Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 9, 2016

Ukraine, NATO and Noam Chomsky’s deficits

Filed under: Chomsky,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm


Showing up on TomDispatch, the Guardian, Alternet, CounterPunch and ZNet just for starts is an excerpt from Noam Chomsky’s new book Who Rules The World?, which is basically a variant on the same book he has been writing for 25 years or so. For example, in 2004 he came out with Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance and before that in 1992 What Uncle Sam Wants. Such books have had an enormous influence, mostly beneficial. Unfortunately, given the geopolitical orientation that serves as Chomsky’s compass, there is a tendency to adopt a Manichean understanding of world politics in which the USA symbolizes Darkness. While it is true that the USA is evil, it does not follow that those who oppose it are pure as the driven snow. Of course, an anarchist like Chomsky would never write the same kind of pro-Kremlin propaganda as a Seymour Hersh or a Patrick Cockburn, but he has come dangerously close on occasion and even wandered into their territory.

The most obvious example is Chomsky relying on the word of Cockburn about Syria who he described as “doing the best job of reporting” on ISIS. Probably like so many on the left, Chomsky is simply uninformed about the critiques of Cockburn mounted by Idrees Ahmad and others. It was Ahmad who debunked Cockburn’s characterization of the Assad dictatorship being ISIS’s main enemy. There was abundant evidence that the Baathists had worked out a nonaggression pact not long after ISIS showed up in Syria.

The excerpt does not take up Syria but it does have a section on Ukraine, another country susceptible to Manichean geopolitical reductionism. Chomsky writes:

Of particular concern to Russia are plans to expand NATO to Ukraine. These plans were articulated explicitly at the Bucharest NATO summit of April 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership in NATO. The wording was unambiguous: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” With the “Orange Revolution” victory of pro-Western candidates in Ukraine in 2004, State Department representative Daniel Fried rushed there and “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” as a WikiLeaks report revealed.

Russia’s concerns are easily understandable. They are outlined by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer in the leading U.S. establishment journal, Foreign Affairs. He writes that “the taproot of the current crisis [over Ukraine] is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” which Putin viewed as “a direct threat to Russia’s core interests.”

This passage encapsulates Chomsky’s intellectual and political deficits when it comes to the traditional Cold War narrative, especially quoting a realist like Mearsheimer. If I read something like moving “Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit”, alarm bells would go off. How in the world does an anarchist repeat the words of a shithook like Mearsheimer on Moscow’s prerogatives? By this yardstick, JFK had every right to blockade Cuba since it was traditionally in Washington’s orbit. Mearsheimer was a supporter of the first Gulf War, writing an op-ed piece in the NY Times on February 8, 1991 that concluded: “Fortunately, a quick victory will reduce losses on both sides and allow the U.S. to turn to the more difficult task of helping to construct a lasting political settlement in the region.” My suggestion is to stop treating Mearsheimer as some kind of expert witness. He is only a step above Henry Kissinger on the food chain.

Like so many on the left, Chomsky’s tendency is to find the secret telltale document that will reveal the truth about American intentions so that the scales will fall from his reader’s eyes and turn him into a resolute anti-imperialist. More often than not, the smoking gun turns up in Wikileaks as indicated above. What needs to be addressed, however, is the complex interplay of Western and Ukrainian interests with respect to NATO that are by no means as Manichean Black-and-White as Chomsky would have you believe.

Speaking of colors, a lot of the confusion arises with the Orange Revolution of 2004 that grew out of anger over the perception that the presidential elections that year had been rigged. It pitted the Western favorite Viktor Yushchenko against Viktor Yanukovych, whose initial victory was tainted by corruption, voter intimidation and outright fraud. Massive protests eventually led to a recount and Yuschenko being declared the winner.

Whatever Yuschenko or Daniel Fried favored, the fact was that NATO was not popular with the Ukrainian people—a fact that somehow gets lost in the shuffle in the millions of words written about their nation’s post-Soviet history. The Jamestown Foundation reported on a poll taken in 2008:

A recent public opinion poll on the issue, conducted by the Kyiv-based Sofia think-tank from May 7 to 14, showed that only 21.4 percent of Ukrainians are inclined to support NATO membership, and 53 percent of those polled approved of the April failure to secure a MAP [Membership Action Plan]. The poll identified the main reasons for the negative attitude to NATO membership. Most Ukrainians fear that this would spoil relations with Russia (74 percent of those polled), force them to take part in US-led wars (67 percent), exacerbate tension in society (60 percent), prompt more spending on defense (58 percent), and make Ukraine a target for terrorists (58 percent).

With so many leftists regarding the Ukrainians as an undifferentiated mass of puppets whose strings are pulled by George Soros (except in the workers’ paradises in Donetsk and Luhansk of course), this kind of information is best swept under the rug if it ever came up on their radar screen to begin with. People like Noam Chomsky, I’m afraid, only read material that reinforces their own bias.

