Reading the Anglo-American press babble on about Crimea is painful, if you know anything at all about that part of the world.
Mark Ames tried to wipe away some of the slime a few weeks ago in his article, “Everything You Know about Ukraine Is Wrong,” — and you can just assume that everything you know about Crimea is even wrong-er. Today I’ll try to take apart the nonsense going around about the Crimean Referendum and impending union with Russia.
It’s not easy diagnosing the psychotic episode brought on in the western media by Crimea, because anti-Russian stories are pushing two totally contradictory lines at the same time. Sometimes the party line is that Putin has gone crazy, and Russia is a joke, “a gas station masquerading as a country” that will pay a “big price” for grabbing the Crimean Peninsula.
Then there’s the neocon version of Russophobia, peddled by shameless old Iraq-Invasion boosters like Eli Lake. According to Lake’s latest in the Daily Beast, “Russia is invading Ukraine in the shadows.” The proof? Eli don’t need no stinkin’ proof. He’s been told that the dreaded SpetzNaz troops—Nazgul with black ski masks—are “spreading out” through the entire territory of Ukraine. His source? “U.S. officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.”
When you read a story by a shameless war shill like Lake, it’s fun to count the qualifiers and disclaimers:
“The same [Russian] special forces that appear to be rigging the elections in Crimea…”
“[t]he Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested a group of people led by a Ukrainian citizen who were said to be scoping out three of its most crucial military divisions…”
“The forces behind these operations, according to U.S. officials briefed on the updates in Ukraine, are likely the Spetsnaz…”
And finally, my personal favorite:
“On the ground in Ukraine, such confusion reigns that the role of Spetsnaz is hard to confirm. But its involvement would come as no surprise.”
If you’re old enough to have lived through the mass lobotomy that afflicted America in the leadup to the 2003 invasion, the phrasing and logic of that last quote should be painfully familiar. It amounts to this: “We have no proof but they [Saddam, the Russians, whoever you want to spend a few trillion blasting] did it anyway.”
I’m not saying Eli Lake has no more shame than a hungry weasel, but that’s what was said to me, on condition of anonymity, by the same Leprechaun who told Ralph Wiggum to burn things.
Whoops, I outed my Leprechaun source, and on St. Paddy’s day, no less. Well, no big deal—he happens to be gay, this leprechaun, so they wouldn’t have let him in the parade anyway.
You can reasonably assume that the same anonymous U.S. officials who told Lake that Russian special forces are behind all the uproar in Ukraine are the same geniuses who informed him, when he was cheerleading for the Iraq Invasion, that Saddam Hussein was tight with Al Qaeda.
Lake was so attached to that idea that even after the rest of the neocons admitted they might’ve been wrong—not that they ever apologized to the families of the dead—Lake was still looking for proof that Saddam and Osama were in it together and trying one more time in 2013 with a ridiculous claim that an “Al Qaeda conference call”—seriously, Eli said that—forced US embassy closures around the world.
The call, according to Eli, was “like a meeting of the Legion of Doom.” Especially since it turned out to be fictional, not to say totally made up, as anybody with the barest knowledge of insurgent technique knew the second they read Eli’s comic-book fantasy. Al Qaeda is headstrong but not stupid, or at least not stupid enough to do a 20-member “conference call.”
But the “Legion of Doom” theory is all Eli knows; it’s how he makes his living. It’s a template, the kind where you just fill in the bad-guy name and run it through the same old program. Out come the SpetzNaz and the anti-SpetzNaz funding, which is what Eli and his anonymous NatSec sources are all about anyway.
The two versions of Russia—McCain’s “gas station masquerading as a country” and Lake’s fearsome conqueror—both start from the same bitter knowledge, even if Senator McCain and Mr. Lake will never admit that fact in public. It’s a simple one: Russia will take Crimea, won’t pay a big price for it, and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.
They all know Russia has a free hand in Crimea. Just look at McCain’s punchline: “A gas station masquerading as a country,” Why “gas station”? Because Russia is now the world’s #1 oil exporting nation, topping Saudi Arabia—that beacon of democracy and fine American ally—by more than a million barrels a day.
With reserves estimated at 80 billion barrels, Russia will have a stash of what everybody wants for a long, long time.
