Democracy Lab

Yes, There Are Bad Guys in the Ukrainian Government

It's time for a frank conversation about some of the unsavory characters in Kiev.

Vladimir Putin insists Russia invaded Crimea to protect the ethnic Russians who live in that southern Ukrainian territory. Ukraine, the Russian president contends, has come under the control of "neo-Nazis and Nazis and anti-Semites," and the country's Russian population is under threat. It is easy to dismiss Putin's rhetoric -- he is, after all, a serial fibber and fabricator who conflates gays and pedophiles and heads a state where Cossacks gas and whip punk rockers in broad daylight. But while Western governments and pundits are correct to dismiss Putin's pretenses for invading Ukraine, they are wrong to presume his Ukrainian opponents are necessarily in the right. The uncomfortable truth is that a sizeable portion of Kiev's current government -- and the protesters who brought it to power -- are, indeed, fascists. If Western governments hope to steer Ukraine clear from the most unsavory characters in Moscow and Kiev, they will need to wage a two-pronged diplomatic offensive: against Putin's propaganda and, at the same time, against Ukraine's resurgent far-right.

Ukraine is home to Svoboda, arguably Europe's most influential far-right movement today. (In the photo above, Svoboda activists seize a Ministry of Agriculture building during Kiev's Euromaidan protests in January.) Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok is on record complaining that his country is controlled by a "Muscovite-Jewish mafia," while his deputy derided the Ukrainian-born film star Mila Kunis as a "dirty Jewess." In Svoboda's eyes, gays are perverts and black people unfit to represent the nation at Eurovision, lest viewers come away thinking Ukraine is somewhere besides Uganda.

Svoboda began life in the mid-90s as the Social-National Party (a name deliberately redolent of the National Socialist Party, better known as Nazis), with its logo the fascist Wolfsangel. In 2004, the party gave itself an unobjectionable new name (Svoboda means "Freedom") and canned the Nazi imagery, and in the subsequent decade has seen its star swiftly rise.

Today, Svoboda holds a larger chunk of its nation's ministries (nearly a quarter, including the prized defense portfolio) than any other far-right party on the continent. Ukraine's deputy prime minister represents Svoboda (the smaller, even more extreme "Right Sector" coalition fills the deputy National Security Council chair), as does the prosecutor general and the deputy chair of parliament -- where the party is the fourth-largest. And Svoboda's fresh faces are scarcely different from the old: one of its freshmen members of parliament is the founder of the "Joseph Goebbels Political Research Centre" and has hailed the Holocaust as a "bright period" in human history.

When the Ukraine crisis first broke in November, however, Western officialdom found itself in the dark. The end of the Cold War has occasioned a sharp drop in governmental interest in the Soviet successor states, and as Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar and the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, recently observed, Team America is batting with a considerably "shorter bench."

Nowhere has this dearth of nuance been more apparent than in the Ukraine crisis. In December, shortly after protests began against Ukraine's pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, U.S. Senator John McCain shared a platform and an embrace with Svoboda chief Tyahnybok at a mass rally in Kiev, assuring demonstrators, "The free world is with you; America is with you." In February of this year, France and Germany oversaw a peace deal between Tyahnybok, two other opposition leaders, and Yanukovych (though soon after, protests forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia). And in early March, the U.S. State Department published a debunking of Putin's "False Claims About Ukraine," assuring Americans that Ukraine's far-right "are not represented" in parliament.

Western commentators have done little better. When Liz Wahl, an anchor for the Kremlin-funded TV network RT America, quit on-air on March 5, she was feted for her bravery. Granted an extended interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, she explained her decision by recounting her disgust at the network "painting the opposition over there in the Ukraine as having neo-Nazi elements. I think that's very dangerous."

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the March 16 referendum on Crimea's annexation to Russia, Svoboda was busier than ever. One of its chief demands -- that all government business be done in Ukrainian -- was passed into law, instantaneously marginalizing the one-third of Ukraine's citizens (and 60 percent of Crimeans) who speak Russian. Then for good measure, the party launched a push to repeal a law against "excusing the crimes of fascism."

So is Ukraine poised for a Nazi putsch? The good news is that opinion polls show Tyahnybok at just 5 percent approval, far behind Vitali Klitschko (the hulking, pro-Western former boxing champion) and the center-right ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In fact, it was the same French- and German-backed peace deal that gave Svoboda its disproportionate share of the resulting government's ministries.

Western governments, then, are at least partially complicit in facilitating Svoboda's rise. In the short-term, they will have to be more discerning about which members of the Ukrainian leadership they engage, backing only those who genuinely hoist the flag of human rights rather than ethnic supremacy. In the medium- and long-term, those same governments, universities, and think tanks will have to get serious about re-investing in the study of Russia and its former domains.

Vladimir Putin's invasion of Crimea must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Its justification rings just as hollow as it did four years ago when Russia de facto annexed the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Sound policy, however, can only be based on sound analysis of the players involved. That requires conceding the point -- even when made by the Kremlin -- that more than a few of the protesters who toppled Yanukovych, and of the new leaders in Kiev, are fascists.

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What Would Ike Do?

Why President Obama doesn't understand Eisenhower's lessons of war, pushback, and how to deal with thuggish regimes.

In the past several weeks, following tidal waves of criticism directed at the Obama administration's handling of the Ukraine crisis, supporters have risen up to defend the president, including pieces by James Traub in Foreign Policy and Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post. There is a good deal to be said for their point of view; Putin's cold power politics is driving him, not Obama's past errors, and the administration has taken steps not unlike those of the Bush administration in the 2008 Georgia crisis. But both Traub and Zakaria go further, comparing the president's overall approach approvingly to that of President Dwight Eisenhower. There are similarities, but the differences are significant. Nonetheless, Traub and Zakaria do a service by sketching a direction this administration could take in "Ike's footsteps," as the administration must react further to Putin's running over the objections of the United States, Europe, and almost the entire U.N. Security Council in his goal to annex Crimea.

