THE PLATE COLUMN: Russia in the Ukraine – Beyond Good and Evil

WRITES TOM PLATE FROM LOS ANGELES IN HIS SYNDICATED ASIA COLUMN – ‘Ukraine Isn’t Armageddon.’ Now, how bold and direct is that?!

This was the banner headline splashed over the most incisive journalism I have read on Vladimir Putin and the Crimea crisis.  It led the April edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, the sharp monthly out of Paris.

You won’t find anything like this analysis in the mostly war-baiting U.S. media. Being left-leaning, the Paris paper was not remotely defending “Tsar” Putin. And being French, Le Monde Diplomatique was determined to be (well, you know!) contrarian.

But in this instance, the French paper was persuasive. “Media treatment of recent events in Ukraine,” read the analysis by Olivier Zajec of France’s Institut de Strategie Comparee, “confirms that some in the West see international crises as Armageddons, conflicts between good and evil where the meaning of history is enacted, rather than as signs of differences of interest and perception between parties open to reason.”

In the juvenile Manichean dialectic found in the main media outlets Americans read, see or listen to, Russia is the bad guy in the black hat and the West is the good guy. And sometimes – as you know – the good guy in the white cowboy hat simply has to pull out his six-shooter (if he is any kind of real man) and blow away the evil.

Again, Le Monde Diplomatique: “The clichés of the Western press – not just since the start of the Ukrainian crisis but over the last 15 years – may be all that most readers know of Russia’s current foreign policy. This negative view, verging on caricature, is a well-established tradition, based partly on analyses that emphasize the totalitarian and ‘insincere’ compulsions of Russian culture, and partly on the supposed continuity from Stalin to Putin – a favorite theme of French columnists and US neocon think tanks.”

Whoever Putin may be and whatever he is, he is no Stalin- and we know to dead certainty who the latter was. “It may be time,” suggested LMD, “to banish the words ‘Cold War’ from articles on Russia. This historically inappropriate shorthand explains the repeated expression of old fantasies.”

Reverting to foggy Cold War clichés not only blurs a sharper sense of the historic Russian interest in keeping the Ukraine a bridge to the West – and not permit it to become a NATO ally (imagine, in a prior era, Canada trending Communist!); but it has similarly tended to cloud our understanding of Asian-Pacific dynamics, where some in the West demonize China and de-colorize the entire Asian canvas into a childish diorama of black and white. If Moscow can “get away” with seizing Crimea (and a slice of Ukraine), won’t this embolden Beijing to jump onto a disputed island in the East China Sea and do a “Putin”? Or might it not even serve to justify a comparable putsch by Japan?  Does not the current world (dis)order suggest the future belongs to the bold?

Implicit in this fearful assumption is the suggestion that if only the U.S. were more forceful against Russia, less “bad things” around the world would happen. This is fantasy. It is calculations of national interests (and often pent-up domestic pressure) that drive such decisions. On the contrary, U.S. caution and restraint can contribute to stability: That is, there is no world clock ticking, as if you had better “do it” before someone (and who else might that be?) stops you.

Reluctance to press a military option near the borders of Russia strikes the Chinese as wise, not weak. Note that in the UN Security Council debate on the Ukraine, China chose to abstain from the vote on the resolution denouncing the Crimean referendum. This is typical and smart: This is not our fight, says Beijing. After the Security Council vote, Liu Jieyi, China’s representative, explained that Beijing favored a “balanced” solution to the conflict, proposed the creation of a coordination group and a support package for Ukraine, and urged countries to refrain from action which could further escalate the conflict. In effect, his view precisely paralleled that of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, ever the pragmatic realist.

Closer to the Crimean problem, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, distanced herself from stupid talk and, like the Chinese, sought a way out. “Their positions may be fundamentally opposed,” wrote Le Monde Diplomatique, “but Merkel saw this as a reason to talk and negotiate, rather than insult each other.” The tools of diplomacy are not given to diplomats to discuss only that on which there already exists agreement!

All honest Americans need to recognize that Western interventions in other countries often send out mixed moral messages as well.  The U.S. went stubbornly to war against the Iraq government even though the Bush administration lacked international approval. Western interventions in Libya and Afghanistan also raised issues of international law. Those who live in glass houses should be the last to throw stones. And it can make a hot crisis hotter. The West needs to start looking at itself in the mirror instead of just looking down its nose at everyone else.

The U.S. fools no one (perhaps except itself) with high-minded condemnations of Putin’s obvious amorality when it own sense of international political morality is usually defined by cold calculations of national interest – much like everyone else.

Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies and the author of the “Giants of Asia’ book series.

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