Which makes it kind of a big gas station, even by I-80 standards. “Two zillion pumps, no waiting!” And Russia’s gas station is never going to run short of customers. The oil market is like the recreational-drugs trade: Pundits may make up stories about “pushers,” but the truth is there’s always more demand than the supply can handle. Nobody needs to push those products; they sell themselves, and people will pay anything to get them. That means the people who own the world’s #1 “gas station” can pretty much do anything they want, like Arrakis, the only spice-exporting planet, in Dune. The crude must flow, no matter how crudely its Russian owners behave.
The only media that seem willing to acknowledge this are the finance sites. They can’t afford to let jingoism affect their bets, so they’ve been surprisingly clear-headed, saying outright that there’s nothing the West can do…
Analysts from Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Bank of America Corp. and Morgan Stanley have said Europe probably won’t back sanctions that limit flows of Russia’s oil and gas. European members of the Paris-based International Energy Agency imported 32 percent of their raw crude oil, fuels and gas-based chemical feedstocks from Russia in 2012.
It’s a sad day for America when you have to get your honest news from the pigs at Goldman Sachs, B of A, and Morgan Stanley. Kind of like Clarice having to walk through a gauntlet of tossed cum to hear Hannibal Lecter’s take on the latest serial killer. But the stats don’t lie: the EU gets a third of its energy from Russia, and no country on earth could survive a one-third cut in energy, especially an optional, self-inflicted one ordered by those up top on behalf of some people who, as far as anyone can tell, actually want to join Russia anyway.
Even if Angela Merkel isn’t bluffing when she says Germany is willing to suffer in the cold and dark to punish Russia, she’d have a hard time getting the less disciplined countries of the EU, which is all of them minus Germany, to go along. And if she somehow managed that, there’s no evidence the Russian economy would be hit especially hard. There’s always a buyer for oil, and Russia has pipelines that lead to other customers, like… oh, just off the top of my head: China.
Russia finished the final stage of the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) Pipeline in 2013. And, as usual, it was the obscure, apolitical business sites that talked most honestly about what that meant. Here’s an industry publication, Oil Price, describing in plain and simple terms what that pipeline means:
“Russia’s Transneft has opened its second and final branch of the $25 billion, 4,700km East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline to double its capacity to 30 million tons for total exports of 36 million tons in 2013.
There are three things of significance here:
The capacity-doubling pipeline could render the ESPO blend crude an official new blend on the world market
It makes Russia’s Far East a major infrastructure player, posing it to become a strategic transit point for oil to Japan, China, the US, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and Taiwan
It gives Russia more leverage over Europe.”
Yes indeed, “it gives Russia more leverage over Europe,” because though the EU needs Russian oil worse than any junkie ever needed a baggie, Russia no longer needs Europe as a customer. To be honest, no oil exporter or drug dealer ever really needs any particular customer; “Eto myf,” as the Russians say. But with the pipeline to China and East Asia running wide open, Russia wouldn’t even feel a sentimental twinge if the EU somehow went insane and destroyed its own economy to “punish” Russia.
If you want to understand the weird insults American insiders like McCain are throwing at Russia right now, you have to understand them in the context of an inevitable, easy, cost-free victory for Russia in Crimea. That’s a painful shock for an old Cold Warrior like McCain, and he can only respond with the kind of insults a playground-fight loser splutters at the retreating victor through his swollen, bleeding lips. Here’s McCain shouting at Putin while he bleeds onto the tetherball court:
“Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country,” McCain told CNN’s State of the Union. “It’s kleptocracy, it’s corruption, it’s a nation that is really only dependent upon oil and gas for their economy.”
Some of what McCain said is true. Russia under Putin is a corrupt kleptocracy, and Putin’s an authoritarian sleaze. In fact, one of the most bitter aspects of acknowledging Putin’s victory in Crimea is finding yourself on the same side as that cunning little rat and his merry band of murdering, extortionist chinovniki.
But the truth has rights, and the truth is that Putin has won in Crimea. Better to admit that than to shout insults at the victor, especially when your insults don’t even make sense. McCain says Russia makes its money off oil and gas; true, but so what? Is there a better product to be selling on the world market? What should Russia be making money from, mortgage foreclosures? Oil and gas seem like a relatively honest way to make money. At any rate, I never heard an American politician shout this kind of insult at our beloved ally, Saudi Arabia, even though everything McCain said about Russia goes double—triple, quintuple—for that place.
I guess the idea behind McCain’s playground jeer is something like, “You just got lucky, punk, finding all that oil under your territory!” The answer to that, as Mickey Rourke said in Barfly, is, “Yeah, but that counts too!”
