Left Food Forward is one of the better-known blog sites in and around the Labour Party, and James Bloodworth is its Editor. He is a fairly consistent neo-imperialist of the left, combining support for a social-democratic agenda at home with resolute backing for the Transatlantic world policy of the Bush-Blair era (notable exception: LFF has been pretty good in its opposition to the Egyptian military coup). He was deeply disappointed by the failure of the war against Syria to get moving last Autumn, and even more disappointed at the role the Labour Party played in preventing it – an achievement for which, incidentally, Ed Miliband gets far too little credit among his critics on the left and far-left.
Unsurprisingly, Bloodworth has been a strong critic of Russian policy in relation to the Ukrainian crisis and has demanded a robust response by Britain, the EU and NATO. Towards the end of March he posted a piece on LFF titled “5 persistent falsehoods about events in Ukraine”. It is a revealing article. (http://www.leftfootforward.org/2014/03/5-persistent-falsehoods-about-events-in-ukraine/)
Lie Number one – all these lies emanate from the “Russian propaganda machine”, identified as the TV station Russian Today and Guardian columnist Seumas Milne – is that the EU/NATO ‘provoked’ Putin. A minor quibble here is that Bloodworth attacks “the Russian annexation of Ukraine” in his elaboration on the point, an event no-one else has yet detected.
More importantly, he excuses EU and NATO policy of any part in generating tensions with Russia, not just in relation to the Ukraine, but over the entire post-Cold War era. He argues that the expansion of NATO, in particular, has corresponded to the wishes of the people of the countries concerned. Up to a point, this may be true. Surely the Baltic states and Poland, for example, do not wish to see a return of Russian-directed government (although even here a nostalgia for the real benefits of the socialist system persists to some extent). However, there are several problems with this benign narrative (the guarantees NATO gave Moscow in 1991 that it would not so expand among them), the most salient for our purposes is that neither the government of Ukraine nor a very large part of its population wanted what was on offer – instead it was more-or-less thrust down their throat.
Bloodworth does not address the deeply divided nature of Ukraine and public opinion on the issue. It does not matter as much that Russia does not want Ukraine to draw closer to Brussels but that a significant number of Ukrainian people themselves see it as abhorrent, and that view at least informed their choices at the last election in the country. Common sense would indicate that a better relationship with both the EU and with Russia would be required to hold the Ukraine together. But it was the EU which turned the trade talks into a zero-sum choice for Kiev. The draft Treaty prepared by the EU would have precluded Ukraine also joining the Eurasian Union, a customs bloc promoted by Russia, by far Ukraine’s largest economic partner. Furthermore, the EU Commission head Manuel Barroso and President Herman van Rompuy refused a proposal by Yanukovych that the talks turn into a three-way negotiation, including Moscow alongside Kiev and Brussels. This was neither respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty nor a prudent course of action, unless the whole purpose was to extend the EU and NATO’s influence (the Treaty also had a security component) not only at the expense of Russia but also in the teeth of the view of Kiev’s own elected government and either a majority or at least a large minority of the people of the country. It takes two to make a tug-of-war, and the EU was at one end of the rope.
The next lie up is that the Ukrainian government is fascist. On the face of it, Bloodworth is right – the new government is broadly nationalist, representative of a range of nationalist opinion. Its biggest element is drawn from the party of former Premier Yulia Tymoshenko, corrupt and Russophobic but not itself fascist, and the biggest influence on it is surely its western patrons, for whom fascist groups are a tool to be discarded when their immediate purposes have been served. It does, however, include some overt fascists, some of whom could qualify as national-socialist in ideological inspiration. Bloodworth and others on the left treat this far too lightly.
Indeed, Bloodworth’s rebuttal of this “lie” is curious, in that he seems to reduce fascism to anti-Semitism, after which feat he can then triumphantly announce that the presence of Jews in the new government means that it cannot be fascist. All along the line, this is a parade of ideological non-sequiturs. He cites a rebuttal of allegations of “anti-semitism” in the new government by one Jewish leader in Kiev, but does not as much as allude to contrary observations made by other Rabbis in the City. In fact, the existence of a powerful strain of anti-Semitism in Ukrainian nationalism, and in the western Ukraine from where the new government draws most of its support in particular, is a fact undisputed by anyone with even a passing knowledge of the country and its history. A fact written in blood, it might be said.
