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John Lloyd/Reuters: The claims for Russian imperialism

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The more or less liberal, democratic, capitalist countries that make up seven of the Group of Eight (G8) have condemned Russia and are discussing boycotting the June G8 meeting in Sochi. There is even talk of expelling Russia from the group.

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This western government consensus against Russia’s actions is based on evidence that prompted the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to say that it is “hard to avoid concluding that Russia does not want peace and does not want a diplomatic solution.”

It is time, since this is what news media in democracies do, to question that consensus. Let’s consider the case for what’s being called Russian neo-imperialism.

Claim: President Victor Yanukovich was democratically elected by the people of Ukraine in 2010.

He was, by a reasonable margin. Though his main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, alleged fraud, she later withdrew her claim. But after growing corruption, tightened authoritarian rule and the murder by apparently state-sponsored thugs of more than 80 people protesting against Yanukovich’s rule, the parliament in Kiev voted by a substantial majority to strip him of office. Later, with a similar majority, it voted to accept the new government that is now in place.

Claim: The protesters were led by, or at least had among their number, a large contingent of far rightists who are violently anti-Russian and anti-Semitic.

There are such forces in Ukraine. They were part of the protests and they at times received praise from the demonstrators for their courage. But, according to the historian Timothy Snyder, the far-right party Svoboda (“Freedom”) is a small electoral force. The more militant Right Sector has so far stressed “that their goal is political and not ethnic or racial,” Snyder writes. The latter is, he admitted, “the group to watch,” since its rhetoric has been strongly hostile to all foreign, and especially Russian and Jewish, influence. But it does not lead the movement, and the ousting of Yanukovich cannot be represented truthfully as a “fascist coup.”

Claim: Russians in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have cause for alarm and need protection.

There have been fiery speeches against Russian “imperialism.” The day after the deputies fired Yanukovich, they passed a law banning the teaching of Russian. This was condemned by, among others, the Foreign Minister of Poland, Radek Sikorski and was quickly scrapped. A likely contender for the next president of Ukraine, the former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko who is a Russian-speaker, has stressed unity and balance in the parliament.

There have been no recorded attacks on Russians anywhere, including where they are a minority — as in the west of Ukraine. As Power said at the U.N., “the Russian military action is not a human rights protection mission.”

Claim: The European Union was the real imperialist actor, and in wooing Ukraine it damaged Russian interests.

It’s probably true that the EU was at least naïve in offering an “association agreement” to Ukraine and failing to anticipate the Russian response. But the draft agreement was initialed by President Yanukovich in 2012. Russia didn’t like this and in 2013 it temporarily banned some Ukrainian products from its market, yet it was reasonable to suppose President Vladimir Putin would reluctantly acquiesce in time. Instead, Russia became more upset.

Andreas Umland, a German political scientist who lives and works in Ukraine, told me he believes that, as Russia’s economy falters, Putin needs a foreign policy success to offset the threat to living standards. “He began to stress the importance of the Eurasian Union (a free trade area planned to take in most of the former states of the Soviet Union) and he needs Ukraine for this to be credible. He needs a political success. It became quite existential for the regime,” Umland said.

Claim: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has had a history of promises betrayed by the West.

The largest complaint — made by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and repeated often by Putin — is that the West promised that NATO would not expand east to the Soviet border, and it has. There is substantial cause for Russian anger here. It seems likely that at least one western foreign minister — the German Hans-Dietrich Genscher — has made such a pledge, along with probably James Baker, then the U.S. Secretary of State.

All that can be said against the Russian position is that NATO has never threatened Russia; that the former Communist states of central and Eastern Europe demanded membership; and that, even in the present situation, NATO has threatened no retaliation.

Many also blame the West for forcing Russia, immediately after the collapse of the USSR and under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, to adopt economic “shock therapy” in the form of privatization and deep cuts to social programs. But Russia - and all of the Soviet Union — was bankrupt, and only a desperate effort to create a market got things moving again. The widespread impoverishment and misery was the result of the bankruptcy of the economic system. After the initial marketization, the economy became, under Yeltsin and then Putin, a “managed capitalism” with the state in control.

Claim: The West should be nice to Russia not only because Russia is going to have a hard time, but also because it’s dangerous.

In some ways, this is the most substantial point. The strength that Putin likes to project is increasingly illusory. Russian growth is less than two percent today, the population is falling fast, there is little modernization, the economy is buoyed by oil and gas prices that are likely to fall and corruption sits at the heart of every enterprise. Western sanctions will deepen this disastrous situation, and though they should be imposed, it’s still more urgent to find a new form of relationship.

This means finding a solution to the Ukraine issue, which can command the assent of the new government in Kiev and the governments of Russia, the EU and the U.S. But don’t hold your breath. Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Barack Obama after talking to the Russian president, is in “another world” — a world where everything depends on a projection of strength at whatever cost, with no prospect of the Russian parliament voting him out.

JOHN LLOYD is a Reuters columnist.

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