U.S. hand in Ukraine turmoil leaves policymakers in an awkward position

 Interior Ministry members are on fire, caused by molotov cocktails hurled by anti-government protesters, as they stand guard during clashes in Kiev February 18, 2014.REUTERS/Andrew Kravchenko/Pool

Interior Ministry members are on fire, caused by molotov cocktails hurled by anti-government protesters, as they stand guard during clashes in Kiev February 18, 2014.REUTERS/Andrew Kravchenko/Pool

Events are unfolding rapidly in the deeply divided nation of Ukraine, leaving the U.S. in the awkward position of having to deal with a worsening crisis that has largely been precipitated by its own actions and policy pronouncements over the past several months. According to some accounts, the U.S. government is now a bit unsure how to respond to the situation.

This weekend, the Ukrainian parliament voted President Viktor Yanukovych out of office hours after he fled the capital, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison, and the parliament handed presidential powers to speaker Oleksandr Turchinov, a top Tymoshenko ally.

President Yanukovych denounced the toppling of his government as a coup d’etat, while others hailed it as a revolution. Either way, the potential ramifications are severe, including a possible civil or even regional war.

Sporadic violence has already reportedly broken out in Russian-speaking Crimea and some eastern cities between supporters of the new, pro-EU order in Kyiv and those who prefer maintaining close relations with Moscow. The scuffles have revived fears of separatist movements that could tear the country apart, presenting U.S. policymakers with difficult prospects going forward.

“Western leaders, while welcoming the unexpected turn of events in Kiev, are worried about the country fracturing into a pro-Russian and pro-western conflict,” The Guardian reported Sunday.

As the LA Times put it, “The challenges that could soon face the White House include a Yugoslavia-style civil war, an expensive economic bailout and further damage to its strained but crucial relationship with Moscow.”

Incidentally, these problematic outcomes are precisely what Moscow has been warning of for the past three months, as violent demonstrations have rocked Ukraine following Yanukovych’s decision in November to forgo an association agreement with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.

A statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry last week reminded Secretary of State John Kerry that President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly urged President Barack Obama to “use every opportunity to stop the illegal actions of radicals and return the situation to constitutional channels.”

Instead, the Obama administration has placed the entire onus for the ongoing violence on the Ukrainian authorities, tacitly absolving opposition fighters for any role they may have had in escalating tensions with police. At a Feb. 19 press conference in Mexico, Obama said,

We continue to stress to President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government that they have the primary responsibility to prevent the kind of terrible violence that we’ve seen, to withdraw riot police, to work with the opposition to restore security and human dignity, and move the country forward. And this includes progress towards a multi-party, technical government that can work with the international community on a support package and adopt reforms necessary for free and fair elections next year. Ukrainians are a proud and resilient people who have overcome extraordinary challenges in their history, and that’s a pride and strength that I hope they draw on now.

Obama’s remarks echoed sentiments that U.S. officials have consistently expressed since the earliest days of the anti-Yanukovych uprising in Kyiv, clearly indicating bipartisan American support for the demonstrators – from the White House, State Department and Congress. In mid-December, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) – both members of the Foreign Relations Committee – even traveled to Ukraine to meet with opposition leaders, and addressed a crowd of demonstrators in Kyiv.

“We are here,” said McCain at a massive rally, “to support your just cause: the sovereign right to determine [Ukraine’s] own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.”

Murphy added, “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Ukraine.”

On Jan. 7, the Senate adopted a resolution that expressed support for “the sovereign right of the people of Ukraine to chart an independent and democratic future for their country” and “condemn[ed] the decision by Ukrainian authorities to use violence against peaceful demonstrators and call[ed] for those responsible to be brought to justice.”

U.S. policy remained unchanged even as information emerged about the deep influence of far-right ultranationalist extremists leading the anti-Yanukovych protests. Spearheading clashes with police has been Right Sector, a group with ties to far-right parties including the Patriots of Ukraine and Trident, which BBC Ukraine reported is largely comprised of nationalist football fans. The far-right parliamentary party Svoboda is also in the coalition of three opposition parties leading the protests, the Nation reported.

Despite one of the early outbreaks of violence in the Kyiv demonstrations being clearly instigated by protesters who tried to break through police lines with an earth excavating vehicle on Dec. 1, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 15 that the demonstrators in Ukraine have been overwhelmingly nonviolent and have provided inspiration to the whole world.

“The whole world has watched the peaceful protest of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians on the Maidan in Kyiv and tens of thousands in other cities across Ukraine.” While she expressed some condemnation for “the actions of rioters outside a Kyiv court building on January 10,” the bulk of her outrage was reserved for the Ukrainian government.

