[Correction: I tried really hard to say "Ukraine" and not "The Ukraine" but I didn't get every instance. I'm very sorry. It's a hard habit to break. I mean no disrespect. ]
The fate of Ukraine is now intimately tied to American politics, and oddly American politics seems doomed now precisely because we have failed Ukraine in some important ways. Hopefully by the end of this podcast you’ll understand.
On January 9 2020 Jacobin published a piece by Christian Parenti entitled “Impeachment Without Class Politics: an Autopsy” reminding us that impeachment and Ukraine don’t matter (https://jacobinmag.com/2020/01/impeachment-class-politics-emolument-constitution). Here’s the first line: “The impeachment proceedings are boring and will result in nothing.” Great. Then they repeat the line that impeachment should have targeted something else: emoluments. This is a particularly strong version of this argument, specifically because it is conceivable legally that an impeachment case could have been mounted around emoluments. First of all, this is still whataboutery, according to which if you didn’t do anything about ‘x’ then you shouldn’t do anything about ‘y’ either. Someone got away with murder so we can never again convict murderers. Secondly, to the public impeachment really was about the whole Trump problem, which is why Republicans kept talking about it not being right to try and undo an election this way. They were obviously wrong about that: this is exactly how the founding fathers expected we could undo an election. But the bigger problem I have about this is that it is wrapped up with the idea that Ukraine doesn’t matter. It may not poll high as a concern to middle America, but part of why that is the case is because outlets like Jacobin are working to convince us it’s unimportant. 13,000 Ukrainians have died as of today, in mid February as I write. That matters. None of these people is mentioned in the article entitled “autopsy.” Their deaths merit no record, no investigation. The article does actually mention Ukraine, briefly, twice, once to mention possible Biden corruption, which demonstrably false and a Trumpian talking point. The article mentions Ukraine a second time at the very end calling the issue “sanctimonious, wrapped-in-the-flag, Kabuki theater about national security and Ukraine - a country few Americans know or care about.” When Parenti asks us why class politics weren’t involved in the impeachment articles he is erasing Russian oppression of Ukrainians, because that’s where the class war is located in this issue. As in all wars, it is the working class that fights this one. He’s somehow ignored or never tried to know about the way Putin and Paul Manafort both got rich exploiting Ukrainian labor. Then he aligns himself with Trump’s anti-Ukraine and anti-America line. That’s the tell: it’s more important to him to be anti-American than it is to reflect on the harm done to Ukrainians and to the idea of international working class, or even just human, solidarity. It’s shameful and dangerous that one of the leading left publications is making the argument that lives of people overseas don’t matter. There’s really no way to build a sense of international solidarity, to inspire Americans with a feeling that immigrants deserve rights, when the US left is committed to discounting the lives of Ukrainians. Let’s do better than this: let’s talk about Ukraine.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, in the west it was expected that free markets would allow the spontaneous development of democratic institutions. Instead in Russia the new wealth would create a kleptocracy that would coalesce around first Yeltsin and then Putin. In Ukraine a set of klans would jostle for power, which was formally exchanged through rigged elections. The European Union became for many a beacon of hope that Ukraine could soon become a full democracy where money couldn’t buy power to flaunt the law, and where elections were not negotiated by a corrupt group of oligarchs. But the mafia state in Russia was a constant roadblock on the way to mass democracy, and from the beginning Trump was there dipping his ladle into the trough of human misery. In 1986 and again in 1996 Trump tried and failed to get a deal to build a luxury hotel in Moscow (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
We now know a lot about Trump’s business dealings in Russia, stretching back decades. We learned a lot from Glenn Simpson’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22 of 2017. Simpson investigated Trump for Fusion GPS, which is the company that produced the Steele Dossier. Trump is a failed businessman. His father earned money running brothels during the gold rush out west, and then buying up real estate in Brooklyn just before the bridge was built increasing the value of land there. Trump’s own enterprises, hotels and casinos kept losing money. He defaulted on many loans, and couldn’t get financing in western banks. So he starts looking for money to invest from Russia just as the market was being opened in the early 90s, and Russians were trying to find a way to get money out to western banks where it could be safe.
To understand the war in Ukraine today we have to talk about Putin’s rise to power in 1999. That is also where the story of Yanukovich’s rise in Ukrainian politics and later Trump’s rise in American politics begins. (Hensman 67,Gessen 21-42, Horvath p24). In 1999 Putin is still working as a leader in the FSB, and he starts having FSB agents set bombs in apartment buildings so that he can blame it on Chechen rebels to start a war with Chechnya. That’s how he makes himself a big hero and wins the election. It worked. Several hundred Russians were murdered, and over a thousand injured. Even though in one case where the local FSB had not been informed of the plot they actually responded to a report of the bomb and disarmed it, and then later had to change their story about it being a bomb to “oh, it was a training exercise and these were bags of sugar,” everyone in Russia at the time believed it was Chechnyans (Gessen The Man Without a Face, The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin [MWFURVP] pp23-29; Hensman, pp. 65-66). In 2002 an independent commission established by the Russian Duma (a parliament) found, partly based on the testimony of defected FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, that the FSB had been behind the bombings. Alexander Litvinenko was murdered by Russian agents using Polonium in quantities only manufacturable by state powers, with the poison being traced back to KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi who had tea with Litvinenko. Litvinenko was poisoned in London where he lived in exile. At the time Gordon Brown then refused to meet with Putin, though David Cameron later would in an attempt to reset relations with Russia. Note in passing that in part it was Jeremy Corbyn’s very pro-Russian reaction to news of a similar poisoning of Sergei Skripal that in part convinced Labor voters that he did not have their best interests in heart. His reaction to the murder of Litvinenko was the same. Corbyn either didn’t know or didn’t care that Litvinenko had been murdered to hide the FSB’s bombings of Russian citizens in 1999. Either way, what a horrible thing to contribute to the cover up of such a terrible crime. His reaction to Skripal’s murder is proof that he had not reflected on any of this, and he deserved to lose in 2019. The British working class deserved much better. Putin’s war in Chechnya in 2000 was the original “war on terror,” coming as it did a year before the attacks of 9/11. As a result of this manufactured crisis in March of 2000 Putin is elected President. This set the model for what is called “managed democracy,” where a state produces crises whenever there is an election in order to produce the desired outcome.