Not to mention the fact that by conquering about one-sixth of the world’s land surface, the Russians pretty well guaranteed their descendants that something valuable would be found, sooner or later, under all that taiga. If Russia had held on to Alaska for just a dozen years longer, they’d have had pretty much all the oil and gas left in the Northern Hemisphere, but they were too busy killing and skinning the last sea otters.
Those Cold-War instincts also gave American insiders the sense that Russia would always back down if we talked tough. And you can’t blame them for thinking that way, because that really is the norm for the past half-century. The USSR was the most passive, hyper-cautious great power in history. What other empire allowed itself to be torn apart without fighting back? The Soviet armies facing off against NATO dissolved into “a sea of rusting tanks” without firing a shot, and during the Yeltsin era, post-Soviet Russia was even more passive and weak. The ultimate Russian climb-down came in 1999, a decade after the USSR dissolved itself, when Yeltsin—who was despised by most Russians as a groveling tool of the US—let Clinton schmooze him into deserting Serbia, one of Russia’s most loyal allies, and handing Kosovo to KLA ethnic cleansing.
That’s the sort of Russian behavior we expect. And it’s not happening this time. That’s where the outrage comes from: the spectacle of Russia cold-bloodedly going ahead with a move that the West has declared unacceptable. That’s not part of the tradition. They’re supposed to have flinched by now, and when they didn’t, a lot of Western commentators jumped to the conclusion that Putin must be plain crazy, as if that’s the only reason Russia could be acting in such a ruthless, assured manner.
Angela Merkel said Putin’s “in another world,” American pundits hinted he’s “lost it,” and the Washington Post warned of “big costs” for Russia if Putin went ahead and took Crimea, which is only a “consolation prize” anyway, something Russia has had to settle for after trying to grab all of Ukraine.
Merkel’s reaction is easy to understand. After all, Germany’s attempts to gobble up Ukraine in the two world wars didn’t end well, and since 1945 the whole idea of land-grabs and annexation makes today’s ultra-cautious, polite Germans feel a little faint.
The American pundits’ reactions are harder to justify, starting with the claim that Crimea is not worth taking, a welfare slum–“…one of the least wealthy regions of Ukraine” as WaPo’s Will Englund claimed. Like a lot of the wild claims Western pundits are making, that’s not actually true. Crimea ranks in the middle of Ukraine’s 27 oblasts by salary, with its big city, Sevastapol, coming in even higher, second only to Kyiv. But that stat misses the awe Russians feel for Crimea. Tolstoy had his damn epiphany there; The Tsars built their summer palace, Livadia, in Crimea; Nabokov spent 18 months there, hanging out at the Countess Sophia Panin’s estate in Gaspra.
So it’s just ignorant to claim that Crimea is a “consolation prize” for Russia. It may well be the only part of Ukraine they actually want, in fact.
If you’ve lived in Russia, it’s not hard to see why a place like Crimea makes the average Muscovite drool. Most of Russia is flat, freezing, and land-locked. Crimea, a peninsula full of Mediterranean forests and rocky hills, surrounded by warm blue water, was the kind of landscape most Russians dream of—the closest thing Russia had to the Greek Islands.
Russians do, in fact, value Crimea very highly. But try telling that to American pundits, like Peter Tchir does on this video, and you get the full frontal assault of that Anglo-American specialty, moralized jingoism.
Crimea, a peninsula almost detached from the wide grasslands of Ukraine proper, has been a very distinct—and distinctly Russian—region for more than a century.
Unlike many Eastern Ukrainians, who speak Russian and consider themselves culturally but not politically Russian, Crimeans identify strongly as Russians, politically and culturally. They were very unhappy when Yeltsin let Crimea go to Ukraine after the breakup of the USSR. Nobody’s mentioning it, but the fact is that there was already a referendum in Crimea on staying with Ukraine or rejoining Russia.
On January 20, 1991, Crimeans voted to restore their ties with Russia by almost the same percentage (93.2%) we saw in today’s election—where, according to the BBC, 93% of Crimean voters once again voted Russian.
That’s a remarkably consistent vote, considering what a lot of chaos and poverty have encompassed the region since 1991. Back then, of course, no one in the West took the results seriously, because everyone knew the USSR was evil and anyone defecting from it was good. But it might be worth remembering that election now–because with Russian economic and military power backing them, the Crimeans’ vote might actually count.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Crimea voted to return to Russia. Even the demographics made that an easy one to predict. According to Ukraine’s own 2001 Census, 58.3% of Crimeans consider themselves Russian, with only 24.3% identifying as Ukranian.