“The use of violence and acts of repression carried out by government security forces and their surrogates have compelled us to make clear publicly and privately to the government of Ukraine that we will consider a broad range of tools at our disposal if those in positions of authority in Ukraine employ or encourage violence against their own citizens,” she said.

Privately, Nuland was working to manipulate events in Ukraine to the United States’ liking. In a conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt that was surreptitiously recorded and leaked on YouTube, Nuland clearly had preferences for who she would like to take over the government once the U.S. policy goal of deposing Yanukovych had been realized.

“I don’t think Klitsch [opposition leader Vitali Klitschko] should go into the government,” she told Pyatt. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

She expressed her preference instead for Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a Ukrainian economist and lawyer. “I think—I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience,” she said. “He’s the guy—you know, what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside.”

Nuland also argued for sidelining the European Union in resolving the crisis, saying rather undiplomatically, “Fuck the EU.”

Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, explained the significance of what Nuland was saying in an appearance on Democracy Now last week.

“The highest-ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine,” Cohen said. “They’re not talking about democracy now; they’re talking about a coup now.”

After a new escalation of violence on a Jan. 19, the White House said in a statement that the blame for the bloodshed laid squarely with the Ukrainian authorities – despite the fact that the Ukrainian interior ministry reported 60 policemen injured in the day’s melee, while newswires reported 40 or so protesters hurt.

“The increasing tension in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” the White House said. “Instead, it has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law.”

The White House statement issued this weekend was more nuanced than some of its earlier pronouncements, but nevertheless contained unmistakable veiled messages about flawed U.S. assumptions regarding the elected Yanukovych government and the U.S. desire for regime change in Ukraine:

We have consistently advocated a de-escalation of violence, constitutional change, a coalition government, and early elections, and today’s developments could move us closer to that goal.  The unshakeable principle guiding events must be that the people of Ukraine determine their own future.  We welcome constructive work in the Rada and continue to urge the prompt formation of a broad, technocratic government of national unity.  We welcome former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s release from a prison hospital today, and we wish her a speedy recovery as she seeks the appropriate medical treatment that she has long needed and sought.

We continue to urge an end to violence by all sides and a focus on peaceful, democratic dialogue, working pursuant to Ukraine’s constitution and through its institutions of government.  Going forward, we will work with our allies, with Russia, and with appropriate European and international organizations to support a strong, prosperous, unified, and democratic Ukraine. Going forward, the Ukrainian people should know that the United States deeply values our long-standing ties with Ukraine and will support them as they pursue a path of democracy and economic development.

The statement is “deliberately cautious and even-handed,” said Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s too much uncertainty, about Yanukovych’s situation, about the Russian reaction, to take anything for granted.… We don’t know where the power lies.”

U.S. government proxies, however, such as the State Department-funded advocacy group Freedom House, have been much more outspoken in their reactions to recent events, with clearly drawn lines separating the “good guys” in Ukraine from the “bad guys.”

“The citizens of Ukraine are fighting a gruesome battle for their rights, standing up to armed riot police and a corrupt regime,” said Freedom House last Thursday. “The peaceful protest that followed President Viktor Yanukovich going back on his promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union has since deteriorated into deadly clashes between thousands of Ukrainian citizens and law enforcement officials.”

What Freedom House – and its principle sponsor, the U.S. government – fail to acknowledge is that despite this rosey picture of righteous freedom fighters standing up against tyrannical and corrupt forces, the reality is of course far more complicated. Despite his flaws, Yanukovych was legitimately elected in 2010, in an election that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said “met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004.”

“The process was transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse political views,” said the OSCE.

Now that the Yanukovych government has been toppled, it is far from clear what precisely will come to replace it, but some analysts think that extreme far-right parties such as Svoboda may come out on top. Then of course, there is the question of whether the country will continue to be torn apart along regional and ideological lines.

Regardless of the outcome, the question should be asked, what exactly gives the U.S. the right to interfere in the internal affairs of a country like Ukraine? Even if Ukrainian security forces overreacted to the Euromaidan protests early on, does the U.S. somehow have legitimacy or moral authority on these matters?

It should be remembered that when American citizens angered by income inequality and corruption took to the streets and occupied downtown parks in U.S. cities in 2011 as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, they were treated in a similar fashion by U.S. police. Interestingly, though, President Obama didn’t use his bully pulpit at the time to tell American cops to stand down, instead remaining silent as police used brute force to quell the demonstrations across the country.

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