It’s a truism in the West that Russia is an aggressor in the world today. Western commentators talk about how Putin ‘desires to rebuild the Soviet empire’ because of the ‘annexation of Crimea’ and such forth. The vilification of the Russian government has reached utterly absurd proportions. It is almost to the point where Putin is portrayed as a Bond villain, stroking his white cat and plotting how best to take down Western governments with his “juvenile clickbait” troll farms. Of course, being the supervillain that he is, Putin can stroke his white cat and play 5D chess at the same time, in power levels unknown to Western leaders from Merkel to May. The vilification of Russia has become so absurd that even Russian terms such as ‘kompromat’ are invoked to make what are ordinary operations of security services in every country (in this case, blackmail) seem sinister.
We can ask ourselves where this vilification of Russia began. That is a long standing question with a long history. Russia has always had an ambiguous relation to the West, dating back to well before the Soviet era. Many intellectuals in the West considered Russia ‘barbaric’, and Russian intellectuals countered by creating non-Western definitions of itself – such as Slavophile Russian nationalism which considered Russia as the follower of true Christianity and thus rejected Western values. Then of course we have the Soviet period, with its attendant vilification of Russia, combined with a minority in the West expressing admiration for the Soviet model. This question is way too complex and long to get into here in any depth. But an important factor in the modern resurgence of anti-Russia sentiment in the West – and this precedes Russiagate – is the situation surrounding Ukraine in 2014.
It’s worth noting that prior to this situation in Ukraine, even given the short war in Georgia in 2008 – the vilification of Russia was not a major topic on the agenda of Western politicians. George W. Bush famously praised Putin, saying he could see into Putin’s soul, and Barack Obama laughed at Mitt Romney’s designation of Russia as the biggest threat in 2012 by stating that ‘the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back’ and ‘the Cold War’s been over for 20 years’.
So it is worth examining this situation in Ukraine for multiple reasons. Firstly, to examine the western claims around the Association Agreement, the EuroMaidan, the change of leadership from Yanukovych to Poroshenko, and the annexation of Crimea. Are these claims factually true or did the West lie about the real situation in Ukraine to advance an agenda? Secondly, an examination of the facts can also help illuminate Russiagate and how this vilification of Russia made a comeback, and also how this ties in with Western claims about ‘fake news’ and media manipulation by the Russian government and outlets like RT and Sputnik.
So the first place to begin is the western narrative around this situation in Ukraine in 2014. What happened in Ukraine according to the West? Firstly, there was a leader in charge who was called Viktor Yanukovych, who was corrupt and unpopular with the Ukrainian people. The EU, in good faith and with benign intentions, was negotiating with Yanukovych a thing called an ‘Association Agreement’. This agreement was designed to improve Ukraine’s economy by creating linkages between the EU and Ukraine. This policy was part of a broader policy called the Eastern Partnership, which was designed to create good relations and economic ties between the 6 countries situated on the border of or near to the EU to the East (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia). Some of these countries were willing to accept an Association Agreement, and some were not. In the case of e.g. Belarus, they rejected the EU’s honest overtures because they did not want to make necessary economic reforms.
Yanukovych negotiated the agreement in this framework, but then refused to sign the agreement. This failure to sign led to outrage on the behalf of much of the Ukrainian people who took to the streets in the EuroMaidan protests in order to get the Association Agreement signed. This was a fully organic movement that represented at least a fair proportion of the Ukrainian people. Any violence that took place was fully or mostly the fault of the Yanukovych government. Eventually Yanukovych realised that his position was untenable, and fled to Russia. A new democratically elected leader was chosen by the Ukrainian people, Petro Poroshenko, who duly carried out the will of the Ukrainian people by signing the Association Agreement with the EU. In response to the overthrow of their puppet leader Yanukovych, Russia annexed Crimea by force, carrying out a sham referendum as a figleaf of legitimacy for this fundamentally unwarranted and unprovoked aggression.
That in essence is the Western claims about the Ukrainian situation in 2014. So lets begin by looking at the facts:
- Yanukovych was corrupt: Yanukovych was corrupt, but the Ukrainian system is built on cabals of oligarchs since the end of Soviet socialism. There was also much corruption under other Ukrainian leaders such as Kuchma.
