Gwynne Dyer: Conspiracy or a cock-up in Ukraine?

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      This is what former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, subsequently driven from office by mass protests in Kyiv, said to German Chancellor Angela Merkel just one year ago, at the start of the crisis. It was recorded by a Lithuanian television crew, eavesdropping on the conversation with a directional mike, at the European Union summit in Vilnius where Yanukovych announced that he was not going to sign an EU-Ukraine trade deal.

      “The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard, and we have big difficulties with Moscow,” Yanukovych explained to Merkel in Russian (which they both speak fluently). “I would like you to hear me. I was left alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia...one to one.”

      The Ukrainian president was not overthrown by a “fascist” plot, as Russian propaganda would have us believe, nor was NATO hoping to make Ukraine a member. (Indeed, NATO had repeatedly told the previous Ukrainian government, which was very pro-Western, that under no circumstances could it ever join the Western alliance.)

      Exactly one year into the crisis, it’s useful to remember what really happened.

      The basic question you have to ask about any international crisis is: conspiracy or cock-up?

      The Ukrainian crisis definitely falls into the latter category. Nobody planned it, and nobody wanted it. Here’s how they stumbled into it.

      Yanukovych inherited the negotiations for a trade deal with the EU from the previous government when he returned to the presidency in 2010. (He was overthrown by the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, after winning a rigged election, but in 2010 he won narrowly but cleanly.) And he didn’t break off the talks with the EU because that would have alienated half the country: the western, mostly Ukrainian-speaking part.

      Yanukovych was a typical post-Soviet political figure, deeply corrupt and almost comically greedy—the presidential palace he lived in on the banks of the Dnieper was so lavish it could have been in the Middle East—but he was a competent politician. Almost all his votes had come from the eastern and southern, mostly Russian-speaking parts of the country, but he knew that he couldn’t simply ignore the west.

      On the other hand, he couldn’t ignore Moscow either. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin saw the EU as a stalking horse for NATO, and was trying to persuade Yanukovych to join his own “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) instead. Moreover, Russia had huge economic leverage, since it provided most of Ukraine’s energy and bought half of Ukraine’s exports (mainly coal, steel and heavy industrial goods made in eastern Ukraine).

      So for three years Yanukovych temporized, trying to get financial guarantees out of the EU that would make up for the economic punishment Putin would inflict if Ukraine signed the trade treaty. The EU wouldn’t budge: there would be no special help for Ukraine. It would just have to take its punishment, Yanukovych was told, but the trade deal would be good for the country in the long term.

      Politicians have to live in the short term, however, and in 2012-13 Ukrainian exports to Russia fell by half as Putin turned the screws tighter. Those exports mostly provided income for people in industrial eastern Ukraine, i.e. Yanukovych’s own supporters. The EU had left him “alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia...one to one”—so in late 2013 he made his choice: break off the EU talks, and sign up with Putin’s EEU instead.

      Did Yanukovych foresee that there would be big demonstrations against him in Kyiv, where people had pinned their hopes on association with the EU? Of course he did, but he probably didn’t foresee that the protests would be fuelled by the ham-fisted resort to violence by his own officials. He certainly didn’t foresee that he would ultimately be overthrown—nor did Putin, who had put him in that impossible position.

      All the subsequent escalations of the conflict in Ukraine—the Russian annexation of Crimea, the pro-Moscow revolts in the two eastern provinces with the largest ethnic Russian minorities, the direct Russian military intervention that saved those revolts from collapse last August—have been driven by Putin’s determination to reverse his original error.

      If Ukraine cannot be brought back into Moscow’s sphere of influence, then Putin’s strategy is to neutralize and paralyze it by maintaining a permanent “frozen conflict” in the east. In coldly rational terms, Ukraine’s best strategy now would be to abandon those two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, which are basically open-air industrial museums, and leave it to Russia to subsidize them instead.

      But it’s not going to do that, because sovereign states never give up territory voluntarily. Realistically, therefore, Kyiv’s best option is to strengthen the current ceasefire and let the front lines congeal and stabilize into de facto borders, while maintaining its legal claim to the two provinces. It remains to be seen if Moscow will even let that happen.

      Comments

      12 Comments

      Dean

      Nov 24, 2014 at 2:09pm

      Poorly researched article. Nice work on leaking private quotes by Yanukovich to Merkel. Totally absent are U.S. motives and coup implementation with actual victims among protesters and police shot by same things who appear to be controlled by maidan organizers and possibly even trained in Poland.