Putin had cut his teeth as an FSB agent in the 80s in Germany, and as he watched the Berlin wall torn down, and then later saw protest movements spread across Eastern Europe where former Soviet States were holding referendums where the majority voted to leave the USSR, something shifted into place for Putin. It’s from that time on that Putin saw the CIA in all such popular movements. His views are reflected in Russian propaganda through Russia Today and Sputnik and other sources. When pro-democracy protest movements erupted in Georgia in 2004, Putin and the Russian state media called it a CIA coup. Likewise with the Maidan protests that occured in 2013. Coup. Are there massive protests in Syria? It’s a coup. Srdja Popovic is the activist that led the student movement Otpor! who helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic only escaped conviction for war crimes by dying before the trial could be concluded. Peter Pomerantsev recently interviewed Mr. Popovic: “Srdja Popovic is halfway through explaining to me how to bring down a dictator when he gets a call. It’s a warning about a piece coming out tomorrow claiming he’s connected to the CIA and is behind revolutions in the Middle East. The piece first appeared in an Istanbul daily and then reappeared on a minor Serbian-language website full of pro-Russian conspiracies. From there it moved to a site owned by Christian Orthodox patriots, and it would soon be featured on the front page of one of Serbia’s largest tabloids, which Srdja assumes, is publishing it because conspiracy theories sell rather than because the paper has it in for him personally. After all, he makes for a good story. Recently Russian state TV camera crews turned up at his office among the monolithic Communist concrete cubes of New Belgrade, where it sits between a hairdressing salon and a pastry shop. They tried to force their way in. If they had hoped to find dozens of CIA operatives, they must have been disappointed. Srdja runs a permanent staff of four Serbs, who sit in a neat grey office which would look like an accountant’s, were it not for the multiple posters of the clenched fist that is Srdja’s logo.” (Pomerantsev, This is Not Propaganda [TNP], p.59). The obsession with the CIA, seeing its secret hand behind every event we can’t or won’t explain, is a kind of structural anti-semitism, in that it doesn’t, at least not always with Putin, name Jews as the originators of the international conspiracy, but it labels all such popular protests as being instigated by a shadowy cabal, sometimes that’s just vaguely refered to as “the West,” “elites,” or “America” or “George Soros,” and in Putin’s version it is more often “the homosexual Western conspiracy.” There’s never any proof but that’s not the point. The point is to make people sitting at home doubt just enough so they don’t want to join the protests. It effectively robs the protestors of their agency, treating human beings like manipulable political objects, just the way some dogmatic Marxist might. This should sound familiar after our episodes on Syria. We’ll find more examples of structural anti-semitism as we continue.
Here is a quick list of tropes that are typical of Russian propaganda, identified by experts in the field Masha Gessen, Timothy Snyder and Peter Pomerantsev. As always, check out the transcript of this podcast for full sources.
The US is to blame for any attacks against it. (Gessen, p 232)
American intervention is going to cause World War 3. (Gessen, p. 234)
Humanism, cosmopolitanism, human rights are always bankrupt concepts and their use is cynical manipulation. (Gessen, p. 234).
Russia is not imperialist. When it invades its neighbors this is always in self defence. (Gessen, p. 275)
Pro-democracy revolutions only lead to chaos and civil war. (Pomerantsev, p. 140).
Because some nations have violated the law, law itself is bankrupt, and so when Russia breaks the law it does so from innocence because it does not pretend to honor the law. (Snyder, p. 143).
In 2003 Ukraine’s close neighbor Georgia had a revolution that overthrew Russian stooge Eduard Shevardnadze, and in 2004 the Adjara revolution restored Georgian independence from Russia. In 2008 Russia went to war in Georgia to try and restore Russian domination of them; we note this in passing to give an idea of how invested Russia is in keeping its privileged trade relations with its neighbors. This is important to Ukraine, because the Georgian example caused panic in Russia that Ukraine might want meaningful independence also. Also, we’re all good leftists here, so the plight of those oppressed by imperialism moves us. Right? The fate of a place like Georgia or Ukraine is still impacted by Russian internal politics today, and in late 2003 Russian liberals lost the Duma (Horvath p14). In May of 2004 Putin gives a speech blaming the Velvet revolutions on foreign NGOs and George Soros.
In 2004, as Putin’s man in Ukraine Yanukovich was losing an election to remain as Ukraine’s president, in Russia Putin won another election, going through a period where rhetorically he voiced approval of the EU and NATO. Putin won this election thanks to widespread fraud, which should surprise no one. What is interesting here is that, according to Masha Gessen, the fraud seemed to be committed by a grassroots network of supporters, and not to have been coordinated from above (Gessen, MWAFURVP, p184). She goes into some depth in The Future is History to try and explain the psychology of people who are willing to destroy democracy in exchange for kickbacks, talking about Homo Sovieticus.
Here is what they did. Over a million people were deleted from voting roles, which also happened in the US in 2016. Ballots arrived at hospitals pre-filled. People were paid to vote a certain way. The old soviet culture of corruption, of quid pro quo, led people to support Putin in this way in order to get kickbacks: in Stalin’s Russia this kind of corruption was a matter of life and death.
