The Defence Secretary’s “widely praised” article in response to Putin’s piece on Ukraine

This is the Guardian’s Diplomatic Editor:

Britain has a clear-eyed sense of the issues at stake – the defence of the security architecture stuck in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, all set out in the widely praised article by the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, debunking Putin’s claims about Ukraine’s historic origins

Why is it that I know that the “widely praised” article will in fact be an embarrassment? (Hint; because Britain in its recent ‘diplomacy’ with Russia which amounts to threats and sending arms to one side in a civil war in violation of the spirit of the peace agreements designed to end that conflict shows that there is a total failure of political analysis in Whitehall). Also because Ben Wallace looks like a philistine.

This is a link to Putin’s article.

This is Ben Wallace’s “widely praised” take-down.

The ‘rebuttal’ shows the usual tendency to prefer reiteration of narrative lines over analysis. It also shows the characteristic need to be “in the right”. Putin is portrayed of course as designing and evil.

Putin’s article is pretty straightforward. He runs through Ukrainian history tracing it from the time of Kievan Rus – widely understood by Western historians to be the birthplace of the Russian Empire and thus modern Russia, through its various occupations for example under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and then the Russian Empire (not presented by Putin as an occupation but as something requested by grateful Cossacks) to the present day. Based on my reading of the history of Russia this is all pretty standard fare. More contentious of course is how in his essay Putin finds a golden thread which connects the origins of Ukraine to modern day Russia. While some see it this way there will of course be a version of Ukrainian history which turns matters around; which sees the incorporation of Ukraine into the Russian Empire (and then into the USSR) not as a liberating moment but as an act of occupation. Still, Putin says he is expressing his opinion, and his version of history is consistent with the facts.

In terms of recent events Putin reminds his readers that the current coup-installed regime as soon as they came to power tried to downgrade the Russian language and have tried to deny through legislation Russians a valid ethnic identity within Ukraine. He also reminds his readers of the events in Ukraine in 2014 including the massacre in Odessa of Russian speaking/leaning citizens by Ukrainian nationalists.

I want to briefly comment on a few points in Wallace’s article:

“First, NATO is, to its core, defensive in nature. ” He goes on to make the tired and obvious point that countries have joined rather than NATO expanding. Since the effect is that NATO has expanded (and NATO could have declined to accept them) this is a moot point. NATO is not “defensive in its core”. In 2011 NATO carried out a disastrous destruction of the functioning Libyan government based on a sophist reading of a UN resolution which authorised the projection of civilians. In 1999 NATO carried out a terroristic bombing campaign on Serbia (during which it bombed a TV station, bombed the Chinese Embassy and in ‘mistakes’ massacred dozens of the Albanians it claimed to be saving) to force Serbia to withdraw from Kosovo. The rationale for the campaign was that Serbian forces had carried out war crimes in Kosovo. Subsequently this claim was found to have been wildly exaggerated. NATO far from being the “defensive” organisation of Wallace’s imaginings is an aggressive organisation constantly looking for a war. But the point to make here is this; rather than simply repeat what it says in the brochure about NATO why not try to see it from Russia’s point of view? True – not on its Central Asian borders but all along its European borders it now finds itself face to face with an organisation whose main reason for existence is conflict with Russia. NATO is no more ‘defensive’ than the light anti-tank weapons the UK has just flooded Ukraine with are “defensive”. I.e. if you arm yourself to the teeth and go and sit on someone’s border however sure you are that you are just being ‘defensive’ of course it makes them edgy. It is the point-blank refusal of these people to see this that shows us that we are not dealing with people in a rational mode.

“It provides the skewed and selective reasoning to justify, at best, the subjugation of Ukraine and at worse the forced unification of that sovereign country.” This is Wallace on Putin’s article. Of course it is “skewed” – Putin is after all Russian. There is zero in Putin’s article which would lead anyone to think he was talking about the “forced subjugation” of Ukraine. Zero. On the contrary the article is very clear; this is Putin’s understanding and he hopes that people in Ukraine will see it this way too. For example; “You want to establish a state of your own: you are welcome!”. (True; Putin then presents an argument which would justify the annexation of Crimea based on the borders which existed before the incorporation of the USSR – but we would expect him to do that). “We are natural complementary economic partners. Such a close relationship can strengthen competitive advantages, increasing the potential of both countries.” These are not the words of someone trying to “subjugate” Ukraine. Mr Wallace is making that up.

“President Putin’s article completely ignores the wishes of the citizens of Ukraine”. Ah. Talk about ‘projection’. And the 4 million people in Donbass (and more further afield) in Ukraine who do not feel that the current brand of Ukrainian nationalism represents them? [1] But for people like Wallace this is not a problem – they have long since committed genocide against these people in their minds.

“Readers will not only be shocked at the tone of the article but they will also be surprised at how little NATO is mentioned. After all, is NATO ‘expansionism’ not the fountain of all the Kremlin’s concerns?” If anyone needed confirmation that Mr Wallace is not an intellectual this may be it. Putin’s essay is about Russia and Ukraine. It is titled (a clue) – “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. So that may be why it isn’t about NATO? Talk about an excessive sense of self-importance.

