Wierd Duk's silence on Ukraine is deafening
Dutch journalist Wierd Duk thinks the West bears great responsability for Russia's behaviour towards Ukraine. The Ukrainian writer and analyst Mykola Riabchuk is adamant about his 'colonial attitude' towards smaller nations, that don't seem to have a say in their own destiny. In fact Ukraine is conspicuously absent in Duk's narrative.
Reading Wierd Duk’s article on RaamopRusland is quite a painful experience. Especially if your observation position is not located on the comfortable European heights of Realpolitik but on the bottom of the Ukrainian battlefields, where a few thousand civilians, including 300 passengers of MH17, have become ‘collateral damage’ and more than one million IDP’s have lost their houses, jobs, and belongings. And where still every day soldiers are killed or wounded.
War graves near Slavyansk in the Donbass, autumn 2014
What is strikingly missing in Duk’s deliberations is Ukraine, and the silence is deafening. Omissions can be as important in rhetorical strategies as words. In his article any reference to the war, to its victims and culprits, would immediately put in question his central argument: that the West shares equal responsibility for the crisis with Russia, and that the only way to improve the deeply deteriorated relations is to recognize Russia’s ‘strategic interests’ in the post-Soviet space.
The facts on the ground completely undermine this thesis of ‘equal responsibility’. For it is definitely not the West who bullies its neighbors, annexes its territories, and wages insidious undeclared wars against them just because of dissatisfaction with their domestic or international choices.
Whatever can be said about Western adventures in other countries (and Wierd Duk says a lot, using highly questionable analogies and equations from the Kremlin propagandistic playbook), the simple question remains: why should we, Ukrainians, be responsible for some (alleged) Western wrongdoings in other parts of the world, and why should these (alleged) wrongdoings legitimize Russian invasion, occupation and extermination of our people? Why would the fact that somebody presumably made mistakes give Moscow carte blanche to retaliate in my country? Why is ‘an awful lot of sticks’ that the West presumably ‘handed to Russia to beat its opponent with’ (as Duk argues) used not against thém but against us?
Only big players count
The problem with his (and all the Putinversteher’s) arguments is that they consider international relations exclusively in terms of 19th-century Realpolitik that divides the world ‘naturally’ into spheres of influence, and take only big and powerful players seriously. In this millenarian struggle of global rivals there is no room for smaller states, their national interests, sovereignty, and freedom of choice. They are objects, not subjects. Pawns on the global chessboard. ‘Lesser people of the lesser world,’ as Edward Said may have put it.
The very language that Wierd Duk uses to describe these pawns shows his implicit bias and ‘white-man’ supremacy. The former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, is derogatively dubbed ‘Misha’, and Polish former minister of foreign affairs Radoslaw Sikorski, ‘the glamourboy of Eastern-European diplomacy’, is nicknamed ‘Radek’. Would the author apply the same kind of nicknames to Putin (Vova), or Yeltsin (Boria), or Gorbachev (Misha)? Certainly not. Because he knows – and his readers too – who counts in this game, and who is just a clown.
Governor of Odessa Micheil Saakasjvili, derogatively called 'Misha'
The same goes for politics: in the authors narrative it is only Russia that is entitled to legitimate ‘national interests’. Those of Ukraine and Georgia are downplayed as ‘overtures to the West’ (funny, yeah?), while Western policy vis-a-vis these states is similarly ridiculed as ‘the Western flirtations’ and ‘the carrot of NATO membership’ (which implies that these nations are not driven by any legitimate security concerns but are merely tricked by Western pimps and stupidly manipulated, like circus donkeys, by American ‘carrots’).
With a special excitement, the author quotes Putin’s infamous words about Saakashvili: ‘I’ll hang him by his balls!’ and explains that ‘Misha overplayed his hand by bombing targets in the separatist region of South-Ossetia’, so ‘the Russians struck hard and annexed two Georgian regions’ (in fact, Saakashvili ‘overplayed his hand’ far less than Vladimir Putin nine years earlier, when he invaded the separatist region of Chechnia, the closest analogue to South Ossetia. But again it is very unlikely that Duk would ever apply the same terms to the Russian leader.)
