The Crimean peninsula was controlled by the Russian Empire from the 18th to 20th centuries until it became part of an independent Ukraine following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Now the country is fractured after months of protests, and Crimea has become the reluctant focal point of a nascent civil war dividing east and west. Fueled by aggressive posturing by the United States and a defensive-minded Russia intent on protecting the interests of Ukraine’s ethnically Russian population, the situation has escalated quickly. The future of the European continent hangs in the balance.
Even to the most astute observer, the current crisis in the southeastern region of Ukraine is difficult to interpret. The view can be blurred by geographic distance, muddled by inconsistent reporting and blinded by prejudice. Because of treacherously unremitting digital and social media, an understanding of the complex sociopolitical elements is diluted; independent inquiry loses legitimacy and critical voices enter an anarchic fray. How can one make sense of this dilemma?
“What has happened in Ukraine is the United States organized and financed a coup.”
Paul Craig Roberts is a former assistant secretary of the treasury and associate editor of The Wall Street Journal. He has been following the situation in Ukraine closely and spoke to Truthout about the long history of the crisis, the influence of the mainstream media (in which he worked for decades) and the dangerous provocations of Western leaders. The author of more than ten books, his most recent work is called The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism. This interview took place on March 12, 2014.
You have written extensively about the current standoff between Russia and the West over the situation in Crimea. How do you assess the current situation? What power struggle is currently unraveling?
Well, I think it would be a mistake to represent the events in Crimea as a power standoff between Russia and the United States. What has happened in Ukraine is the United States organized and financed a coup. And the coup occurred in Kiev, the capital. Either from intention or carelessness, the coup elements include ultra-right-wing nationalists whose roots go back to organizations that fought for Hitler in the Second World War against the Soviet Union. These elements destroyed Russian war memorials celebrating the liberation of the Ukraine from the Nazis by the Red Army and also celebrating Gen. Kutuzov’s defeat of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. So this spread a great deal of alarm in southern and eastern Ukraine, which are traditionally Russian provinces. Crimea was added to the Ukraine in 1954 by Khrushchev, the general secretary of the Communist Party. Both of these Russian areas have been part of Russia for longer than the United States has existed. This may have been done to water down the pro-Nazi elements in western Ukraine, because it added a substantial Russian population to Ukraine that tended to balance out the ultra-nationalists in the west. Also, Khrushchev himself was a Ukrainian. It didn’t make a difference at the time because it was all part of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed as a political entity and the weak authorities there – under [US] pressure – agreed to its breakup, the Ukraine became independent, but it retained the previously Russian provinces. The population in Crimea is predominantly Russian, and so is eastern Ukraine. These people said, “We don’t want anything to do with this government in Kiev, which is banning our language and destroying our war monuments and threatening us in many ways.” They followed the same legal steps; the same UN procedures, the same international court procedures. So everything that has occurred is strictly legal. And when John Kerry and Obama say the opposite, they’re lying through their teeth. It’s just blatant, shameful, bald-faced lies. This is not debatable or a question of opinion. It’s a matter of law.
“So there is not an independent media. It cannot take positions on any important issue contrary to the government’s propaganda.”
So the Parliament in Crimea followed these procedures and has now declared Crimea to be independent. The vote that [was] given to the people on [March 16] . … So there has been no Russian invasion. That’s easily provable. The Russian troops in the Ukraine have been there since the 1990s. It has to do with the lease arrangements it has on its Black Sea naval base [Sevastopol], because when Ukraine was granted independence, Russia certainly wasn’t giving up its warm-water port. The terms of the separation state that Russia has a lease there until 2042. Sixteen thousand troops were there, and under the agreement with the Ukraine they can have up to 25,000 along with a certain number of planes, tanks and artillery. All this is specified and well-known, but it is subject to lies from Washington – and they are repeated endlessly in the so-called American media. The remaining problem is in eastern Ukraine, because there the people are also in the streets demanding their local governments separate from Kiev. Having realized its incompetence in Crimea, Washington has rushed in and appointed Ukrainian multi-billionaire oligarchs [Igor Kolomoisky and Serhiy Taruta] as governors of these Russian regions [Donetsk and Dnepropetrovs]. Where the issue will be drawn is in eastern Ukraine because Putin has said he will make no military intervention unless violence is used against the Russian population in eastern Ukraine. There isn’t much Kerry and Obama can do about this. But if the result is that eastern Ukraine returns to Russia, western Ukraine will be captured, subject to an IMF [International Monetary Fund] austerity plan, looted by the Western banks and stuck in NATO while US anti-ballistic missile bases will be put in western Ukraine. This is intensifying the strategic threat to Russia that Washington has been pursuing since the George H.W. Bush regime when he violated the agreements that Reagan had given not to take NATO into eastern Europe. These same agreements were violated when Washington withdrew from the ABMT [Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty] in 2002 so it could construct an anti-ballistic missile defense. These are extreme provocations, and they are reckless. It’s the same kind of behavior that gave us the First World War.
In your latest writings you’ve discussed the failure of the so called mainstream or American media in reporting about Crimea objectively – that is, without displaying a bias toward one side or the other. Can you discuss the role alternative media has played in relation to the crisis in Ukraine?
A very important part of it has to do with something that happened toward the end of [Bill] Clinton’s second term. He permitted five mega companies to consolidate the formerly independent and dispersed US media. What were once independent networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, they all became cogs in a larger media empire. The value of these big media companies is their federal broadcast licenses: They can’t go against the government and expect them to be renewed. Another big change is these media companies are no longer run by journalists. They’re run by corporate advertising executives and former government officials. And their only interests are protecting the net worth of the company and the flow of advertising revenues. So there is not an independent media. It cannot take positions on any important issue contrary to the government’s propaganda. That’s part of the problem right there.
