Ukraine: A Short History of Meddling

American meddling in Ukraine goes a lot deeper than Trump’s crude attempt to squeeze kompromat from the country’s new president.

I’ve been working on a couple of other things — including writing up reporting I did about a year ago in Ukraine — but now that the impeachment process has lurched forward, I can’t not comment on what’s going on.

It’s hard to keep track of all the frantic, overcooked coverage, but it looks like there’s a concerted effort in the press to shrink time and space and make it seem like the only truly bad Ukrainian meddling started and stopped with Donald Trump and his cronies. Naturally, big doses of Russophobia are being shoveled into the mix to make it all seem exceptional and scary — as if it’s all part of some of kind bigger partnership with the forces of darkness to undermine democracy around the world.

The New York Times has been leading the charge. Even journalists like Ken Vogel — who had previously reported on Democratic Party operatives shopping around for dirt on Trump’s people in Ukraine in order to sway the election and who had himself investigated (in a story cowritten with the Ukrainian president’s current spokeswoman!) Joe Biden and Son’s meddling there — now sidelines his own work as some sort of Trumpian conspiracy theory.

In other words: the whitewashing has begun.

But American meddling in Ukraine goes a lot deeper than Trump’s crude attempt to squeeze kompromat from the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. It goes deeper than even Joe Biden or the DNC or the 2016 election. The truth is that America has been meddling and messing with Ukraine so persistently for so many years that no one thinks there’s anything wrong with it. It’s been the normal way of doing things. That’s why Joe Biden sat around yuk-yuking it up at the Council of Foreign Relations, bragging about bossing Ukraine’s former oligarch-president around — as if this elected billionaire leader of a foreign nation was nothing but a busboy working in Joe’s Delaware country club for tips. And why not? That’s how America’s political class thinks and acts.

The fact is Ukraine’s been meddled with more persistently and destructively than any other post-communist territory in Europe — well, maybe except the former Yugoslavia.

Over the past few decades, America, its allies, and its institutions have meddled in Ukraine in ways big and small: They helped craft Ukraine’s privatization laws. They funneled endless amounts of cash into two Color-type Revolutions — first the Orange Revolution in 2004 and then Maidan’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014. They’ve handpicked leaders of the government and secretly threatened to jail oligarchs if America’s orders weren’t followed. They’ve forced Ukraine to cut its budget, increase domestic gas prices, and push through highly unpopular taxes on alcohol and tobacco — these weren’t just general suggestions, but a hands-on micromanaging of the economy in return for aid and investment. They bankrolled NGOs and media channels, provided weapons and military training to fascist-adjacent military units. They helped inflame tension among Ukraine’s multiethnic and multicultural population — a cynical foreign policy strategy that has led to an ongoing bloody civil war in which America and Russia are backing different sides. And this is just a short list…

Senator John McCain stands next the leader of the Nazi-inspired Svoboda political party — a man who believes kikes and Judeo-Muscovites are sucking the lifeblood of Ukraine. (For bonus points: See if you can play the “Spot the Nazi” as the camera pans to the crowd.)

Ukraine has been a perfect target for this kind of meddling.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s political system has been dominated by shifting alliances of oligarchic clans organized aground regions and industrial sectors. In this murky and constantly changing world, alliances flip and players use whatever they can to get an advantage. They weaponize ethnicity, religion, nationalism, and regional identity. They use blunt force and leverage their monopoly on media. They also try to recruit foreign power support to bolster their position — Russia, America, the EU.

As Kirill Pankratov explained so well in The eXile back in 2005, Ukraine has been stuck in a vicious 1990’s loop of looting and clan warfare:

In Russia, Putin’s reign produced a faux-imperial center, with the restoration of many Soviet and some Tsarist traditions, with United Russia — the “party of power” — dominating the legislature. True, there is a colorful and very noisy fringe around the center, consisting of every tinge from the mystical conservative nationalists to delusional pro-Western liberals, but mainly they’re just providing a circus-like entertainment for the media and political “tusovka.” In Ukraine this fringe circus IS the politics — without anything resembling the stodgy, predictable center. You have a wild assortment of demagogues, nutcases and plutocrats with shifting alliances, silly slogans and their inevitable sponsorship by various rival oligarchic clans, still squabbling for privatization and re-privatization spoils.

He wrote this 14 years ago and nothing’s changed since. Today, Ukraine’s highly unstable system makes Russia seem as solid as Switzerland.

For years, America and its allies have leveraged and magnified this instability. They’ve worked with oligarchs and backed one clan against another in an attempt to destabilize the country and to peel it away from Russia’s sphere of influence — all while turning Ukraine into fertile source of plunder: contracting opportunities, lobbying gigs, foundation support, non-profit donations, cushy corporate board seats, and all the other perks that America’s political elite get for managing the empire. You can run down the line: the Clinton Foundation, Joe Biden’s son, Paul Manafort, Tony Podesta, and all sorts of other top-flight flunkies like Rudy Giuliani. They’ve been skimming money from this impoverished and plundered country with no remorse or regret.

Meanwhile, America’s corrupt interventions have been nothing but a disaster for Ukraine. Today this highly-educated, resource-rich country — once home to the most advanced Soviet industries — is the poorest country in Europe. It’s a place where many can barely afford to buy food. And there’s no improvement in sight. The people of Ukraine (not unlike the people of America) have yet to figure out and organize around a politics that can actually challenge their oligarchy’s power. Even the new president, who rode his way to victory on people’s rejection of America’s foreign policy goals in Ukraine, does not offer much hope. His answer to oligarchy and corruption: more neoliberalism and more free-market reforms.

Our TV networks and newspapers have already spun up for their manic impeachment coverage. But you won’t read or hear much about this history. Why would you? All it does is make America look bad. For decades, our political class has profited off Ukraine’s oligarchic plunder and prodded and manipulated it in whatever way suits their shifting domestic and foreign interests — no matter the collateral damage.

This latest scandal is just another iteration of this grim history, as both the anti-Trump and Trump sides gleefully try to weaponize Ukrainian meddling and use Ukraine as a proxy war in their domestic fight for the presidency.

—Yasha Levine


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