“Chicken Kyiv” and the Geneva Soiree
By Victor Rud*
Posted on Jun 18, 2021
On February 18, 1919, the Ukrainian delegation’s warning to Georges Clemenceau, President of the Paris Peace Conference, was stark:
“[T]he bolshevik Government of Russia has sent its troops against Ukraine and broken the Ukrainian front near the frontier of the Ukrainian Republic. Now they are advancing into the heart of our country and the bolshevik Government has not only no intention of fulfilling the conditions laid down by the Peace Conference at Paris to establish a truce, to retire its forces and to cease all military action; on the contrary, it has just developed its military offensive to destroy the independence of the Ukrainian Republic.
“One knows that the traditional history of Russia was always, and through the present, an imperial policy, and now she wishes to pass over the body of independent Ukraine to put one hand on the Dardanelles and Suez and the other on the Persian Gulf.”
In an interview on April 30, 2021, Andrei Ilnitski, key advisor to Russia’s Defence Minister Shoygu, described the war against America:
“The task of any war is the same - the object of influence must eventually be deprived of sovereignty and come under external control. If for this earlier - in a classic war - it was necessary to seize territory and destroy the enemy's manpower, now this is not necessary. You can destroy the state and destroy the country by changing the consciousness of society [and] destroying the social infrastructure of the enemy.”
How do you re-spool an entire nation’s DNA? Collapse it from within by rewriting the genome sequence of fact–knowledge–understanding–judgement–decision–action/inaction. The tools: provokatsia, kompromat, dezinformatsia, agitatsia, maskirovka. The protocol: deny, dismiss, distort, distract, dismay, divide, demoralise, disorient. Above all, accuse and attack. The result: an altered consciousness and consequent surrender by the target of reality control.
Barrel bombing the brain works. Putin has crossed the Potomac River into Washington, and judoed “life, liberty and truths that we find to be self-evident” into pathologies for a takedown algorithm. America is besieged by an ever-darkening swarm, not knowing what and when to expect more, scarcely daring to breath and hopelessly adrift. No need for a punch list, but sonic attacks against two National Security Council officials on American soil, one of them on White House property, is elegant. And it was at our invitation.
No single provocation has been as consequential as our fecklessness in the face of Russia’s invasion (again) of Ukraine. On February 23, 2014, President Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice intoned that “it would a grave mistake” if Russia invaded Ukraine. How grave? Sanctions? They were also imposed against Hitler. Putin’s predation only increased, proving not subjective intent to defy sanctions regardless of their consequence, but that he understood that (a) they are a fig leaf betraying a desiccated political will, or (b) they in fact are an accurate measure of our minimalist comprehension of the gravity of the matter.
But what of US aid to Ukraine? The US has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East since 9/11. More than $2 trillion has been spent in Afghanistan alone, with $40 billion this year even as the US is pulling out. How much for security assistance to Ukraine? Since 2014, some $3 billion.
A trillion is a thousand billion. In the face of the global consequences of what Russia has wrought, plus the accelerant for China et al, the amount doesn’t even move the needle. The “(a)” and “(b)”, above, applies here as well. Moreover, Ukraine is not asking for boots on the ground, even though as one of America’s most reliable allies in our “war on terror” and peacekeeping missions for the last 28 years, Ukraine has been represented by more than 45,000 pairs.
Fiona Hill, President Trump’s Russia expert, had argued in a Washington Post Op-ed against providing defensive aide to Ukraine on grounds that it would provoke Russia, oblivious that not doing so was precisely the provocation. The advice was less than mono synaptic. No one questioned the corollary: if more defensive weapons are dangerous, then less weapons makes one safer; and having no weapons is the safest of all postures. (Washington, as we know, years earlier had already stripped Ukraine of both its nuclear and conventional weaponry.)
The dissonance between our handwringing and what we actually do is a self-catalysing inferno, promoting Moscow’s mayhem and murder ever onward. Furrowed brows and catechistic clichés merely hashtag the message: Putin’s jack booting of the international order outweighs our commitment to the work product of two global wars. North Korea, China, Iran and other wannabes have been taking copious notes. We actually think these tyrannies will join in “common cause” against the global pandemic (more to come), climate change, nuclear disarmament and more.
You need a “rules based international order.” No more. That translates to “What’s going to happen to us?
Our torpor is a dog whistle, with China revelling in our inability to connect the dots and RSVP’ing appropriately. How do we think China is projecting our response to an invasion of Taiwan, a “renegade province” and not a country even recognised by the majority of the international community as an independent, sovereign state? Ukraine is. Do we see the enticement?
