Ukraine’s big dilemma — whether to side with Russia or the EU — has been playing itself out in headlines around the world. The general storyline is that a democratic Ukraine is seeking integration into Europe and escape from domination by Vladimir Putin’s autocratic Russia. Kyiv has seen massive demonstrations in support of that position. Senator John McCain recently stirred the crowd in person saying, “The free world is with you, America is with you, I am with you.” McCain made it sound like this is a struggle between good and evil.
Is that really the case? At issue is whether Ukraine enters into an association and trade agreement with the EU, or joins a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. That hardly seems to deserve McCain’s Cold War sounding rhetoric.
McCain claims there’s more to it than simply Ukraine’s choice. He has told media organizations that President Putin is really seeking to reestablish the Russian Empire. McCain has long-opposed greater engagement with Russia, saying, “Moscow and Washington do not share common interests or values.”
Not everyone agrees with McCain on the EU matter. French politician Marine Le Pen recently said, “I think that there is no point for Ukraine to join the European Union.” Her remark was carried in an interview by Voice of Russia. Readers of her comments responded very vociferously. They tended believe that the EU is overplaying its hand in courting Ukraine. There was a general sense that the EU is now a troubled, overly bureaucratic organization with little to offer Ukraine. Some suggested that the real issue is just an attempt to alienate Ukraine from Russia by any means.
That may be. But there is another possibility. Since the beginning of Putin’s tenure as leader, Russia has been beset by attacks waged via the media. They have been instigated by political enemies of Putin’s, many of whom have been London based. A proclaimed objective has been to destabilize Russia, delegitimize its leaders, and precipitate a violent revolution. Malicious campaigns have focused on topics such as the Georgian war, the Politkovskaya and Litvinenko death cases, gay rights, and Pussy Riot. Is the current Ukrainian issue just another cause célèbre?
The lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games has been used to rouse antipathy toward Russia with threats of boycotts on various grounds. Clearly McCain’s fear-mongering about Putin could serve as a pretext and justification. The most prominent reaction so far has been Obama’s decision to forgo sending a high-level delegation to the Olympics.
I find it hard to believe that whether Ukraine leans toward Russia or the EU is so consequential as to justify all the media fuss it’s generated. It seems reasonable to suspect a hidden agenda somewhere in this. There’s been no transparency on who has been paying for all the organization and publicity for the demonstrations.
Putin’s response to all the past media attacks has been tepid. He has a vast array of domestic and international media outlets at this disposal. Some are even specifically intended to project a favorable image abroad. Most of them produce interesting and credible content. But they are no match for the media war that is being waged. They are the wrong modality for that. He’s got to change all this if he wants to neutralize future reputational assaults on himself and his country. The drubbing he’s now taking over Ukraine’s alliances is just one in a long series that currently has no foreseeable end.
On McCain’s junket to the Kyiv demonstrations he was accompanied by Connecticut’s junior senator Chris Murphy. McCain a Republican and Murphy a Democrat seem to have an affinity when it comes to demonizing Russia. Last June while chairing a Senate hearing, Murphy likened justice in contemporary Russia to Stalin’s Great Purge. He must not understand history very well to say that.
Upon return from Kyiv, Murphy told BBC, “It’s in the U.S. interests for the Ukraine, as Ukraine citizens want, to orient itself towards Europe.” When the BBC anchor challenged Murphy’s assertion about what Ukrainians really prefer, he awkwardly responded, “I don’t claim that it’s a 95/5 proposition. But I think it’s pretty clear that … Ukraine wants to be part of Europe.” In truth, though, a recent Ukrainian poll indicated that over 50 percent do not favor European integration.
I observed Murphy’s persistent use of the term “the Ukraine.” That’s a touchy point in itself. Many Ukrainians prefer simply “Ukraine,” believing that the former denigrates the country by suggesting it is merely a provincial region as in earlier times. The government has even taken an official position on the matter.
In 2009, just months after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, Radio Free Europe ran a story that belittled former vice-president Dick Cheney for calling the country “the Ukraine.” It will be interesting to see if that U.S. government sponsored broadcaster will now give Murphy the same treatment!