Flying So High You Can’t See the Ground

JRL/2010/25/31 2 Feb 10

Ukrainians will be electing a new President on Sunday and, while we do not yet know who will win, we know that neither Yanukovych nor Tymoshenko is running on an overtly anti-Russia platform. Therefore, whoever wins, relations between Kiev and Moscow will likely be calmer than they have been since the “Orange Revolution” of 2004. Stratfor sees this in apocalyptic terms: “The next few months will therefore see the de facto folding of Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence” and “a new era of Russian aggressiveness” now begins The author goes on to talk about the Carpathians as a defence shield for Russia, Ukraine as Russia’s “breadbasket” and so on.

But who decided that this was the question that Ukrainian voters were answering? It was the “Orange Revolution” and its outside backers that injected into Ukrainian politics the binary choice of either joining the West or becoming Russia’s appendage: at no point was there support among the majority of Ukrainians for such a choice. And there is absolutely no reason to treat the recent election as having made such a choice. While Yushchenko was indeed the binary candidate: “either this pro-Kremlin couple and pro-Kremlin policy wins, or the pro-European policy does”, he and his view have been brutally rejected by the voters. No surprise, of course, to those who have been watching opinion polls in Ukraine.

Typical of such stratospheric analyses, there is nothing in the Stratfor piece about the Ukrainians themselves. The fundamental assumption of the authors is that either Ukraine is a member of the free Western alliance or it is a subject of Moscow. There is no in-between. But there is absolutely no reason to suppose that Ukrainians voted to reject Yushchenko and his “Orange Revolution” so that they could be under Moscow. Polls like this one, indicate that Ukrainians want good relations with Russia yes, but also with the EU. The voters reject the either-or option. Ukrainians spurned Yushchenko and his program because his term in office was a black hole into which every hope disappeared: according to a Gallup poll last summer, Ukrainians’ support for their government is “the lowest in the world”. The economy is not noticeably better; indeed it may even be worse. Corruption is as bad as ever. Ever since the “Orange Revolution” the government system has hardly functioned at all. The hope (and the hype) of the “Orange Revolution” has evaporated leaving disgust. There is nothing in these results to suggest that Ukrainians want Moscow to be their puppet masters. The fact that Moscow may be happier with this turn of events, does not mean that Moscow orchestrated it; to assume so is a ludicrous example of the petitio principii fallacy.

This is what stratospheric analysts miss: they are so lost in their perception of a chess game high in the sky that they fail even to see the actual decision makers.

A similar blindness is found in two recent books on the Ossetia war of August 2008. Cornell’s book does not include a chapter discussing the Ossetian point of view. Judging from the reviews, Asmus’ book also ignores the Ossetians. It too is full of stratospheric analysis in which the war was “really” between Moscow and the West and the Ossetians (and the Georgians too, come to think of it) were mere pawns moved around by the chess players in the sky. But, why don’t these books, which claim to be contributions to the discussion, discuss the Ossetians? After all the real casus belli, for 90 years now, is the desire of the Ossetians not to be part of Georgia. They fought Georgians at the end of the Russian Empire, at the end of the Soviet Union and they did so again in August 2008. They stopped the Georgians in the streets of Tskhinvali and then welcomed the Russian troops as liberators. There is no anti-Russia liberation war in Ossetia. That, in itself, ought to be an important indication of reality.

Any serious examination of the background to the war must start in 1918 when the Democratic Republic of Georgia attempted to add South Ossetia by force; carry through with Stalin-Jughashvili’s decision to cut Ossetia in two and give the southern half to the Georgian SSR; mention Ossetian demands to retain the rights they had had in the Soviet system (as an “Autonomous Oblast”); refer to Tbilisi’s rejection of that; describe the Georgian attack in 1991. A perceptive account would reflect on the “hosts and guests theory” prevalent in Georgia in the late 1980s and what non-Kartevelians thought about it. There should be recognition of the truth that the Ossetians are actors, not marionettes and that they have shown, by plebiscites and by fighting, that they do not want to be part of Georgia.

But, as soon as these actors are taken into account, the beautiful simplicity of stratospheric analysis becomes impossible to sustain. Rather than the machinations of omniscient chess players in the sky, we have their fumbling reactions to events they did not plan. But it is simply easier to maunder on about Carpathian barriers, bread-baskets, Russia’s sphere of influence and other high-falutin but vague phrases: how boring to study Ukrainian opinion polling or actually to talk to an Ossetian.

It’s nonsense; it’s an example of the logical fallacy of assuming your conclusions; after twenty years of this, it’s time to stop giving it house room. Ukrainians and Ossetians (and Georgians) have their interests: they’re not pawns in the East-West chess game and its sloppy, and silly, to write up everything at such a stratospheric level that nothing remains but initial assumptions fleshed out with claptrap. The Ukrainians have just shown that the “Orange Revolution” was based on false premises and a futile – and damaging – interference in Ukraine’s affairs by ignorant outsiders. The Georgians will soon show the same about the “wilting petals” of the “Rose Revolution” (the same Gallup poll shows support for the government there at only 21%).

And, as to Stratfor’s assertion that “Ukraine is the Russian Empire’s breadbasket”, in the latest figures available (2003/2004), Russia exported 35 times as much wheat as Ukraine did.