Ukraine: who are you gonna believe?

On human rights in Ukraine, you can believe the career human rights advocates or the career secret policeman.

For reasons I can only partly fathom, some progressive pundits (though, I’m happy to say, no progressive politicians) have decided to accept a career secret policeman as the authoritative source of information about human rights in Ukraine. For balance, here are the views of a career human-rights advocate, based on the report of the professional staff of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Short version: Yanukovych’s Bikram security police were practicing torture with impunity before he fled the country; the armed anti-government activity in the West came only after months of official misconduct; human rights problems have declined since the change of regime, except in Russian-ruled Crimea, where there are now systematic violations; there has not been systematic right-wing nationalist violence; the Jewish community is not threatened; and pro-Russian forces are deliberately spreading misinformation with the goal of terrifying the Russian-speaking population in the East into thinking that their rights are under attack.

There’s a strange analogy between left-wing denialism about what Russia is up to in Ukraine and right-wing denialism about global warming. In each case, distaste for the possible policy implications of recognizing facts (worsened relations with Russia, environmental controls and energy taxes) leads to refusal to acknowledge the facts. It’s possible to argue that the U.S. should exercise restraint in responding to Russian aggression. It’s plain silly to pretend that Russian aggression isn’t happening.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

15 thoughts on “Ukraine: who are you gonna believe?”

  1. The restraint of the Ukrainian government is praiseworthy but ineffective. It may not even have sufficient control over its troops and police in Donetsk to use effective force. But if it does, and force is used, will the West back the government? There will be casualties, perhaps high ones,including the innocent. It takes very high levels of training and discipline to keep the peace with minimum force, and Ukrainian soldiers and cops don't have them.

    1. If by supporting the Ukraine you mean will the West engage militarily with Russia, I would say that is unlikely in the extreme. Putin knows that we aren't going to war over Eastern Ukraine; we know that he knows it and he knows that we know that he knows. All of the increases in NATO troop deployments in the direction if Russia are nothing but cheap theatrics.

      On the other hand, the West does possess a weapon of overwhelming power that can be very specifically targeted at Putin and his supporters. As a “mafia state,” Russia is uniquely vulnerable to sanctions directed at the activities of Russian Oligarchs, who are terrified of keeping either their money or their families inside Russia.

      But none of the sanctions have really targeted the Oligarch by forcing them to move their families and money to places outside of the West, where they will not be sheltered by liberal states with functioning justice systems. Even the hint of such targeted sanctions would shake the foundations of Putin’s hold on power like nothing else imaginable.

      Think about that for a moment. The richest and most powerful men in Russia almost universally keep their families and the bulk of their fortunes in the West, where they are hostages to our good will and Putin’s continued good behavior. The way for the West to demonstrate the depth of its commitment to the Ukraine is by threatening and then, if necessary, implementing economic and legal sanctions directed against the Oligarchs and their families.

      1. "On the other hand, the West does possess a weapon of overwhelming power that can be very specifically targeted at Putin and his supporters. As a “mafia state,” Russia is uniquely vulnerable to sanctions directed at the activities of Russian Oligarchs, who are terrified of keeping either their money or their families inside Russia. "

        The problem is that *our* elites like their elites' money and business.

      2. Cheap theatrics? Hardly. Do you know what it costs to fly an F-16? We could put on a really nice laser show or something for a lot less.

        But more importantly, there is nothing theatrical about it. Those F-16s were sent to Poland, not Ukraine, and I think the message is perfectly clear: Russia may be re-expanding its sphere of control, and the West may have to put up with it, but NATO countries are out of bounds.

        Politics is an ugly business. Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova are getting shafted, and it's not right and it's not fair, but there's not much we can practically do about it.

  2. of course it's silly to regard this as anything other than aggression. it was also silly not to have expected aggressive pushback to nato expansionism to have happened at some point. here is that point. is it worth going to war over the fate of crimea and eastern ukraine? russia is looking after it's interests in a cold-bloodedly calculated way. what are our interests here? given the economic ties of europe to russia i have a hard time envisioning much agreement there for iran-level sanctions against russia much less military actions so what is it possible for us to do other than to recognize what is happening and state it publicly for the record?

    1. Because there was no history of Russian aggression towards its neighbors until NATO was created. Clearly that's the proximate cause that we should have anticipated would create a crisis. If only the West hadn't expanded we wouldn't have this problem.