The will of the people was obviously reflected in decisions made at the top. Despite the fact that the president of Ukraine was all in favor of a hard linkage to Washington, there was little evidence of rapid progress toward that end, nor any signs that Yanukovych, the Kremlin’s best friend, was particularly opposed to ties with NATO.

In 2006, Yanukovych became Ukraine’s Prime Minister, a post that is below that of President but that has significant political weight. He replaced Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been fired by Yuschenko for mismanaging the economy. Despite her reputation as a mortal enemy of Russia and a heroine of the Orange Revolution, she was Putin’s favorite politician in Ukraine and arrested for her part in a crooked deal that favored Russian gas exporters.

Despite his reputation as a fierce opponent of the West, Yanukovych was okay with NATO as Novye Izvestia reported on August 9, 2006:

Ukraine’s newly-appointed prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, is continuing the previous government’s policy of integration into the European Union and NATO. What’s more, at the end of last week the Supreme Rada, controlled by Yanukovych, passed a resolution legalizing the presence of foreign troops in Ukraine. NATO soldiers will soon take part in three military exercises, and NATO vessels will visit Sevastopol in September.

One month later he made a speech at NATO HQ in Brussels that could have been made by Yuschenko himself, as reported by the BBC on September 21:

Today we have the intention of concentrating on deepening relationships of partnership with the Alliance on the basis of Intensified dialogue on membership and the annual goals of action plans.

Ukraine highly values the level of cooperation with NATO. We value continual support for our Euroatlantic desires, support for military reform and democratic and market transformations.

Among the foremost priorities of government activity are strengthening informational work in sphere of relations with NATO. There is not a lack of such programmes, but they need to be augmented with specific content.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, there’s a Washington Post article dated November 28, 2006 that reveals Yanukovych as a willing tool of the West—the kind of reprobate who deserved a swift kick in the pants from a bona fide anti-imperialist like Noam Chomsky:

“My goal, first, is to develop a strategic relationship between Ukraine and the United States that is predictable, effective and has a good perspective,” he said of his Washington visit, during which he will meet with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His aides are still hoping for a meeting with President Bush, however brief. According to protocol, he should meet only with the vice president, since he is not the head of state, but a presidential handshake would imply some acceptance of Yanukovych’s new incarnation.

Ever read anything about Yanukovych like this on TomDispatch, ZNet, CounterPunch, DissidentVoice, Alternet, Truthout or the Nation Magazine? I bet you didn’t.

Now some of you might think that Yanukovych was taking this tack because as Yuschenko’s subordinate he was obligated to. Was he just waiting for the day when he could reveal to the world that he was a genuine fighter for the “axis of resistance” and maybe the next best thing to Lenin today (even if he had to keep that a secret from Putin who described Lenin as Russia’s worst nightmare)?

In 2010, he would run for president against Yulia Tymoshenko, who was widely regarded by the Kremlin’s friends in the west as a mortal threat to Russia, the woman who was on the phone with Victoria Nuland about how Ukraine would become a colony of the West and who shocked the world (or at least the conspiracy-minded part of it) for advocating that the Russians be “nuked” for intervening in Ukraine against Euromaidan. As a candidate he could repudiate his sordid past, just as Donald Trump did when he spoke about making donations to politicians so as to influence legislation that would favor his businesses.

Well, once again reality defies anti-imperialist schemas as the Observer reported on January 10, 2010:

Yanukovych is understood to have angered Moscow by supporting Ukraine’s attempt to join the EU. But Tymoshenko has become the unexpected hero of the Kremlin, after tempering the anti-Russian stance that was a hallmark of her 2004 campaign and early premiership. While remaining avowedly pro-EU, she has built a pragmatic alliance with Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister. The two very publicly ended the drawn-out gas dispute between the two countries last winter and were credited with avoiding a repeat this year. Tymoshenko now calls the Orange Revolution “a revolution of lost opportunities”.

After winning the election, Yanukovych continued to demonstrate the trustworthiness to the West that somehow got overlooked in the analysis of Chomsky, Stephen F. Cohen, John Mearsheimer and other denizens of prestigious American academic outposts. On October 8, 2010 the BBC filed a report titled President reaffirms Ukraine’s EU bid, says ties with NATO “comfortable”. He reassured an audience of French academics and businessmen that he was on the same wavelength as them:

He reaffirmed Kiev’s bid to join the EU. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency at 0950 gmt on 8 October quoted him as saying: “I have always insisted and still insist that Ukraine will never drop either its European integration policy or its ambition to become a EU member.”

“Ukraine has the right to expect more from the EU,” Yanukovych continued. “We are not seeking to have it all and have it now, but we think that it is possible to speak today about the conclusion of an association agreement and about preparations for the introduction of visa-free travel.”

He said that, to achieve this, Ukraine was ready to do “homework” and carry out reforms.

Yanukovych also said that Ukraine was pleased with its relations with NATO, Interfax-Ukraine reported at 0906 gmt the same day.