Masha Gessen’s great insight into Russian style fascism is that by increasing the pain people are going through, the regime is able to make them more desperate, more willing to believe the story that nothing could ever have been different, that they must attack their enemies, that they are great.
In the Summer of 2004 Russia began an aggressive intervention into the Ukrainian elections in an attempt to get Yanukovich elected over the EU friendly Viktor Yuschenko. When Putin calls some political movement a coup, or a conspiracy, it’s the ultimate pot calling the kettle black. Russia sets up a team of what they call “political technologists” in Kiev in 2004. During the months that followed they did extremely poorly manufactured polling designed to favor Yanukovich. They organized speeches by pro-Russian speakers and groups. They were trying to play down the idea that Yanukovich and Medvedev and the whole pro-Putin club were gangsters, kleptocrats. That was made harder when it came out that Yanukovich had a personal vendetta against Georgii Gongadze who was kidnapped and murdered in 2000, and even harder when it came out that Yanukovich had a criminal record that included a rape conviction (Horvath, p24). As Yanukovitch’s campaign proposed making Russian the official language of Ukraine, Putin himself came into Ukraine to campaign for him, appearing in a softball interview and presiding over a military parade where he invoked the USSR’s role in fighting Hitler in Ukraine in 1943. Remember how Stalin’s role fighting Hitler in WW2 was used to retroactively whitewash the terrible famine Stalin imposed on Ukrainian peasants in 1932, as punishment for “discrediting socialism”? Well, Russian politicians get a lot of mileage out of what they think ‘Stalin beating Hitler’ can let them justify doing. The other aspects of Stalin’s USSR’s involvement in WW2 get erased from this story, the abandonment of Poland in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the role of the comintern in organizing protests against US entry into WW2 in 1939, the purges and mass murder of Poles after Stalin divided up Eastern Europe with Hitler, the way the vast majority of soviet officials collaborated heavily with Hitler and helped initiate the holocaust to scapegoat Jews for the crimes of the NKVD, all of that is forgotten. Instead, “Stalin beats Hitler” gets trotted out in 2004 to justify Russian neo-liberal domination of the Ukrainian economy, to prevent Ukrainian independence and anti-corruption measures, to sabotage Ukrainian entry into the EU, and much later in 2014 “Stalin beats Hitler” will be used to justify Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas. Many Ukrainians, having an intimate knowledge of that history of Russia’s forcing famine on Ukraine, many of whom still suffer from bad health effects from Chernobyl, have decided that the lesson of history is that they need to shake off Russian domination. When the voting started in 2004 tracksuit wearing thugs attacked voters at polling stations to stop them from voting (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/1477722/Revealed-the-full-story-of-the-Ukrainian-election-fraud.html). Jesus, just saying that out loud I hear how that sounds like something from a Russian gangster movie, but you don’t have to take my word for it, there is a video of the attacks online, and I’ve linked it in the transcript (https://censor.net.ua/en/video_news/461036/local_elections_in_ukraine_police_show_attack_on_polling_station_in_dnipropetrovsk_region_video). There was widespread fraud in this election. Ballots were destroyed. Busloads of Yanukovich supporters went from polling station to polling station, with the same people voting at each station. In some places voters were given pens with disappearing ink! Managed democracy.
Massive protests broke out in Kiev in 2004 against this clear attack on democracy and the rule of law. This is what has become known as the “Orange Revolution.” The protests, sit-ins and a general strike all worked in the end and a second vote was held. International observers agreed this second election was fair, and the winner by a couple percentage points was Victor Yuschenko. But, you know the old saying: if at first you don’t succeed, poison your enemies. So, that’s what Russia did: they poisoned Yuschenko resulting in his disfigurement. The poisoning was discovered. Yushchenko got skin grafts and served as president of Ukraine until 2010 when Paul Manafort helped get Yanukovich elected.
In 2008 Putin couldn’t run for a third term legally, so he had his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev become President while Putin became Prime Minister. By that point anyone could tell Putin was still in charge. Masha Gessen describes the system in place in 2008 to assure no candidates independent of the state party could get their names on the ballot: Here “Seryozha” sits in for the incredulous Russian public. “An independent candidate -- one who was not already a member of parliament - was required by new Putin era laws to submit two million voter signatures in order to be registered as a candidate, with no more than fifty thousand signatures coming from any one region of the country. This demanded either a lot of money or a large nationwide grassroots network of activists- preferably both. Many people had tried that year. Garry Kasparov could not even convene the required public meeting of an initial group of supporters, because no one would rent him space for such a meeting, for any amount of money. Boris Nemtsov had dropped out of the race to help another candidate, former prime minister Michail Kasyanov, but Kasyanov’s signatures were arbitrarily thrown out. But here was some guy named Bogdanov, whom no one had ever heard of, who was ostensibly representing a party that had in fact been dormant since the early 1990s, whose political experience consisted of being a part time member of a tiny powerless municipal council, and even this was probably fake - and Seryozha was supposed to pretend to believe that this clown had collected two million signatures?” (Gessen, The Future is History, p289).
A word about managed democracy. The Russian fascists that Putin gets his ideas from, including Ilyin, Dugin and the Izvestia group, believe that the best nation is one without the law and order of a regular state power. The people’s will is embodied in the person of the leader. Law is defined as his will. If he wants to shoot someone in broad daylight in the middle of the street there is nothing anyone can do. Elections are only held as a ritual whereby the people perform their role legitimizing the power of that leader. Managed Democracy. Putin’s last two decades in power fit this description to a T. Yale Historian Timothy Snyder has noted that the lack of a clear succession principle makes modern Russia unstable, makes the future beyond Putin permanently unimaginable. To justify his holding power in the absence a government authority that could survive him, Putin must tell a story about Russia’s eternal enemies. In Putin’s narrative, those eternal enemies are western and homosexual. The Russian ruling clique has decided that homophobia is the way they are going to mobilize people against Russia’s enemies. They believe this information war will go on forever. As a big middle finger to him, we’re going to talk about recent historical events, things that happen and then stop happening, that exist outside of eternity. We’re going to talk about what is actually happening, about what Russia tries to hide from view by vilifying homosexuals and the United States.
