Ukraine Part One
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 2 2022
Apparently the invasion of Ukraine is a defensive measure. It beggars belief to even contemplate Ukraine as a genocidal terrorist state and Russia as a liberal human rights defender.
Many years ago, I set out to write a short poem about my father on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. It developed into a longer meditation on the malignant forces of ideologies and systems of terror that crush common people and sweep them away. The great tides of history, of isms and empires, buffet little people, maim them, kill them, uproot them and inflict damage that lasts for years or generations. I noted that all over the globe vicious wars, disintegrating nations and dying empires still today produce a flotsam of refugees. Great men discount little people. On the TV, I see ordinary Ukrainians in drab winter clothes calmly queuing at the supermarket. Most are masked against Covid but they wave at the camera. What are these people being punished for?
Wise Men Say
It is difficult fully to comprehend what is happening in Ukraine, why it is happening, why it is happening now. I turn to the wise commentators in newspapers and magazines. I look for enlightenment from Sri Lanka’s Leading Public Intellectual, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka.
Let us have a closer look at that “democratically-elected President”. I am reading a fascinating book by Oliver Bullough called Moneyland: Why Thieves And Crooks Now Rule The World And How To Take It Back. Bullough visited Sukholuchya, in the heart of a forest outside Kyiv, the lair of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. The palace was open to the public after the revolution. “Ukraine is perhaps the only country on Earth that, after being looted for years by a greed-drunk thug would put the fruits of his and his cronies’ execrable taste on display as immersive conceptual art: objets trouvés that just happened to have been found in the president’s garage.”
“It was a temple of tastelessness, a cathedral of kitsch, the epitome of excess.” A Ukrainian citizen had written his opinion: “How much can one man need? Horror. I feel nauseous.” Apparently, Yanukovich needed to spend extended periods on the toilet. He also liked watching television. “While Ukraine’s citizens died early, and worked hard for subsistence wages, while the country’s roads rotted and its officials stole, the president had been preoccupied with ensuring his constipation didn’t impede his enjoyment of his favourite television programmes.”
Bullough writes, “Ukrainians’ wealth had been stagnant for years, he had accumulated a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars, as had his closest friends. He had more money than he could ever have needed, more treasures.”
There is no doubt about the corruption of this democratically elected president. He left plenty of evidence behind. “In their haste to leave, the president’s aides had dumped 200 folders’-worth of financial records into the harbour, hoping they’d sink. But they didn’t. Protesters fished the papers out and dried them in a sauna. They provided a glimpse into the heart of the financial engineering that had allowed Yanukovich to fleece the country.”
Is it any surprise that Ukrainians preferred to join the EU rather than joining the “Eurasian Economic Union”, a Soviet-style alliance of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan with a fraction of the influence of the EU? Many Ukrainians see EU membership as a means of securing their independence, not undermining it. Jayatilleka normally likes revolutions and has written about “ethical violence.” He does not seem to be a pacifist, categorically opposed to bloodshed. Many Ukrainians saw the ousted Yanukovich as corrupt and autocratic and as a stooge of Russia. Like his mentor in Moscow, Yanukovich used extreme methods to deal with protests. Few have mourned his departure to comfy exile in his beloved Russia.
I note that part of Putin’s stated mission is the “denazification” of Ukraine. Jayatilleka supports this view. The number of hate-motivated incidents in Ukraine has indeed grown steadily. Radical far-right groups have existed in Ukraine since the 1920s and it is true that they do now represent a sophisticated and politically influential element of society. The election of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in April 2019 by a landslide of over 73% on an anti-corruption and rule of law platform raised hopes that the government would take a firmer stance on this issue. Progress has been achieved since Zelenskyy took office. The historian Timothy Snyder has pointed out that Russian speakers have more freedom in Ukraine than they have in Russia. Russian aggression has given social legitimacy to far-right groups and the invasion is likely to give them further strength, undoing the progress achieved by Zelenskyy.
Are those Ukrainian citizens in the supermarket aware that they are being denazified? That child killed in the shelling of an apartment block in Kharkiv – one less Nazi? By the way, the Ukrainian president is Jewish and a Russian speaker. On March 1, it was reported that Russian missiles hit the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial, a site marking a massacre of Jews in the city.