“Relations with NATO are currently taking shape. They are comfortable for both Ukraine and NATO. They are open and honest, at least,” he said, adding that Ukraine was developing pragmatic relations with the alliance through participation in its peacekeeping missions and fight against terrorism.

Up until this point, the average Ukrainian could give less of a shit about NATO. He or she did want to be part of the EU because they saw it—rightly or wrongly—as an alternative to the kleptocracy they had been living under.

When Yanukovych was essentially blackmailed into backing away from the EU and falling in line with Russia economically and politically, the country erupted. Have doubts about whether Yanukovych was coerced? Then just consider what Fred Weir reported in the Christian Science Monitor on October 23, 2012:

President Vladimir Putin met with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych at the Russian leader’s country home Novo Ogaryovo late Monday, and declared some progress toward Mr. Putin’s goal of integrating Ukraine’s economy with Russia’s. But he gave no word addressing Mr. Yanukovych’s hope of winning a reduced price for Russian natural gas exports to his post-Soviet nation.

The meeting, though one in a routine series, illustrates that Ukraine may be gradually edging toward Russia as its other alternatives wear thin. The Ukrainian economy, which has few natural resources, has suffered badly in recent years, in part due to the deepening crisis in the European Union, in part thanks to the crippling price of Russian natural gas for its extremely inefficient industry and housing stock. Yanukovych’s insistence on prosecuting and jailing his main opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, has deeply alienated the EU and further complicated any chances for economic integration with the West.

“There are some reasons to think that Ukraine and Russia’s positions are drawing closer,” says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Kiev Center of Political and Conflict Studies.

“If we don’t develop our relations with Russia, Ukraine might be facing serious economic problems,” he adds. “Trade turnover with Europe has been falling due to the recession, and Ukraine’s government budget is in serious doubt. The only direction we can look for financial aid would be Russia. If the worst happens, and there is no money to pay pensions and other benefits, our authorities will be in trouble.”

That might ring a bell. It is just the Kremlin using its muscle on a head of state who had very little leverage. It is just the Russian version of what the Germans did to Alexi Tsipras. Once the Ukrainians got wind of this betrayal, they came out into the streets. They came out not because Victoria Nuland got on the phone with Yulia Tymoshenko or because Daniel Fried “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” If you’ve had to put up with police brutality, corruption, neglected social services, and a general sense of being a colonial subject, you too would take to the streets and raise hell. It is to the everlasting shame of the Western left that it cannot get it into its thick skull that the Syrians and Ukrainians have the same kind of aspirations as the rest of humanity, no matter what Noam Chomsky thinks.


  1. One wonders what will happen when Chomsky passes away. I suppose a substantial number of U.S. leftists will have to learn how to think for themselves.

    Comment by jschulman — May 9, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

  2. “How in the world does an anarchist repeat the words of a shithook like Mearsheimer on Moscow’s prerogatives?”

    I started to read Chomsky’s article, and couldn’t. It is the sort of geopolitical obscurantism that now passes for leftist analysis of global conflicts. There is no class analysis to be found.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 10, 2016 @ 2:22 pm

  3. He’s looking a lot like the old man who lost his wife in “A Clockwork Orange” these days!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 12, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

  4. Chomsky has always been a good critic of US foreign policy for a general audience, but never anything else. After all he called on people to vote for John Kerry.

    Comment by Marcus — May 12, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

  5. Sadly, the left is ready to be apologist for virtually all tyranny and mass murderers as long as it’s anti-america and anti west, from ho chi minh of vietnam to assad of syria. Chomsky is not an exception

    Comment by yicai — May 15, 2016 @ 7:51 am

  6. [A] substantial number of U.S. leftists will have to learn how to think for themselves.

    Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn (two very different figures, but in my mind complementary and in a way inseparable) were invaluable for decades in teaching generations of budding American radicals to think–no mean feat in a culture that idealizes Forrest Gump and regards the human mind as a beautiful tabula rasa on which as little as possible should be written, lest its purity be lost.

    Chomsky’s deficits (apt phrase) have always been clear from the Marxist perspective, but so have his strengths.

    I wonder how Chomsky would react if informed about “the critiques of Cockburn mounted by Idrees Ahmad and others.” The world being what it is, he would probably dig his heels in and double down on his current stance; still it would be interesting if someone gave him the opportunity to respond. I think Louis may be right in suggesting that he is actually uninformed–whether he would find Ahmad et al credible or not is another matter.

    I agree with what Louis says here–and Schulman’s reference to Trotsky is apt–but let’s not throw too much mud at Chomsky on his way out, deficits or no.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — May 16, 2016 @ 7:40 pm

  7. […] a bell? It should because that was the same excuse JFK made for the Cuban missile crisis. Indeed, even Noam Chomsky acknowledged Russia’s right to bully Ukraine on this […]

    Pingback by Max Blumenthal and the Streisand Effect | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 12, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

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