by Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News
If the US State Department’s Victoria Nuland had not said “Fuck the EU,” few outsiders at the time would have heard of Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, the man on the other end of her famously bugged telephone call. But now Washington’s man in Kiev is gaining fame as the face of the CIA-style “destabilization campaign” that brought down Ukraine’s monumentally corrupt but legitimately elected President Viktor Yanukovych.
Ray McGovern, who worked for 27 years as an intelligence analyst for the agency, mocks –
“Geoffrey Pyatt is one of these State Department high officials who does what he’s told and fancies himself as a kind of a CIA operator.
He tells Democracy Now that –
It used to be the CIA doing these things. I know that for a fact.“
Now it’s the State Department, with its coat-and-tie diplomats, twitter and facebook accounts, and a trick bag of goodies to build support for American policy.
A retired apparatchik, the now repentant McGovern was debating Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a self-described left-winger and the author of two recent essays in The New York Review of Books – “The Haze of Propaganda” and “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine.” Both men speak Russian, but they come from different planets.
On Planet McGovern – or my personal take on it – realpolitik rules. The State Department controls the prime funding sources for non-military intervention, including the controversial National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which Washington created to fund covert and clandestine action after Ramparts magazine and others exposed how the CIA channeled money through private foundations, including the Ford Foundation. State also controls the far-better-funded Agency for International Development (USAID), along with a growing network of front groups, cut-outs, and private contractors. State coordinates with like-minded governments and their parallel institutions, mostly in Canada and Western Europe. State’s “democracy bureaucracy” oversees nominally private but largely government funded groups like Freedom House. And through Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, State had Geoff Pyatt coordinate the coup in Kiev.
The CIA, NSA, and Pentagon likely provided their specialized services, while some of the private contractors exhibited shadowy skill sets. But if McGovern knows the score, as he should, diplomats ran the campaign to destabilize Ukraine and did the hands-on dirty work.
Harder for some people to grasp, Ambassador Pyatt and his team did not create the foreign policy, which was – and is – only minimally about overthrowing Ukraine’s duly elected government to “promote democracy.” Ever since Bill Clinton sat in the Oval Office, Washington and its European allies have worked openly and covertly to extend NATO to the Russian border and Black Sea Fleet, provoking a badly wounded Russian bear. They have also worked to bring Ukraine and its Eastern European neighbors into the neoliberal economy of the West, isolating the Russians rather than trying to bring them into the fold. Except for sporadic resets, anti-Russian has become the new anti-Soviet, and “strategic containment” has been the wonky word for encircling Russia with our military and economic power.
Nor did neoconservatives create the policy, no matter how many progressive pundits blame them for it. NED provides cushy jobs for old social democrats born again as neocons. Pyatt’s boss, Victoria Nuland, is the wife and fellow-traveler of historian Robert Kagan, one of the movement’s leading lights. And neocons are currently beating the war drums against Russia, as much to scupper any agreements on Syria and Iran as to encourage more Pentagon contracts for their friends and financial backers. But, encircling Russia has never been just a neocon thing. The policy has bi-partisan and trans-Atlantic support, including the backing of America’s old-school nationalists, Cold War liberals, Hillary hawks, and much of Obama’s national security team.
No matter that the policy doesn’t pass the giggle test. Extending NATO and Western economic institutions into all of a very divided Ukraine had less chance of working than did hopes in 2008 of bringing Georgia into NATO, which could have given the gung-ho Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvilli the treaty right to drag us all into World War III. To me, that seemed like giving a ten-year-old the keys to the family Humvee.
Western provocations in Ukraine proved more immediately counterproductive. They gave Vladimir Putin the perfect opportunity for a pro-Russian putsch in Crimea, which he had certainly thought of before, but never as a priority. The provocations encouraged him to stand up as a true Russian nationalist, which will only make him more difficult to deal with. And they gave him cover to get away with that age-old tool of tyrants, a quickie plebiscite with an unnecessary return to Joseph Stalin’s old dictum once popular in my homestate of Florida: “It’s not the votes that count, but who counts the votes.”
Small “d” democrats should shun such pretense. Still, most journalists and pollsters on the scene report that – with the exception of the historic Tatar community – the majority of Crimeans want to join the Russian Federation, where they seem likely to stay.
