AISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
Russian forces have invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, escalating tensions in the already volatile region. European countries and the United States have threatened political and economic sanctions, and officials have denounced the Russian intervention as a violation of international law. According to some reports, the commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has demanded Ukraine military forces in the region surrender or face a military assault. But the Russian Defense Ministry has denied this.
Now joining us to discuss this is Robert Parry. He’s a renowned investigative journalist, founder and editor of ConsortiumNews.com.
Thank you so much for joining us, Robert.
ROBERT PARRY, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Thanks for having me.
NOOR: So let’s first start by addressing this move by the Russians. Is it a violation of international law? And they’ve justified it by saying there’s a humanitarian crisis. Is there any indication to support this?
PARRY: Well, I think it seems like international law is–almost depends on the eye of the beholder at this point.
We have, in the case of Ukraine, a democratically elected leader in Yanukovych who was overthrown by a coup d’état that was spearheaded by neo-Nazi militias after he’d agreed to move up the elections so people could even vote him out of office if they wished. That led to his being forced to flee and a sort of rump parliament begin to pass a bunch of laws while some of these neo-Nazi militias control the government buildings.
So I think how you look at this depends on whether you consider President Yanukovych still a legitimate leader, elected leader of the country. He has asked for Russian help. And the situation with Ukraine is a bit complicated in that Crimea was historically part of Russia. It was only moved into Ukraine as part of a procedural matter when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.
So it’s a much more mixed situation, I suppose, than, say, the U.S. invading Iraq back in 2003, which was more clearly a violation of international law. But I suppose legal scholars could give you different opinions about it.
NOOR: And you write a lot about–you’ve written a lot about what the neocons and other officials in the Obama administration have–their roles in this and how it’s played out. But let’s kind of talk about, let’s address the internal factors as well, because it did appear, especially in the western parts of Ukraine, that there was this popular sentiment that Yanukovych had to go. What’s your response to that?
PARRY: Well, I mean, obviously Yanukovych is an imperfect leader, and many flaws. But that’s probably true of all the Ukrainian politicians, and, frankly, it’s probably true of all our politicians. But he was elected in 2010. He even agreed to move up the elections so the policy dispute that was at the center of this could be tested out. He was chosen by a majority of the Ukrainian people. Now, many of them come from the South and East, which are more Russian-oriented. And Kiev is based in the western part, which is more European-oriented. But still, the idea that a minority would be able to overthrow an elected leader doesn’t strike me as particularly democratic. It would be as if some group [snip] decided to get rid of a president of the United States who has strong support across the country. It’s not a real act of democracy for a minority to overthrow a democratically elected leader.
And the issue at play, really, was not one like possibly a structural issue. It wasn’t as if Yanukovych had said, we’re not going to have future elections and I’m just going to be president for life. The issue was whether or not he should accept an E.U. economic package that involved major concessions to the IMF, i.e. more austerity for Ukraine, or whether he would accept a more generous package of a $15 billion from Russia, which is already supporting Ukraine through discounted natural gas. So it was really a policy issue, not an issue of whether democracy would go forward.
Yet it became this issue where a group, a minority group in the streets, decided to get rid of their president. And that can be cheered on by some people, I suppose, but it’s not exactly an act of democracy for a minority to overthrow a democratically elected president.
NOOR: And so talk about what the West’s role has been in this, especially the United States and Germany, which is another player in this whole affair that hasn’t gotten as much attention.
PARRY: Well, the United States has been trying to pry Ukraine away from a close relationship with Russia. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said in December to a group of business leaders that the United States had invested $5 billion, she said, in helping Ukraine achieve its European aspirations, that is, moving it away from Russia into the E.U. So, obviously, the United States has played a role in trying to achieve this antidemocratic transition. As much as they may call it democratic, overthrowing an elected leader is on its face not democratic.
There’s also the issue of the National Endowment for Democracy and another U.S.-funded political operations. NED, according to its report, has 65 projects underway in Ukraine, including training activists, supporting journalists, organizing business groups, essentially creating a sort of a shadow political structure that could be put in play to destabilize the country. And that’s what we’ve seen here. We saw a destabilization of a country–which had problems, no question, and had leadership that was very flawed. But still, instead of going through a constitutional electoral process, another approach was taken.
And Yanukovych did agree–after the protests turned violent, he agreed to a deal negotiated by the E.U. to advance the elections and to have the police stand down.
NOOR: The counter–.
PARRY: And it was after that [the militias] intervened and took power, basically, and forced him to flee, along with his administration.
NOOR: And–sorry about that. Our connection cut out for a moment.
But I guess–so the counterpoint would be, despite the external pressure, despite the role the West has played in Ukraine, this could not have happened without this popular uprising. And some reports, at least, have indicated that at least–you know, there are definitely fascist groups, part of this opposition movement. But it did include some broader parts of the middle and the working class, at least in the western region.
