At the time of writing, Western media outlets continue to push hard on the “imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine” narrative, claiming that this has happened before and citing the alleged pressure that Moscow is now purportedly applying on Ukraine. How seriously should we take all of this?
Western media resolutely decline to apply the lesson that for every action there is a reaction. Why did Moscow arrange military exercises on Russia’s own territory, close to Ukraine? Was it because NATO powers, in close collaboration with Ukraine, have provocatively arranged military exercises close to the Russian border and in the Black Sea, year after year after year? Not only in Ukraine, but all along Russian borders with countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. NATO has even placed advanced nuclear “defensive” weaponry throughout Europe, which at any time could become offensive. And what about the Ukrainian troops that since 2014 have continued to pose actual, existential military threats to the survival of the pro-autonomous and largely Russophile republics of Luhansk and Donetsk? All the while Kyiv has continued to defer to neo-fascist and reactionary opposition groups against any attempt, as in the case of former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s defeated legislative attempt in 2016 to implement the Minsk agreements, to which Ukraine committed itself through the Normandy Format and Trilateral Accord agreements.
Not that Western mainstream media show much appetite for accurate contextualization (or contextualization at all) of this contentious history, any more than they care to remember the full circumstances of the 2014 change of regime in Kyiv. This was a coup d’etat staged on the streets of Maidan—with active and ecstatic US and NATO encouragement—against a democratically elected government, only a few months prior to scheduled elections. Its principal muscle was provided by neo-Nazi movements. Its principal (false) pretext was that then President Viktor Yanukovych was a “pro-Russian” apparatchik of Vladimir Putin, instructed by Moscow to turn away from Ukraine’s march towards further IMF debt-funded subordination to the European Union.
As I recounted in my book Western Mainstream Media and the Ukraine Crisis, Yanukovych, whatever his faults, was savvy enough to smell out the neoliberal strings attached to the EU deal and weigh them against a much better and less conditional Russian offer. Did he overreact to the Maidan protests? Possibly, but equally atrocious was the evidence that rebels fired on and killed protestors in an effort to falsely incriminate the legitimate regime. The succeeding coup government had to ban the country’s largest political party, Party of the Regions, to acquire even the merest hint of legitimacy.
Further, Western mainstream media since 2014 constantly parrot the fake meme of Russia’s “seizure” of Crimea. Russia was already legitimately and militarily present in Crimea in line with its internationally recognized lease of its important Black Sea port of Sebastopol. The pro-Russian majority of the population of Crimea was terrified by the Russophobic threats emanating from Kyiv and, following referenda in support of secession from Ukraine and in support for an appeal to Moscow for annexation, voted to rejoin Russia. Whatever the problems of holding elections in a period of crisis might have been, they were a good deal more convincing than the absence of elections in the case of Western support for the secession of Kosovo from Serbia. Then and now, polls consistently show that the Crimean majority are mostly content with this outcome.
The main reasons why, even if Russia withdraws its forces from its own border with Ukraine—and even though all parties agree that full membership to NATO will not be extended to Ukraine any time in the immediate future—NATO will sustain its dangerous passive-aggressive “victim” posturing, are threefold. First, NATO salivates for the dismemberment of Russia so as to achieve unregulated access to Russian wealth, and thus recreate the 1990s “Yeltsin scenario” where the West essentially told Russian President Boris Yeltsin what he had to do, and even ensured his reelection in 1996.
Second, the US arms and “defence” industry and its craven lobbyists, who sit atop of the system of supposed Western “democracy” (I call it the “Great Incubus,” and Ray McGovern refers to it as the MICIMATT, or Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Academe-Think Tank complex) salivates for the profits that they earn whenever given the opportunity to stoke fear and hatred. As Andrew Cockburn documents in his recent book The Spoils of War, Lockheed Martin was central to lobbying efforts in the mid-1990s to secure Congressional approval for the eastward expansion of NATO. Any time a war ends in one place (as in, apparently and to a limited extent, Syria and Afghanistan) there it is, the Great Incubus, stirring the pot once more to “protect” itself against any diminution in the military budget. The US did not even bother to cut the budget after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, but instead increased it by $24 billion to $715 billion for fiscal 2022. US President Joe Biden has said he will propose a budget of $770 billion for fiscal 2023 (which at eight percent, admittedly, is in line with the current level of US inflation).