These forces are most vocally represented in the new government by the Svoboda Party (formerly the Social national Party of Ukraine), described on Channel Four News as “a fascist party styled on Hitler’s Nazis” and by the street-fighting Right Sector, a paramilitary group which supports terrorism against Russia. The World Jewish Congress has called on the EU to ban Svoboda. Svoboda regards itself as the inheritors of the cause of wartime Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, whose organisation, the OUN-B, committed many anti-Semitic atrocities during the war. One OUN-B leader Iaroslav Stetsko declared that “I…support the destruction of the Jews and the expedience of bringing German methods of exterminating Jewry to Ukraine.” And the OUN-B suited word to deed, by murdering an estimated 30,000 Jews, alongside many thousands of Poles and pro-Soviet Ukrainians too.
As for the Right Sector it is, inter alia and perhaps unsurprisingly, firmly “against same-sex marriage. The Gospels are the most important part for us,” in the words of a spokesman quoted in The London Review of Books. I mention this only to highlight that those who led the justifiable criticism of Russian law on the same subject in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, and who normally miss no chance to challenge religious fundamentalism in politics when the religion in question is Islam, are silent on this point too in relation to the new NATO-backed Ukrainian authorities.
And are these fascist parties actually in power? Up to a significant point they are. The new Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, Andriy Parubiy, hails from Svoboda, as does deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Syoh and the new ministers for Ecology and Agriculture. Even more disturbingly, Parubiy’s deputy at the Security Council is Dimitri Yarosh, the leader of the Right Sector. Add in the new Prosecutor-General Oleh Makhnitsky, also a Svoboda member, and we can see that the far-right has established strong positions in the security and legal apparatus.
Nor are fascist intentions lacking. The post-Yanukovych parliament has passed bills banning the Ukrainian Communist Party (its offices in Kiev have been destroyed and the home of its leader set on fire), repealing the ban on Nazi propaganda, placing Right Sector activists on the staff of the Interior Ministry and ending the official use of minority languages, including Russian. It is true that some of these positions have not been put into effect, and also true that there are counter-efforts, no doubt driven by the Western powers, to at least end the domination of the streets by illegal armed groups. Nevertheless, the spectre of Ukrainian fascism in power is not an invention of anyone’s propaganda, and it would be unwise to say what definite shape the new regime in Kiev will take. Svoboda is by some accounts losing support, but only because of overt displays of the Nazi-type behaviour which Bloodworth appears unaware of.
Now, the sight of US Republican senator John McCain shaking hands with fascists in Kiev requires little explanation – for such as him all questions of political propriety are subordinate to the interests of forming an anti-Russian front in Europe, in the interests of expanding US power. The question here is why do Bloodworth and the like choose to see no fascists when they are governing in plain sight? Why, for example, does disgraced ex-MP Denis McShane, who has campaigned volubly against the rise anti-Semitism in Europe in recent times, ignore, in his observations on the Ukrainian crisis, the alarming presence of anti-Semites in a European government ? The conclusion must be that in part their virtuous campaigning is contingent, and can be over-ridden by other strategic considerations for western imperialism – anti-semitism is bad, but Putin is worse; just as in the Cold War military dictatorships were bad, but left-led governments were worse from the NATO point of view. The persistence of the Cold War mindset, with its imperatives trumping liberal social concerns in the final analysis, is at the core of neo-conservative hypocrisy.
Third Bloodworth lie up is that Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in an ‘illegal coup’. Bloodworth’s description of the deposed President as a “corrupt autocrat” will presumably stimulate little dissent, although when he casts doubt on the integrity of Yakunovych’s election in 2010 he breaks new ground, since in fact that poll (unlike that in 2004) was universally regarded as broadly fair – it was scarcely protested in Ukraine itself at the time. By this diversion Bloodworth strives to elide the fact of the overthrow of a democratically-elected leader by means of violent street protests.
