Administrative note: I had some problems with drafts being posted straight to the site/FB/Twitter, causing some confusion, broken links and partial posts. Hopefully that is fixed! Update on storms will be coming this afternoon.
Sorry this article-length post isn’t about the weather, but it is on a topic I know quite a bit about, and like hurricanes it is an area that the US media and political establishment exploit for drama and manipulation. And, like hurricanes, it is a complex and nuanced thing. As the US House of Representatives gets serious about Impeachment over the Trump, Biden, Ukraine and Russia connections, I hope everyone will take some time to understand how and why we got here and realize it’s not really about Russian or Ukrainian attempts to interfere in our politics, it is blow-back as a result of over two decades of the US manipulating and exploiting financially those countries after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how US domestic politics got entangled with them. I hope you will take a few minutes to read it through, and not jump to a conclusion based on which political team you cheer for. As in so many things, both parties have utterly failed you, and are blaming the “other” for the ensuing mess. Although this post is long, it’s still overly simplified, but at least it’s a start.
It’s hard to know where to begin this story, but to avoid writing a book we’ll start it with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and why the shadows of that event are now cast in the heart of US Politics. The Soviet economy was in shambles, and numerous deals were made to facilitate a peaceful transition between the Former Soviet Union (FSR) and the independent nation-states that resulted from the breakup. There are two key elements of that breakup that are of interest to us here: the disposition of the nuclear arsenal, and reforms of the “communist” economies (they weren’t really communist, and barely deserve the term “socialist,” but that’s the label that stuck). First let’s look at the post-Soviet borders and military situation …
To understand what happened in Ukraine in 2014 you have to understand the terms of the disposition of Soviet military bases and the Soviet nuclear arsenal. A lot of nuclear weapons were stationed in the Former Soviet Republic of Ukraine. And here we have to go a bit further back in history. The word “Ukraine” traces back to an old slavic word meaning “borderlands.” In fact, in modern Russian, the word “окраина” (pronounced “ah kra E na” means “outskirts.” Exactly which oblasts (administrative districts) comprised “Ukraine” was been in flux over the centuries. Culturally, at the risk of a lot of simplification, there are probably three major regions: East Ukraine (Donbass, Crimea) is ethnically more Russian. Western Ukraine has strong Polish connections. In the middle is something that is a more “unique” Ukrainian culture. But to an extent these are all just variants within the south Slavic world. Ukrainian nationalists would vehemently dispute this; a Ukrainian once almost attacked me in Church during a talk, insisting there was actually no Russian culture, just some perversion of “true” Ukrainian culture! But the bottom line is that the borders of the nation-states resulting from the FSR were set as the boundaries of the former Soviet Republics – even if they made little historical or cultural sense.
In order to ensure control over the Soviet nuclear (and other WMD) arsenal, a deal was struck between the West (US/UK/NATO in particular), Russia, and Ukraine, as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan. Known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, it and other side agreements laid out a process with a few basic principles:
- All of the Soviet nuclear weapons would be turned over to Russia, and Ukraine/Belarus/Kazhakhstan would join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- The West and Russia would not interfere in the internal politics (especially through the use of economic pressure or military means) of the new nations.
- NATO would not expand into countries adjacent to Russia.
- Russia would continue to have unrestricted access and control of the major bases in Crimea, especially the Black Sea Fleet base of Sevastapol.
The west violated this agreement almost immediately; economic pressure and attempts to separate the former Soviet Republics from Russia were initiated before the ink was dry. Over time NATO expanded right up to the borders of Russia. Russia couldn’t and didn’t respond at first, largely because it was consumed with its own problems. Once Russia got back on its feet (no thanks to the US – see the economics discussion below), it began to more actively attempt to thwart those actions, and by the early 2010’s Ukraine had become a political (and sometimes literal) battleground between pro-Russian and pro-Western elements.
