other key military installations are located. But there is no indication that the Russian parliament has restricted the use of Russian armed forces to the Crimea.

Unless Obama is completely bereft of advisers who know something about Russia, it should have been a "known-known" (pardon the Rumsfeldian mal mot) that the Russians would react this way to a putsch removing Yanukovych. It would have been a no-brainer that Russia would use military force, if necessary, to counter attempts to use economic enticement and subversive incitement to slide Ukraine into the orbit of the West and eventually NATO.

This was all the more predictable in the case of Ukraine, where Putin - although the bête noire in corporate Western media - holds very high strategic cards geographically, militarily, economically and politically.

Unlike "Prague Spring" 1968

Moscow's advantage was not nearly as clear during the short-lived "Prague Spring" of 1968 when knee-jerk, non-thinking euphoria reigned in Washington and West European capitals. The cognoscenti were, by and large, smugly convinced that reformer Alexander Dubcek could break Czechoslovakia away from the USSR's embrace and still keep the Russian bear at bay.

My CIA analyst portfolio at the time included Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe, and I was amazed to see analysts of Eastern Europe caught up in the euphoria that typically ended with, "And the Soviets can't do a damned thing about it!"

That summer a new posting found me advising Radio Free Europe Director Ralph Walter who, virtually alone among his similarly euphoric colleagues, shared my view that Russian tanks would inevitably roll onto Prague's Wenceslaus Square, which they did in late August.

Past is not always prologue. But it is easy for me to imagine the Russian Army cartographic agency busily preparing maps of the best routes for tanks into Independence Square in Kiev, and that before too many months have gone by, Russian tank commanders may be given orders to invade, if those stoking the fires of violent dissent in the western parts of Ukraine keep pushing too far.

That said, Putin has many other cards to play and time to play them. These include sitting back and doing nothing, cutting off Russia's subsidies to Ukraine, making it ever more difficult for Yanukovich's successors to cope with the harsh realities. And Moscow has ways to remind the rest of Europe of its dependence on Russian oil and gas.

Another interference

There is one huge difference between Prague in 1968 and Kiev 2014. The "Prague Spring" revolution led by Dubcek enjoyed such widespread spontaneous popular support that it was difficult for Russian leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksey Kosygin to argue plausibly that it was spurred by subversion from the West.

Not so 45-plus years later. In early February, as violent protests raged in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and the White House professed neutrality, U.S. State Department officials were, in the words of NYU professor emeritus of Russian studies Stephen Cohen, "plotting a coup d'état against the elected president of Ukraine."

We know that thanks to neocon prima donna Victoria Nuland, now assistant secretary of state for European affairs, who seemed intent on giving new dimension to the "cookie-pushing" role of U.S. diplomats. Recall the photo showing Nuland in a metaphor of over-reach, as she reached deep into a large plastic bag to give each anti-government demonstrator on the square a cookie before the putsch.

More important, recall her amateurish, boorish use of an open telephone to plot regime change in Ukraine with a fellow neocon, U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt. Crass U.S. interference in Ukrainian affairs can be seen (actually, better, heard) in an intercepted conversation posted on YouTube in early February.

Yikes! It's Yats!

Nuland was recorded as saying: "Yats is the guy. He's got the economic experience, the governing experience. He's the guy you know. ... Yats will need all the help he can get to stave off collapse in the ex-Soviet state. He has warned there is an urgent need for unpopular cutting of subsidies and social payments before Ukraine can improve."

And guess what. The stopgap government formed after the coup designated Nuland's guy Yats, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, prime minister! What luck! Yats is 39 and has served as head of the central bank, foreign minister and economic minister. And, as designated pinch-hitter-prime-minister, he has already talked about the overriding need for "responsible government," one willing to commit "political suicide," as he put it, by taking unpopular social measures.

U.S. meddling has been so obvious that at President Barack Obama's hastily scheduled Friday press conference on Ukraine, Yats's name seemed to get stuck in Obama's throat. Toward the end of his scripted remarks, which he read verbatim, the President said: "Vice President Biden just spoke with Prime Minister [pause] - the prime minister of Ukraine to assure him that in this difficult moment the United States supports his government's efforts and stands for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic future of Ukraine."

Obama doesn't usually stumble like that - especially when reading a text, and is normally quite good at pronouncing foreign names. Perhaps he worried that one of the White House stenographic corps might shout out, "You mean our man, Yats?" Obama departed right after reading his prepared remarks, leaving no opportunity for such an outburst.

Western media was abuzz with the big question: Will the Russians apply military force? The answer came quickly, though President Obama chose the subjunctive mood in addressing the question on Friday.

