Let’s be honest. The only reason anyone in the West, perhaps with the exception of Germans, is interested in the Ukraine is because since the current state was carved out of the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Poland following the Great War, it has been the focus of attacks on the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. The number of states or countries where political instability is aggravated by ethnic, religious or nationality conflicts is great. The number of places that draw attention or better said are targeted for mass media attention is far smaller. This is certainly not a question of just dessert.
It would do well to remember that the most notorious interest in the Ukraine as a territory was that of the German Empire under the rule of Adolf Hitler and National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP aka Nazis). Not only did the NSDAP recruit an enormous following during its reign, but the Ukraine also provided division strength Waffen SS units with which war against Jews, Communists, nationalists and the Soviet Union was waged. In fact, the British Empire adopted some 7,000 members of the Ukrainian 14th Volunteer Division SS Galizia who had surrendered in the wake of Soviet victory on 10 May 1945 and shipped them to Britain to become citizens and where they were to wait as silent reserves for the covert war to be fought subsequently against the Soviet Union. When people in Britain became aware of this fact the intervention of the US secret services prevented all but one or two of these war criminals from being indicted or tried as such. I say “war criminals” because one of the outcomes of the Nuremberg trials was to declare inter alia the NSDAP and the SS (Schutzstaffel) criminal organisations. Hence the Waffen SS, the paramilitary part of the SS attached to the German regular army (Wehrmacht), was prima facie a criminal organisation and not treated as a regular military branch of the German armed forces. This was so obvious that even the renowned German liberal author, Gunter Grass, felt compelled to conceal his youthful inspiration to join this outfit—not unlike many Americans who for generations have been impressed by the smart uniforms and elite reputation of the US Marine Corps.
Leaving the individual guilt or innocence of those who spent their “national service” in this esteemed combat formation aside, there can be no doubt that much of the legacy of what we call war crimes, as opposed to simply being on the losing side, is based on the historically unique decisions taken by the International Tribunal constituted in London to dispense what US chief prosecutor Robert Jackson insisted ought not to go down in history as mere victors’ justice. So when a coup d’etat in Kiev led to the domination of the Ukraine government by members of parties whose acknowledged hero was the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, anyone who had the least recollection of Ukrainian Nazis was bound to be disturbed—assuming they were of the anti-Nazi or anti-fascist persuasion.
At the same time given the historical record of Western support for Nazis, the pretence that this event was merely a result of conflicts over potential alliance between the Kiev government and the EU/NATO is absurd on its face. However, instead of this history and continuous policy of the forces that have driven NATO since its founding, the focus of attention to the Ukraine crisis has been the question of whether an independent Ukraine is entitled to combine with the European Union and its armed wing or compelled by history or nature to remain in what 19th century-style geo-politicians (across the entire political spectrum) would call the Russian sphere of influence.
The issues are even further clouded by the unstated but deeply held belief—here again across virtually the entire Western political spectrum—that to oppose Russia’s interest in the Ukraine is nothing less than defending freedom itself.
The principal domestic issues for the Ukraine—aside from the question of who controls the country and its resources—is not much different from those that plague all countries who were “freed” from the Soviet Union in 1989-90 after its political and economic collapse. These include the targeting of their cheap labour, their agricultural potential, and the overall capacity for super-exploitation by a European Union, especially Germany, in search of higher profit rates. The rapacious investment practices which have plundered the Baltic States, turned the state-owned—albeit bureaucratic fiefdoms—of the former Soviet Union, and more importantly the population of Europe east of the Oder-Neisse border into a freebooter’s paradise, have forced many of the people inhabiting the “East” into paupers beyond what they had experienced in the worst years of the war and the Soviet reconstruction period. This has led to massive emigration—where possible—and the creation of islands where those highly skilled professionals remaining provide services to Westerners for pennies.
The obvious counter-argument to this indictment is that the Russian Federation offers no alternative whether because it is still saturated with the remains of the moribund Soviet system under Vladimir Putin or it is dominated by corrupt oligarchies who are ultimately to blame for this poverty.