Another bit of this puzzle that would require a post of its own, but is vital to consider, is the Nazi connection to Ukrainian Nationalists. During World War II, the invading Germans were greeted as liberators by some Ukrainians who wanted to be free of the Soviet Union. They went “all in” with the Nazis and Nazi ideology, becoming some of the most anti-semetic, violent units within the invasion. The SS would sometimes use Ukrainian units in the SS Division “Galizien” to do their dirty work. The sad fact is that many Ukrainian paramilitaries and nationalist organizations that the US has given support, and in recent years arms, are the direct descendants of these unrepentant Nazi collaborators. Given the deep horrors inflicted on Russia by the invading Nazi’s, this is another element of Russian antagonism towards the US and the present Ukrainian Government: there is still no deeper insult in Russia than to be classified as a Nazi. Yet it was these ultra-nationalist forces that the US has allied itself, especially in the era after the rise of Putin and his anti-corruption efforts (which will be discussed below)
The Euromaiden “revolution” or “coup,” depending on who you believe, created a major crisis in that the new, ultra nationalist Ukrainian government (at the urging of its US sponsors/advisers) started seriously threatening to take the bases in Crimea away from Russia. Anyone even remotely familiar with Russia would realize that was a red line that Russia could not possibly allow to be crossed. So Russia seized Crimea, on the (legally correct) grounds that the various accords undertaken during the breakup of the FSR were no longer valid. It is surprising (and internally Putin has come under criticism for this) that Russia did not take Donbass and eastern Ukraine as well. A lot of bloodshed over the last 5 years could probably have been avoided if it had, but according to those around Putin, he was thinking that a more limited reaction would allow for negotiation, demonstrating that Russia doesn’t understand US politics any better than the US understands Russia. But (again!) that’s a long story and not relevant to the question at hand: why are US politicians so wrapped up in the Ukraine-Russia conflict? And the answer to that is simple: money.
This brings us to the second aspect: the post Soviet economy, and the radical, rapid, wholesale privatization that was prescribed/required in order to receive western aid. The FSR became a playground for various economists to experiment with their pet theories. It was a disaster. This article in The Nation from 1998 has some good background.
After seven years of economic “reform” financed by billions of dollars in U.S. and other Western aid, subsidized loans and rescheduled debt, the majority of Russian people find themselves worse off economically. The privatization drive that was supposed to reap the fruits of the free market instead helped to create a system of tycoon capitalism run for the benefit of a corrupt political oligarchy that has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars of Western aid and plundered Russia’s wealth.
— The Harvard Boys Do Russia, The Nation, May 1998
It was common knowledge that Clinton Administration allies rigged the 1996 election, ensuring that Boris Yeltsin would win over the communist candidate Zyuganov. The history of Yeltsin and his evolution from patriot to puppet is a short and sad one. The rise of Vladimir Putin in that environment (and the US role in his ascendance) is worthy of a separate post. But the epic corruption and looting of that time frame, from 1992 to 2001 or so, sets the stage for what has followed. By some recent estimates (such as in Tikhomirov’s “The Political Economy of Post-Soviet Russia”), at least hundreds of Billions, perhaps even trillions of dollars were looted from Russia during that time frame.
It’s hard to overstate the resentment against the West over this. Russians see how the US treated Germany and Japan after World War II, and compare that with “aid” and “reforms” inflicted on them after the US “won” the cold war, see what was done in the looting of their country and the lawlessness that resulted, and are justifiably angry at the west, especially the US. Putin has been popular in large part because he has brought order back to the country, and has put a stop to the worst of the looting and corruption. That’s not to say Putin is a democratic leader in the western sense, but he is a Russian patriot and came in to an absolute mess. That is not to defend him (my thoughts on the Russian President are complex, although I do respect him), I’m just trying to point out that from the perspective of the average Russian who survived the 1990’s, Putin rescued them from the chaos. He put a stop to the worst of the looting, and restored order within the country. But in doing so, he also cut off a lot of the massive cash and resource flows out of Russia and into the west, especially into the coffers of US vulture capitalists. And that pissed off a lot of people in the west and their partners in Russia who were making money off of it.