      GOOD SUMMARY!

      Nov 24, 2014 at 2:58pm

      Thanks Gwynne - an excellent summary for those in Vancouver who may need a primer on whats been happening in Ukraine. Russia basically invaded Ukraine, stolen Crimea through phony "referendum", been supporting terrorists in East Ukraine with huge cash infusions for weapons and mercenary wages, and ramping up anti-Ukraine, anti-Western propaganda. Putin needs Ukraine as a vassal state for his neo-fascist New Russian Empire, but Ukraine (as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan) have made it plain that they're not playing along with Putin.

      Forward Thinker

      Nov 24, 2014 at 3:45pm

      Actually I thought this is a well reasoned article. I came to the same conclusion myself. By cutting the East loose and really strengthening the Russia Ukriane border excluding the two breakaway provinces from Ukraine and cut them loose. The one risk I see is further mischief in other areas if those two are cut loose. Still if the border is strengthened it is worth it. With those provinces gone formally, the rest would be free to join NATO if there is agreement as there would no longer be disputed territory.

      P.Peto

      Nov 24, 2014 at 4:09pm

      It seems Gwynne is finally going to clear away the murky origins of the Ukrainian crises for us but without surprise he blames the Kremlin for putting President Yanukovych in an untenable dilemma of having to choose between the EU or the EEU. Apparently he made the wrong choice, disregarding the wishes of his people and thereby precipitating an armed revolt which gave way to ethnic clashes and the secession of Crimea and Novorussya. None of this was planned it was all a mistake and it would not have happened if he had accepted the stingy EU proposal instead. Is it really that simple? Well not really, Ukraine was in an impossibly difficult economic and political situation which might have been resolvable given the goodwill and financial support of both[!] the EU and Russia. The problem with Gwynne's narrative is he doesn't explain why the EU refused to negotiate a solution for the Ukraine with Russia as a partner. Thus the current mess isn't due to a "cock up" but is more likely to be a conspiracy cooked up by "Fuck the EU" Victoria Nuland of the American State department and their compliant EU vassals to teach the Kremlin a lesson about the costs of defying the US hegemon wishes concerning regime change in Syria and offering asylum to Ed Snowdon, etc.

      I Chandler

      Nov 24, 2014 at 4:33pm

      DYER: "Putin turned the screws tighter. "

      The US/EU are also turning screws on European countries - but it can be spun. to sound very innocent and unthreatening: "South Stream could stop Serbia joining EU - Says EU" What is the South Stream? It's a gas pipeline - The South Stream and Nord Stream are pipelines that bypass the Ukraine (that does pay it's gas bill). How much of this confrontation is about the US selling oil and LNG (natural gas) to one of the world’s biggest energy consumers - Europe:

      http://whowhatwhy.com/2014/07/23/gaspipe-diplomacy-how-ukraine-opened-th...

      "If you want to understand where the rubber meets the geopolitical road in the Ukraine war, you need to consider the South Stream natural gas pipeline. South Stream is a $21.6 billion project to connect Russia’s gas reserves—the world’s largest—to Europe. Owing much of its existence to the 2005-2010 Russia-Ukraine gas disputes , South Stream circumvents Ukraine and ensure an uninterrupted flow to Europe. It found a willing partner in the Italy’s state-controlled oil and gas company, Eni S.p.A., and seven other gas-hungry countries. Putin has pointedly said that piped gas will always be cheaper than American LNG."

      Obama is negotiating a "free trade agreement" (TTIP) with Europe that could legalize American oil exports for the first time since 1975. This would bring US oil corps in direct competition with Russian oil corps:
      http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/11/19/obama-still-pushing-two-gia...

      I Chandler

      Nov 24, 2014 at 6:41pm

      DYER: "eavesdropping on the conversation with a directional mike"

      DYER: "Yanukovych probably didn’t foresee that the protests would be fuelled by the ham-fisted resort to violence by his own officials."

      Here a directional mike picked up the concern of the foreign minister of Estonia, that the violent rooftop snipers were allied with those who controlled the maidan buildings - the protesters:
      http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=fWkfpGCAAuw

      DYER:"nor was NATO hoping to make Ukraine a member. (Indeed, NATO had repeatedly told Ukrainian, that under no circumstances could it ever join the alliance)"

      Maybe NATO repeatedly told Ukrainian many things:

      In February 2014, Anders Rasmussen, Secretary General of NATO, reaffirmed that NATO membership is still an option for Ukraine.