We know Paul Manafort now as the corrupt manager of Trump’s Presidential campaign starting officially in March of 2016. We all know that Mr. Manafort is currently serving a prison sentence for federal financial crimes. The official line from the Trump team is that the two men met in an elevator in 2015, though its established fact that they were introduced probably decades before by Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn. In 2004 Paul Manafort lived in Trump tower, and in 2006 Trump signed a one-year deal to start building a hotel in Moscow on the site of an old pencil factory, but again nothing was built (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
In 2010 Paul Manafort was hired to get the disgraced Yanukovich re-elected in Ukraine. Tellingly, part of how Manafort cleaned up Yanukovich in 2010 was convincing the latter to speak Ukrainian. He won reelection in part by promising to sign an association agreement with the European Union. After the election, Manafort continued to lobby for Yanukovich in Washington. Meanwhile Yanukovich stole billions of dollars from Ukraine. Protesters in 2014 found his financial records documenting this abuse in a palace that Yanukovich had built during this period with money stolen from the public. The palace had a 9 hole golf course, a helipad, a floating restaurant, a zoo (https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/trumpinc/episodes/trump-inc-ukraine). In August 2016 we found out in the NYT that Manafort was paid 27million dollars from Yanukovich under the table. In Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World, Oliver Bullough describes the real cost of this corruption in sapping hundreds of thousands of dollars from a cancer research center, forcing parents of children with cancer to pay bribes for treatment. The Health Minister had overpaid 300 per cent for HIV and TB drugs in 2012. In 2014 efforts to reform the system were abandoned after the Health ministry in seven months couldn’t find a single supplier that wasn’t corrupt (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n04/vadim-nikitin/kleptocracy). That’s money the Ukrainian working class made being expropriated by an American politician with the result being poor people getting no health care, including children with cancer.
As the United States was pursuing a reset of relations with Russia, events in Russia were propelling the country towards a war with Ukraine. The Russian economy in the early oughts did well because theirs was an economy based on the export of oil. After the financial crisis of 2008 the price of oil collapsed, and afterwards Russians were less tolerant of the tyranny they lived under. In 2011 Putin’s Russia faked a landslide victory in the lower house of the Rusian parliament. In response 80,000 people protested in Moscow through December. It’s worth quoting Snyder at length [TRU} I can’t help as I read this thinking about how the Czar claimed the Bolsheviks were German agents. “If the Kremlin’s first impulse was to associate democratic opposition with global sodomy, its second was to claim that protestors worked for a foreign power, one whose chief diplomat was female: ‘she gave the signal.’ On December 15, he claimed that the demonstrators were paid. Evidence was not provided and was not the point. If, as Ilyin maintained, voting was just an opening to foreign influence, then Putin’s job was to make up a story about foreign influence and use it to alter domestic politics...But President Barack Obama had cancelled an American plan to build a missile defense system in eastern Europe in 2009, and in 2010 Russia was allowing American forces in Afghanistan. No Russian leader feared a NATO invasion in 2011 or 2012, or even pretended to. In 2012, American leaders believed that they were pursuing a ‘reset’ of relations with Russia. When Mitt Romney referred to Russia as America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’ in March 2012, he was ridiculed. Almost no one in the American public media was paying attention to Moscow...The association between opposition and treason was axiomatic, the only question that of the appropriate punishment. In March, Russian television released a film, described as a ‘documentary,’ which claimed that Russian citizens who took to the streets were paid by devious foreigners. Precisely because Putin had made the Russian state vulnerable, he had to claim that it was his opponents who had done so. Since Putin believed that ‘it would be inadmissible to allow the destruction of the state to satisfy this thirst for change,’ he reserved for himself the right to define views that he did not like as a threat to Russia. From 2012, there was no sense in imagining a worse Russia in the past and a better Russia in the future, mediated by a reforming government in the present. The enmity of the United States and the European Union had to become the premise of Russian politics. Putin had reduced Russian statehood to his oligarchical clan and its moment. The only way to head off a vision of future collapse was to describe democracy as an immediate and permanent threat. Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo.” (Snyder TRU, p 56).
Putin won another rigged election in 2012. What seems to be significant about this election was that by this point the fraudulent nature of the election was taken for granted, an avowed and established part of the procedure. From Masha Gessen: “On September 25, the preschool mothers were outraged. The previous afternoon, Putin and Medvedev had made a joint announcement: at the next election, scheduled for March 2012, Medvedev would hand the presidency back to Putin and return to his post as prime minister. ‘Can you believe this?’ the mothers asked one another. ‘They don’t even try to keep up appearances anymore.’ They meant the appearance of an election.” (p. 325).