There is no doubt that neither the Soviet Union nor its successor, the Russian Federation, can defend, either ideologically or practically, claims to being socialist, let alone communist. So to the extent one feels compelled to defend Russia and its policies in comparison to the system the EU/NATO propagates and defends, this defence must be based on real political conditions. Perhaps it is necessary to contemplate—for the sake of argument—some long forgotten Enlightenment philosophy. Let us suppose that the really great and the less great powers compete among each other to offer the best possible conditions of human existence. This competition would be free but amicable. The objective would be to solve all the problems an economy and a polity could face in a manner to produce human happiness. Just for the sake of argument we might take the utilitarian model of the greatest good for the greatest number and given that almost no one pretends to believe in communism this objective is possible under what is called “capitalism”—or to take the US euphemism, “free enterprise”. This is a very generous supposition indeed but let us take its advocates at their word.
The NATO founded in 1949 to defend the US regime’s claim to 60+% of the world’s resources is the American “happiness team”. It would like to win the Ukraine to its side because the team has the best solutions for the happiness of the world’s latent Americans, also those Ukrainians who are just waiting to become American, at least in principle. The cause of the Ukrainian crisis is therefore the Russian refusal to let all these Ukrainians manifest their innately American souls. The reader may laugh. However, he, she or they (assuming a gender role has yet to be fixed) will certainly believe that the Western team is ultimately the one to which everyone should belong, if only to avoid disputes between teams. The great inconvenience lies in the residual idea held by many people; e.g., Russians, Chinese or Koreans, that they are satisfied being Russian, Chinese or Korean. This is incomprehensible even to much of the Left in the West since most believe that with all its faults, the US has only been fighting wars for the past century to free a world crying to become American. Big countries with strange alphabets, heretical religions and histories longer than that of the USA insist on obstructing the march to the Promised Land or at least consumption of the fantasy that one has arrived there.
The basic conflict therefore is between those who believe that everyone—at least in Europe (and white)– ought to be American in spirit or through membership in the EU vicariously sweat through the nightmare on the Potomac. Now add to this the political-economic reality that the EU’s armed wing in its subordination to the US “happiness team” is anything but benignly competitive. Nor is it in the least interested in human happiness for Ukrainians or its own citizens. Together we have a fundamental environmental condition within which any sane discussion of the Ukraine since 1989 must be conducted. Anything else is simply ridiculous.
Chris Kaspar de Ploeg is a journalist, not a historian. That is not a disparagement. It simply means that Ukraine in the Crossfire is an account of current events by someone whose metier is the daily reporting of events, analysis and opinion, as it is presented in mass media. The challenge facing any serious journalist is to render quickly unfolding events intelligible to readers, viewers and listeners. A good journalist not only knows how to produce intelligible reporting but ought to be able to appraise the work of others doing the same job. That is what makes de Ploeg’s book interesting reading.
The mass media is, despite its open access, a very opaque institution. There are several reasons for this. One is that there is a fundamental conflict between the witness to events and the organisational structure through which such witness is transmitted. Major mass media in the West is historically private property. Prior to the great fascist era, roughly from the 1840s until the 1930s, there was an important segment of the mass media owned and operated by political movements; e.g., workers’ associations and parties. These were subjected to heavy censorship but were mainly financed by members of those movements and organisations. They competed with the commercially-owned media and the organs of the Church.
By the end of the 19th century such media was largely subdued in North America by a combination of repression and professionalization. Pulitzer, the US newspaper magnate, founded the first journalism school in the US and stimulated the idea that the only credible journalism was professional—people trained (and later hired by commercial ventures) to produce “objective” news free from any ostensible political interest. In Europe the State intervened to suppress partisan media. This led to the creation of the dubiously renowned BBC in the British Empire and with the rise of fascism on the Continent the violent persecution of competition with the corporate and State-owned media. The State-owned journalist was slowly endowed with a quasi-civil service status giving job security. Under regimes where the commercial media was viewed by the State as insufficiently reliable, it was subjected to all sorts of restrictions some of which were tantamount to censorship or prior restraint.