With one of the shortest coastlines on the Black Sea, Russia has simply drained the “Law of the Sea,” occupying Ukraine’s jurisdiction and economic zone in the Black Sea, an area the size of South Korea. Bravely we whimpered. Having repurposed the Black Sea as a Russian lake, and after also relabelling Crimea, why the surprise that Russia claims the Arctic? While China’s real estate binge in the South China Sea goes back to 2010, it now has a green light.
In December 2004, on the eve of her Senate confirmation hearings for Secretary of State, I wrote to Condoleezza Rice. Though she was head of President Bush’s National Security Council and a lauded “Russia expert,” I was stunned by her superficial assessment of Vladimir Putin and US/Russian relations.
I wrote to warn her of Russia’s plans for Ukraine and the consequences for the United States, globally, if the centrality of Ukraine for American security was not absorbed. And it was not just about Russia. My concern was that by not acting to secure the “rules based international order” our global reputation would be crushed, as other satrapies took their cue. We would be taken down by a thousand slashes, and never would it occur to Washington to question how and why. It would be our besetting sin.
“The position taken, and yet also not taken, by the Administration concerning Ukraine implicates several issues: Does this Administration's action, or inaction, vis a vis Ukraine: (1) increase or reduce likelihood that the U.S. will be simultaneously confronted by both a resurgent, reconstituted "Russia" and Islamic terrorism? (2) enhance or compromise America's credibility in implementing its stated bedrock of national security—the active promotion of democracy worldwide? (3) facilitate or prejudice the Administration's approach (and, critically, world perception of that approach) to global nuclear proliferation, most immediately North Korea and Iran? The last question is particularly acute since, even though upon its declaration of independence in 1991 Ukraine became the world's third largest nuclear power, it shortly thereafter stepped out of the nuclear club.”
Ukraine was the only country to surrender not just an existing arsenal, but to implode a massive nuclear weapons manufacturing industry. It was not an Iran seeking merely prospective capability. And we hectored Ukraine to surrender its arsenal, of all places, to its historic persecutor and America’s unrepentant existential enemy. The benefit for Ukraine were our (and Russia’s—but that’s irrelevant) words: “security assurances.” How does that impact friend and foe?
I made a second point: “The Cold War was ‘won’ because the USSR imploded, its constituent republics having asserted their right to the same self-evident freedom demanded by the American colonies. After all, what distinguished the day before and the day after the unraveling of the USSR? It was not the disappearance of weapons of mass destruction (other than in Ukraine). It was the severance of Moscow's control over the non-Russian nations that dissolved the Soviet Union. The keystone republic was Ukraine.
“If ‘winning’ meant dissolution of the Soviet Union, cold logic dictates that all effort be applied to prevent . . . a reversion to an even more dangerous Russia. It had already occurred once, in 1917. Moscow engineered the original and quintessential terrorist state.”
Since the Cold War teetered on nuclear winter, what did we do after the dissolution of the USSR to ensure there was no slingshot “Back to the USSR”? Our damning failure was not instituting a “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine to ensure it was not again occupied or suborned by Moscow and used to anchor a monstrous empire intent to burying the Great Satan. Solidifying the independence of the very country that ensured the implosion of the USSR would have been the cheapest, safest and most certain guarantee against a resurgent predatory Russia. Instead, America led a procession of Western Democracies professing fealty to a psychedelic hallucination of a New Russia.
"Let by-gone’s be by-gone’s - no need for recriminations.”
We took our marbles and rushed home, simply hoping that the tens of millions of military personnel and operatives and agents and informants and sycophants and other nomenklatura were going to prostrate themselves, morph into good Rotarians because . . . well, simply because. It would have been a decidedly un-Darwinian denouement for No. 1 Dzerzhinsky Square. For us, though, it was the easy way out. In the meantime, Stalin’s next-of-kin (by polonium, carfentanyl, gelsemium, sarin, thallium, dioxin or novichok diktat–you don’t get a choice) was resetting his own marbles and printing the rules of the game. New one here–only one player. We sprinted toward a Belle Époque of our imagination
What do Putin et al make of our stampede from reality, our inability to fathom our own national interests, our seriousness of purpose? First, Washington was adamant about keeping the USSR intact, in his 1991 Kyiv speech President Bush called on Ukraine to remain a Russian colony.