In the US, not experiencing Occupy Wall Street, events in Russia barely pierced the foggy media bubble. I remember around this time joining protests in solidarity with the Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis, Yemenis and that’s it. I don’t remember once hearing a word of solidarity uttered for Russia. US politicians seemed even more clueless. Remember how in the West people thought that opening “free markets” would spontaneously generate democratic governments? Well, that was never true, but people believed it, so to the extent that anyone was paying serious attention to Russia, it was to protect the ability of people to invest money in Russia. But Russians were in the habit of taking whatever they wanted and killing people who got in the way. The result of all this was that to protect commerce, Congress passes the Magnitsky Act in the summer of 2012 (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/magnitsky-act-kremlin/535044/). The Magnitsky of the act was an accountant and lawyer who represented William Browder, who invested millions in Russia and was fleeced of his investments by the Russian government mafia. For exposing this corruption, Magnitsky was thrown in jail where he was found dead in 2009. The act freezes the bank accounts of several important Russian oligarchs. This disrupts their efforts to steal money from people investing in Russia, because without western banks as havens into which to launder the money, there’s no way for them to protect their stolen wealth. Now whenever someone tells you there’s no way to stop wealthy people from hiding their money overseas, just remember the Magnitsky Act. Unsurprisingly, Trump has worked to undermine the Magnitsky act, lifting sanctions against Russian oligarchs whenever possible (https://themoscowproject.org/collusion/trump-administration-lifts-sanctions-on-firms-tied-to-deripaska/). By now it should be clear that the Magnitsky Act is going to make it hard for Trump to launder money for Russian oligarchs. In 2013 Trump visits Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant and tweets: “TRUMP TOWER MOSCOW is next.” (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
2013 was a big year for Ukraine. In 2013 Yanukovich reneges on his promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and protests erupt centered on the Maidan in Kiev. When police used violence to disperse the student protestors, masses of people joined the protests in december of 2013. These were protests on the same scale as Berlin 1848, Paris 1871, Cairo 2011, or Hama in 2012, and they had much the same goals of democracy and human rights. To get a real feeling for how and why the protests happened, you could do worse than to watch Winter On Fire, an excellent documentary about these events. Here’s how Timothy Snyder describes the protests: “Kyiv is a bilingual capital, something unusual in Europe and unthinkable in Russia and the United States. Europeans, Russians, and Americans rarely considered that everyday bilingualism might bespeak political maturity, and imagined instead that a Ukraine that spoke two languages must be divided into two groups and two halves. “Ethnic Ukrainians” must be a group that acts in one way, and “ethnic Russians” in another. This is about as true as to say that “ethnic Americans” vote Republican. It is more a summary of a politics that defines people by ethnicity, proposing to them an eternity of grievance rather than a politics of the future. In Ukraine, language is a spectrum rather than a line…. Ukrainian citizens on the Maidan spoke as they did in everyday life, using Ukrainian and Russian as it suited them. The revolution was begun by a journalist who used Russian to tell people where to put the camera, and Ukrainian when he spoke in front of it. His famous Facebook post (“Likes don’t count”) was in Russian. On the Maidan, the question of who spoke what language was irrelevant… The politics of this nation [the one forged on the Maidan] were about the rule of law: first the hope that an association agreement with the European Union could reduce corruption, then the determination to prevent the rule of law from disappearing entirely under the waves of state violence. In surveys, protestors most often selected “the defense of the rule of law” as their major goal. The political theory was simple: the state needed civil society to lead it toward Europe, and the state needed Europe to lead it away from corruption. Once the violence began, this political theory expressed itself in more poetic forms. The philosopher Volodymyr Yermolensko wrote, “Europe is also a light at the end of a tunnel. When do you need a light like that? When it is pitch dark all around.” In the meantime, civil society had to work in darkness. Ukrainians did so by forming horizontal networks with no relationship to political parties. As the protestor Ihor Bihun recalled: “There was no fixed membership. There was no hierarchy either.” The political and social activity of the Maidan from December 2013 through February 2014 arose from temporary associations based upon will and skill. The essential idea was that freedom was responsibility. There was thus pedagogy (libraries and schools), security (Samoobrona, or self-defense), external affairs (the council of the Maidan), aid for victims of violence and people seeking missing loved ones (Euromaidan SOS), and anti-propaganda (InfoResist). As the protestor Andrij Bondar remembered, self-organization was a challenge to the dysfunctional Ukrainian state: ‘On the Maidan a Ukrainian civil society of incredible self-organization and solidarity is thriving. On the one hand, this society is internally differentiated: by ideology, language, culture, religion and class, but on the other hand it is united by certain elementary sentiments. We do not need your permission! We are not going to ask you for something! We are not afraid of you! We will do everything ourselves!”’ (Snyder [TRU] pp128-129). Recall that Marx defined the dictatorship of the proletariat as the domination of the state by civil society leading to the dissolution of class differences. We have seldom caught glimpses of that possibility, the possibility of people directly and democratically organizing their own lives, but in the Maidan we got a clear vision of it on the same level as the Paris Commune.
On the 20th of February, 2014 snipers massacred hundreds of protestors on the Maidan. A few days later Russia prepared its own population for war with Ukraine by broadcasting false reports of Ukrainian atrocities in the Crimea. They made up a story about Ukrainians crucifying a Russian boy (Snyder p.178). The shelled Ukrainian civilian areas, and broadcast news stories about how Ukraine was shelling its own towns (Snyder, p. 172). Russian forces invaded without Russian insignia, then pretended to be local separatist guerillas (Snyder, p. 165).. Russians were bussed in to pretend to be protesters storming county government buildings in order to stage the popular overthrow of local government (Snyder, p 144). When Malaysian flight MH17 was shot down on June 23, 2014, Russia claimed that the plane had fallen because of a Ukrainian missile aimed at the president of Russia, that Ukrainian Jewish air traffic controllers told the plane to fly at a low altitude, or that the CIA had prefilled the plane with corpses in order to slander Russia. None of these things was true, of course. As forensic evidence later showed, MH17 had been shot down by the Russian 53rd Air Defense Brigade. The plane was flying on an authorized route at a normal altitude (Snyder, pp. 174-175). No wonder Pomerantsev has said that the war existed to create the media phenomenon. Snyder explains that the point of this misinformation war is to destroy the possibility of public sympathy for the victims of Russia’s invasion, which Russian state media called Nazis. “One can record that these people were not fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences. One can mark the fictions and contradictions. This is not enough. These utterances were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality. Once the intellectuals moorings were loosed, it was easy for Russians (and Europeans, and Americans) to latch on to well-funded narratives provided by television, but it was impossible to work one’s way towards an understanding of people in their own setting: to grasp where they were coming from, what they thought they were doing, what sort of future they imagined for themselves. Ukrainians who began by defending a European future found themselves, once the propaganda and the violence began, fighting for a sense that there could be a past, a present, and a future. The Maidan began as Ukrainian citizens sought to find a solution for Ukrainian problems. It ended with Ukrainians trying to remind Europeans and Americans that moments of high emotion require sober thought. Distant observers jumped at the shadows of the story, only to tumble into a void darker than ignorance.” (Snyder, p. 151).