Another part of the problem is that during the long Cold War, the Soviet Union, which is Russia in most people’s minds, was demonized effectively. This demonization persists. Remember, the initial collapse of the USSR worked very much to the West’s advantage. They could easily manipulate [Boris] Yeltsin, and various oligarchs were able to seize and plunder the resources of the country. Much Israeli and American money was part of that. When Putin came along and started stopping this and trying to put the country back in place, he was demonized. Also, just as Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state [for European and Eurasian Affairs], admitted when she spoke at the National Press Club last December, the United States has invested $5 billion aligning Ukraine with its interests since the failed Orange Revolution . They’ve probably spent many times that on NGOs inside Russia. There are at least 1,000 non-governmental organizations in the country that are financed by Washington. This has persisted for a long time, and it was only last year when Putin finally said that these organizations that are financed by US money must register as foreign agents. This is, of course, American policy. If you operate here with foreign money – unless you’re Israel – you must register as a foreign agent. Yet when Putin applied the same rules, he was demonized. So you have everywhere this exposure across American generations of people to propaganda that diabolizes every aspect of Russia. So if someone tells you the Russians sent the tanks into Crimea, it just fits a pre-existing narrative.
“The Soviet Union and Communist China existed, and these were huge constraints on American power. The US couldn’t go waltzing in blowing up countries throughout the Middle East for example.”
I am a former editor of The Wall Street Journal and a columnist at all the major publications as well, and I personally witnessed the change in the media and the people in it. So I already know what they’re going to say; I can write the scripts before they go on and mouth them. It’s been going on for some time. A similar thing happened with the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It was a lie told over and over. And everyone repeated it. The New York Times didn’t even go to the weapons inspector we sent to Iraq, Hans Blix! Instead, Judith Miller repeated a lie endlessly in the pages of the newspaper. It reflects a total lack of integrity. One of the main reasons for this is that many of them know they cannot tell the truth, otherwise they’ll be fired. They know it’s pointless to take a story that contradicts the president or the secretary of state or the CIA or the NSA to the editor. He or she will look at you and say What are you crazy? Do you want to get us both fired? So they simply don’t bother. It’s quite a corrupt milieu, and it must be deadening to the soul. But that’s what it is to be a mainstream journalist today.
Looking back on your time as assistant secretary of the treasury under Ronald Reagan, how have the global politics of brinkmanship changed? Are foreign conflicts perceived differently now than ever before?
Oh, yes, it’s changed tremendously, in two critical ways. One is the Soviet Union and Communist China existed, and these were huge constraints on American power. The US couldn’t go waltzing in blowing up countries throughout the Middle East, for example. Those constraints on American power no longer exist. The Cold War is gone, and the alliances that were part of it have disappeared. When I was in the Reagan administration, the neoconservatives had not emerged as the ideological force that they are today; they had not written their position papers calling for American world hegemony. So there was not an agenda in Washington or in the Reagan administration of American hegemony over the world. Reagan’s approach toward Gorbachev was not to win the Cold War, he told us repeatedly. The point was to end it. The neoconservatives did emerge first during that time, but they had nowhere near the same power or influence that they did under Clinton, George W. Bush and now Obama. In fact they caused so much trouble for [Reagan], he fired every one of them. They were behind the Contras in Nicaragua. Some of them were actually prosecuted and convicted – such as Elliot Abrams, who was assistant secretary of state. He and others were later pardoned by George H.W. Bush, but the Reagan administration itself took very strong action against neoconservatives. They were fired, thrown out of the government. Richard Perle was even thrown off of the [President’s Intelligence Advisory Board]. The neoconservatives emerged with the American attacks on Serbia – what we call the NATO attacks – and the theft of Kosovo from Serbia and its setup as an American protectorate. Their influence then exploded in the first years of George W. Bush. The entire national security apparatus, the entire Pentagon, the entire State Department were all staffed-up by neoconservatives. The agenda was there. It had been set out in papers from the Project for the New American Century, and much of the government was run by its representatives. The Obama administration has many of the same people, but now they’re able to go further because they have more resources to fund dissent groups like we’ve seen in Ukraine.
“There’s no evidence that the American people support Washington’s meddling in Ukraine. And they should get out and protest it, because it could mean a major war and even the use of nuclear weapons.”
This is a reckless thing to do. The Russians cannot accept strategic threats of this sort; it’s just too high. I think what Putin is relying on, if you read his March 4 press conference, is the Europeans. Since they don’t have an ulterior agenda, they don’t want to pay the cost of enabling the United States to start a war, because it will affect them. The Russians know the United States has changed its war doctrine to include nuclear weapons, which shifted in 2010 to permit pre-emptive first strikes. Well the Russians know this is not directed against Afghanistan or Iraq, but against them. When you keep telling a powerful country you are going to set it up in such a way that it must be attacked, that is purely reckless behavior.
What can average people do to voice their concerns about the issues you’ve raised? How will the crisis evolve from here?
They ought to get out into the streets. There’s no evidence that the American people support Washington’s meddling in Ukraine. And they should get out and protest it, because it could mean a major war and even the use of nuclear weapons. The US government has violated every norm of international law and almost the entirety of American law. It is tyranny. Another point: according to Obama and Kerry, and the mainstream media, Russia is to be damned for intervening in the Crimea. This we’ve all heard since the situation began. Well, [March 11] Obama and Kerry demanded that Russia intervene in Crimea and block the self-determination of the Crimean people. They asked Russia to stop the referendum! So now, out of one corner of its mouth, Washington is damning them Russia for an intervention they didn’t make, and out of the other corner of its mouth, it’s demanding they intervene and deny the people of Crimea the right to self-determination. And if they don’t do that, Kerry said, We will make you pay. This is blatant. And there isn’t a word about it in the major newspapers.