And I also wanted to get your take on what’s at stake here. Why is this such a vital part of–economically and with the industrial base there, what exactly is at stake for the West and for Russia?
PARRY: Well, you know, I think for Russia this is a–has an important strategic value. It’s on their border. And along the Black Sea in the Crimea, the Russians have had traditional military bases. And Crimea was historically part of Russia. It was–as I say, it was only put into the Ukraine for more of a bureaucratic reason when they all were part of the Soviet Union, so it didn’t really matter much.
So you have your Russian people of Russian ethnicity who speak Russian, who feel that they essentially are Russian, who are now being put under this minority-coup-generated government.
And, you know, this goes back historically to many ways where the United States has overthrown elected governments in the past. And in all those cases, you could say that the elected leaders had flaws and that there was some legitimacy, there was some opposition to them, whether it was Mosaddegh in Iran in ’53 or Árbenz in Guatemala in ’54 or Allende in Chile in ’73 or Morsi a year or so ago in Egypt, you can always–and there are many, many more, Aristide twice in Haiti. So you can always cite these flawed leaders and say that there are elements in those countries that legitimately want to get rid of their elected leadership, and the United States sides with them. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for the people of those countries, ultimately. In all the cases I mentioned, I think you could argue that it was worse for them. They ended up under severe dictatorships, often fascist dictatorships. In the case of Iran you had decades of control by the Shah of Iran. In the case of Guatemala, you had 200,000 peasants being slaughtered. You had–in the case of Chile, you had widespread repression under Pinochet. So, you know, you don’t always–so while it may seem like it’s all very nice that Victoria Nuland, our assistant secretary of state for European affairs goes out and passes out cookies to the demonstrators in the plaza, it doesn’t always lead to what is best for the people of that country.
NOOR: And, Robert Parry, finally–we’re almost out of time, but what does a principled position on this conflict look like for you, in your opinion?
PARRY: Well, a principled position was, I think, what was ultimately negotiated before the coup occurred, which was to have the police back off, let the protesters have their say, allow for early elections, allow the people of Ukraine to really have a voice in what they want their government to do. I suppose what we’re now faced with, essentially, is a civil war on the Russian border, which maybe some of the neocons in the United States thinks is a pretty clever idea, but it’s obviously a very dangerous idea. So I think principle is almost one thing at this point. Practicality and how to avoid a worse conflict or a worse crisis is what people really should be focused on, rather than trying to make hay out of being tough and swaggering, which is what we’re seeing in official Washington. We’re seeing a lot of chests puffed out. We’re seeing a lot of tough talk about standing up to the Russians. We’re seeing kind of a Cold War mentality sort of clamp down on us. That’s a very dangerous thing. And it’s also dangerous because Putin and Obama have had a constructive relationship in avoiding confrontations or worsened confrontations in places like Iran, in places like Syria. Violence there has been avoided, or at least the escalation of the violence has been avoided, because Putin and Obama have been able to strike deals. Now that whole relationship is at risk, which puts a whole number of other issues in play: whether or not the Syria conflict will spiral further out of control with U.S. intervention, whether Iran’s negotiations will fail, whether that will lead to bombings of the nuclear sites. So a lot is in play here. And I think the neoconservatives who have been trying to stir this up, including Victoria Nuland, who is a holdover at the State Department from the Bush years, that the neocons want to achieve this idea of creating more pressure and more confrontation. They have achieved that. But I’m not sure it’s a good idea for the world or for the United States’ policies.
NOOR: And I just wanted to follow up on one point you make. And I don’t mean to keep badgering this point. So, you know, you listed a number of countries where the U.S. intervened or the U.S. supported a coup and toppled democratically elected leader. But the U.S. also tried that in places like Venezuela and Bolivia, and they weren’t successful, because the government did enjoy popularity, and it was able to–well, in the case of Venezuela, at least, get back into power after the overthrow, after the coup of the president. So, just quickly, if you could, respond to that.
PARRY: Well, in Venezuela we’re seeing a similar set of circumstances now against the government of Maduro. Whether he can survive is another question.
But not every coup the United States has tried to instigate in the last, you know, 40, 50 years has been successful. But a lot of them have been. And the ones that have been have usually ended up in worse situations for the people of those countries. I don’t think historically that can be disputed. So the fact that some coups are successful and some aren’t doesn’t reflect, really, the popular will of the countries. I don’t think the people of Iran, broadly speaking, were interested in having the Shah back in ’53 or the people of Guatemala were eager to have the military clamp down on them in ’54 or the people of Chile were that thrilled about having Pinochet in ’73, but that doesn’t mean because those leaders were overthrown that there’s some particular flaw in those leaders. But not every coup that the U.S. has tried to instigate has worked. That’s also true.