The Internet Research Agency, which later worked to sell England on Brexit, and later worked to sell the US on Trump, was working hard on social media to convince the world that Russia had to invade Ukraine to defend the Russian minority there, all while Russian officials denied that any such invasion had happened. Russian propaganda, built on structural antisemitism, almost always involves an element of bashing of LGBTQ and invocation of an epic struggle against the US. Although Obama’s February 28th statement of concern about “military movements” in Ukraine was the first time during the crisis that Obama had said anything, and though he was still not doing anything, Russians invoked a war against the west and once again the nobility of “Stalin beats Hitler.” In the light of this history, Russia bombing Syria in 2015, the story of Lisa F., it’s campaigns for Brexit and Trump take on their proper significance: a fascist war waged partly in cyberspace by a Russia spinning out of control, throwing a tantrum because it has possibly losing its colonies.
The protest movement in Ukraine in the Spring of 2014 succeeded in forcing Yanukovich to resign and in calling for new elections. The new democratically elected government of Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union, though full EU membership is still an uncertain prospect. The European Union itself is an imperfect institution, and deserves a full discussion on its own. I hope it’s obvious from the discussion here and from the previous podcast that the European Union, whatever its role in the Greek debt crisis, is clearly a lifeline for Ukrainian democracy. If the choice is between the EU and being owned by a group of Russian Oligarchs, as is the case in Ukraine, choosing the Oligarchs is clearly the wrong call.
Probably you have noticed by now that talking about Ukraine inevitably forces us to talk about Trump. In February of 2014, as Ukrainian protestors are dying under sniper fire for wanting a better world, we find Trump on Fox news praising Putin and bragging about his relationship with the Russian oligarch. That very same month that the Izborsk Club put out a memorandum abandoning Yanukovich whom they presumed was to be deposed and declaring that Russia should invade Ukraine, which they did two months later. Trump is the first anti-American president, the first president who is the friend of foreign tyrants. The Izborsk Club is a Russian think tank founded by fascist novelist Alexander Prokhanov, friend of Putin’s. Another member of Izborsk is Tikhon Shevkunov who’s big idea is that Putin is the reincarnation of Volodymr of Rus who first signed the agreement with the Cossacks to back them in their fight for independence from Poland, an agreement that supposedly constitutes Russia’s right to dominate Ukraine. Trump is a big fan.
During Trump’s presidential campaign he attacked NATO and US sanctions against Russia after the latter invaded Ukraine, all the while pursuing, you guessed it, a deal to build Trump Tower Moscow, something Trump lied about later. In June of 2016 Manafort and Jared Kushner met with a Russian lawyers to discuss dirt the Russians had on Hillary Clinton. (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
Because the Mueller report never found a smoking gun on the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign, some may have lost sight of the indisputable facts that (1) Trump is a huge Putin stan with clear business interests in Russia, and (2) Russia used enormous military assets in 2016 to help Trump get elected. The resistance to admitting this evidence is one of the greatest threats to our beating Trump in 2020. To admit that Russians influenced our election is to recognize the weaknesses in our society, state, and movement, that led to our democracy being successfully attacked. Facing those weaknesses could strengthen our process and keep Trump from getting a second term. Let’s talk about the Russian hacking of the 2016 election briefly, so that we can better understand why Trump targeted military aid to Ukraine specifically in 2018.
Sarah Kendzior was writing about the connections between Trump and Putin back in 2015, and she describes the media reaction to her as gaslighting. Gaslighting is when you manipulate someone by telling them they are crazy. Abusers use it against their victims so that the latter will blame themselves for the abuse, or to deny that it is happening. Maybe the media wasn’t so much abusing Kendzior, but they were pretending she was crazy to be drawing out these parallels. You should listen to her podcast “gaslit nation.” (https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/andrea-chalupa/gaslit-nation) There’s a kind of American exceptionalism that says we couldn’t possibly have had an election meaningfully tampered with. I rely on the work of Kathlene Jamieson, who is a professor of communications and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been covering electoral messaging for several decades. Her book Cyberwar is essential to understanding the 2016 election: go out and read it. We have to discuss that book’s main point here just to understand how the Russian misinformation campaign worked in the US.