By the mid-2000’s, the fact that Russia was more in control of its vast resources, and the rise of oil prices than boosted it’s economy, was a major financial blow to the well-connected looters. In some ways Ukraine is a key, especially when it comes to energy. This is also a topic worthy of its own post (or book for that matter). In overly simple terms, the bottom line is the gas pipelines from fields in southern Russian and as far away as Kazakhstan are routed through Ukraine. Disrupting Ukrainian-Russian relations has the effect of hurting Russia economically. Russia is working to bypass Ukraine – which directly hurts a number of US interests, such as the Biden family, who are involved with Ukrainian energy companies. So fostering a revolution/coup in Ukraine was seen as a “win/win” by many in the US establishment: reducing Russian power and influence while boosting the profits of associates.
While much is made in the US media about Russian or Ukrainian “Oligarchs,” and their offshore accounts and corruption, the thing left unsaid is that while some in the FSR did become “tycoons,” “oligarchs,” or “legitimate businessmen,” an awful lot of that money ended up in the hands of western financial institutions (dare I say, “Oligarchs”?). And that has distorted our economic and political systems.
The money that ended up in the system quickly found its way into the US political process. Thus, scratch the surface, you will find Russian or Ukrainian money behind virtually every US politician. Now, I would be surprised if the vast majority are even dimly aware of that fact, any more than they are of Chinese money and influence within the US. But some, such as Donald Trump, the Clintons, and the Bidens, and others, have had direct, active dealings with “legitimate businessmen” (aka Oligarchs, or Mafia, if you are running an attack ad) from the FSR, or via intermediaries like US companies that benefit from those relationships, especially in the influential energy sector. And it is hard to escape the conclusion that all of the above used their political offices to profit their allies (which is corrupt, but probably legal) or themselves and their families (which is corrupt, but maybe illegal). People like Bill Browder, who is running around singing the martyrdom of Sergi Magnitsky, attacking Putin, pushing sanctions, etc., made billions of dollars from the resources of the FSR – money that ultimately found its way in to various political campaigns. When the Putin administration cracked down on that form of corruption, it reduced a significant flow of funds into the western capital markets.
Now, perhaps, you can see why Putin and Russia is so hated by US leaders of both political stripes, and why Russia and Ukraine have become so central to US Politics. Like most things, it’s all about money.
In my not-so-humble-opinion, I agree with Vladimir Putin when he said “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster (catastrophe) of the century. ” This misunderstood comment wasn’t a lament about the fall of communism, but over how the Russian people were treated, and the country looted. It’s sad; Russia should be a natural ally of the US and stabilizing force in the world, far more so than other countries with whom we have aligned (like Saudi Arabia). But instead of acting as we did after WW II with Germany and Japan, work to build strong economies and democratic institutions in the FSR, the US acted opportunistically and with outright malice.
Those chickens – no, vultures – have now come home to roost in the form of a much more dangerous world, and severely damaged internal institutions that impeachment hearings may well uncover – or stress to the point of collapse.
Helpful hint and bit of insider trivia: whenever you hear someone say “The Ukraine” when referring to the country, especially those who smugly seem to make a point of it while defending the current Government of Ukraine, you can safely ignore them and feel free to tell them they are an idiot. I’ll spare you a lesson in Russian Grammar, but the short version is it’s wrong both grammatically and politically. This article discusses it from a somewhat biased point of view, but is still useful. Russian writers when translating to English often do call it “The Ukraine” precisely to be insulting. I happen to agree that the present nation-state of Ukraine is problematic and its present government somewhat illegitimate, and should probably split in to at least two if not three states, but that’s a different and complex matter. To be clear, fragmenting Ukraine’s current borders would not be in the top ten things to do, but may be the least bad option given the blood already spilled.