Crimea and Ukraine: Whose Cold War?

Finally American and British media are acknowledging that a significant majority of Crimeans wanted to secede from the Ukraine

Abdallah Schleifer
Abdallah Schleifer
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I never thought the day would come when I would have to turn to Russian media to get a sense of what was going on somewhere in the world. But just for a start, look at the videos on Youtube from Russia Today, the 24/7 Russian English language news channel.
Videos of scenes in Kiev’s Maidan square in the weeks before President Yanukovich fled the city, as the predominantly ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist frontline fighting force of the demonstrators smashed their way into government buildings.

And that is what you see – Ukrainian riot police, unarmed, hiding under their shields as they are pelted with rocks and fire bombs or beaten by the demonstrators. The only object in their hands were fire extinguishers with which riot policemen used to put out fire bombs thrown at them at close range as they attempted to defend a government building.

If something just barely approaching that were to happen on Capitol Hill or at the White House in Washington – the National Guard or in the case of Washington, the federal troops would quickly be at the scene. If such a mob did not disperse within minutes despite tear gas and water cannons (and not carry on violently for weeks as in Kiev), the troops would open fire.

The same day American media was obsessing that an American news presenter working for RT had resigned live on TV in protest , the UK’s Guardian was going with the leaked phone call posted -- no doubt by the Russians - on YouTube in which Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Paet tells EU Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton that he had reports it was the same snipers - protest movement provocateurs - who were killing both demonstrators and the police. That story was buried in U.S. media.

But the counter-story to the one fed to the world by President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, a horde of hawkish U.S. Senators and congressmen, their UK counterparts as well EU spokesmen, is slowly getting around.

Slowly the word is getting around: Crimea has been a battlefield for many powers and peoples for centuries but it has been Russian for the last few hundred years.

Abdallah Schleifer

Finally American and British media are acknowledging that a significant majority of Crimeans wanted to secede from the Ukraine. This was finally expressed by a BBC correspondent on the scene during the “return to Russia” referendum (not to be confused with annexed); that voting was not coerced, as suggested in Washington and London with the phrase “under the guns of Russian troops.”

Slowly stories are appearing in American media such as The New York Times and The National Interest, a leading journal for the realist as opposed to Neo-Conservative school of American foreign policy, “the uncomfortable truth is that a sizeable portion of Kiev’s current government – and the protesters who brought it to power – are indeed, fascists,” as written in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine.

Changing hands

Slowly the word is getting around: Crimea has been a battlefield for many powers and peoples for centuries but it has been Russian for the last few hundred years. It was literally given away by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 to Ukraine, without any referendum and with no one in the West complaining.

Of course, at that time Ukraine was a Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union so the gift seemed of little significance, but in 1992 when the USSR collapsed, Ukraine declared its independence and took Crimea - willingly or not - with it. That sort of acquisition seems to characterize other parts of Ukraine.

Consider Odessa, one of the largest cities in Ukraine and not far from Crimea, which was established as a city by Russia’s Catherine the Great on the site of a Turkish fortress, after defeating Ottoman forces that had held the Black Sea coastline. By World War I, Odessa had become a major city that was predominantly populated by Russians.

It was never Ukrainian until Lenin and Trotsky curiously detached it from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, which of course dominated the USSR, and made it part of Ukraine. At least Khrushchev had his reason when more than 40 years later he did the same to Crimea – for Khrushchev was a Ukrainian, and allegedly he was drunk when announcing his decision during a state banquet.

The Crimean referendum was an exercise in self-determination endorsed since the early decades of the 20th century in international law. It was also an exercise in the right of secession, a right backed by the United States in Kosovo where U.S. warplanes attacking Serbian forces and bombing Belgrade secured that secession.


The right of self-determination and secession was also backed by the U.S. and the West when first Slovenia, then Croatia and finally Bosnia seceded from a Yugoslavia taken over by ideologues of a Greater Serbia. How similar that sounds like the current government in Kiev, where the Ukrainian Nationalists who had taken over the parliament immediately passed a law stripping Russian of its status as an official language along with Ukrainian, and form a government with only two ministers from the eastern Russian-speaking and predominantly ethnic Russian half of the Ukraine.

Or consider the Russian oligarchs now aligned with Putin and in Ukraine with the new government in Kiev. These are indeed billionaires who made their fortunes as Communist Party members that acquired key sectors of the state economy in scandalous privatization sell offs that were so undervalued that it constitutes theft. Putin inherited the oligarchs created by Yeltsin – a hero in the American narrative -- who sold off the state sector to his cronies when he dismantled the Soviet Union.

But of the many deceptive rhetorical flourishes coming out of Washington, the most fascinating one is the accusation that Russia has renewed the Cold War, or that Putin is reviving the Soviet Union. Putin is so obviously a Russian nationalist and cultural conservative who takes pride that his mother had him secretly baptized as a baby during the reign of Communism and who is steadfast in his support of a revived Russian Orthodox Church. He is reviving the pride and symbolic mystique of Mother Russia, not a global militant ideology.

This time around a global militant ideology is a driving force of the American vision. The Soviet Union have used hard power – the might of the Red Army occupying the Eastern European states at the end of World War II and within a few years deposing the transitional coalition governments that had arisen there, in order to overthrow democracy in the name of Communism. Now it is America’s turn to use soft power: encouraging, assisting and funding in the overthrow of democracy, in the name of democracy.

Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspondent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC, Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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