Third, NATO may be regarded as a US-dominated Trojan Horse that lacks popular legitimacy, since the main reason for its existence disappeared with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has ever since seized on one conflict after another as justification for mainly illegal interventions, invasions, and occupations of sovereign countries. Apart from the continued existence of its own bloated bureaucracy the main motive is that NATO consumes the staggering funds that US and European taxpayers pay to (principally) US weapons manufacturers. The main motive for NATO expansion is that new members must increase their military expenditures and, therefore, the release of their assets to US weapons manufacturers. This was the principal explanation for President Donald Trump’s tetchy insistence that NATO’s European members increase the amount of their annual military expenditures.
The part played in the current crisis by former comedian and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is reprehensible. In part to shore up his steeply declining popularity, Zelensky has pestered NATO with evidence of Ukraine’s earnest deserving of full membership, even though NATO has repeatedly said that this would happen only in the longer term (when Ukraine ensures the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, and human rights). German Chancellor Olaf Scholz earlier this month assured Putin that Ukraine’s membership of NATO was not even “on the agenda.” Zelensky has in effect put his country and its citizens in the line of fire as a site for World War Three and then, realizing that this stratagem was working only too well, panicked, and begged Washington to turn down its foolishly theatrical war propaganda games.
Zelensky is another Yeltsin, an extreme neoliberal whose efforts to deregulate controls over the sale of land in Ukraine—which, as Olga Baysha argues in her recent book Democracy, Populism and Neoliberalism in Ukraine, will principally benefit global agricultural conglomerates in the longer term—have turned many of his people against him. His NATO obsession reflects the delusions that he and his class entertain about Europe and the West. NATO is the route towards a paradise that represents everything that Russia—in the light of their own prejudices, fantasies, and stereotypes—is not, or rather, that the Soviet Union was not, since Zelensky appears unable to differentiate modern Russia and the Soviet Union.
The Ukraine crisis could easily be resolved if all parties returned to the Minsk agreements. This is obvious to everyone except for Ukraine, which is a signatory to Minsk. Following the 2016 legislative efforts of oligarch President Petro Poroshenko, most understand that should Kyiv do anything that might decentralize power away from the capital and in favour of the self-declared ‘people’s republics’ of the Donbas, that it must deal with threats of extreme violence from the electorally unpopular but nonetheless very influential neo-Nazis in the shape of the Azov Battalion and others like it (some now integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard). Further, if implemented, some fear that Minsk would consolidate and formalize Russian influence in the Donbas so that Russia would have a voice in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) and in the future of Ukraine. Kyiv is also resistant to the idea of having local elections in the Donbas before it is able to control its international border with Russia. It worries that the republics will want more autonomy than the other provinces of Ukraine (for example, over their own police and judiciaries). Ukraine still hopes that Russia may be persuaded or coerced into relinquishing Crimea, whereas Minsk would likely consolidate Crimea’s annexation by Russia.
The United States, meanwhile, may say it supports Minsk, but its truer preference is a maintenance of the present high state of tension. This confirms that the US is rather more concerned, through NATO and the European Union, to force Germany to resist Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. So long as the US succeeds in holding back Nord Stream 2—a stunning violation of the globalization rhetoric to which the world has been subjected by Washington since Reagan—the more scope the Biden administration will have for forcing its liquefied natural gas exports on Europe, even as, ironically, this hugely inflates energy prices, enhances the Russian economy and impoverishes Europe. Ukraine will benefit from gas pipeline fees ($1.5 billion a year) for just a little longer. But humanitarian goals are merely the West’s pretext for interventions in the sovereign affairs of other nations, rarely the main or even any kind of real motivation.
Washington wants only one kind of development in Ukraine: a neoliberal paradise that will allow Western capital complete freedom to do what it wants with Ukrainian land and resources. This will greatly intensify social inequality and have very negative consequences for most of the Ukrainian population.
Oliver Boyd-Barrett is Professor Emeritus of Bowling Green State University, Ohio. He has published widely on issues to do with international journalism and propaganda. His most recent book, published by Routledge, is Conflict Propaganda in Syria: Narrative Battles (2022).