Since the night of November 21, 2013 an extraordinary sequence of events has unfolded propelling a relatively little-known eastern European country to the center of the world stage. On that night the Euromaidan Movement began in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezelezhnosti Square. Since then Ukraine has become the focus of what is arguably the most significant post- Cold-War crisis.
Seduced by disinformation: Leftists turning right
A perplexing dimension of the unfolding political drama has been how some in the west have been seduced by Kremlin-directed propaganda and disinformation. The results of this are progressives championing the cause of a imperial enterprise spearheaded by crooks, thieves, scammers, mercenaries, and neo-Nazis (see Dunces on the Don: A Russian farce) directed by the expansionist, intolerant, anti-democratic, authoritarian, censorious, anti-gay, and utterly capitalist regime of Vladimir Putin (see Ukrainian aspirations: Material, moral, and spiritual dignity).
Equally disturbingly these leftists have consequently decried the insurrectionist Euromaidan Movement, with its demands for genuine democracy, a civil society, and an end to corruption and kleptocracy. It’s as if all the elements of a progressive political philosophy had gone through the looking glass and come out in reverse. How is it possible that leftists have veered so far to the right? [Note: it’s very important to underscore that there are many western progressives who have clearly understood the political dynamics of the unfolding situation in Ukraine. For example, see articles by Julia Ioffe in the New Republic, or those by Anne Applebaum who writes for Slate and the Washington Post, for an illustration of perceptive, informed, critical writing on Ukraine.]
In her article My Maidan Ukrainian-Canadian writer Myrna Kostash wrote:
“I see a pattern…that has been repeated as Canadian progressives have weighed in on the meaning of Euromaidan, winter 2013-2014. The same skepticism about the spontaneity of such courageous self-organization, the same implication of dark European- or U.S.-based conspiracies behind it, the same solicitude for Russian imperial interests, the same uncritical transmission of anti-Ukrainian propaganda, the same lack of solidarity with the desire and will of masses of people from all parts of Ukraine for a life of material, moral and spiritual dignity.”
I concluded my article Crisis in Ukraine: Disinformation and useful idiots, by saying:
“There’s no pleasure or honour in being a stooge of American propaganda, however being duped by Russian propaganda is no better. Manipulation is manipulation, no matter who the manipulator is. Useful idiots are held in contempt and cynically exploited by their masters. They believe you can be fooled all of the time. Critical thinking, independent corroboration, fact checking, confirmation of sources, trusted and reliable sources, determining plausibility, thorough background information, first-hand experience, evidence-based reasoning all are techniques to fight back.”
[A Historical Note: The term “useful idiots” (Russian: polezniye duraki; French: idiots utiles) has, for at least the last 70 years, been applied to Soviet sympathizers ready to unquestioningly parrot the communist party line, and hence of utility to the Bolshevik cause. The origin of the expression has often been attributed to Lenin, but it seems this reference is apocryphal.]
There are, of course, always conspiracy theorists ready to seize on any intrigue, but what has been puzzling is why some more serious political commentators have been bamboozled by propaganda as transparently fictitious, bereft of corroboration, factually threadbare, and utterly improbable as that spun out by Kremlin propaganda channels like Russia Today. [For a lengthy discussion of Kremlin-funded disinformation see Crisis in Ukraine: Disinformation and useful idiots and for an overview of Kremlin control of the media see Faces of War and peace on Moscow streets]. How could such nonsense gain political traction?
I know members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community who frankly believe that there is racism involved. I’m not of that opinion and have instead focused on the reflexive anti-Americanism that predisposes some leftists to swallow Russian disinformation and propaganda hook line and sinker in the erroneous belief that the enemies of your enemies must be your friends.
Seduced by simplicity: Anti-imperialism or Anti-Americanism?
A perceptive analysis of this phenomenon has recently been provided by the University of Toronto’s Stephen Velychenko in The Strange Case of Foreign Pro Russian Radical Leftists in which he observes:
“Alongside issues such as Russophilism, material interest and simple ignorance, another explanation for this double standard is that such radical leftists analyze events in terms of anti-Americanism rather than anti-imperialism. This attitude makes them as amenable to Russian anti Ukrainian pronouncements, both official governmental and non-governmental, after 1991 as they were before 1991. Anti Americanism is a set of beliefs that classifies imperialism as a singular specific American rather than global phenomenon and discounts or ignores competition between imperialists and intra capitalist rivalries.”
Velychenko hits the nail on the head. It is critical to understand that imperialism is not a phenomenon confined to the United States. This equation of imperialism as an American singularity blinds such commentators to Vladimir Putin’s new version of Russian imperialism (a continuation of the Czarist and Soviet imperial traditions) as it is being prosecuted in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, Trasnistria, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine, in the service of the Novorossia (New Russia) political vision and Eurasian Union economic one — Soviet Union 2.0 as it were — a fully-capitalist iteration of the earlier communist one. We can see a similar Chinese imperialism being prosecuted with extreme brutality against Tibetans and the Uighers of Xinjiang, and in China’s expansionist encroachment into Philippine, Vietnamese, and Taiwanese territorial waters in the South China Sea.