As a result the independent journalist has actually become quite rare. Either such journalists have developed celebrity status, which insulates them from much official control or they have learned to write in such ways that their product does not directly offend those in power. Throughout the some two hundred years of popular literacy upon which mass print journalism and journalists have been able to thrive there have always been propagandists. These writers or reporters have either officially or unofficially generated product for interest groups who preferred anonymity in order to benefit from the appearance of independence by the journalist. Journalists have worked as spies—and often been treated as such in the countries where they go to report. Journalists have also served as witting and unwitting conduits for official (State and commercial) propaganda. This was the significance of the notorious CIA Operation Mockingbird but also the testimony by CIA director William Colby in which he said the agency maintained close relationships with many in the major media.
The best a reader and a good and truly independent journalist can do is read multiple outlets and sources, preferably in more than one language. Here it is worth noting that even a common reference source today—Wikipedia—has entries that vary in content from one language to the next on the same subject. This may be a luxury for the average person in search of reliable information but it is one of the tasks that a well-versed and honest journalist can do; namely, analysing the foreign language media when reporting to the target readership/audience.
De Ploeg shows that he understands this. Ukraine in the Crossfire does not rely solely upon the English language coverage. Judging by his references he has spent considerable time reading and analysing the Russian and Ukrainian media. Those who know either language will find reference to those sources, too. He also explicitly tackles the conflicting reports of the same events by partisan media, calling attention to discrepancies as well as convergences. Common sense—if that means anything—will tell the reader that where two violent opponents admit the same facts a higher degree of credibility ought to be attached when drawing conclusions. Nevertheless as in all current events in highly charged conflicts it is unlikely that anyone has the whole picture—even of his or her own side.
Ukraine in the Crossfire comprises twenty-one chapters, a glossary and an index. The chapters are roughly chronological reflecting the beginning of the crisis as it was reported and continuing through different stages and theatres of conflict. He starts with the perception, widely held and disputed, that the crisis arose from a breach of faith by the West (US/ NATO) when as a condition for the peaceful dissolution of the barriers that created the German Democratic Republic and the subsequent withdrawal of the Red Army from Germany, there would be no advances of NATO to the Soviet (now Russian) border. He then briefly explains the composition of the current Republic of the Ukraine and how the mixture of Russians and Ukrainians posed conflict potential within the Ukrainian polity.
Then he moves onto the domestic developments, the decline in the economy and the decision of Ukrainian governments to seek economic aid from the US-dominated Bretton Woods institutions (IMF/World Bank). The foreseeable result (austerity doctrine has been a cornerstone of IMF/World Bank policy since de-colonisation began) aggravated tensions between the ethnically Ukrainian part of the country which is one of Europe’s breadbaskets and the industrialised Russian part with its historical integration into the Soviet/Russian economy. Corruption is then a central theme. With not even the façade of an operating market economy the system of trade and industry was unable to serve the legitimate needs of the people already strained by drastically declining income and living standards.
It is at this point that the economic conflict becomes salient. Industry is concentrated in the Russophone Eastern Ukraine. Its production had been directed to supplying Russia. Western Ukraine exported foodstuffs; e.g., grain to the West. Cheap grain from the Ukraine has enabled more expensive agricultural production in the EU (especially Germany to shift to the non-food sector, like tax-subsidised maize for bio-fuel). Ukrainian manufactured goods were undesired competition in the EU. Hence the emerging policy from the new Kiev regime was to turn as much of the economy toward the West as possible, to the disadvantage of East Ukrainian factories. Moreover a long-standing policy to weaken Russia has been to deny it access to markets. By spoiling Ukrainian industry Russia would be deprived of another traditional trading partner.
The final third of De Ploeg’s book is devoted to the foreign policy objectives of the West (US/NATO) of which subordinating Russia remains a high priority. The Western policy toward Russia is largely governed by the Anglo-American imperial elite. The Russian Empire was almost entirely agricultural until the 1930s when the Soviet Union completed an industrialisation process in approximately 20 years equivalent to what Britain, Germany and the US had taken over a century to accomplish.