Throwing down a hanky

There was a surreal quality to President Obama's remarks, several hours after Russian (or pro-Russian) troops took control of key airports and other key installations in the Crimea, which is part of Ukraine, and home to a large Russian naval base and other key Russian military installations.

Obama referred merely to "reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine" and warned piously that "any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing."

That Obama chose the subjunctive mood - when the indicative was, well, indicated - will not be lost on the Russians. Here was Obama, in his typically lawyerly way, trying to square the circle, giving a sop to his administration's neocon holdovers and R2P courtiers, with a Milquetoasty expression of support for the new-Nuland-approved government (citing Biden's assurances to old whatshisname/yatshisname).

While Obama stuck to the subjunctive tense, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk appealed to Russia to recall its forces and "stop provoking civil and military resistance in Ukraine."

Obama's comments seemed almost designed to sound condescending - paternalistic, even - to the Russians. Already into his second paragraph of his scripted remarks, the President took a line larded with words likely to be regarded as a gratuitous insult by Moscow, post-putsch.

"We've made clear that they [Russian officials] can be part of an international community's effort to support the stability of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia's interest."

By now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is accustomed to Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, et al. telling the Kremlin where its interests lie, and I am sure he is appropriately grateful. Putin is likely to read more significance into these words of Obama:

"The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine ... and we will continue to coordinate closely with our European allies."

Fissures in Atlantic alliance

There are bound to be fissures in the international community and in the Western alliance on whether further provocation in Ukraine is advisable. Many countries have much to lose if Moscow uses its considerable economic leverage over natural gas supplies, for example.

And, aspiring diplomat though she may be, Victoria Nuland presumably has not endeared herself to the EC by her expressed "Fuck the EC" attitude.

Aside from the most servile allies of the U.S. there may be a growing caucus of Europeans who would like to return the compliment to Nuland. After all does anyone other than the most extreme neocon ideologue think that instigating a civil war on the border of nuclear-armed Russia is a good idea? Or that it makes sense to dump another economic basket case, which Ukraine surely is, on the EU's doorstep while it's still struggling to get its own economic house in order?

Europe has other reasons to feel annoyed about the overreach of U.S. power and arrogance. The NSA spying revelations - that continue, just like the eavesdropping itself does - seem to have done some permanent damage to transatlantic relationships.

In any case, Obama presumably knows by now that he pleased no one on Friday by reading that flaccid statement on Ukraine. And, more generally, the sooner he realizes that - without doing dumb and costly things - he can placate neither the neocons nor the R2P folks (naively well meaning though the latter may be), the better for everyone.

In sum, the Nulands of this world have bit off far more than they can chew; they need to be reined in before they cause even more dangerous harm. Broader issues than Ukraine are at stake. Like it or not, the United States can benefit from a cooperative relationship with Putin's Russia - the kind of relationship that caused Putin to see merit last summer in pulling Obama's chestnuts out of the fire on Syria, for example, and in helping address thorny issues with Iran.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His academic degrees are in Russian and he was an analyst of Russian foreign policy for the first decade of his 27-year career with the CIA.  He is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). This article originally appeared at and is reposted with permission of the author.

Photo: President Obama discusses Ukraine during a meeting with members of his National Security Staff in the Oval Office, Feb. 28, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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  • Nice piece by McGovern.

    The U.S. reaction to the events in Ukraine is certainly par for the course.

    Support/interfere in another country's elections and the aftermath, take out the "bad guy," push to bring in the "good guy." Simple "arithmetic" characterizing U.S. imperialism; although the reality isn't that simple

    Posted by revolution123, 03/05/2014 2:40pm (2 years ago)

  • The fourth and fifth sentences in my earlier comment should read:
    Thanks to PW for publishing this important article, which helps to more fully expose the dastard CIA from the inside, and its role in yet another war inciting adventure, to protect and sensationalize an insatiable, murderous greed of imperialism today and yesterday.
    Thanks to Ray McGovern for helping, exposing the flip side of the clear insistence on the part of workers, socialists, and communists, who or decades, have struggled and argued for peace, with a unified African liberation, trade union and labor liberation, women liberation, gay liberation, Latino liberation, with people and nature before profit.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 03/05/2014 9:35am (2 years ago)