Did Yanukovych deserve to be sent packing? No doubt – he was both corrupt (‘even by Russian standards’ in Putin’s faintly bizarre characterisation) and brutal. But that neither makes the means of his overturning constitutional (nor prudent, given the scale of support his party has in much of the country); nor does it confer on his successor regime any legitimacy. As Marina Lewycka wrote in The Guardian “Yanukovych, for all his grotesque self-enrichment, was democratically-elected, as few of the self-appointed government have been.”
Russian social democrat Boris Kagarlitsky wrote last month that “the class nature of the new regime in Kiev was demonstrated with striking clarity when billionaire oligarchs were appointed to key positions in the eastern regions. In exchange for ‘stabilisation’ they were offered the chance to privatise not only the economy in the eastern provinces, but also the functions of power.”
The fact is that Yulia Tymoshenko is scarcely less an oligarch’s plaything than Yanukovych was. As the Wall Street Journal reported: “At her prodding, the authorities in Kiev had appointed prominent business oligarchs to run the governments in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk…these men won’t please the pro-western activists who want a clear start for Ukrainian politics. Ms Tymoshenko’s aides insist that reliable people are needed who can be counted on to bring these regions under control by the old methods of patronage politics and favours for business.” Most of these appointees benefitted from crooked privatisations ordered by Tymoshenko when she was Prime Minister. While acknowledging that many privatisations in the Ukraine have been legally suspect, new Premier Arseniy Yatseniuk has reassured one and all that “nationalisation is off the agenda”.
The newly-installed Governor of Donetsk, steel magnate Serhiy Taruta, began his first address to the people of the city he was appointed to head with the words “Dear Citizens, I address you as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Industrial Union of Donbass,” which at least made his priorities clear. And a Professor at Donetsk University has said that “..the forces of SCM might be used to keep order”. SCM is not a security service, but the name of the company System Capital Management, owned by Rinat Akhmetov, the 47th richest man in the world and described by a US Ambassador to Ukraine as “godfather” or the Donetsk business mafia, whose switch from supporting Yanukovych to the “Maidan” forces was decisive, not least for the group of Party of Regions MPs he effectively controls..
The mandate of the new government of oligarchs is to slash state spending. Indeed, the New York Times reports that “among the reasons Mr Yanukovych turned away from signing political and trade accords with Europe in November was his unwillingness to carry our painful austerity measures and other reforms that had been demanded by the IMF.” No such obstacles now – the price of gas to consumers has already been raised by 60%, fourteen laws on deregulating business have been passed, 24,000 jobs have been cut in the public sector and spending cut with excise taxes raised by the new regime.
Of course, the nature of the new power installed in Kiev does not make Yanukovych any better than he was. But the new regime has no more legitimacy than the old – essentially one group of presiding oligarchs have been replaced by another, the new team having probably no more public support than the ousted leader. Those people in the Maidan movement genuinely demanding a liberal democracy have already lost.
Russians living in Crimea are in danger – the fourth lie. On this, Bloodworth is clearly correct. The threat to Russians living in the Crimea (and elsewhere in Ukraine for that matter) stopped well short of that. The previously-cited move to ban Russian as an official language (itself not implemented after Western objections) was as bad as it got, although given the undoubted presence of fascists and other Russophobes in the Kiev cabinet, the fear that it could get worse was not entirely fanciful.
Protecting Russians in Crimea is, it is fair to say, not one of Putin’s priorities. Preservation of the base of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol would undoubtedly be the main concern of Russia’s rulers – without it the recent projection of Russian power, even to a limited extent, into the Middle East would become severely attenuated. Furthermore, the annexation presumably relieves Russia of the obligation of paying the eye-watering rent (between 40 and 45 billion dollars apparently) negotiated for the lease on the base by Yanukovych, whose alleged orientation to Moscow did not extend as far as passing up a good opportunity for loot.
However, addressing this lie without also acknowledging the underlying truth – that most people living in Crimea now and for twenty-three years past would rather be citizens of Russia than Ukraine – is pointless. Had the Russian annexation of Crimea been resisted to any extent at all by anyone beyond a handful of hapless Ukrainian soldiers, no doubt the matter would have a different complexion. But that hasn’t happened, and it is an omission that cannot solely or even mainly be attributed to intimidation, in my view. The result of the referendum may be exaggerated, but 95% of an 80% turnout supporting union with Russia, or about 76% of the population on the peninsula, is a long way from implausible. In fact the views of the Crimean people who, like many others across the former Soviet Union “woke up one morning in the wrong country”, do not seem to figure in Bloodworth’s analysis at all. Like fascists in Kiev, they have disappeared as an inconvenience to the neo-con narrative.