“To the world: what is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed. History repeating…,” Zelenskyy tweeted.
Prominent figures, known as Putin-Versteher (Putin-understanders), in Germany are being accused of bringing shame on the country and themselves by trying to explain or justify the Russian leader’s actions. The tabloid Bild described some politicians as “Putin Streichler” (Putin caressers) who ignored widespread evidence of Putin’s crimes.
Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian: “The Russian president is a rational man with his own analysis of recent European history.” According to Steele, “What happened this week is that Putin lost his patience, and his temper.” Lost his patience about what? Putin says he does not seek a revived Soviet Union (or a revived Tsarist empire, presumably?) He has said, “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.” He claims to want a buffer zone that would be “not anti-Russia”. He accuses the Ukrainian government of reneging on the Minsk agreement, which sought to give the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk substantial autonomy. According to Putin, Ukraine’s neutrality is compromised by the mission-creep of NATO and the deployment of offensive missiles close to Russia’s borders. Sixties memories of Russian missiles in Cuba and NATO missiles in Turkey. Ukraine cannot join NATO as long as Russia prevents her from securing her borders.
Speaking and writing back in 2015, John Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, strongly blamed the West for Putin’s actions regarding Ukraine. “US and European leaders blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border. Now that the consequences have been laid bare, it would be an even greater mistake to continue this misbegotten policy.” Mearsheimer does not seem to have changed his views. Just before the invasion, he said: “The only way this can be resolved is with the US and NATO saying that Ukraine will not become part of NATO. The Russians want it in writing. And I think this crisis will go away once this happens.” This rather ignores the wishes of the people of Ukraine. Perhaps he might be excused for this. I used to write a monthly column on Europe for the Sri Lankan business magazine Echelon. I also warned of the dangers of NATO and the EU moving to the East, including Ukraine. Things look rather different today and nothing can justify Putin’s brutal attack. The people of Ukraine do not want Putin and they do want the EU. Putin has given them a good reason for joining NATO
Jayatilleka seems to be saying Putin should not be blamed. “In short, the map does not show Russia moving towards the West but a hostile military alliance, NATO, moving towards Russia, even in periods where Russia had a policy and leaders soft on the West.” The Good Doctor seems to have a tin ear for mundane reality. What have Ukrainians done to bear the brunt of Putin’s anger? His article is about large amorphous entities like NATO and “The West”. The breakable, brittle individuals are invisible, beyond the Good Doctor’s capacity for human feeling. Everyone else is seeing those pensioners standing in front of tanks.
Matthew Ancona looks at that from a different perspective. “Yet his bid to annex Ukraine is a perfectly logical response to decades of Western appeasement and half-measures in response to his atrocities. Time after time, he has watched us choose inaction or feeble slaps on the Russian wrist. Why wouldn’t he think he could get away with it, yet again?”
According to Dr Jayatilleka, Russia’s actions have been “a defensive reaction to a trend that dates back to the turn of this century and Millennium”, a reaction to “a combination of reckless adventurism and hypocrisy on the part of the West.” He blames Hillary Clinton for the disastrous intervention in Libya. I have often agreed with him about Western hypocrisy. Can he explain why the people of Ukraine are being punished in 2022 for what Hillary Clinton did in 2011?
The Good Doctor states, “Sri Lanka, like China and very much for the same reasons, is allergic to separatism and irredentism and stands for state sovereignty.” I recall Dr Jayatilleka himself standing against separatism in the good old days. I do not think “allergic” is an apt word here. Allergies are caused by your immune system mistaking a harmless substance for something harmful. This is not a harmless substance. If separatism had succeeded in Sri Lanka, the result would have been more than a few coughs and sneezes. Separatism might be appropriate in some circumstances, for example, Timor-Leste or West Papua. No war is like any other. The Good Doctor calls this “context”.