Condoleezza Rice Putin Us Gov
The author of the speech reportedly was Condoleezza Rice, then on the NSC staff. (The speech was lampooned as “Chicken Kiev” by noted American journalist William Safire.) Yet when Ukrainians instead reclaimed their independence, planting the headstone on the Evil Empire and saving the globe from an apocalyptic trajectory, Washington unabashedly took the credit. Simultaneously, Washington refused to do what was necessary to ensure Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity, but also stripped it of its conventional weaponry. President Obama had dismissed Ukraine as being a “core interest” of the U.S. Does that mean that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a non-event? Have we inoculated ourselves against understanding the consequences of a Kremlin claw back? Will Mutual Assured Destruction reenter the lexicon, and our school children relearn “duck and cover”?
At the time (I was not aware of it until years later), a thesis from the US Naval Postgraduate School warned:
“Regenerating Russia as the superpower successor to the Soviet Union will be a threat to the security of Ukraine and Europe. The consequences of an authoritarian Russia could be avoided by facilitating the development of a strong and stable Ukraine to act as a balance to Russian power in Eastern Europe. The willingness to allow Russia to become the sole nuclear and economic power to emerge from the Soviet Union is a dangerous prospect for Western security. The United States will have assisted in creating a regime that is a serious threat to the democratic community of states.”
Our inability to identify and secure our own strategic interests is reflected in an incomprehensible anomaly. (1) With a democratic and civic tradition that Russia never had, Ukraine produced Europe’s first constitution for a representative democracy, preceding Philadelphia by 77 years, and years ahead of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Ukraine has historically harboured a deep distrust of authority, and a sense of individualism and a drive toward civil society that any American would recognize.
A millennium ago, Kyiv abolished the death penalty, and education was mandatory for women. (And Afghanistan?) Russia’s occupation of the country was the pivot point in the creation of the USSR, and Ukraine’s independence ensured its fall. Now, Putin uses it as a fulcrum to crowbar the “world order.” Ukraine was and remains a natural, necessary ally of the West. (2) Though pivotal for Western security, time and again we have thrown Ukraine under the bus, enraptured by “getting on with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing” (so waxed President Trump) and dealing with business confreres vetted by the Chekisty. It’s not simply that we have ignored, but that historically we have subverted, Ukraine as one of the most consequential asset in checking Russia’s international marauding.
Our mutant logic assures our enemies that we have little comprehension of our own security interests, never learned the consequences of our policies, and cannot and will not do what is necessary. Reality reversal means failure of predictive capacity that entraps a global giant in a tar pit of his own making.
My letter to Rice should be regarded as anything but prophetic since a long and repetitive history requires little imagination to extrapolate for the future. And that it may be so regarded is precisely the point: we suffer from an acid rinse of history and dilution of strategic instinct. It is the GPS to disaster.
We can do worse than consider Pavel Sudoplatov, not only Stalin’s favorite assassin but his go-to fixer. He oversaw the ice pick into Leon Trotsky’s skull and Moscow’s penetration of the American’s “super-secret” Manhattan Project. Add bugging the quarters and preparing the psychological profiles of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Yalta Conference (yes, in Crimea). So, we should listen when Sudoplatov writes in his memoirs that the apogee of his career was his role in Moscow’s “75-year war against Ukraine.” Sudoplatov wrote that that war "formally [my emphasis] ended” with world recognition of Ukraine.
Whose side were we on? How is it playing out now? How much credibility do we have? What does that portend for our posture vis a vis China, North Korea’s “rocket man,” and Teheran?
At the Paris Peace conference Washington’s “Fourteen Points” had no room for Ukraine. The largest country in Europe was denied a seat at the table. For good measure, the Treaty of Versailles dismembered the country, with the biggest slab tossed to Russia. Lewis Namier of British Intelligence wrote at the time: “I do insist that a grievous wrong has been done to the Ukrainians. It’s worse than incomprehensible.” Concurrently, Washington reneged on its agreement to sell surplus arms and medicines to Ukraine, and instead turned them over to Russia. Sound familiar?