“Third, that anyone who disagrees [with Putin’s reading of Ukrainian history] does so out of a hatred or phobia of Russia.” I’ve just reread the entire article. He doesn’t actually say this – which is presumably why Wallace does not supply a quote to support his assertion. Wallace is setting up another ‘straw man’. In fact consider this (from Putin’s essay): “These [the divisions between Russia and Ukraine] are, first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes made at different periods of time.” In fact the principle culprit for dividing the Ukrainian and Russian people in Putin’s essay were the Bolsheviks and their localisation policy: “This Soviet national policy secured at the state level the provision on three separate Slavic peoples: Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian, instead of the large Russian nation, a triune people comprising Velikorussians, Malorussians and Belorussians.”

Putin does in fact talk about Russiaphobia – but not in the context which Wallace says he does: “During official negotiations, especially after being reined in by Western partners, Ukraine’s representatives regularly declare their ”full adherence“ to the Minsk agreements, but are in fact guided by a position of ”unacceptability“. They do not intend to seriously discuss either the special status of Donbas or safeguards for the people living there. They prefer to exploit the image of the ”victim of external aggression“ and peddle Russophobia. They arrange bloody provocations in Donbas. In short, they attract the attention of external patrons and masters by all means.” This statement is really unarguable. Even today Ukraine has rejected any kind of special status for Donbass and claims that some general law on decentralisation will cover Minsk. Unless Kiev is planning local parliaments, independent prosecutors and local and independent militias in all its regions then this claim is not true. And obviously Kiev is not proposing that. Indeed Kiev is doing what Putin says they are doing – paying lip-service to Minsk while convincing their Western backers that they will adhere to Minsk. And perhaps biding their time for when they will try to retake Donbass. Putin’s concerns are well-founded.

Wallace – (without showing a great feel for diplomacy) lectures Putin on what constitutes the Russian people: “But in reality, according to historian Professor Andrew Wilson in his excellent essay for RUSI entitled “Russia and Ukraine: ‘One People’ as Putin Claims?” they are at best “kin but not the same people””. (RUSI is a Western military linked think tank – its VP is an ex US general; it is funded by the EU, by Google, by BAE Systems, Airbus, the British Army etc.). Wallace is probably unaware that Putin is talking about the spiritual unity of the Kievan Russ people. He mentions this idea of “spiritual unity” fives times in his article. But Wallace seems to have missed all 5 references. (I am sure Putin is aware of the history of the East and West Slavs which is the point Wallace has latched onto).

Now Wallace gets into a real tangle and makes a complete fool of himself: “Ironically, President Putin himself admits in his essay that “things change: countries and communities are no exception. Of course, some part of a people in the process of its development, influenced by a number of reasons and historical circumstances, can become aware of itself as a separate nation at a certain moment. How should we treat that? There is only one answer: with respect!” I.e. Putin recognises that Ukraine is a separate country. (With a common spiritual heritage). Wallace says “However, he then goes on to discard some of those “historical circumstances” to fit his own claims.” – It isn’t clear what Wallace means here; this is because his argument has just collapsed. He has just quoted Putin as accepting Ukraine as a separate country but claims this is Putin contradicting himself. But it isn’t; Putin’s article is consistent and clear; there is a common spiritual space but Ukraine and Russia are separate countries. The contradiction is between what Putin says (Ukraine can be a separate country) and what Wallace says Putin says (“we are justified in subjugating Ukraine”). But the confusion is entirely Wallace’s. Putin doesn’t say anything about subjugating Ukraine.

Wallace ends his highly embarrassing misreading of Putin’s essay with this dramatic flourish: “So, if one cold January or February night Russian Military forces once more cross into sovereign Ukraine, ignore the ‘straw man’ narratives and ‘false flag’ stories of NATO aggression and remember the President of Russia’s own words in that essay from last summer. Remember it and ask yourself what it means, not just for Ukraine, but for all of us in Europe. What it means the next time…” That is the “malign” Kremlin is expansionist and evil and you are next. This is in geo-political terms total nonsense. Firstly Russia does not have territorial ambitions and secondly they know perfectly well that even if they did they don’t have the firepower for it. People who think about these matters understand this. [2]

(As for the Guardian’s Diplomatic Editor saying that Wallace has “debunked” Putin’s claims about Ukrainian history that is too embarrassing for words).

The intellectual level of this “widely praised” article gives us some insight into what the real problem is here. That this article by Wallace – with its embarrassing misunderstanding of Putin’s point about a common spiritual heritage with Ukraine, with its own lacunas (the 4 million people in Donbass), with its provable projections onto Putin (nowhere does he talk about ‘subjugating Ukraine’ – indeed the opposite) and so on would/should be torn apart by any history Professor if presented even at first-year undergraduate level; but it is touted as “widely praised”. The West has sunk into an intellectual morass.

[Addendum. 4-3-22. I would still stand by some of my criticisms of Wallace’s exegesis. But it seems that he read the overall import of the article correctly and I did not. I did not think that “one spiritual people” would permit the current operation].



Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer