An Interview with Jiri Valenta

Below is an interview I conducted recently with Jiri Valenta, a distinguished scholar of Soviet and post-Soviet studies.

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MOTYL: Jiri, you’re one of the world’s most experienced and knowledgeable observers of Russia. How would you characterize the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 and the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine?

VALENTA: The ongoing war in Ukraine has involved a covert military intervention by Russia that is slowly becoming overt. The downing of the Malaysian plane is a game-changer. Thus, as bodies arrive in the Netherlands, two more Ukrainian planes have been downed and a new deployment of Russian hardware is pouring into Ukraine. The Russian Duma has held an unexpected session. There is again the possibility of a large Russian invasion.

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How Much Are Ukrainian and Malaysian Lives Worth?

When Vladimir Putin’s proxies shot down a Malaysian Airlines jet with close to 300 passengers over eastern Ukraine on July 17th, I was shocked.

But I wasn’t shocked on July 15th, when the former head of the Ukrainian General Staff stated that 330 Ukrainian soldiers had died in the course of Kyiv’s anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine, while the press liaison of the National Security and Defense Council said the correct number was 258. Both numbers were immediately wrong, as some 10 soldiers were killed that day.

The sad fact is that I’m getting used to Putin’s killing spree.

I still remember when the first demonstrator was killed on the Maidan back in January. What a shock that was. And then the mass sniper shootings in late February. What an outrage. The victims came to be known as the Heavenly Hundred and memorials to them still dot the area around Kyiv’s Independence Square.

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What’s Rong with Wrussia?

Everything, according to some. Many things, according to others. Nothing, according to many Russians.

Back in 2004, two US academics, Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman, wrote a controversial piece for Foreign Affairs in which they argued that statistics proved that Russia was a “normal country.” Since they focused on mostly economic parameters, such as GDP, income distribution, and the like, they had a point.

What Shleifer and Treisman overlooked was the politics. Do “normal” countries normally invade their neighbors, lop off bits and pieces of foreign territory, support unconstitutionally elected, power-obsessed strongman leaders, distrust the world and continually whine about their lost glory, take the crudest Goebbelsian government propaganda at face value, export terrorism, call democrats fascists and fascists democrats, and approve of profoundly corrupt, deeply inefficient, hyper-chauvinist, and blatantly imperialist fascist states?

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Contradictions Define Kremlin Apologists

According to the conventional wisdom, Vladimir Putin and his Western supporters propagate a uniform message throughout the world. At its most extreme, this view sees Russia as having a formidable propaganda machine that is running roughshod over the Western media and public.  

In fact, Putin and his supporters and apologists often disagree. One reason may be that the machine just isn’t as formidable as it’s made out to be. Another may be that the Kremlin’s supporters make mistakes when interpreting or anticipating the frequently contradictory or incomprehensible statements of the Delphic oracle that is Putin. A third may be that they have difficulties bridging the growing gap between reality and Putin’s oftentimes shifting views. The Putinite interpretation—one that I won’t even bother refuting—is that disagreement is the foundation of vigorous democracies such as Putin’s Russia.

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Ukrainians Die, as Europe Coos

Excuse the lurid title, but it’s only a variant of a headline that appeared many years ago in a New York tabloid: “Mother Dies, as Baby Coos.” I can’t speak for the accuracy of that headline, but today’s variant is, alas, all too valid. Because the fact is that Ukrainian soldiers are dying at the hands of Vladimir Putin’s terrorist hirelings as European states—and the European Union—are engaging the Kremlin with baby talk and diplo-babble.

Twenty-seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed by the terrorists during the cease-fire declared by President Petro Poroshenko more than a week ago (and which he ended on June 30th). Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, liked the cease-fire and wanted it to continue. What’s not to like from the Kremlin’s twisted point of view? As the terrorists continued to shoot at Ukrainians, Ukrainian soldiers continued to be sacrificed at the altar of diplo-babble.

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Bawdy Lyrics Mock Putin in Ukraine

Ukrainians have taken to fighting back against Russia’s fascistoid dictator, Vladimir Putin, with obscenities and humor. A Ukrainian psychiatrist I recently saw on Ukrainian TV calls such behavior psychologically healthy during periods of “extreme stress”—an understatement for the savage war Putin and his terrorists have unleashed against Ukraine. The American social scientist James C. Scott might call both obscenity and humor “weapons of the weak.” Whatever you call them, they’re spreading like wildfire across Ukraine.

The case in point is a song or, more exactly, a chant that goes like this:

Putin khuylo
La-la la-la la-la la-la

“Khuylo” is the extremely vulgar Ukrainian term for penis. Its equivalents in English are well known (and, for the sake of my more sensitive readers, will go unmentioned). The words have been translated as “Putin is a d—khead” or as “Putin is a d—k,” but I prefer “Putin is a pr—k.” “D—khead” and “d—k” connote stupidity; “pr—k” connotes nastiness. And, I suspect, most Ukrainians view Putin as a nasty piece of work.

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How Putin Lost Ukraine

Half a year ago, in the fall of 2013, Ukraine was well on the way to becoming an authoritarian vassal state of Russia. Now, thanks to Russia’s neo-fascist dictator, Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is well on the way to becoming a democracy and a full-fledged member of the international community.

How did Putin snatch a humiliating defeat from the jaws of surefire victory? How could he have walked into a strategic trap of his own making? In a word, how did he lose Ukraine?

