Russian President Vladimir Putin conceded today that he would respect the will of the Ukrainian people as expressed in Sunday’s presidential election and that he would deal with the new government. That’s progress.
At the same time, he repeated his claim that the Ukraine crisis is the result of a Western-engineered coup d’etat in Kiev that forced him to protect the people of Crimea from slaughter and has tipped the rest of the country into civil war.
I spent the last few days in Donetsk and Kiev -- the centers of the struggle for Ukraine -- and was struck by how successfully Putin has warped perceptions about what has happened here, not just in Russia but in the West.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier must have felt the same way when he exploded recently at an audience of Germans waving anti-Ukraine placards. To his great credit, Steinmeier, who is no hawk, said: “You should consider who the real warmongers are here: those who call an entire society fascist, those who push for war, who push for conflict.”
There are plenty of commentators, politicians and academics from the left and right who sympathize with Putin on Ukraine. (My favorite essay from the category is this one by Brown University Professor of Slavic Studies Vladimir Golstein, headlined: “Everything You Have Read About Ukraine Is Wrong.”)
To support Putin’s narrative of events in Ukraine, however, you have to support the following propositions:
1) That hundreds of thousands of protesters in Kiev who revolted in response to police brutality were in fact engaged in an armed coup and were prepared to risk their lives to sniper fire at the bidding of Western governments;
2) That sporadic protests by up to a few thousand protesters in the east, led by men armed with semi-automatic guns, mortars and anti-aircraft missiles, are equivalent expressions of popular will;
3) That poll data showing that an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians favor keeping the country whole, including in the east, actually show that the armed separatists represent a popular desire to split it;
5) That the majority of Ukrainians who favor association with the European Union are “fascists”;
6) That Jewish leaders, who support the pro-Ukraine cause and see anti-semitism in western Ukraine as no worse than in the east or Russia, are wrong;
7) That Russia’s assertion of a right to intervene on behalf of ethnic Russians anywhere in the former Soviet Union is acceptable and understandable, unlike Germany’s assertion of its right to do the same for Germans in the 1930s and 1940s;
8) That, yes, Russia lied about the “green men” in Crimea, and has positioned an army on Ukraine’s border, but it should be trusted about not supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine;
9) And that Russia's annexation of Crimea is a righting of history that doesn't indicate an expansionist policy.
None of this is to suggest that Ukraine isn’t a deeply divided country, or that neo-fascists from the Ukrainian political party Right Sector shouldn’t worry anybody, or that the authorities in Kiev don’t need to work harder to reunite the country. But those tempted to support Russia’s approach in Ukraine, or argue that U.S. and European Union policies towards Russia are too aggressive should consider these two questions:
Would Putin have backed off dismissing Sunday’s elections had Germany not made their success a red line for economic sanctions against Russia? And why would anyone make excuses for armed men trying to prevent an election that will expose just how many Ukrainians support the neo-fascist candidates?
Who knows, the hard right in western Ukraine might draw fewer votes on Sunday than in the European Parliament elections in Hungary, Greece and France.
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