SocraticGadfly: Notes on Ukraine for Wilsonian interventionists and Putin-haters: history, Minsk Agreements, more

February 21, 2022

Notes on Ukraine for Wilsonian interventionists and Putin-haters: history, Minsk Agreements, more

(Note: I eventually broke out some of the bottom half of this piece, and added specific new material, for a second blog post focused on the Minsk Agreements. Note 2: I have now written up a massive longform piece about all the intellectual and plain old dishonesty of twosiders — and even beyond twosiders — over this war.)

Ukrainian President Zelensky spoke in Munich at the start of the week. Of course he did. Symbolism pitch! That said, re Munich, has he discussed how his own government remains at least partially co-opted by neo-Nazis, including militias like the Azov Force allegedly part of the state guard, but in reality having co-opted it? Of course he hasn't. Let's not forget, per what happened at the Maidan in 2014, arguably a coup, that the Azov Battalion isn't alone as a neo-Nazi type group. The Nation has more.

The easy place to start would be James Baker's pledge (not actually Poppy Bush's) to Mikhail Gorbachev not to expand NATO eastward, a formal pledge tied to German reunification, since West Germany was a NATO member, and besides, Helmut Kohl was ambiguous about staying in NATO. That said, Poppy himself never rejected Baker's "not one inch eastward," and all NATO foreign minsters in 1990 signed off. George Washington University has a long read about the full backstory. The backstory has been reported elsewhere besides that Guardian piece linked first, like at mainstream political blogs such as Washington Monthly.

Brookings, "shockingly," spins the hell out of this and cites Gorby in a legalistic fashion. It doesn't tell you that, even if taken at face value, things like stationing missiles in Poland has violated even the "no NATO military force moved eastward," let alone a broader "no NATO membership moved eastward." And, Gorby's successor, Putin, understood the broad meaning, per the Guardian. Besides, what Steven Pifer won't tell you at Brookings is that we the US as leader of NATO, with the Shrub Bush-crafted NATO missile defense agreements, violated even that narrow Gorby version. Beyond that, the fact that each new NATO member has armed forces that have participated in NATO exercises, etc., show just how much the likes of a Pifer are spinning. (The one and only good thing in this Beeb piece is showing the number of such troops in post-1997 NATO countries.)

Update: MUCH more on the NATO expansion issue, and the lies of the lies of Anne Applebaum, at Boston Review.

Update: Per Covert Action, Biden's Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Zelensky just last fall that the US still officially backed its joining NATO.

But, really, you need to go back to pre-1918.

Czarist Russia was a traditional empire, and, other than the late addition of the largely Turkic-language Central Asian lands being administered separately, it did not have separate ethnic or linguistically based administrative divisions. It DID have internal lower-level administrative divisions, but not ethnic or linguistic ones, unlike the USSR.

Indeed, a map of 1914 Czarist Russia at Wikipedia shows that except for Poland (a separate kingdom ruled by the czars before 1864 — it was really Russian internal territory after that, legal fictions aside) and Finland (a separate grand duchy), governates, the main administrative division below the imperial whole, did not follow ethnic or linguistic boundaries at all.

As for Ukraine? No such country existed at the time its current lands were acquired, in a series of wars and other actions, by Moscow. In general, the Crimea and chunks of eastern Ukraine, the "Wild Fields," were held by khanates that were fragmentary descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongol world, along with various free-roaming Cossack groups. Northwestern Ukraine was part of the Poland-Lithuania commonwealth. Bits of southern Ukraine belonged to the Ottomans. (And other parts of it, for at least part of this period, were the Khanate of the Crimea, which was often under some degree of Ottoman supervision.) And, as shown above, no such region called "Ukraine" existed afterward.