Tensions will also grow as the US-picked interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – our man “Yats” – joins with the IMF to impose a Greek, Spanish, or Italian style austerity. Hard-pressed Ukranians will undoubtedly fight back, especially in the predominantly Russian-speaking east. According to Der Spiegel, a whopping three quarters of the people there do not support the coup or government. What a tar patch! A domestic conflict that could split Ukraine in two will inevitably become even further embroiled in the geo-strategic struggle between Russia and the West.
On Planet Snyder, as in most Western media, these realistic considerations make absolutely no difference. Ideology rules, masked as idealism. Fine sounding abstractions fill the air. Ukrainians are making their own history. They are acting with great courage. They are seeking the rule of law and their rightful place in “European Civilization.” They are defending “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity.” Russians remain vicious. Big bad Vlad is the new Hitler. He is seeking his own Eurasian empire (as opposed to NATO’s), which could soon include parts of Moldova, Belarus, and Kazakhstan that the West needs like a “lok in kop,” a hole in the head. And those watching in the West must abandon what Snyder calls –
“our slightly self-obsessed notions of how we control or don’t control everything.”
The professor proclaims,
“It was a classic popular revolution. An undeniably popular uprising against “an unmistakably reactionary regime.“
Writing in The Nation, Professor Stephen Cohen shreds Snyder’s argument. My concern is more pointed. Popular uprisings deserve our support or opposition depending on who comes to control them and to what ends. As McGovern puts it,
“The question is: Who took them over? Who spurred them? Who provoked them for their own particular strategic interests?”
Detailed evidence provides the answers. For all the courage of the Ukrainian minority who took to the barricades, US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt and his team spurred the protests in Kiev and exercised extensive – though never complete – control over them. Tactically, Pyatt and his fellow diplomats showed unexpected skill. Strategically, they should have stayed home.
Revolution on Demand
Arriving in the Ukrainian capital on August 3, Pyatt almost immediately authorized a grant for an online television outlet called Hromadske.TV, which would prove essential to building the Euromaidan street demonstrations against Yanukovych. The grant was only $43,737, with an additional $4,796 by November 13. Just enough to buy the modest equipment the project needed.
Many of Hromadske’s journalists had worked in the past with American benefactors. Editor-in-chief Roman Skrypin was a frequent contributor to Washington’s Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and the US-funded Ukrayinska Pravda. In 2004, he had helped create Channel 5 television, which played a major role in the Orange Revolution that the US and its European allies masterminded in 2004.
Skrypin had already gotten $10,560 from George Soros’s International Renaissance Foundation (IRF), which came as a recommendation to Pyatt. Sometime between December and the following April, IRF would give Hromadske another $19,183.
Hromadske’s biggest funding in that period came from the Embassy of the Netherlands, which gave a generous $95,168. As a departing US envoy to the Hague said in a secret cable that Wikileaks later made public,
“Dutch pragmatism and our similar world-views make the Netherlands fertile ground for initiatives others in Europe might be reluctant, at least initially, to embrace.”
For Pyatt, the payoff came on November 21, when President Yanukovych pulled back from an Association Agreement with the European Union. Within hours Hromadske.TV went online and one of its journalists set the spark that brought Yanukovych down.
Snyder writes –
“Enter a lonely, courageous Ukrainian rebel, a leading investigative journalist. A dark-skinned journalist who gets racially profiled by the regime. And a Muslim. And an Afghan. This is Mustafa Nayem, the man who started the revolution. Using social media, he called students and other young people to rally on the main square of Kiev in support of a European choice for Ukraine.”
All credit to Nayem for his undeniable courage. But bad, bad history. Snyder fails to mention that Pyatt, Soros, and the Dutch had put Web TV at the uprising’s disposal. Without their joint funding of Hromadske and its streaming video from the Euromaidan, the revolution might never have been televised and Yanukovych might have crushed the entire effort before it gained traction.
For better or for worse, popular uprisings have changed history long before radio, television, or the Internet. The new technologies only speed up the game. Pyatt and his team understood that and masterfully turned soft power and the exercise of free speech, press, and assembly into a televised revolution on demand, complete with an instant overdub in English. Soros then funded a Ukrainian Crisis Media Center “to inform the international community about events in Ukraine,” and I’m still trying to track down who paid for Euromaidan PR, the website of the Official Public Relations Secretariat for the Headquarters of the National Resistance.