      Back in March 2008, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, sent an official letter of application a Membership Action Plan, the first step in joining NATO.She guaranteed that membership in any military alliance would not pass without approval in a referendum. As of April 2009, 57% of Ukrainians polled were against joining NATO, while 21% were in favor.

      Way back in April 2005, Ukraine entered into the Intensified Dialogue programme with NATO:
      http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlargement_of_NATO#Ukraine

      BaldurDasche

      Nov 24, 2014 at 7:42pm

      Yanukovich's comments to Merkel are incidental and really shed no light on his situation. Russia did not cause the Maidan, and Russia would not have prevented Yanukovich suppressing it with more violence. That was his call, and in retrospect he was foolish.

      If the Maidan was accidental then the current government were chasing the ambulance. Yatsenuk ("Yats" was, according to another secretly-recorded conversation, America's choice to lead the country - and, by golly, he was there when they were appointing an interim government. He's been there since. But America didn't get much values for the money because Yatsenuk is not as much a democrat as he is a fascistic nationalist. He could have sold Russian speakers - even Russia on a better relationship with Europe - but he chose to play the nationalist Ukrainian card and make second-class Ukrainians out of the Russian population - if he couldn't 'Israelize' them into fleeing for refuge in Russia.

      Russia's position is understandable, they have a nascent Reich, making noises about the Kuban and other parts of Russia they think belong to Greater Ukrainia.

      It is interesting to review the 'treatment' meted out to poor old isolated Yanukovich - a gas deal at prices Merkel would have drooled-over, non interference with the Ukraine's rent-a-soldier operations for the UN in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. Military training with US forces in Ukraine. Femen demos and Pussy Riot supporters, Putin had no problem with any of that until the Maidan gave vent to the underlying madness.

      Yanukovich was right about one thing however, Ukraine was busted - well before the Maidan. It's busted worse now.

      I Chandler

      Nov 24, 2014 at 9:34pm

      DYER: "Conspiracy or a cock-up?...The Ukrainian president was not overthrown by a fascist plot"

      Victoria Nulland was caught in a leaked phone call discussing who they would put in power:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWkfpGCAAuw

      Would it be unfair to say that Nuland was conspiring? Fascist plot? Walks like a duck. Quaks like a?
      Estonia's foreign minister Urmas Paet described how the same Kiev snipers killed both the police and people in the street - killing people from both sides.

      A former MI5 officer describes how one should follow the money. The US is desperate to protect the petro-dollar - the denomination of oil sales in U.S. dollars. Looking at the recent wars, invasions and “humanitarian interventions” that have resulted in failed states, it is clear that beyond oil and gas the key issue is the do;llar. Pre-2003 Iraq tried to trade what oil it could in euros not dollars and Saddam Hussein was deposed and killed; Libya was welcomed briefly back into the international fold, but once Gaddafi began to talk about establishing an African gold dinar currency, backed by Libya’s oil wealth to challenge the petro-dollar, he too was toppled and killed; Assad wanted to facilitate energy pipelines to Europe for Russia and Iran, and he was attacked; even Iran tried to trade its energy reserves in euros, and lo and behold it was almost bombed in 2008; and finally Russia itself trades some of its energy in rubles and faces NATO expansion onto its borders, economic sanctions and the prospects of a new Cold War."

      http://consortiumnews.com/2014/11/14/can-the-world-avert-a-new-cold-war/

      A few weeks ago, Dyer described an amazing technique of non-violent revolution that wasn't working well in in Kiev - The technique needed more violence.

      James Blatchford

      Nov 25, 2014 at 8:19am

      Charlie, please give I Chandler his own column..less ink that way.

      McRetso

      Nov 25, 2014 at 11:16am

      The risk inherent with simply abandoning the occupied territories of the Donbass is twofold.

      First, Prorshenko's popularity in Western Ukraine is rather tenuous and tends to drop suddenly when he is seen to "surrender" to Russia. The commanders of his volunteer battalions have accused him of abandoning their troops in the east, and a full abandonment of the east might put Ukraine in danger of another uprising... and this time it might actually be a coup.

      Second, if Russia wants to create frozen conflicts in Ukraine, it doesn't have to stop with Crimea and the Donbass. Maybe Odessa will also need to be "liberated from fascism"?