In Duk’s interpretation of the events, a simple hatred of the leader of a neighboring country or dissatisfaction with his policies is reason enough to ‘strike hard’ – without any international or, at least, the author’s condemnation. Rather, he tends to downplay any villainy the Kremlin commits: ‘After all, Putin had plans for Ukraine: the country was to play a vital role in the Eurasian Union (EAU) he had envisaged.’ Whether Ukrainians had any plans for themselves is no matter of concern to Duk.
The logic is pretty familiar: it is not the rapist who bears the guilt but his victim who declined to respond properly to his expectations. And, of course, the West bears its share of blame because it manipulated a gullible maiden by inculcating in her poor head Western ideas of freedom, dignity and sovereignty – as we all know absolutely inappropriate in this part of the world.
Wierd Duk is not a Kremlin propagandist, so he does not try to absolve Putin from all his wrongdoings. His rhetorical strategy is much subtler: first, he relativizes everything by putting equal responsibility on the West and Russia, – as if Western soft power in Eastern Europe in any way matches the hard power of Russian commandos, kalashnikovs and rocket systems. And secondly he carefully twists the language to downplay Putin’s crimes as minor excesses of an authoritarian strongman. Just look how selectively he compiles a list of Putin’s wrongdoings to ridicule any comparison of the Russian leader with real criminals:
‘Here [i.e. in the West] Putin's way of dealing with corrupt oligarchs, the arrest and conviction of women’s punk band Pussy Riot ... the attacks on the free press and on opposition leaders, and the controversial Russian anti-gay legislation were reason enough to accuse Putin of being a contemporary Adolf Hitler,’ writes Duk.
Bridge in Moscow where opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was killed
Putin certainly is not a Hitler – for too many and too obvious reasons. But if anybody would judge Mr Putin seriously, he would hardly put on top of the list of offenses his anti-gay legislation or the persecution of Pussy Riot. I personally would start with Putin’s analogue of the Reichstag fire – the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, with quite a strong evidence implicating the complicity of the FSB. Next I would probably list the genocidal war in Chechnia, where whole villages were erased from the earth (journalist Anna Politkovskaya and a few other investigators paid with their lives trying to collect evidences of these crimes). Apart from Politkovskaya, Nemtsov, Magnitsky and Litvinenko I would mention dozens of other opponents of Putin – victims of what Wierd Duk so elegantly calls ‘the attacks on the free press and on opposition leaders’. Finally, I would definitely mention Putin’s unprovoked war with Ukraine, that is far more serious than anti-gay legislation or ‘dealing with corrupt oligarchs’, of which clan Putin himself is part and patron.
All the subsequent arguments in the author’s article are derivatives of his general world-view where national interests of big powers reign supreme and where no notions of justice, equality, sovereignty are applicable to the smaller and weaker states. Within this world, Russia may look paranoid, but at the same time its worries about presumed, however incredible, stationing of Western troops in Ukraine are legitimate. On the other hand, Ukraine’s worries about the all too real deployment of Russian troops in Crimea, Transnistria and Belarus are groundless, as are its endeavours to enhance its own security.
The largely mythical ‘encirclement’ of Russia by imagined enemies is taken utterly seriously, while the real encirclement of Ukraine by troups of a profoundly hostile and aggressive state are being dismissed as mere ‘Russophobia’.
Classical supremacist approach
Needless to say that such an approach is classically colonial – insofar as it divides people into those who are entitled to sovereignty and those whose freedom depends on the sovereigns’ goodwill and arbitrarily established ‘spheres of influence’. All the talking about EU or NATO expansion as allegedly harming ‘Russian interests’ implicitly means that only Russia has ‘national interests’, but the same does not apply to Estonia, Poland, Georgia, or Ukraine.
Hence all calls to accommodate Russia by acknowledging her ‘strategic interests’ boil down to grant it a free hand to manage post-Soviet space as it pleases. Duk doesn’t state this explicitly, but it is exactly what he implies: Putin’s Russia would hardly accept anything less than a carte blanche.