With the rehammering of the Russian Empire into the “USSR,” Moscow finally broke the back of Ukrainian resistance by starving the nation in 1932-33. It was the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
The purpose, Oxford’s Professor Norman Davies wrote, “was to kill Ukrainian nationhood.” On May 31, 1933, Sergio Gradenigo, Italy’s Royal Consul in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, reported to the Royal Embassy of Italy in Moscow on his meeting with a senior OGPU official: the starvation was engineered “to dispose of the Ukrainian problem.” Mere “ethnographic material” was the OGPU’s term for Ukrainians. Finally, Moscow would be secure. Europe, obsequious as ever, turned a blind eye to the genocide. Capitalist America went further, extending diplomatic recognition (read legitimacy and acceptance) to the USSR as Stalin was scything millions of Ukrainians who stood in the way of his ultimate goal to bury the host of the soiree. We fed the Third Horseman.
What is an abettor?
During and after WWII, Moscow used American weaponry and war material to crush the Ukrainian underground as it battled Moscow, and to police the Gulag. For good measure, in immediate post-war Europe America took the baton passed on by the NKVD, the KGB’s/FSB’s/GRU’s predecessor, in a dragnet of Ukrainian refugees, survivors of Moscow’s genocide. They were the truth-tellers, desperate to warn the West. The sobriquet, “Operation Keelhaul,” betrayed our mens rea.
At that same time, the Ukrainian underground warned U.S Army Intelligence in Europe of Stalin’s plans to assassinate General Patton, advising that a source in NKVD headquarters in Germany communicated Sudoplatov’s arrival before Patton’s seeming accident. The Office of Strategic Services in Washington immediately ordered the arrest of the Ukrainian informers. Washington failed but the KGB didn’t, assassinating two of them in Munich in the late 1950’s using a specially made cyanide gas pistol. After Putin’s attempted 2018 assassination of Sergei Skripal with the Novichok nerve agent, Russia experts were clueless about the two assassinations, assuring us the Skripal attempt was the first use of a chemical nerve agent since WWII.
Little wonder that today Russia experts are discovering, but ten years late, Defence Minister Shoygu’s description of cognitive warfare as manipulating the enemy to “make decisions in the interests of the opposing party.” Significantly, Kremlin psy-ops against the West wasn’t necessary on the existential issue for the Soviet Union. For three generations since the USSR’s founding, we shackled ourselves to a self-inflated hologram of USSR=Russia, as USA=America. Not even Stalin made the equation. We were incapable of grasping the most elemental of elements, that the USSR was a multi-national empire. The priesthood of Russia experts dismissed, with a sniff, warnings from generations of Ukrainians that that was precisely Moscow’s Achilles heel. So why now blame Putin for relying on our real estate acumen? He has made precisely that very point. Beijing thinks our grip on reality is risible.
I concluded my letter to Rice: "In your confirmation hearings, you may be asked what must be done to ensure that, like Nazi Germany, Russia in the future never again becomes a threat to world peace and America's security. You can respond with Lenin's lament: 'If we lose Ukraine, we lose our head.' Ensuring that loss for Lenin's progeny will be the redemption."
Responding, in a manner, nine years later Rice penned a March 3, 2014 op-ed in The Washington Post, Will America Heed the Wakeup Call of Ukraine? -- “’Meet Victor Yanukovych, who is running for the presidency of Ukraine.’
Vladimir Putin and I were standing in his office at the presidential dacha in late 2004 when Yanukovych suddenly appeared from a back room. Putin wanted me to get the point. He’s my man, Ukraine is ours – and don’t forget it.” (That meeting coincidently overlapped with my letter. We know that Paul Manafort eventually planted Putin’s subaltern in Ukraine, and that as Donald Trump’s first campaign manager Manafort reported to the GRU’s Konstantin Kilimnik.)
The tectonic implications of this exchange did not factor in Rice’s Senate confirmation hearings the next month, and Ukraine was off stage. “Terrorism” was the focus, as we continued, blinkered from the reality that Moscow conceived “Islamic terrorism” as “Arab nationalism” in the 1970’s. (Terrorist airplane hijacking was a KGB innovation, likely by General Alexander Sakharovsky, head of its First Chief Directorate.) Putin’s celebration of Stalin and his executioners, and what that meant for America, was ignored.
Putin celebrates not just a genocidaire. Stalin’s talent to invade the mind, to implant not just an alternative reality but the reversal of reality, was diabolical and stratospheric. We, too, invaded Putin’s mind. We energised his predatory cortex. President Clinton: “I think we can do a lot of good with him. His intentions are generally honourable and straightforward. [He is] fully capable of . . . preserving freedom and pluralism and rule of law.” Putin’s eyes and soul aside, President Bush gushed that Putin was building a Russia “at peace within its borders, with its neighbours, a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive.” Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s brio was competitive: “President Putin’s leadership offers hope to Russia and the whole world.” A few months after the Senate hearings, Putin lamented the fall of the USSR as the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. We yawned.