Two important things to note: (1) that the email scandals were orchestrated by Russia to provide the framing of the election that made it possible for Trump to win, and (2) the left amplified this propaganda to suppress the vote for Hillary Clinton. There were two email scandals that get conflated. People think that because Clinton used her private computer Russians got DNC emails, but that’s not what happened. No useful intelligence was gathered outside the US from Clinton using her private devices for official business, and she was cleared of all wrong doing in 2019, to very little media attention. That story gets mixed up with the Russian hack of the DNC server that we all found out about in June of 2016, though little attention was paid to it at the time. Again, Americans really did think it far fetched that such a thing could happen. In September 2016, Trump joked that it was probably some 400 lbs. guy sitting on their beds in New Jersey. The fact Trump was making a fat phobic joke didn’t stop the left from laughing along. Then campaign manager of the Clinton campaign Donna Brazile describes what she was told by CrowdStrike, the company who took over their data security after the breach: “The hackers… were sophisticated teams, codenamed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear by CrowdStrike. The two bears, Crowdstrike said, came from competing Russian intelligence agencies that had teams working twenty-four hours a day to break into foreign computer systems...Shawn Henry of Crowdstrike said in the Post article: ‘This is a sophisticated foreign intelligence service with a lot of time, a lot of resources, and is interested in targeting the U.S. political system” (Brazile, p28). Russian military officers stole emails from the DNC, and then carefully misquoted them at key moments to frame the electoral race to benefit Trump by suppressing the potential democrat vote.
On October 7th, 2016 as early voting had started, the Obama administration put out a memorandum about the Russian operation and that Wikileaks was likely a tool alongside DCleaks and Guccifer 2.0 Russia was using to leak stolen material from DNC emails. Half an hour later the Access Hollywood tape featuring Trump bragging about being a serial molester of women was released by The Washington Post. Half an hour after that wikileaks dumped a cache of emails stolen from once Clinton campaign manager John Podesta: and these emails formed the basis of the pizzagate conspiracy theory. Social media accounts connected to Russian IP addresses that day were digging up old stories of Hillary Clinton working as a defence attorney in a rape case. The story about the Russian misinformation was completely obscured from the media horizon by Russian misinformation. The framing of the race as between two equally flawed candidates dominated the media throughout the entire month when voting happened in 2016, with the media regularly conflating the hack of the DNC with Clinton’s use of her private computers. In the final debate between Clinton and Trump the mediators repeatedly asked Hillary Clinton about lying and duplicity. Raddatz asked Hillary Clinton: “This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu(ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html). The speech in question finds Clinton praising Lincoln, who is shown in a movie explaining a policy in true but different terms to two different constituencies. As Clinton tries to explain this, Trump quips: “now she’s blaming Lincoln.” The audience laughed at that.
The false equivalence of Clinton and Trump is driving many today to say that if Bernie Sanders isn’t the democratic candidate in the general election, they will not vote for the democrat. That and the idea that the primary was rigged. If you listen carefully to far left pundits you will notice that according to them the Democratic Party is too weak to win an election but strong enough to rig one, too incompetent to beat Trump, but clever enough to rig the primaries against Sanders. The main problem with this story is that Sanders lost not because the process was rigged, but because fewer people voted for him in the primary. The second problem is that the rules for that convention were set before Sanders entered the primary, and he knew that because he had not been officially a part of the Democratic Party up to then he would be at a disadvantage. When Vox covers this supposed rigging in May of 2016 they are constrained by the facts to say it didn’t happen (https://www.vox.com/2016/5/24/11745232/bernie-sanders-rigged), and then point out that if you count Democrats campaigning against Sanders as rigging a primary then yes it was rigged. Except that is the definition of a system that is not rigged, where everyone can campaign and the rules are agreed upon ahead of time. The left has a serious weakness here that we will get into next podcast as we discuss the 2020 election. Giving specific criticisms of the system is helpful to democracy. Saying the system is hopelessly rigged helped to suppress the vote in a very close election. 70,000 votes in three states go the other way and Trump doesn’t become president. We can and should criticize the Democratic Party, but not without reason. When we fall back on the wrong lessons of the 20th century that we have absolute enemies, in this case the Dems, we then cannot discern who our real enemies are: Donald Trump. In a context where 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US face ethnic cleansing at the hands of a fascist in the White House, we should put aside the purety of our politics and stand up for something greater: basic human solidarity. And all we have to do is admit the truth: the election isn’t rigged (yet) and if we don’t vote for the Democrat we risk losing the basic freedoms that allow us to fight back, free speech and the right to assemble.
I’ve heard the argument that if we get a President Biden that leaves the system that made Trump in place and then four years later we just get another Trump but worse. First off, if Biden wins the presidency that doesn’t mean that a Trump will win the next election: each election is its own contest. Second, we begin dismantling the fascist movement by denying it the White House. Our failure to see the importance of having a not fascist in the White House in 2016 made us complicit in Trump’s crimes.
On November 7, 2016 Jacobin Magazine published an article by Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller. It’s a hit piece on Hillary Clinton that framed her evolution on issues such as LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, war and social welfare as her being two-faced (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/hillary-clinton-is-running-for-president). This was precisely the same framing Russia had planted with the emails it leaked to wikileaks, and considering we got Trump as a result, this behavior is completely reckless of the wellbeing of immigrants and poor people who would have clearly suffered less under Clinton. We are seeing all of these same rhetorical devices today, where Bernie Sanders is said to have evolved after his vocal support of and actually voting for the crime bill in 1994, but Warren, after having shifted so radically and decisively around bankruptcy law, is treated like a Republican Manchurian candidate. If the people who don’t think the way we do can’t be trusted to ever genuinely change, then we will never ever convincingly win other people over, and for them there’s no payoff for changing their mind. If you think that pointing out Sanders’ past errors is “unfair” or some kind of an “attack,” then you need to reflect on why you think your favorite person should be beyond criticism. I am not suggesting that we should give any politician a pass, but I am suggesting that in 2016 the left followed the rest of the media in unfairly putting Clinton, a career politician who was wrong in all the same ways society at large was wrong in the last few decades, on the same moral standing as a racist who had bragged about molesting women. That moral equivalence is only possible because the standard we held Clinton to is impossibly higher than the one we held Trump to, and that’s the definition of misogyny. Then we wrongly accused the Democratic Party of rigging the primary, just as we began doing during the primary whenever Sanders lost a state, but never when he won them. Each time we echo Trump’s talking points about a rigged election we are working to suppress the vote and hasten our own doom. This is a strategic disaster, one that may have been understandable in 2016 as a mistake of a still young and isolated socialist movement, but then to repeat that error in 2020 because we haven’t reflected on it would be nearly unforgivable considering the stakes.