Sovereignty in Context
Dr Jayatilleka won my respect and support in 2009 for his doughty defence of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. I offered my humble support to those like him, Godfrey and Amar Gunatilleke, Rajiva Wijesinha, Malinda Seneviratne, Gomin Dayasri, David Blacker and Michael Roberts who were resisting the pro-LTTE propaganda fostered by foreign NGOs and western governments. I joined with those who tried to counter false accusations of human rights violations peddled by the West. I joined with those who resisted the forces of separatism and condemned foreign intervention in the sovereign state that was and still is Sri Lanka.
Ukraine was a sovereign state. It has been invaded by a foreign state that has far greater military capability, including a nuclear arsenal. Is it not “reckless adventurism” to threaten to use nuclear weapons in this “context”? Putin justifies his aggression by mimicking the West’s justifications for humanitarian interventions like the one to protect Kosovo in 1999. I did not support that intervention but I do not think it was similar to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to pray it in aid now smacks of whataboutery, or what the BBC’s Mark Urban has called “Kosplay”. It beggars belief to even contemplate Ukraine as a genocidal terrorist state and Russia as a liberal human rights defender.
Kate Maltby writes: “Any readers who still buy Putin’s line that Ukraine is naturally ‘Russian’ territory might like to consider how some of his arguments – that it is a small state historically dominated by a large neighbour, in which some of the inhabitants still speak the language of its former occupier – might go down if Great Britain were to launch a land invasion of the Republic of Ireland.” Speaking as an Irish citizen, I can confidently say that it would not go down well with me or many of my compatriots.
For once, there are some interesting comments on Colombo Telegraph. Old Codger wrote, “What would Dr Jayatilleka say if India decided to annex our NE on the grounds that it and India were in the same empire before 1948, and is ethnically similar?” Dr Gnana Sankaralingam commented: “India should follow this example, by firstly taking over Kachchativu which was conceded on friendly basis and now Srilanka has betrayed that goodwill by toying with China. Next they should get Tamils to declare independence, and when Srilanka troops unleash violence, ask them to call for help from India. This will make Indian invasion and annexation legal. Unfortunately India does not have this cleverness or bravery to exert its authority, unlike Russia.” I do recall that some have considered Dr Jayatilleka to be an Indophile.
The Good Doctor gives a wrist slapping to those voicing concern about the annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk. His chief rebuttal tool is tu quoque or whataboutery. According to Dr Jayatilleka, we should remember that the breakup of Yugoslavia and the brutal war that followed was triggered by foolish people recognising the independence of Croatia and Slovenia. Are we wrong to recognise the independence of Ukraine? There were various reasons for the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The nation was something of an artificial botch-up not likely to last forever – like the USSR. Yugoslavia was a volatile mix of ethnic groups with cultural and religious differences stoked by memories of WWII atrocities committed by all sides. Among the nations who did not immediately recognise the two newcomers were Serbia and the USA.
Putin’s popularity has been sinking since the Russian economy collapsed in 2009. In 2012, Russians protested against his fraud-ridden reelection, making him insecure and paranoid about hostile efforts to topple him from power. If he thought the invasion would be a diversion he is wrong. The streets of Russian cities are full of protesters against the war. The ATMs are empty. The ruble has plummeted.
I search in vain in Dr Jayatilleka’s article for any trace of empathy for the people of Ukraine. What have they done to deserve Putin’s wrath and his bombs? In fact, in a rather short article he covers Yugoslavia, Syria, Sri Lanka, China, Iraq, Libya, Georgia, Russia and, of course, there is space for a cameo walk-on for his other hero Fidel Castro. There is not much about Ukraine itself in the article and there is certainly no explanation of what the country did to get itself attacked.
It is alleged that thermobaric weapons have been used in Okhtyrka. The blast wave can last for significantly longer than a conventional explosive and is capable of vaporising human bodies. They create a vacuum and suck the air out of the lungs. Cluster bombs were used in Kharkiv. There have been indiscriminate attacks on residential buildings. Children have been killed. The prosecutor of the international criminal court (ICC) in The Hague has announced that he will launch an investigation into possible war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
Many have come to the conclusion that paranoia has caused Putin to lose his mind. More next week on his reason and his reasons.