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'Experts' on Ukraine

An astoundingly large amount of nonsense has been written about Ukraine ever since it came to occupy center stage in the public mind. That’s not surprising: most people in most countries barely knew the place existed or assumed it was “really” Russia. The number of Ukraine specialists outside of Ukraine is probably no greater than a few hundred in the entire world. Their expertise was of little interest to people who had no interest in or use for the country.

Now that Ukraine is in the news, it’s equally unsurprising that non-experts with an abysmal knowledge of Ukraine are claiming to be able to speak authoritatively about it. Media that feature such people are doing their consumers an enormous disservice. No one would ask a plumber to speak about nuclear weapons or a nuclear physicist about plumbing. And yet it doesn’t seem to occur to news outlets that Professor Stephen F. Cohen, a life-long specialist on Russia who has never written anything academic about Ukraine, might be unqualified to opine about Ukraine. Worse, it doesn’t trouble Cohen, who has spent a good part of his distinguished academic career insisting that evidence and expertise are indispensable to genuine knowledge. Nor does ignorance of Ukraine keep Henry Kissinger from producing a Washington Post op-ed that gets nearly everything wrong about the country.

Here’s a rule of thumb for media, policymakers, and consumers of news. Before you listen to, read, or watch self-styled experts discussing this topic, first find out whether they read Ukrainian, or at least Russian, and whether they’ve actually written anything serious about Ukraine.

The latest two examples of such blather come from two professors, David Hendrickson and Robert English. Like Kissinger, they are specialists in international relations; their views on Ukraine’s place in the world order might therefore be trustworthy. Naturally, neither evinces any deep knowledge of Ukraine’s history, politics, or culture.

Both scholars set off alarm bells discussing the presence in Ukraine’s government of several members of right-wing political organizations, Svoboda and the Right Sector. English even thinks that their presence is more dangerous than Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine’s southernmost province, Crimea. Both say these organizations are fascist.

One cannot help but wonder if either scholar has read any of the official Ukrainian-language statements or programs of either organization. For myself, I am fairly certain that neither has availed himself of the extensive academic literature on Ukrainian nationalism. Hendrickson cites one scholar, Per Rudling, whose views on Ukrainian nationalism are as extreme as Noam Chomsky’s on American foreign policy. There’s nothing wrong with reading Rudling (one suspects Hendrickson didn’t read too closely, though, as he misspells Rudling’s name twice), but, as any serious scholar and journalist knows, one should always familiarize oneself with a variety of perspectives.

Are Svoboda and the Right Sector fascist? Let’s compare them to a bona fide fascist regime. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian dictatorship that has a charismatic strong man as its undisputed leader, glorifies him in an unabashed personality cult, and employs hyper-nationalism and neo-imperialism as a source of legitimacy (more on that here). These features are found in equal measure in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, and we justifiably call regimes with such defining characteristics fascist. Unsurprisingly, such regimes are usually violent and intolerant of various minorities.

Now let’s look at Svoboda and the Right Sector. Neither group supports authoritarian dictatorship or neo-imperialism. Svoboda aspires to the kind of “ethnocracy” found in Israel—a system of government that, while neither ethnically neutral (Israel is a Jewish state) nor as liberal as the ACLU might desire, is not undemocratic. The Right Sector professes to be more liberal than Svoboda and actually expresses a moderate form of nationalism, while Svoboda’s has significantly diminished during, and possibly as a result of, the Euro Revolution. Both groups, while on the Maidan in Kyiv, actively and easily cooperated with Russian speakers and ethnic minorities. (Ukraine’s Jewish leaders have not expressed alarm at their presence in the revolution or government.)

Svoboda has a charismatic leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, but his chances of winning a presidential election and becoming a strongman are virtually nil. The Right Sector’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, lacks even Tyahnybok’s charisma and has zero chances of becoming president. Neither movement envelops the leader in a personality cult.

Both Svoboda and Right Sector are on the right. They are decidedly not liberals—and some of them may be fascists—but they are far more like the Tea Party or right-wing Republicans than like fascists or neo-Nazis. I for one wouldn’t want them to be setting the tone for Ukrainian policy. But neither would I want the Tea Party to be in charge of Washington. No less important, their role in the Kyiv government is at best tertiary (they would probably win no more than 5 percent of the vote in a national election), and policy is set not by them but by the broad coalition of unquestioned liberal democrats.

Should both groups be monitored? Of course. Might they evolve in a worrisome fashion? Possibly. But Hendrickson and English might be advised to direct most of their monitoring zeal at the activity of Putin and his fascist state. He invaded Ukraine. Neither Tyahnybok nor Yarosh has invaded Russia. Putin may start a land war with Ukraine. Both Tyahnybok and Yarosh will at most defend their country.

Who’s the greater threat to Ukraine? Right-wing organizations such as Svoboda and Right Sector, who have a few hundred “fighters” at their disposal, or a full-fledged fascist such as Putin, who has 750,000 soldiers at his? You don’t have to be an international relations expert to answer that question. 

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