Thus the Soviet Union had become a virtually autarchic economy by the time Germany invaded in 1940. Like industrialisation in the West, the process of restructuring a huge landmass where some 80% of the population were peasants into the second largest industrial economy in the world was accomplished at tremendous human cost—adding to that a civil war prolonged by Western intervention and a world war in which between 20-30 million of the country’s population were killed and its European half burned to the ground.
The potential for a country like the Soviet Union—never mind its official ideology—to compete with Britain and the US in the world marketplace was the single greatest fear driving the elite in London, New York and Washington. Unlike the new nations emerging as a result of de-colonisation, the Soviet Union/Russia had all the raw materials they needed and the technical capability to develop on their own. Worse than that they could defend themselves from invasion or colonisation and they were able and within their material limits willing to help with arms and technical support precisely those countries the West hoped to dominate despite reluctant grants of independence. All this went under the euphemism “Cold War”—a term intended to deceive citizens in the West about the real nature of US foreign policy since 1945. The “Cold War” was announced to have ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hence most of the debate about the NATO–Russia policy is couched in the new euphemism of “a new cold war”. De Ploeg did not invent this confusion but it is one serious problem that his book among many have when trying to explain Russia’s role in the world and the position of NATO—which by all rights should have been abolished in 1989 (if the stated policy of the US were the same as the unstated one).
There are two problems with De Ploeg’s book. One is the limit of the journalistic format in which it is written. The chapters contain a lot of useful information from a variety of sources and thus the book can be seen as a reference for further study. Yet the book lacks an overall framework in which the reader can interpret what De Ploeg has written. In his professional attempt to keep a kind of neutrality of interpretation he fails to offer sufficient structure for the reader to find either a chronology or lines of argument that tie the separate issues together from beginning to end. Thus one has the impression of reading the daily press clippings without any summary of the important facts as they acquire significance later in the period under examination. He attempts to overcome this by drawing on the theoretical approach of one Associate Professor Gordon M. Hahn. Hahn is cited four times in the index but it is not quite clear why De Ploeg considers him an authority. The analyses offered about Russia—at least the US sources, rely much on articles that appeared in the US weekly journal, The Nation, as such they often have the archaic sound of that establishment journal’s liberal “Sovietology”, contributing more heat than light when it comes to understanding the Russian Federation.
One incident that has caused substantial controversy, even among those who are ostensibly sympathetic to Russia’s legitimate interests, is the Crimea. Many who are willing to accept Russia’s interest in protecting Ukrainians of Russian descent or origin stop abruptly when the referendum on the Black Sea peninsula is discussed. It is asserted that Russia had no right to “annex” the Crimea. Mr Putin challenged this interpretation rhetorically with considerable poignancy when he demanded to know why it was considered perfectly legitimate for Kosovo to declare its independence from Serbia and then affirm this with a referendum but NOT legitimate for the inhabitants of the Crimean peninsula to decide their territory should be governed as Russian—as it had been before Nikita Khrushchev detached the peninsula and assigned it to Ukrainian rule in February 1954—without asking anyone. One might add that the US regime has always been a master of annexation. Russia is accused of using its military presence (the Black Sea naval station) to unduly influence the vote. Yet the fact was that the majority of those living in the Crimea are ethnic Russians.
If the US were to be taken seriously, then it would be time to re-examine its Mexican immigrant policy—not from the point of view of permissible migrant labour but from the illegal annexation of Texas by white settlers from the US and the Indian and Mexican wars fought to seize approximately 1/3 of Mexican territory and declare its inhabitants foreigners.
The seizure of most of the US was accomplished by such settler-colonialism schemes (from whom white South Africans in the NP readily acknowledged their heritage). No Mexicans were allowed to vote to keep Texas in their country. Instead paramilitary brigands together with support from the US regime in Washington helped these invited settlers to overthrow their adopted government and steal nearly a third of the landmass of the continental US. Voting is considered by the UN to be adequate display of the citizens’ will, US opinion not withstanding. The referendum held in Crimea and the reintegration of the peninsula region into the Russian Federation has certainly more legitimacy on its face than the naked use of armed force characteristic of Western practice. The term “annexation” is another case of deliberately deceptive language. It is the same kind of deception that presented the US war against Korea as “an act of unprovoked aggression” when, in fact, Koreans north of the border drawn by the US regime had engaged in a struggle to remove that artificial border and reunite their country. Neither Koreans nor Russians were “annexing” themselves.
