03.09.14

How to Justify Russian Aggression

Sure, Viktor Yanukovych might have murdered protesters and Vladimir Putin might have invaded a sovereign country. But what about Hiroshima? And the genocide of Native Americans?

Readers of a certain vintage will likely recall the oleaginous, Brooklyn-accented Vladimir Pozner, an American citizen domiciled in Moscow who regularly popped up on television in the waning days of the Cold War, propagandizing on behalf of the Kremlin. Pozner was a rather impressive practitioner of whataboutism, the debate tactic demanding that questions about morally indefensible acts committed by your side be deflected with pettifogging discussion of unrelated sins committed by your opponent’s side. Soviet tanks lumbering through the streets of Prague? Yes, but what about the mistreatment of the Native Americans? East Germany’s reluctant citizens penned in by an imposing cement wall, ringed by trigger-happy border guards? A necessary “anti-fascist protection barrier,” sure, but...what about Hiroshima?

Even after the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship, Pozner found it difficult to shake the whataboutist habit and rote moral equivalence. “Yes, there are dissidents and maybe they consist of one percent or two percent of the population,” he told PBS in 1999. “But you've had your dissidents and you don't treat them all that well.”

And there he was last week on CNN, where he is now a contributor, at the start of what distressingly looks to be a new Cold War, discussing the results of Crimea’s referendum on splitting from Ukraine and rejoining Russia. And he sounded surprisingly reasonable. "I don't know whether President Putin will accept [the referendum results],” Pozner told Jake Tapper. “I don't know whether he'll say okay, let's take them into our federation, but if he does, let's not forget that Crimea is part of Ukraine.”

Pozner might have softened in his dotage, but there is a Spetsnaz division of Westerners ready to take the place he once occupied, arguing on Moscow’s behalf, employing the familiar whataboutism and blame shifting away from Vladimir Putin and towards the Obama administration.

Countless times this week I have been told that while the slobbering conspiracy junkies at RT, Russia’s English-language propaganda channel, provide a Putinist “perspective” on the goings-on in Ukraine...what about Fox News and MSNBC? When asked if she was performing Pozner-like duties for the post-Soviet Kremlin, Abby Martin, the RT host and 9/11 “truther” praised for objecting to her boss’s military adventure in Ukraine, recently said that the network merely provided “the Russian perspective in terms of foreign policy and a lot of things that you just don’t get anywhere else.”

“I think it’s a crucial one and I think it’s imperative that people see the [Russian state] perspective,” Martin averred, because what about the American media, which is “a circle jerk of fuckery that’s all funded by war.” And besides, she is perfectly comfortable working for a network “funded by public grants just like the Guardian [sic], just like the BBC.”

Martin’s politics are odious and frequently incoherent. And don’t mistake her anti-war pose, her overacted and over-enunciated lamentations for lost American freedom, for a broader anti-authoritarianism. (She believes Hugo Chavez, for instance, “cannot be dismissed as a tyrant because his voice of opposition, and others like him, serves a necessary divide to prevent global corporate enslavement and tyranny.”)

Indeed, prior to the invasion of Crimea, she failed to notice Russia’s previous brutal military interventions and ongoing brutal war on terror. She missed the rampant spying on its own citizens by the fearsome FSB. And those non-state sanctioned Russian journalists beaten, imprisoned, and murdered. The capricious and inhumane imprisoning of the feminist activists from Pussy Riot. The codifying of homophobia into law.

Let’s acknowledge that ideologues rarely exist without a certain degree of hypocrisy. But when Viktor Yanukovych's goon squads were unleashed on protesters in Kiev, wielding truncheons and firing bursts from Kalashnikovs, it was nevertheless disconcerting to see Ukrainian anti-government protesters--of varied political backgrounds and issuing varied demands--blithely dismissed by a significant number of Western journalists as fascists and neo-Nazis, if not stooges of the United States government. Indeed, it all sounded too much like the Soviet reaction to the 1956 Hungarian uprising, when Moscow claimed to have narrowly avoided “the threat of a fascist dictatorship” (which was, of course, precipitated by American interference) by the dispatch of a benevolent invading military force. 

And like 1956, one didn’t have to look to far to find--from both the fringe left and right, and many ironically self-identifying as anti-imperialist--those ready to “contextualize” the violence visited upon protesters and justifying the arrival of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil.

In an unsigned editorial, The Nation magazine complained that it would be "difficult to imagine any US administration accepting a decision by Mexico to join a military alliance with Russia.” One wants to ask The Nation when they threw their support behind policies like the United States’ economic (and, briefly, military) war against Cuba. Or when Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel started her ex post facto support for Ronald Reagan’s brief invasion of Grenada and his material support for the Contra rebels in their war against the Soviet-backed Sandinistas in Nicaragua, all justified as appropriate responses to Russian meddling in America’s backyard.

“Ukraine is central to Russian security of strategic importance,” The Nation argued, and the imposition of NATO bases in Ukraine “isn’t an irrational fear.” Paleoconservative Pat Buchanan echoed The Nation, writing that “Putin’s actions, though unsettling, are not irrational.”

A Guardian columnist worked off of a similar script, shrugging that “it is hardly surprising that Russia has acted to stop the more strategically sensitive and neuralgic Ukraine falling decisively into the western camp, especially given that Russia's only major warm-water naval base is in Crimea.” Much to the consternation of former supporters like left-wing folksinger Billy Bragg, Britain’s Stop the War Coalition appeared uninterested in stopping this war: “Ever since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the European Union and NATO have been intent on surrounding Russia with military bases and puppet regimes sympathetic to the West, often installed by 'colour revolutions'.”

So that’s ok then. If the Ukrainian people's desire to swivel towards Europe displeases Moscow, if the United States has made a number of unsavory foreign policy decisions in its recent past, and if Russia determines that its strategic interests are threatened by a sovereign country that it once occupied and brutalized, then who are we to object? Vladimir Putin might have flattened Grozny, propped up the vile regime of Bashar Assad, and turned his country into a one-party state where loud dissent can be punished by a stint in a Siberian work camp, but let’s not say the man is irrational.

And besides, what about Iraq?