In 2016 the vote for Clinton was suppressed in the key swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania where Clinton lost by margins of 10 or 20 thousand votes (Jamieson, pp 112-114). All of these are states that Obama won in 2012. Nationwide Clinton got 3 million more votes than Trump and barely 70,000 fewer votes than Obama had. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/12/29/2016-vs-2012-how-trumps-win-and-clintons-votes-stack-up-to-obama-and-romney/#5e1fcc291661) In other words, Trump didn’t so much win as Clinton lost the election, and she lost because the vote was suppressed by a media climate that was artificially hostile to her.
This is the point where almost any leftist will chime in with criticisms of Clinton. Whatever those criticisms are that you have in mind, those are not the reasons she lost. Clinton didn’t lose because of her “super predator” comments in 1994 when she wasn’t in any public office but Bernie Sanders voted for the crime bill. Clinton didn’t lose because she promoted workfare. She lost because leftists agreed with Trump supporters that she was two-faced, and if a politician is going to lie that is unforgivable unless that politician is a white man and then it is expected. One of the more ridiculous claims is the so-called Pied-Piper scandal. This is the one where Clinton supposedly helped Trump win the primary. There is absolutely no evidence that the Clinton campaign did anything more than recognize in a leaked (!) email that they should talk about Trump in the media, something that was impossible to avoid given the sensational and racist comments the media was full of from the Trump campaign, which built off of his career in reality TV. Despite all this Clinton won the popular vote. Despite that, people blame her for losing, which is rich coming from people who worked hard to depress the progressive vote in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But it’s a way for people to deflect blame away themselves and from Trump and put it on Clinton.
Given Trump’s clear pro-Russia politics, given that Russian interference in 2016 helped him win the election by exploiting Americans’ susceptibility to illiberal and misogynist politics, given that the Republican part of the Senate refused to impeach him for having clearly usurped the power of the purse from the congress, given Trump’s refusal to enforce the Magnitisky Act, ignorance of Ukrainian and Russian history seems like a real political liability. The history of Europe turned into a nightmare of cascading mass murder in the early 40s in a conflict that turned mainly around Ukraine. Instead of cheering the democratic movement of the Maidan, many on the US left responded with very dogmatic thinking that said the EU is bad and the enemy of my enemy, Putin, must be good. On July 25, 2019 in a phone call we have all seen in a so-called transcript, Trump tried to shake down the Ukrainian president to coerce the latter into working to effect the election of 2020. We ignored evidence of Russian hacking that came out in the summer of 2016 and lost that election to Trump. Maybe we should pay more attention to Russian disinformation this time, instead of taking the opportunity to own the libs as Doug Henwood has done in our favorite publication Jacobin magazine (https://jacobinmag.com/2019/12/impeachment-donald-trump-nancy-pelosi-democratic-party). If, as Doug Henwood is doing here, your reaction to impeachment is to think that Democrats are trying to distract us from how awful they are, then you’re part of why Trump is going to win in 2020. To focus our criticism on the Democrats in the context of a fascist abuse of executive power is to minimize the threat of Trump and to undermine the only party that can beat him. A better left strategy is to rally to the democratic struggle of the Ukrainians and urge Republicans to support our ally against Russian tyranny. If any of these terrible things Paul Manafort and Trump have helped along in Ukraine mattered to us, if oppressed colonized people or the working class or even just LGBTQ rights really mattered to us, we might have been able to break Republicans away from Trump on grounds of National Security. Republicans have repeatedly, explicitly, used as a defense against impeachment the proposition that people just don’t care about Ukraine. If we understood Ukraine, if we cared, we could have resisted Russian manipulation of our media context. The consequences go far beyond Ukraine and the United States.
In October of 2019 Trump withdrew US troops from Northeast Syria in a move that threatened Christian minorities and the Kurdish project in Rojava. Even Noam Chomsky was calling this withdrawal of US military forces a disaster. We should have been hammering on this contradiction hard to try and break conservatives away from Trump, and we should have had large protests to demand US troop presence be maintained. But we couldn’t. We have a left today that is constitutionally incapable of such a realistic and humaine politics of solidarity. Instead we have a left that sides with Putin against Clinton and amplifies weaponized Russian misinformation against Ukrainian democracy advocates.
Brazile, Donna. Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House. Hachette Books, 2017.
Bullough, Oliver. Moneyland: why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back. Profile Books, 2018.
Gessen, Masha. The man without a face: The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. Riverhead Books, 2013.
Gessen, Masha. The future is history: How totalitarianism reclaimed Russia. Granta Books, 2017.
Horvath, Robert. Putin's Preventive Counter-Revolution: Post-Soviet Authoritarianism and the Spectre of Velvet Revolution. Routledge, 2013.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Cyberwar: how Russian hackers and trolls helped elect a president: what we don't, can't, and do know. Oxford University Press, 2020.
Pomerantsev, Peter. Nothing is true and everything is possible: The surreal heart of the new Russia. Public Affairs, 2014.
Pomerantsev, Peter. This is NOT propaganda: Adventures in the war against reality. Hachette UK, 2019.
Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. Tim Duggan Books, 2018.
Music: Nysno by Sandra Marteleur, else Harry