Orange Revolution II
Preparing the uprising started long before Pyatt arrived in country, and much of it revolved around a talented and multi-lingual Ukrainian named Oleh Rybachuk, who had played several key roles in the Orange Revolution of 2004. Strangely enough, he recently drew attention when Pando, Silicon Valley’s online news site, attacked journalist Glenn Greenwald and the investor behind his new First Look Media, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Trading brickbats over journalistic integrity, both Pando and Greenwald missed the gist of the bigger story.
In 2004, Rybachuk headed the staff and political campaign of the US-backed presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko. As the generally pro-American Kyiv Post tells it, the shadowy Rybachuk was Yushchenko’s “alter ego” and “the conduit” to the State Security Service, which
“was supplying the Yushchenko team with useful information about Yanukovych’s actions.”
Rybachuk went on to serve under Yushchenko and Tymoshenko as deputy prime minister in charge of integrating Ukraine into NATO and the European Union. In line with US policy, he also pushed for privatization of Ukraine’s remaining state-owned industries.
Despite US and Western European backing, the government proved disastrous, enabling its old rival Yanukovych to win the presidency in the 2010 election. Western monitors generally found the election “free and fair,” but no matter. The Americans had already sowed the seeds either to win Yanukovych over or to throw him over, whichever way Washington and its allies decided to go. As early as October 2008, USAID funded one of its many private contractors – a non-profit called Pact Inc. – to run the “Ukraine National Initiatives to Enhance Reforms” (UNITER). Active in Africa and Central Asia, Pact had worked in Ukraine since 2005 in campaigns against HIV/AIDS. Its new five-year project traded in bureaucratic buzzwords like civil society, democracy, and good governance, which on the public record State and USAID were spending many millions of dollars a year to promote in Ukraine.
Pact would build the base for either reform or regime change. Only this time the spin-masters would frame their efforts as independent of Ukraine’s politicians and political parties, whom most Ukrainians correctly saw as hopelessly corrupt. The new hope was “to partner with civil society, young people, and international organizations” – as Canada’s prestigious Financial Post later paraphrased no less an authority than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
By 2009, Pact had rebranded the pliable Rybachuk as “a civil society activist,” complete with his own NGO, Center UA (variously spelled Centre UA, Tsenter UA, or United Actions Center UA). Pact then helped Rybachuk use his new base to bring together as many as 60 local and national NGOs with activists and leaders of public opinion. This was New Citizen, a non-political “civic platform” that became a major political player. At the time, Pact and Soros’s IRF were working in a joint effort to provide small grants to some 80 local NGOs. This continued the following year with additional money from the East Europe Foundation.
Rybachuk explained to the Kyiv Post that
“Ukraine has been united by common disillusionment. The country needs a more responsible citizenry to make the political elite more responsible.”
Who could argue? Certainly not Rybachuk’s Western backers. New Citizen consistently framed its democracy agenda as part of a greater integration within NATO, Europe, and the trans-Atlantic world. Rybachuk himself would head the “Civil Expert Council” associated with the EU-Ukraine Cooperation Committee.
Continuing to advise on “strategic planning,” in May 2010 Pact encouraged New Citizen “to take Access to Public Information as the focus of their work for the next year.” The coalition campaigned for a new Freedom of Information law, which passed. Pact then showed New Citizen how to use the law to boost itself as a major player, organize and train new activists, and work more closely with compliant journalists, all of which would seriously weaken the just-elected Yanukovych government. Part of their destabilization included otherwise praiseworthy efforts, none more so than the movement to “Stop Censorship.”
Rybachuk – a media expert” as well as civic activist – told the Kyiv Post in May 2010,
“Censorship is re-emerging, and the opposition is not getting covered as much. There are some similarities to what Vladimir Putin did in Russia when he started his seizure of power by first muzzling criticism in the media.”
One of Rybachuk’s main allies in “Stop Censorship” was the journalist Sergii Leshchenko, who had long worked with Mustafa Nayem at Ukrayinska Pravda, the online newsletter that NED publicly took credit for supporting. NED gave Leshchenko its Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellowship, while New Citizen spread his brilliant exposés of Yanukovych’s shameless corruption, focusing primarily on his luxurious mansion at Mezhyhirya. Rybachuk’s Center UA also produced a documentary film featuring Mustafa Nayem daring to ask Yanukovych about Mezhyhirya at a press conference. Nothing turned Ukrainians – or the world – more against Yanukovych than the concerted exposure of his massive corruption. This was realpolitik at its most sophisticated, since the US and its allies funded few, if any, similar campaigns against the many Ukrainian kleptocrats who favored Western policy.
