In a democratic country, it is a matter of basic principle that elections are preferable to violence as a way of resolving conflict, and that after a government has been elected, you don’t take up arms to overthrow it.
These are excellent principles. But when dealing with political conflicts in foreign countries, democratic powers too often forget their own principles.
Instead we apply double standards — one set of rules which we insist that our opponents ought to follow, another set of rules for our friends.
After the Geneva conference in 1954, in which both sides in the French Indochina War agreed to elections throughout Vietnam, the US government backed a group in the south who didn’t want the elections to go ahead. The US and its friends expected any elections to be won by the party of Ho Chi Minh, who was considered to be on the wrong side in the Cold War. The US government violated democratic principle, and this led to years of bloodshed, and ultimately to debacle for the US itself.
Two years ago in Ukraine (Feb 2014), the US government supported the paramilitary overthrow of an elected government which had not completed its term — the government of Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions. This violation of democratic principle has already led to two years of bloodshed. Will it lead ultimately to another Vietnam-like debacle for the USA?
Régime change in Ukraine: timeline
What was the character of the régime change in Ukraine in 2014? Here is a timeline of key events…
- November 2013 Yanukovych announces plans for closer economic ties Russian Federation, calls off negotiations for an agreement with the European Union.
- November 2013 to February 2014. Demonstrators occupy central Kiev. Anti-government paramilitary groups assemble in the areas occupied by demonstrators. Western powers insist that Yanukovych must not suppress the protests.
- February 18, 2014. Opposition forces take over government buildings in Lviv (west of Kiev) and help themselves to over one thousand pistols and assault rifles.
- February 19, 2014 President Obama makes a statement condemning “violence” and holding the Ukrainian government “primarily responsible for dealing with peaceful protestors in an appropriate way”. He also says: “we expect peaceful protestors to remain peaceful”.
- February 20, 2014 Shootings by still-unidentified snipers in central Kiev result in over 50 deaths. Those killed are mostly protesters, but also some police. To opponents of Yanukovych, it is smoking-gun evidence against him.
- February 21, 2014 Yanukovych meets opposition leaders, agrees to a national unity government and early elections. The agreement is immediately rejected by leaders of the paramilitary groups.
- February 21-22, 2014 Paramilitary leader Andriy Parubiy announces that his forces, the “Maidan Self-Defence”, have taken up positions in Kiev government buildings, including the parliament building, the president’s building and national police headquarters. (See this report from the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN.) Yanukovych leaves Kiev. US ambassador Pyatt gloats that it is “a day for the history books”.
- February 22 to 27, 2014 Ukraine’s well-guarded parliament declares that Yanukovych is no longer president, and establishes a new government team, none of whom are members of the Party of Regions.
- April 2014 CIA director John Brennan visits Ukraine to discuss security cooperation with the country’s new leaders.
- April-May 2014 The new government in Kiev begins an “anti-terrorist operatiion” against people in eastern Ukraine who don’t recognise its legitimacy. The US representative at the UN Security Council calls the new régime’s behaviour “appropriate and reasonable”.
Obama’s statement on February 19 looks unobjectionable until the context is understood. Seizure of weapons from government armouries is hardly peaceful protest.
The February 20 “snipers’ massacre” gave opposition forces a plausible excuse for the final push against President Yanukovych. Did police panic and play into the hands of the opposition, or was the massacre a false-flag operation by the opposition paramilitary leaders? An analysis of publicly available sources, by political scientist Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa, seems to show that the snipers operated from buildings already controlled by opposition paramilitary; implying a false-flag operation.
Régime change in Ukraine: bottom line
Historian Timothy Snyder, an articulate advocate for the new Kiev régime, described what happened as a “classic popular revolution”. Or should that be “classic populist insurrection”?
In any case, doesn’t history show that classic revolutions are often followed by classic counter-revolutions, leading to a classic civil war? Maybe that’s one way of looking at the current war in Ukraine…
Political scientist Nicolai Petro compared the February events to the 1922 March on Rome, the armed demonstration which brought to power Europe’s first Fascist government.
While there is no reason to suppose that the régime change was micro-managed by the US government or its EU allies, public statements from US leaders show consistent support for the Maidanist “revolution”, before, during and after the capture of state power.
Developments since the régime change
The paramilitary forces which brought down Yanukovych have been rebranded as sections of the Ukrainian army and given better weapons.
The new régime held its own elections, in conditions of civil war and paramilitary power — elections boycotted in major cities of eastern Ukraine. Like the elections conducted by the Diem régime in South Vietnam in 1959, they were designed to legitimate one side in a conflict, rather than to resolve the conflict.
Andriy Parubiy, who led the paramilitary forces in February 2014, is currently the speaker of the Ukrainian national parliament.
Worrying parallels between western handling of the Vietnam war yesterday and the conflict in Ukraine today:
(1) Hawkish positions are taken not only by conservatives, but also by liberals.
Supporters of the militant pro-western régime in South Vietnam included not only conservatives like Curtis LeMay and Barry Goldwater, but also liberals like John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Supporters of the militant pro-western régime in Kiev include not only conservatives like John McCain and Tony Abbott, but also liberals like Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as George Soros and the German Green intellectual Ralf Fücks.
(2) Widespread refusal, by western politicians and media, to recognise agency of people in the conflicted country who are on the other side.
During the Vietnam war, western politicians and media gave little thought to why many peasant farmers in southern Vietnam supported the NLF. Instead, the NLF was dismissed as a proxy of North Vietnam, and the government of North Vietnam as a proxy of China and the Soviet Union.
Today western politicians and media show a similar disinclination to ask why industrial workers and farmworkers in eastern and southern Ukraine oppose the current Kiev régime. Instead opponents of the régime are dismissed as proxies of President Putin, and the civil war in Ukraine is called a proxy war.
In this way, western policies which played a part in starting the conflict and which perpetuate it are packaged in idealistic terms, as supporting a comparatively small “free” nation against a stronger adversary.
A difference between now and then
On a more positive note, there’s at least one big difference between the situation now and the Vietnam war days. Back then, we didn’t have the internet. Existence of online media makes it easier today to develop and express an alternative position. If we’re prepared to make the effort…
Colin Robinson lives in Sydney, Australia. He grew up during the Vietnam War period, and has a lifelong interest in relations between different nations and cultures, as well as in protest movements and social change. He studied Social and Political Theory and Chinese Studies at Murdoch University, Western Australia. He is an essay writer on matters of war and peace, comparative religion and the relation between mind and nature. Examples of his writing can be found through the website Kali for the World, and at the question-and-answer site Quora.