As far as ethnic and linguistic boundaries, or linguistic ones? Much of the northeastern portion of today's Ukraine was Russian-majority pre-1918. Russian emigration to "left-bank Ukraine" started in the 1800s. So, tankies and western imperialists alike can blame Commissar of Nationalities Uncle Joe Stalin for drawing bad borders. They can also blame Nikita Khrushchev for adding Crimea to Ukraine when he was premier. (That said, the Donbas area, with its two small separatist "republics" just recognized by Putin, has had a plurality, if not a majority, of Ukrainians by ethnicity, but a Russian majority by language. For example, Mariupol is split almost exactly even on ethnicity, though a large Russian majority by language. And, to riff on a Counterpunch piece, said recognition by Putin would seem to be an anti-confidence building measure.)

Don't believe me? See this map from Moon of Alabama about the expansion of Ukraine, including left-bank Ukraine.

Oh, read the post, too.

Here's a good map of language pluralities in Ukraine's regions, from Wikipedia's article about that:

In short, there hadn't been a Slav-led (or quasi) "Ukraine" as an independent country between the last days of the old Kievan Rus and the breakup of the USSR. And, even Kievan Rus only extended to a limited area of today's left-bank Ukraine, most of which at that time was non-Slavic, plus, until its breakup, even if they spoke Slavic first, they were still Vikings by descent. Where we're at, in one sense, is something halfway akin to Sarajevo 1914.

Re the neo-Nazis? Let's not forget that during the Russian Civil War, the then-area of Ukraine was a hotbed of Whites. World War II saw the Vlasov Army and other things, of course.

And, neo-Nazis aside, as this actually good story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette testifies, Ukraine, like Russia, has its share of corrupt oligarchs.

(Of course, a Hahhhvahd like Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon will blithely ignore the NATO meddling issue, and also pretend that ethnic or linguistic Russians in Ukraine don't exist, and not even look at larger framing issues, after claiming in a tweet that this was never about NATO. I quote-tweeted to say that I'd accept it never was SOLELY about NATO, but never about NATO period? Wrroonnnggg. 

And, try this analogy on:

You can thank me later.

You also won't be told that Ukraine was supposed to write a new constitution as part of the Minsk agreements, officially recognizing decentralization and Donbas rights. In reality, it's still running on its 1996 Constitution with early 2000s pre-Minsk amendments. Reuters notes "violations by both sides," which Julian-Varnon, Noah Smith etc won't tell you. Full text in English here.)

At the same time, contra Mark Ames, Yasha Levine, Max Blumenthal, Aaron Maté and the other allegedly outside the box stenos who actually come off in many ways Putin-stanners, Putin himself, before invading Crimea, did pledge not to violate Ukraine's territorial integrity. That one's in writing, too, albeit pre-Putin, of course. And, that pre-Putin? 1994 was also pre-NATO expansion, both in terms of expanded membership and definitely the narrower planned or actual troop presence. So, Putin, with that agreement theoretically being tied to larger Eastern European security issues, can argue the US and UK broke it first. Or, he can argue that the US has broken that Budapest Accord via economic bullying, also specifically verboten.

Steven Pifer either knows all this and is duplicitous, or he doesn't and he's an idiot above his pay grade.

Many people are quoting Biden's CIA head, William Burns, a former ambassador to Russia in the BushCo era, for what he told his boss, Condi Rice. I'm linking to a particular Substack:

Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.
I link there for two reasons. One, Nonzero calls out the Munich bullshit, started in this case by Zelensky himself quite willfully speaking there. Two, he links to Peter Beinart, who has more insight, including noting that Burns wasn't alone in his thought. And, in a petard moment, Beinart notes that ... Steven Pifer called Bush's statement that Ukraine would eventually join NATO "a real mistake." Bonus: A commenter at Nonzero notes that even Teapot Tommy Friedman says the US and NATO "aren't innocent bystanders."


Now history doesn't actually rhyme, whether as farce or tragedy. It's also neither cyclical nor determinist. So, because Ukraine has barely existed in the past doesn't mean it shouldn't exist today. But, it does mean that the issue of what Ukraine is, is not so cut and dried as most Americans may think.

At the third time, because history is often overdetermined, though not deterministic, Russia does have a history of meddling in Ukraine. Remember the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko? On the second hand, that happened after the first expansion of NATO, in 1999, and after its second expansion, earlier in 2004. That's not to "justify" Putin, as I don't in general. But, it IS to offer background.

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