On Sunday, the Crimeans voted to join Russia in huge numbers—80% turnout, 95% for joining Russia according to reports. That result tracked with the BBC exit polls, which took into account the fact that most of the peninsula’s ethnic Tartars—about 14% of the population—boycotted the vote. That means a lot of ethnic Ukrainians (and maybe even a few ethnic Tartars) voted with the Russian bloc, and it’s not likely they did so because they’re rabid Russian nationalists. More likely, it reflects the fact that Ukraine is a very poor country, while Russia seems to be doing pretty well, for a “gas station masquerading as a country.” Ukraine is sort of the opposite: A country without the money to buy a tank of gas. The history of Ukraine in the 20th century is so horrific, such a non-stop nightmare, that it’s impossible to blame anyone who wants out.
When I meet Canadians whose last names end in ‘-enko,” I always think they should get down on their knees every night and say a prayer: “Thank you, God, for giving me great-grandparents smart enough to get out of Ukraine.” It’s useless assigning blame; the point is that it makes sense to vote for a country that can, at least in theory, protect you and give you a pittance, instead of one that has seen nothing but mass murder, artificial famine, pogrom and counter-pogrom, and endless ethnic hatred for as long as anyone can remember. The worst of it, for many quietly embittered Ukrainian intellectuals, is that no one even remembers the huge artificial famine Stalin used to annihilate the Ukrainian peasantry.
Nobody but the poor Armenians has had to live so long with a genocide that never makes the media.
And while the Ukrainian peasantry was being wiped out, the New York Times’s correspondent, Walter Duranty, was feasting with Stalin’s nervous cronies and denying that there was any famine at all. Those who survived the Holodomor (“Death by Hunger”) were just in time for the German invasion, the Soviet counterattack, and the pogroms accompanying every back-and-forth as the two most powerful, merciless armies in modern history pushed each other back and forth over those grassy plains.
So, yeah: I don’t blame any Ukrainian for hating Russia, or the West, or the whole damn world; they’ve got a right, if anyone does. But you can’t blame the Crimeans, either, for wanting to opt out of a terrible history.
The only people who deserve real blame are the ones Walter Sobchak would call “fuckin’ amateurs”—the D.C. wonks suddenly pronouncing moral judgment on one or another faction in this Ukraine quarrel. Maybe there should be a quiz before you get to mouth off about topics as grim and complex as this one, or at least a little compulsory outside reading. They could start with Limonov’s Podrostok Savenko, (“The Adolescent Savenko” [“Savenko” being Limonov’s real, and very Ukrainian-sounding, last name]) mistranslated as “Memoir of A Russian Punk” —a magnificent memoir of growing up as a Russian/Ukrainian in Kharkov/Kharkiv, in the northeastern part of the country.
Limonov and his friends consider themselves Russians, because to them, Ukrainian is a “village tongue,” a peasant language, and its most vivid expressions are of the endless hatred that filled every one of the many tribes on the grasslands, like this one: “Into Muscovite, Polack, and Jew/Take your knife and stick it through.” That doesn’t mean that any of those other groups were any saintlier than the Ukrainians; on the contrary, they were all caught up in fear and hate. But it does damn well mean that Ukraine has not been a healthy place for children or other living things, not in the memory of anyone alive—or their grandparents. Remember that before you blame anybody wanting to sign up with a bigger, stronger gang with more loot, even one as sleazy as Putin’s Russia.
The other book would-be Ukraine wonks should read carefully is Bulgakov’s 1924 novel, The White Guard. It’s one of the grimmest stories you’ll ever read, the miserable tale of how a kind, intelligent, well-educated Kiev family is ground down by the feral violence of post-1917 Russia. There are no good factions in Bulgakov’s novel. There are good people, lots of them, but their goodness finds no voice in the groups contending for Ukraine. The Whites are inept, lazy, and selfish; Petlyura’s army is full of vicious soldiers of fortune who have a bad habit of disemboweling any Jew they find on the road; and in the background are the Bolsheviks, always closer—not corrupt at all, which makes them the most efficient gang of murderers in the whole accursed landscape. Bulgakov’s thesis in this novel is very simple: Nothing good can happen here.
So if you had the opportunity to declare yourself a Russian, with the security of living on a highly-defensible diamond-shaped peninsula with only two narrow access points, you might well decide to sign up with Putin’s Russia rather than whoever has declared him- or herself Hetman in Kiev.
[Image via Wikipedia]