Response to criticism of Ukraine column

This piece discusses some of the issues raised in a previous letter by Professor Oksana Bihun. For the sake of clarity, the structure of this piece will mirror that of Dr. Bihun’s.  I will preface my responses with a ‘thank you’ to Dr. Bihun for raising questions and creating discussion.  That being said, I disagree with some of the points Dr. Bihun raised, and I have strong reservations about other parts of the letter.

In her first paragraph Dr. Bihun correctly catches a poorly phrased sentence. The Concordian’s editors and writers are humans who make mistakes; certainly the same happens to me. However, implying that editors and writers do not know basic facts like the name of ‘that one country in Eastern Europe’, belittles editors and writers alike.  Corrections and typos should have been directed to the attention of the paper so revisions could be made.  For the sake of cogency, Dr. Bihun should have revised her paragraph that chastised writers before submitting it. (It’s Tielke, not Tileke).

Her second paragraph discusses troop levels and Russian foreign aid.  In my piece I mentioned ‘alleged’ troop levels in Eastern Ukraine; Dr. Bihun correctly nuances the growing body of  OSCE and NATO documents that verify Russia’s role in the conflict. Despite this, she missed the humor of the comment; Putin denying troops in Ukraine has been a running gag in my pieces (which they still do) and sorry – I am no Jon Stewart. (For reference, lookup Jon Stewart and Russian troops). The latter half of the paragraph addressed the topic of humanitarian and financial aid from the Russian government.  It is worth noting that nowhere in my piece did I mention humanitarian aid, only financial aid. At the time it was still possible that the Russians could bail out or help the insolvent Ukrainian government. To retort this idea Dr. Bihun references Russian troops destroying and stealing infrastructure. I would be remiss if I took this point seriously. Destruction of infrastructure in no way shape or form aids insolvency of the Ukrainian government; it should be abundantly clear that the financial aid referred to would be a bailout or remittance. The section of my piece that discussed financial assistance stressed that an insolvent Ukraine cannot prevent greater instability or protect itself. Claiming that destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure was a Russian effort to help Ukraine’s insolvency is akin to saying that Gen. Lemay’s firebombing campaign of Japan was a structural investment.

Regarding the third and fourth paragraph, it is important to realize the parameters of opinion pieces. Unlike Dr. Bihun’s, each opinion piece focuses on one topic in about 500~600 words. Naturally, unrelated or distant factors will not be included. Dr. Bihun misspeaks in claiming that I forgot particular events. However, I did not forget that pensions were not being paid before officials announced the cut (supply lines always get cut in conflicts), nor did I forget about MH17, Poland, Transnistria, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia. The topic of my piece was Gorbachev’s speech and the possibility of another cold war; topics that were immediately germane and could fit into a short opinion piece were included. To give context, her fourth paragraph was 94 words discussing a distant topic of MH17. Devoting a fifth of a piece to topics not closely related to Gorbachev’s speech would have been an unwise allocation of space.

The fifth paragraph touches the most important subject in the piece, the source of the conflict. Certainly democracy plays a role, but it is a conduit, not the source. The ousting of Yanukovych in the Maidan revolution occurred because Yanukovych refused to increase ties with the EU through trade and instead followed the desires of Moscow by accepting $15 billion in Russian aid despite popular support for EU agreement.  The Maidan revolution removed Moscow’s foot in the door; removing Yanukovych eliminated  Moscow’s ability to influence Ukrainian politics. Destroying infrastructure, sending in troops, and aiding separatists all illuminate Putin’s intentions; burning down Ukraine and continuing economic and territorial woes makes it less likely for the EU or NATO to assist or add Ukraine as a member. I am delighted that the topics of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia came into discussion. Looking back to 2008, the NATO summit in Brussels discussed Georgia and Ukraine as likely additions to NATO. Naturally this enraged then-President Medvedev and Russian leaders. In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia, destroyed infrastructure, and recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent regions (Georgia claimed that both of these were its territories). This ‘froze’ the region in economic and territorial woes; making it impossible for NATO to add Georgia. Not surprising, Russia is doing the same by destroying Ukrainian infrastructure and supporting territorial division. With no ‘puppet’ as you say, Russia has to resort to other methods to coerce Ukraine closer to Russia or dissuade them from getting closer to the West.

If the subject at hand only involved democracy, I doubt Moscow would invade Ukraine or supply Eastern separatists. At the very least they would support pro-Russian candidates and parties.  The willingness of Moscow and Putin to risk economic and political collapse reveals larger aspirations than just democracy. Putin’s brinkmanship demonstrates that larger elements are at play, mainly security. The only reason a state would risk collapse is to prevent collapse. Considering that Putin and the Kremlin view a border state joining NATO as the end of days, there is little reason to believe that democracy is the fracture point. Putin is watching his sphere of influence and security collapse and he is betting the bank to try and keep it.

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