“Such a perspective leads leftists to see the world as a stage for a duel between a capitalist USA and NATO on one side, and capitalist Russia on the other. On this manichaen stage, Ukraine must remain Russian so the US and NATO do not get stronger. Middle or working class Ukrainians who see benefit in the EU, the massive support for the Maidan and the prospect of support from Ukrainian leftists in the fight against neo liberal capitalism within the EU, have no place on this stage. According to this script, those who support EU membership for Ukraine are dupes in a fascist plot, run by the USA and NATO and its new puppet Kyiv “junta” government. Ukrainian national ambitions and independence are synonymous with what these leftists and Russian rulers call fascism.”
This is precisely the perspective I have addressed in articles such as Drinking the Kool-Aid: Intoxicated on delusion, and Ideology versus Reason: How abandoning evidence leads to absurdity, and Useful Idiots: Addled by Anti-Americanism.
An overly simplistic analysis also misses the complexity of American politics, often a tense battleground between opposing political visions. Charles and David Koch feverishly champion fossil fuels and deny climate change as assiduously as John Kerry, Al Gore, James Hansen, and Bill McKibben work to move public policy in the opposite direction (N.B. Barak Obama’s eventual decision on the Keystone XL pipeline proposal will be an important barometer of which way the scales are tipping on this issue in the USA). The immense power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby has repeatedly frustrated even the mildest attempts by Obama to introduce gun controls (see The death of innocents: Murder and guns in the U.S.A.). The ultra-conservative Tea Party movement in the USA has repeatedly brought the USA to the brink of financial default and government paralysis in its vitriolic opposition to the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., “Obamacare”). These are not minor variances in governance philosophy, but major fault lines exposing fundamental political differences.
Furthermore, this confounding of anti-imperialism with anti-Americanism results in an inability to recognize Russian, Chinese, or other national brands of imperialism when they present themselves. The enemies of my enemies are my friends, right?
Ambidextrous Imperialism: Not left or right, but right or wrong
It’s important to underscore, that this recognition in no way absolves the United States of its shameful history of unwarranted manipulations in the affairs of other states. The CIA engineered coup in Iran in 1953; the CIA supported overthrow of the presidency of Salvador Allende in 1973 in Chile; the Vietnam War from the late 1950’s to 1975; the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the unending economic blockade of Cuba; the protracted campaign to destabilize the Sandinista government in Nicaragua; the 1983 invasion of Granada; the Dubya Bush 2003 invasion of Iraq on the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) pretext…all these are part of a lengthy catalogue. This is an imperial legacy that the USA bears responsibility for.
That said, Russia has an equally odious colonial and imperialist history which in recent times includes the annexations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1940 under the aegis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany; crushing the Hungarian Revolution in 1956; the annihilation of the Prague Spring’s “socialism with a human face” by the armies of the Warsaw pact in 1968; the grueling and brutal invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989); the scorched-earth repression of the independence movement in Chechnya (1994-2009); the 2008 war against Georgia with the consequent annexations of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia; and the current annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine — an equally lengthy, brutal and Machiavellian imperial legacy.
One does not excuse or remit the other. Both are equally heinous. Both display contempt for the sovereignty and self-determination of the nations involved. They are grounded in a nineteenth-century colonial, imperial mindset that assumes that American, or Russian, or Chinese (see above) interests trump those of other nations; that might simply makes right, international law be damned.
Those who condemn imperialist conduct (national or corporate) need to resolutely stand in opposition to it, wherever it surfaces and by whomever it is prosecuted. To critically evaluate evidence and succumb neither to war mongering nor to propaganda; to eschew over-simplification and sloganeering. Otherwise we become tools of the very forces we seek to expose and oppose.
Similarly, principled opposition to kleptocracy, corruption, inequality, and injustice and a desire for a democratic, egalitarian, meritocratic, and equitable civil society need to be recognized and supported, wherever they surface and by whomever they are articulated.
Evidence, fact, reason, logic, and critical thinking are as important in formulating sound political philosophy and public policy as they are in developing good science. If we replace them with unsupported assertions driven by preconceptions we perform no worthwhile service whatsoever. Indeed, as the useful idiots of Vladimir Putin illustrate, rather the opposite. Rather than clear progressive voices we become an addled chorus in service of all that is profoundly regressive.
This is Part IX of a series on the political situation in Ukraine. Part VIII is Dunces on the Don: A Russian farce. Part X is Mendacious nonsense: Denialism, conspiracy theory, and manipulation.
Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.