      1. no, sir. my point in bringing up nato expansion in the context of a discussion of the situation in ukraine is that if you're going to make a rational assessment of your options at a moment of international conflict you have to have at least some understanding of what the situation looks like to the other side and in what ways the other side is working to pursue its interests. right now putin seems to believe the costs of occupation in crimea, both in terms of the bite on the russian budget and the potential costs of sanctions, as well as the costs associated in maintaining a large military presence on the border are serving russia's interests. it seems a reasonable assumption that putin is trying to stop what he sees as a further erosion of russia's sphere of influence/interest. mentioning that is not an apology for putin's behavior but is instead a recognition of a major factor behind it. again, it would have been silly to think that russia would ignore forever the encroachments of nato and the eu into the east. i've been expecting pushback since 2004 when the baltic states, among others, joined nato. i am not waving away the long history of russian expansionism that started with the tsars by pointing these things out but am instead encouraging those who are reading this to understand what the situation looks like to the other side in order to focus on useful options rather than stumbling along blindly.

        so i go back to wondering what our specific and compelling interests are in ukraine and what our options are that would be commensurate with those interests? mr. stone's comment below captures much of my feelings about the situation but i would be genuinely interested to read other opinions about both our interests and our options.

        1. Your original response framed the problems in Ukraine as a response to NATO expansion. Given the history of these countries, there's really no reason to assume that. My suspicion is that you would have seen something like this happen eventually no matter what NATO had done in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Too many Russians think that Ukraine (all of it, not just Crimea and Donbass) is an integral part not only of their sphere of influence but also of their country itself.

          And because you expressed it through the lens of NATO expansion, you gave the impression that the U.S. has/had no interest in integrating countries like Poland and Latvia into the institutions of the EU and NATO and that protecting them from a revanchist Russia is not at all in our interest. If that's an accurate assessment, all I can say is that we disagree profoundly. Invoking the concept of "sphere of influence" does not justify turning these countries back over to the dominance of a Russia that has abused them for centuries.

          As for Ukraine, I absolutely agree that our interests in no way support military conflict. But the upturning of international law and treaties to which we and Russia were both signatories is also counter to our interests, as is the general bullying going on. Our "interests" consist of a lot more than our economic well being. So some form of sanction is perfectly acceptable and we'll have to figure out just how much.

          I also think that bringing up Russia's acquiescence to sanctions on Iran also isn't terribly relevant. Again, that's because I don't think that the real cause of Russia deciding not to cooperate would have anything to do with our response to Ukraine. Putin has demonstrated for a decade and a half that he doesn't really want to participate in these sorts of actions and I'm pretty sure he'd have managed to find a reason to stop going along with them before long anyway. So Ukraine may be the excuse, but it isn't the reason.

          1. mr. neal, i am content to disagree with you in many particulars and would not have responded to this most recent reply but i prefer not to be misquoted and insist on correcting the record.

            i did not bring up russia's acquiesence to sanctions on iran. my only mention of iran was in the context of imposing sanctions on russia– " given the economic ties of europe to russia i have a hard time envisioning much agreement there for iran-level sanctions against russia. . ."

            and while i am responding i would like to mention that despite our apparent disagreement on the need to understand the world as it looks to an adversary i find myself in complete agreement with the third paragraph of your most recent reply.

          2. Sorry. I meant to indicate that I was responding to others making that argument but looking back I forgot to do so.

  3. I think the issue is that if you look at the history of Euromaiden it really was an undemocratic overthrow of a constitutionally elected government. Many of the same tactics were used (occupation of buildings, roadblocks, violence). It was definitely more organic and had the support of a larger population, but it wasn't following normal procedure. To now call out the Russians for the same thing seems a bit hypocritical no?

    1. That's an incomplete description of what happened. There were protests and some occupation of buildings. But what triggered the change in government was the sitting president fleeing the country and parliament voting unanimously that he was no longer capable of exercising his duties. If you can provide any conceivable scenario in which the protests in eastern Ukraine would lead to a unanimous vote in parliament to replace the government, then I'll buy that they are equivalent situations.

  4. It is only fair to the deniers to say that they have good reason to fear that “Russian aggression is happening” will be equated with “We must intervene militarily.” They have good evidence to suspect that admitting the first proposition will lead to the latter, given that “We Must Do Something” is woven into the fabric of our foreign policy discourse and restraint is quickly labeled as weakness on Sunday morning TV shows like Bob Schieffer’s “Face John McCain” on CBS.

  5. This is a reasonable post. I'm definitely one of those who thinks that it's absolutely stupid for the US to get itself involved into a conflict with Russia over the Ukraine, for all sorts of reasons. But I have no illusions whatsoever that Russia's actions in the Ukraine are a human rights catastrophe. The thing is, one of the privileges of being a superpower with nuclear weapons is that you get to violate the human rights of people living in countries within your sphere of influence. We have certainly made the lives of Cubans miserable for over 50 years and sponsored death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala back in the day, and Russia is clearly acting as a bully in this situation.

    We should take this as a lesson about the limitations of American power, not an endorsement of the actions of Putin's thuggish regime.

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