It is with the fifth and final “lie” that we get to the heart of the matter. This is that there is a moral equivalence between the actions of the West and those of Russia/Crimea demonstrates the West’s ‘hypocrisy’. Indeed, the mere suggestion of any equivalence between Russia’s actions and the West’s breaches of national sovereignty seriatim reduced Bush Pentagon bigwig Paul Wolfowitz to spluttering indignation on the Today programme.
In a way, Bloodworth is right – there is no equivalence. For Putin’s annexation of the Crimea to bear comparison to NATO’s Kosovan aggression would have required Russia to have not merely marched troops into the peninsula causing a total of two deaths, it would have demanded the sustained bombing of Kiev, the destruction of the Ukrainian energy and industrial infrastructure, thousands of civilian deaths and dropping munitions on the Chinese Embassy in Kiev to boot.
Since appealing to international legality can’t spring him from this particular trap, Bloodworth distinguishes between legality and “legitimacy”, the latter being amenable to entirely subjective definition in his handling. The Kosovan operation was made legitimate by Serb depredations against the Albanian population there, while absent such beastliness in the Crimea, Russia’s move is not “legitimate”. The actual views of the people in either case are immaterial to Bloodworth. As is the point that, for Crimeans, the transfer of their land from Russia to the Ukraine in 1954 had no legitimacy.
There is little to be gained in disputing the point with someone who has moved off the relatively secure ground of the law regulating international conflict into the marsh of each state’s concept of what is “legitimate”. The principle of might-is-right is already conceded here, and anyone who imagines that this right can, will or ought in future to be exercised by NATO powers alone, as was the case between 1989 and 2008, is living in a fool’s paradise. If a US invasion of Iraq is “legitimate” then a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be still more “legitimate” since, unlike Iraq, Taiwan is not an internationally-recognised state. And so on. No-one will regard Putin’s conduct in Crimea as a bigger crime than the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, and rightly so.
Bloodworth regards all this as “whataboutery”, as in arguing “what about so-and-so” rather than dealing with the matter in hand directly. This is a close cousin to the crime of “root causism,” which used to drive neo-cons into apoplexy when it was applied to trying to understand why, for example, many Muslims are bitterly opposed to western policy, to the extent that a tiny minority become suicide bombers. “Root causism” held that by addressing these underlying issues, the problem could be better solved over the longer term. While most people would hear that as a summons to reason, for Blair and his acolytes it was an unacceptable concession to terrorism, the origins of which must not, at all costs, be sought in an examination of imperialist policy but instead in generalisations about religion or an Arab inferiority complex or what have you.
“Whataboutery” actually strikes to the heart of the debate about the creation of any just and sustainable world order. That is, its rules must apply to all. Bloodworth has the right to believe that the system and way of life in the USA and Britain is the best presently attainable, and that its governments can be trusted with a scope of action and powers which should be denied other less favoured countries. But if he expects the rest of the world to share that view and accept that Washington, London and Paris must uniquely have the right to intervene where they will on the assumption that their causes alone are automatically “legitimate”, then he has taken leave of his senses. Either – international law observed by all; or a free-for-all in what is now a multipolar world. The days when the Bloodworths bestrode the world unchallenged, clothed solely in their own sense of “legitimacy” and moral superiority, are finished forever
And as for his final sentence, in which “what Tony Blair had for lunch” follows Kosovo/Iraq in a list of what he regards as irrelevances, he only reveals the supercilious callousness of the callow neo-con, who can equate wars in which hundreds of thousands have died with a Prime Minister’s dining habits as issues to be ignored. That is one reason, at least, why so much of the world rejoices in any development which constitutes a setback, however ill-intentioned, to the hubris and hypocrisy of waning Anglo-American power.
Andrew Murray is a contributor to 21centurymanifesto and vice president of the Stop the War Coalition