De Ploeg takes a clear position against the US intervention in the Ukraine. He also gives reasons for his position. However, he does not err on the other side by maintaining an uncritical view of Russia’s policies, to the extent they may benefit ordinary Ukrainians. It is fair to say that no understanding can be gained by a blanket apology for Russian policies. But then a book about the Ukraine should try to tell the reader as much about what happens in that country and not be an alibi for dissecting Putin. Ukraine in the Crossfire is an attempt to tell as much as can be learned from the Media in a comprehensive way for those who cannot read all the relevant sources (e.g. for language reasons). He attempts to assess the impact of the new POTUS on US policy toward Russia. For the first time since the frenzies of the 1950s, associated with US Senator Joseph McCarthy, it seems a tenant in the White House is being accused of working with (or for) the Russians or at least with them against the interests of the US regime. More concern has been raised about alleged election manipulation in 2016 than in either Bush election although no reasonable observer doubts that the little Bush—who had much better relations with Mr Putin if photographs say anything—manipulated election results in key southern states—maybe with Saudi help.
It is by no means clear that a change in the tenant of No. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will change US regime policy toward Russia, except in its manner of presentation to the public. The struggles within the regime’s corporate and government bureaucracies remain largely invisible to the ordinary citizen while the change of faces creates an illusion of change among people focused on celebrity and not political processes. The US “happiness team” with its armed forces swarming about the globe is on the one hand driven by the insatiability of US capitalism/white supremacy to the extent it is the nation’s business model. On the other hand as long as the affairs of other nations are evaluated primarily in terms of “where we go right or wrong” we will continue to miss the point; namely, the responsibility for the conduct of governments and the survival of the regimes of which they are a part belongs foremost to its own subjects/citizenry. All the handwringing about the Ukraine notwithstanding, the real problem for citizens of the EU and US is their inability to control their own ruling class. That inability is then exacerbated when the wars and political terror are allowed to expand beyond the recognised territorial boundaries of states. It is well and good to critique how Ukrainians with or without foreign allies or support operate their State and economy.
However, there is no evidence that anyone in the “West” has the track record of disciplining the ruling class, which might constitute added value in the Ukrainian struggles. It would help enormously if at least the ordinary citizens of the West would learn to apply their common sense respect for neighbours at home to those abroad—by minding their own business. There is no great “freedom machine” and the US/EU does not run a “happiness team”. If Ukraine were in the Congo basin, no one in the West other than military and primary resource bandits, would care who rules the country or by what means. Putting the Ukraine situation in perspective for the non-Ukrainian requires open discussion and knowledge of the facts: facts about the NATO, what it is and does; facts about the relationship between the European and Bretton Woods financial bureaucracy and how this corps of suited felons organises wealth extraction throughout the world; facts about the various forms of overt and covert violence organised to enforce the financial regime; e.g., covert action agencies, military missions and mercenary cut-outs.
Mr De Ploeg is not the only journalist trying to make sense out of the traces. The compilation of articles he offers is a reasonable attempt to manage a very difficult and sensitive subject. The reader is left to himself to frame the data presented. The missing structure is certainly based on the author’s wish to stay as objective as possible. As argued above this is a conceptual weakness of all modern journalism. To that extent it would be unfair to fault him for it in particular.
Any sequence of events reported involves a construction by the reporter. The reporter helps the reader by explaining why an event is presented in a certain sequence. This is essential to good reporting and good history because our purported knowledge base is already thoroughly corrupted. The dictum “he who controls the past, controls the future” has been enhanced by the corollary, “there is neither a past nor a future” but like the never-aging faces in TV and film—we live in an eternal present, punctuated by orgasms and remote-control assassinations.