Under the watchful eye of Pact, Rybachuk’s New Citizen developed a project to identify the promises of Ukrainian politicians and monitor their implementation. They called it a “Powermeter” (Vladometer), an idea they took from the American website “Obamameter.” Funding came from the US Embassy, through its Media Development Fund, which falls under the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Other money came from the Internews Network, which receives its funding from the State Department, USAID, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and a wide variety of other government agencies, international organizations, and private donors. Still other money came from Soros’s IRF.
New Citizen and its constituent organizations then brought together 150 NGOs from over 35 cities, along with activists and journalists like Sergii Leschchenko, to create yet another campaign in 2011. They called it the Chesno Movement, from the Ukrainian word for “honestly.
“Its logo was a garlic bulb, a traditional disinfectant widely believed to ward off evil. The movement’s purpose was “to monitor the political integrity of the parliamentary candidates running in the 2012 elections.”
This was a mammoth project with the most sophisticated sociology. As expected, the Chesno monitoring found few honest politicians. But it succeeded in raising the issue of public integrity to new heights in a country of traditionally low standards and in building political interest in new areas of the country and among the young. The legislative elections themselves proved grim, with President Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions taking control of parliament.
What then of all New Citizen’s activism, monitoring, campaigning, movement-building, and support for selective investigative journalism? Where was all this heading? Rybachuk answered the question in May 2012, several months before the election.
He told Canada’s Financial Post
“The Orange Revolution was a miracle, a massive peaceful protest that worked. We want to do that again and we think we will.”
He Who Pays the Piper
Rybachuk had good reason for his revolutionary optimism. His Western donors were upping the ante. Pact Inc. commissioned a financial audit for the Chesno campaign, covering from October 2011 to December 2012. It showed that donors gave Rybachuk’s Center UA and six associated groups some $800,000 for Chesno. PACT, which regularly got its money from USAID, contributed the lion’s share, $632,813, though part of that came from the Omidyar Network, a foundation set up by Pierre and his wife.
In a March 12th press release, the network tried to explain its contributions to Rybachuk’s Center UA, New Citizen, and the Chesno Movement. These included a two-year grant of $335,000, announced in September 2011, and another $769,000, committed in July 2013. Some of the money went to expand Rybachuk’s technology platforms, as New Citizen explained.
“New Citizen provides Ukrainians with an online platform to cooperatively advocate for social change. On the site, users can collectively lobby state officials to release of public information, participate in video-advocacy campaigns, and contribute to a diverse set of community initiatives. As a hub of social justice advocates in Kiev, the organization hopes to define the nation’s ‘New Citizen’ through digital media.”
Omidyar’s recent press release listed several other donors, including the USAID-funded Pact, the Swiss and British embassies, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the National Endowment for Democracy, and Soros’s International Renaissance Foundation. The Chesno Movement also received money from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
Figures for fiscal year 2013 are more difficult to track. Washington’s foreignassistance.gov shows USAID paying PACT in Ukraine over $7 million under the general category of “Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.” The data does not indicate what part of this went to Center UA, New Citizen, or any of their projects.
What should we make of all this funding? Some of it looks like private philanthropy, as back in the days when the CIA channeled its money through foundations. Was the Soros and Omidyar money truly private or government money camouflaged to look private? That has to remain an open question. But, with Rybachuk’s campaigns, it makes little difference. USAID and other government funding dominated. The US Embassy, through Pact, coordinated most of what Rybachuk did. And, to my knowledge, neither Soros nor Omidyar ever broke from the State Department’s central direction.
Strategic Containment, OK?
When Ambassador Pyatt arrived in Kiev, he inherited Pact and its Rybachuk network well on its way to a second Orange Revolution, but only if they thought they needed it to win integration into Europe. That was always the big issue for the State Department and the Ukrainian movement they built, far more telling than censorship, corruption, democracy, or good governance. As late as November 14, Rybachuk saw no reason to take to the streets, fully expecting Yanukovych to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union at a November 28-29 summit in Vilnius. On November 21, Yanukovych pulled back, which Rybachuk saw as a betrayal of government promises. That is what “brought people to the streets,” he told Kyiv Post. “It needed to come to this.”
Euromaidan would become a “massive watchdog,” putting pressure on the government to sign the association and free trade deal with the EU, he said.
“We’ll be watching what the Ukrainian government does, and making sure it does what it has to do.”
That is where the State Department’s second Orange Revolution started. In my next article, I’ll show where it went from there and why.