- Yanukovych was unpopular: Ukraine is a country that is divided between east and west – the more Eastern parts of Ukraine are sympathetic to Russia; the more Western parts more sympathetic to the EU. The 2004 election was won by the pro-Western faction (Viktor Yushchenko) in the so called ‘Orange Revolution’. The 2010 election was won with support in the east of the country by Yanukovych. It is difficult for any leader to appeal fully to both sides and these divisions in Ukraine are not created by political leadership. No doubt that there are many people with whom Yanukovych was legitimately unpopular. But he was elected in more or less fair elections in 2010.
- The EU was negotiating a good faith Economic Agreement with Ukraine: there is more to the association agreement than just economics. Stephen Cohen has been one of the most astute critics of the Western policy towards Russia and one of the few academics that has attempted to rebut Russiagate and point out the dangers of vilifying Russia. Here’s an important quote from him about the agreement:
The EU proposal was a reckless provocation compelling the democratically elected president of a deeply divided country to choose between Russia and the West. So too was the EU’s rejection of Putin’s counter-proposal of a Russian-European-American plan to save Ukraine from financial collapse. On its own, the EU proposal was not economically feasible. Offering little financial assistance, it required the Ukrainian government to enact harsh austerity measures and to sharply curtail is longstanding economic relations with Russia. Nor was the EU proposal entirely benign. It included protocols requiring Ukraine to adhere to Europe’s “military and security” policies, which meant in effect, without mentioning the alliance, NATO.Stephen F. Cohen, The New Cold War and the Necessity of Patriotic Heresy.
- Yanukovych’s failure to sign the agreement outraged the Ukrainian people: No doubt some Ukrainians legitimately supported the Association Agreement, and there were some individuals who were inspired to protest by this fact. But the protests also included violent Nazi thugs who were underplayed by Western commentators so that they could support the overthrow of the democratically elected Yanukovych.
- Russia’s annexation of Crimea was aggression: Russia’s ‘annexation’ of Crimea was a response to Western aggression. Russia needs access to the ports in Crimea for both trade related reasons and geostrategic related reasons. Russia has a fleet in Crimea known as the Black Sea fleet which goes back at least to the Soviet times. After the end of the USSR, this naval base was maintained through agreements between the Ukrainian government and the Russian government. Any attempt to either get Ukraine in NATO, or in NATO through the back door, as we have seen the Association Agreement do, threatens this fleet and threatens to bring ships right next to Russian naval space. Russia needs access to Crimea because of trade as well, as Russian northern ports are not always accessible and so Russia needs access to a warm-water port such as Crimea. The West has constantly sought to expand NATO towards Russia’s borders – and any attempt to place Ukraine in NATO or NATO-by-proxy is 100% unacceptable to Moscow.
Now at least in Europe, here is where many of the claims of Russian fake news and media manipulation started to grow. An outlet called EU vs. DISINFORMATION began in 2015 in order to combat ‘pro-Kremlin’ fake news. This is before Russiagate took off – that was in 2016 – but it fits in much better with the timeline of the EU wanting to manage narratives around the issue of Ukraine and Crimea. I have posted this image before, but it is relevant here as evidence for the high level of focus put on the issue of Ukraine by EU vs DISINFORMATION:
This beginning of vilification of Russian media outlets thus foreshadows Russiagate. One interesting quote – which I found from a book given out at a meeting set up by the Foreign Policy Centre – is this one which suggests that the West should do more to prevent the Kremlin undermining western democracy by media manipulation in the context of an article about the Ukraine crisis:
To counter Russian propaganda, EU member states need to modernise and effectively implement their regulations on the responsibility of the media so that democratic freedom of speech is not used to cover manipulation.Dmytro Shulga, “Ukraine: Fighting for the European Future” in “Trouble in the Neighbourhood: The Future of the EU’s Eastern Partnership” Foreign Policy Centre 2015, p. 49.
Russiagate thus exaggerated trends that were already present in Europe due to the Ukraine crisis. The idea that RT and Sputnik are fake news came to prominence not with Russiagate but with the Ukraine crisis and rejoining of Crimea with Russia, about which the West had been spreading false information and narratives to promote its agenda of removing Ukraine from the Russia orbit.
[Addition: this article was originally written before the impeachment inquiry was opened against Donald Trump due to inappropriate comments while on the phone with current Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. It is interesting though to observe the continuation of the narrative against Russia through Ukraine as began in 2014].