Who’s to blame for the war in Ukraine? The great majority of Western politicians and security experts have no doubt. It’s Russia. The war in Donbass is not a civil war, but ‘Russian aggression’. If enough pressure can just be exerted on Moscow to get it to change its behaviour, the violence would stop, Donbass would rejoin Ukraine, and the country could march happily towards its inevitable future as a prosperous, free, and democratic member of the community of European nations.
A minority of commentators has a different point of view. One of them is Dutch journalist Chris Kaspar de Ploeg. In his new book Ukraine in the Crossfire, de Ploeg does not seek to whitewash either Russia or deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, and admits that Russia has provided significant support to the Donbass rebels. Nevertheless, he points the finger of blame for Ukraine’s problems quite firmly at the United States of America. ‘The war in Ukraine serves to keep the EU [European Union] in line with the wider US agenda,’ he argues.
De Ploeg’s analysis is very definitely that of somebody from the political left – full of denunciations of the past crimes of American imperialism, attacks on the neoliberal policies of the International Monetary Fund, negative references to the geopolitical fantasies of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard, and the like. These aren’t my politics, I have to say. I suspect that they’ll lead many readers from the political centre and right to dismiss de Ploeg’s analysis as typical left-wing anti-American paranoia. This would be a shame, as in amongst the America-bashing, there is some accurate debunking of widely-held myths about the liberal, democratic nature of the Maidan revolution and the government which subsequently took power in Ukraine. And, while I think that de Ploeg exaggerates America’s role in Ukrainian affairs, many of the criticisms he makes of American policy are quite fair. As a result, he provides a necessary counter-balance to the prevailing narrative.
De Ploeg begins with a description of divisions within Ukraine and the events of the Maidan revolution (or ‘coup’). He emphasizes the role played in the revolution by far right groups, and outlines the support provided by foreign powers. De Ploeg’s analysis of the results of Yanukovich’s overthrow is damning. The new regime led not to the arrival of liberal democracy but to an entrenchment of oligarchic power and increase in corruption, to IMF-imposed financial austerity and, of course, to war. It’s hard to argue with any of this. Maidan was a disaster for Ukraine, and de Ploeg does a good job of showing why.
Next de Ploeg turns to the war in Donbass, and the efforts to restore peace following the Minsk agreements. He argues (correctly, in my view) that ‘Kiev bears substantial responsibility for the failure of the Minsk accords, as it has continually privileged its own agenda over peace considerations.’ The Americans, he claims, have encouraged this irresponsible behaviour, publicly endorsing President Poroshenko’s attempts to reinterpret Minsk II to mean the complete opposite of what it actually says (i.e. disarmament of the rebels and surrender of the border prior to local elections, constitutional reform, and amnesty, whereas the accord stipulates that it should be the other way round). Particularly interesting are de Ploeg’s revelations about the past shenanigans of one of the more hawkish American analysts, Philip Karber, whose work on Ukraine has been cited by no less a person than US National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster. It is quite remarkable how wrong can be about things, and yet still be taken seriously in the security community. De Ploeg also highlights the extreme bellicose, and often massively inaccurate, statements issued by senior officials, such as former NATO chief Philip Breedlove. He makes a convincing case that the United States has consistently worked to increase tensions with Russia and place obstacles in the way of peace.
Having said all that, I think that the focus on foreign powers diverts attention away from where it really ought to be focused, namely internal Ukrainian dynamics. For sure, Russia, the USA, and other countries, have all contributed to the mess in Ukraine. But the title of de Ploeg’s book, Ukraine in the Crossfire, as well as much of its content, rather reduces Ukraine to a helpless pawn in a geopolitical battle between the West and Russia. This runs the risk of leading people to conclude that the solution to Ukraine’s problems lies outside the country, and that peace depends upon changing the behaviour of key international actors, especially Russia and America. But ultimately the war in Donbass is the product of internal Ukrainian factors, especially a crisis of legitimacy induced by the Maidan revolution. Because of this, the solutions to Ukraine’s problems lie more inside the country than outside, and depend on the internal will to create a system that all the country’s people can accept as legitimate. Foreign powers can perhaps help push Ukrainians in that direction, but at the end of the day, it’s up to Ukrainians to sort it out themselves.
Having said all that, it is important that Americans (and Europeans and Canadians) understand that there is guilt on many sides in Ukraine, that their own countries’ hands are far from clean, and that there is much more to the war in Donbass than ‘Russian aggression.’ Only then can they begin to make a positive contribution towards finding a path to peace. For this reason, they should read de Ploeg’s book, take his criticisms seriously, and think deeply about what it all means.