What links the two administrations, almost 60 years apart, is a reluctance to get bogged down in significant ground wars for uncertain ends. Eisenhower refused to get involved in any of our European allies' colonialist adventures, be it Indochina, Suez, or Algeria. Wisely, given the correlation of forces, despite much criticism he did not aid the Hungarians in 1956 or the East Berliners in 1953. Likewise, we can see in this President Obama's reluctance to continue indefinitely armed nation-building in Iraq or Afghanistan, or to put boots on the ground in Syria. But Zakaria and Traub misconstrue Eisenhower's extraordinary power politics activism, albeit without deployment of large-scale American ground troops to new hotspots in Eurasia or Latin America. Eisenhower ended the Korean War while ensuring South Korea remained independent, both by committing that U.S. forces would remain on the peninsula and by sticking to a line of tough rhetoric -- including references to possible use of nuclear weapons. His policy of threatening nuclear strikes, naval deployments, and the delivery of advanced weapons to the Nationalist Chinese between 1954 and 1958 led to the military defeat of Beijing in the Quemoy and Matsu islands. Eisenhower put combat troops ashore in Beirut in 1958, sent advisors to South Vietnam, and used the CIA and surrogates against unfriendly regimes in Iran, Guatemala, and Cuba. While "ending wars" (not starting new ones) was important to Eisenhower, he did not give the impression, as we have seen at times with the current administration, that this was his only goal.

Understanding the rationale for Eisenhower's actions requires a glance back at Cold War strategy. The original formulation by State Department official George Kennan was focused on containment and deterrence. But the formal U.S. government plan for the Cold War, NSC-68, was more ambiguous, adopting Kennan's strategy but also citing the possibility of offensive military action and rollback. The latter was applied with disastrous consequences when the United States marched into North Korea in the fall of 1950 after liberating South Korea, provoking Chinese intervention, a U.S. retreat from the North, and 31 more months of war. Nevertheless, rollback reemerged as the foreign policy doctrine of the 1952 Eisenhower campaign, particularly associated with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

But it wasn't the case with his boss, President Eisenhower, who became the greatest of Kennan's pupils. Eisenhower did not seek to challenge territory in Soviet hands, including Berlin or Hungary, but was relentless in pushing back Communist forays or even the rise of pro-Communist forces on the U.S. side of the line. While not completely eschewing "boots on the ground" (e.g., Lebanon) Eisenhower generally worked with "economy of force" action through surrogates and allies, backed by CIA covert ops, arms deliveries, advisory teams, and nuclear threats. While some of his push-backs ultimately failed in Cuba and Vietnam, and others in Iran and Guatemala were morally questionable, the overall effect of his policy was a worldwide alliance system whose member states -- and their foes -- knew that Washington had their back.

In the Obama administration, while some specific foreign-policy decisions can be justified as ending or avoiding quagmires, the overall effect has been to place that alliance system in question.

This is thus a lesson the Obama administration still is learning. Some of its assessments on the Ukraine crisis seem based on a "those on the wrong side of history will lose in the end" attitude. Traub attributes the same thought to Eisenhower: As he writes, "[President Eisenhower] felt confident that, in the end, the Soviets would not dance on the grave of the West." Perhaps, but Ike didn't just sit back and await this happy state. Eisenhower knew a Soviet Union that was gaining ground internationally would undermine the West's alliance system. Likewise today, our system cannot simply be assumed to eventually triumph on automatic pilot -- regardless of the challenges. But that raises the big question: What actually is the system which the administration seeks to defend? Clearly, it is not just territories and allies. Indeed, since the 1990s, it is some notion of universal ideals that all the countries of the world (even Russia, China, Iran, and other Middle Eastern states) more or less accept: rule of law, collective security, peaceful settlement of disputes, and protection of civilian populations.

But it is exactly those ideals that Russia is flaunting in Ukraine and in Syria (along with its ally, Iran).

Those evincing an understanding for Putin argue that he is acting out of realpolitik self-interest. But the question is: What to do about it? Eisenhower's answer, judging from his record, would have been to counter every sortie, perhaps not with a major military campaign, but to do so decisively. The Obama administration doesn't have a clear answer -- not in past conflicts, and not in Ukraine. And thus we have a problem with the Eisenhower analogy.

If we assume Putin is acting out of realpolitik, then Washington must deal with him in that realm, not simply hope that history will eventually punish 19th-century behavior with visa restrictions, some sanctions, international meeting boycotts, and trade talk cancellations. We cannot thus be comforted by Traub's assessment that "the West can afford to be steady and patient, secure in the knowledge that the future lies with the liberal democracies."

Rather, we need to give Putin a choice. If he does not deescalate, the Obama administration should respond not with more demerits on his 21st-century club membership, but with the same understanding of 19th-century hard power. Washington should forego the institutional trappings -- from NATO partnership to missile defense talks -- that assume Russia is a collective security partner. It must start liberating Europe from the teat of Russia's gas oligarchy, deploy limited U.S. "tripwire" ground troop detachments of a few thousand personnel -- as in Berlin in the Cold War and later in Kuwait -- on NATO's eastern borders, and provide sufficient weapons deliveries, advisory efforts, and proxy support to tie Putin and his friends down in Syria until they agree to a compromise that is not a game-changing victory in a region critical to U.S. interests. Now that is a foreign policy Eisenhower could understand.

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