  • Hello,

    I shared your letter on facebook, but I also sended it to Russian communists and recommanded them to react on your story.
    On Krashnoe-tv, there had been a statement of left, anti-fascist groups that asked people around the world to put pressure on their governments not to be helpfull to the Nazi-regime in Ukrain. So yesterday I also was telling mr. Obama and the IMF not to intervene in the unhealthy affairs of that group of criminals who are ''governing'' Ukrain now. I did not ask so the European U. It is not my government, and I think it is treason to act as if it was so. No, those there in Bruxelles are forbidden for the folks in Europe!
    So, there is a problem of souvereignity for all the folks in Europe, and some people are giving that away and then we see terrible shows in dayly live and on television of what that maffia make out of that. Somebody once reacted in a newspaper that he was thinking we needed nuclear bombs for the case we wanted to get out of the EU. But looking at what was happening in the Ukrain, that was not only a joke. It has the reality in it of much violence of how affairs are made. That some crazy ministers out of Europe went to the demonstrators to support them, one can see that they even do not know where their own country is. It is a shame also the Netherlands was with them, but also Germany, as if we did not have enough problems with that country in the past. These were not whistled back by Nato. And that would have been a possibility, which would bring your grandfathers honour who have been fighting in Europe. This was the opposite, also when I hear Kerry, this looks more like an occupation. Personal I was glad that Russia reacted anyway. I can not defend that country alone, I was glad they did at least something themselves. I must say, nobody died with that action, as far as I know.
    There is a problem. Peple were misbehaving themselves in a terrible way. I think they should come on the wanting-lists of the police internationally. Fascism is a bad thing, and one can not leave that unpunished. And I think there were foreigners with them as well. Yesterday I was reading there were Swedish as well with them. And who else....

    Have a nice day, and friendly greetings

    Jose van Dijk

    Posted by Jose van Dijk, 03/05/2014 5:25am (2 years ago)

  • Clearly, the fascists are staging a coup. We have no choice but to oppose Obama on this one, not only as a demonstration to our own leaders that intervention is a threat to peace everywhere but as an indcation that we know who and what the function of the International Monetary Fund is.

    Posted by Hugh B., 03/05/2014 1:07am (2 years ago)

  • Perhaps, paradoxically to many, this current Ukraine crisis goes a long way to explain the current domestic quagmire of chronic and growing poverty, the prison-military-industrial complex, growing violence (whose most poignant expression is of, by and for the ruling classes and expressed through poverty), homelessness, hunger, joblessness, intensified sex and race discrimination, genocidal racism and sexism, legal and illegal drug dependency and abuse, animal abusiveness in thousands of ways, xenophobia, homophobia, islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-socialism, anti-communism and the apocalyptic carbon and racist environmental crisis in these United States of America, under the administration of Barack Hussein Obama.
    We can easily contrast Obama's 2009 Nobel speech to M L K 's 1964 Nobel speech, to understand that the Obama administration leads us into yet another of our "too many" quagmires of abject poverty for the world's peoples.
    In his classic Soliloquy, in chapter III, The Pawned Peoples, our W. E. B. Du Bois called the Ukraine, part of the "pawned peoples" and places, since the anti-Bolshevik "bandit" Anton Denikin, that, until at least 1920.
    Thanks to PW for publishing this important article, which helps to more fully expose the dastard CIA from the inside, and its role in yet another war exciting adventure, to protect and sensationalize an insatiable, murderous greed of imperialism today and yesterday.
    Thanks to Ray McGovern for helping, exposing the flip side of the clear insistence on the part of workers, socialists, and communists, who for decades, have struggled and argument for peace, with a unified African liberation, trade union and labor liberation, women liberation, gay liberation, Latino liberation, with people and nature before imperialist profit.
    The liberation of "The Pawned Peoples"-oppressed maybe more thoroughly than the genocide plagued African Diaspora- articulated by our Du Bois-who Paul Robeson called "our professor", would only be restored in a world that valued peace in deed and not in word only. Lenin, like Du Bois, on the other side of the Atlantic, warned and led, fighting for peace, that the most care must be practiced to protect and value the oppressed and pawned: peasants, women, Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Slavs, and Ukrainians-with the liberation of workers, if humanity would free the human race-to build on the colonialism's and imperialism's wreckage of centuries, a world of color and democracy.
    This peace for color and democracy, the crisis in the Ukraine threatens in many, many ways.
    We must act to quell this crisis.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 03/04/2014 6:34pm (2 years ago)

  • Lively, yet informative piece on both the background and current situation in Ukraine/Crimea.

    The US political establishment continues to act as though its military and corporatist dominance entitles it to free rein anywhere in the world, including baseless invasions of other countries, economic arm-twisting, and subversion.

    The US government easily condone behavior by ourselves and our allies that we would deem anathema if committed by countries our leadership opposes.

    Posted by Kelly Sinclair, 03/04/2014 1:42pm (2 years ago)

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