And make no mistake about it: it was Putin, and no one else, who lost Ukraine. He had it. He could easily have kept it. But now he’ll never have it again. And he has no one to blame but himself.

Putin has never understood Ukraine. For him, as for all too many Russians, it’s a historical mistake: a part of Russia that’s been swayed from the path of righteousness by a few dastardly fascist imperialist cigar-chomping bourgeois nationalists in cahoots with the CIA. If you treat a bona fide country with a bona fide people with a bona fide identity as your dirty backyard, don’t be surprised if you slip in the mud and fall on your face.

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The End of the Donbas?

As Ukrainian army units battle it out with Putin’s terrorist commandos in eastern Ukraine, we should remember that, regardless of the outcome, the Donbas is probably dead. That may be good news for some and bad news for others, but the bottom line is that this uniquely regressive Ukrainian-Russian rustbelt region will never be the same.

Putin’s terrorists—both homegrown and imported from Russia—will almost certainly be defeated by forces loyal to Kyiv. Terrorists and separatists usually lose, especially under steppe-like conditions in which guerrillas do not thrive, and there’s no reason to think that Putin’s commandos will have any different fate from that of their counterparts in other countries. The only question is: how long will it take for their defeat to be final? For the longer it takes, the more unalterably different—and ruined—will the Donbas become.

As one resident of Donetsk recently wrote in a blog post:

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Enough False Rhetoric From Putin

I have one request to Russia’s fascistoid leader: stop lecturing Ukraine and the world.

I’ve been listening to you for close to 15 years now and, frankly, I’m tired of your half-baked views and cockamamie opinions. I know you think you know a lot about the ways of the world, Volodya, but permit me to let you in on a secret that everyone besides you knows: You don’t.

Just what makes you think that a career in the KGB qualifies you to speak authoritatively about anything—and, especially, about constitutions, democracy, and legitimacy? Indeed, former members of criminal organizations might be better advised to keep mum about the very things they spent their entire careers trying to destroy.

But it gets worse. After all, we know you plagiarized your dissertation:

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Ukraine’s Election Exposes Putin's Lies

Despite the best efforts of Vladimir Putin and his terrorist commandos in the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine’s presidential elections did in fact take place on May 25th, under conditions that international observers concur were fair and free. As of this writing, Petro Poroshenko appears to have won in one round. 

Herewith a few lessons:

First, Ukraine is hardly the unstable almost-failed state that Putin and his Western apologists say it is. The terrorist violence was confined to two provinces—Luhansk and Donetsk. In the rest of the country, the voting proceeded smoothly. On top of that, Ukraine’s security forces were able to maintain law and order in much of the country, a positive development that builds on the armed forces’ creditable performance in their “anti-terrorist operations” in April and May.

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Why Germans Are Smitten With Putin

The German liberal newspaper Die Zeit recently shed a bright light on the German population’s odd love affair with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Germans profess a love of democracy and human rights; Putin has done everything in his power to destroy democracy and human rights. Germans stand for peace; Putin has unleashed war on Ukraine in 2014 (and on Georgia in 2008).

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Separatists Terrorizing, Kidnapping, Beating Citizens in Ukraine

Several weeks ago, I had written of a woman, G, from the town of Druzhkivka, in Donetsk Province, who had noted in her last e-mail to me: “Alexander, they will kill us.” In turn, I had ended my blog post with the comforting words: “I haven’t heard from G since that last note. Although I’m sure she and her family are safe, I still shudder at the thought of how terrified she must have been to have expected death—for nothing more than her identity as a Ukrainian in the unremittingly hostile environment created by Putin’s deliberate attempt to create havoc in her country.”

I was wrong. G and her family are not safe. Their lives are in danger from pro-Russian terrorists precisely because they are Ukrainian patriots.

I just received two more e-mails from her, translated by me from the Ukrainian and reprinted below in full.

From Saturday, May 10th, 8:42 a.m.:

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Remembering the Red Army and Rape

As May 9th, Victory Day, approaches and celebrations of the defeat of Nazi Germany take place throughout all the post-Soviet states, it may be worth remembering that many members of the Red Army traded in their heroism and self-sacrifice for criminality and rapine in the last days of the war.

Here’s Cooper Union historian Atina Grossmann:

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Putin’s Warlords vs. Ukraine’s Presidential Ballot

Vladimir Putin appears determined to disrupt the May 25th presidential elections in Ukraine.

The dictator and his warlords have already gone on a rampage in eastern Ukraine’s Putinstans: they control two cities, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, and occupy administrative buildings in several others. Their efforts to destabilize Ukraine will continue, but Putin’s warlords will likely share the fate of terrorists the world over and fail to stifle the people’s voice.  

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In Eastern Ukraine, Terror from Pro-Kremlin Outsiders

For three years now, I’ve been providing a small scholarship to a little girl in the city of Druzhkivka (population: 65,000) in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk Province. Her mother, G, has sent me several brief on-the-ground reports of events in Druzhkivka (the translations below, from Ukrainian, are mine). They convey better than any analysis just what average Ukrainians are experiencing as a result of Vladimir Putin’s promotion of terrorism in eastern Ukraine.

Bands of outsiders have been terrorizing the city since February 22nd, the day after the triumph of the democratic Euro Revolution in Kyiv and the collapse of the criminal regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. On Saturday, April 12th, armed pro-Russian terrorists seized the Druzhkivka district administration building. Since then, the city has been at the mercy of the pro-Kremlin extremists.

Note a few important points.

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