Years later, we should have grasped some whisp of the gravitas of these matters when Ukraine rocketed from “Chicken Kiev” in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket to the front page in only the third impeachment of a president in US history, and the only time where foreign policy was an issue. We did not.
Applying the silent dynamite of psy-ops against a hopelessly credulous West is child's play. The question is not how, but rather why, through the years we were so stunningly wrong been about Putin, about Russia, about Ukraine, about China, but above all about ourselves? Do we understand that we have been the accelerant? What does that say about us? This is no time for faculty club politesse. We were, we remain, strung out on a narcotic called “hope,” and a refusal to believe the seemingly unbelievable. We are terminally ingenuous. Endearing in a toddler, wide-eyed innocence for a nation is terminal. History is but another name for experience, and experience is nothing if not a register of lessons. But even a toddler absorbs lessons from his mistakes, adjusts his behavior and grows up. Usually.
Putin and Russia are hardwired differently. In his Russia’s Dead End, Andrei Kovalev, a former foreign affairs and security council official under Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin, wrote of “the chronic illness of the Russian people and its rulers,” quoting the 19th century Russian writer and critic Alexander Herzen: “The entire society seemed to be infected by the disease of imperial patriotic syphilis.” Putin summarised recently: “[Americans] think that we are the same as they are, but we are different people, we have a different genetic, cultural and moral code.”
We have joined the most populous country in the cosmos that has joined the largest country on the planet—tutored by us—in a war against ourselves. America is losing because it has not absorbed Leon Trotsky’s aphorism, “You may not be interested in the war, but the war is interested in you.” In that war, we need Ukraine maybe more than Ukraine needs us. Russia, and China, have already taken measures to undercut America’s global financial clout by moving away from the dollar. Ukraine is not just the canary in the coal mine but also the democratic anchor in that part of the world. Ukraine, less than 3% the size of the colossus to the North, has been bleeding for the entirety of Western Democracy for more than seven years. Alone. What is the screenshot?
Forget the words issued at the Geneva soiree with Biden and the killer. After the Klieg lights cool, we will know if America has graduated from pre-school by what it actually does. I am not sanguine. Washington has again provoked Putin by not including Ukraine’s President in meetings with NATO (granted, not entirely our decision) or with President Biden before Geneva. Putin sees the deferred White House summer meeting with the Ukrainian President, coupled with a $150 million assistance package timed days before Geneva, as another failure of will. How much this year for Afghanistan as America pulls out? Who is America’s ambassador in Kyiv? What’s the message?
If we again condemn Ukraine’s “ethnographic material” to the coffin air of Lubyanka, if we again squander one of our most significant geopolitical assets as a counterweight to Russia, then our provocative pusillanimity will be complete. We will then have arrived at the reckoning—our naivete breeds Putin’s contempt that feeds his arrogance that triggers his miscalculation that ignites the cataclysm. Ten years after my letter to Rice, I predicted that unless America wakens, the coda will be a reprise of the Cuban Missile Crisis, lit by Russia or China or both. But it will not be a reprise of its outcome, described by then Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”
(The irony is endless. Until Ukraine’s re-assertion of independence imploded the USSR, Ukraine was the centre of the Kremlin’s ICBM industry. It was in Ukraine that Russia manufactured the missiles that threatened America during the Cuban crisis, and afterwards. And it was in Ukraine, but before Russia's invasion a century ago, that Ihor Sikorsky designed and developed the modern helicopter. It - specifically the “Sikorsky” helicopter - has been transporting the U.S. President to and from the White House lawn for generations.)
*Victor Rud has practiced international law for 35 years, and before the fall of the Soviet Union represented, in the West, political prisoners persecuted by the KGB. He also served as Special Counsel to a member of the US Delegation to the Madrid Review Conference on Security & Cooperation in Europe ("Helsinki Accords").
His commentary has been carried, among others, by Forbes, Kyiv Post, Foreign Policy Association, Defense Report, Atlantic Council, Centre for Global Strategy, and EuromaidanPress.
Victor is Senior Advisor to Open Court, an NGO in Ukraine, and was the keynote speaker at the first L'viv Security Forum.
He is a founder and past Chairman of the Ukrainian American Bar Association, and currently chairs its Committee on Foreign Affairs. He received his undergraduate degree in international relations from Harvard College, and his law degree from Duke University.