‘Injuries Incompatible with Life’

James Meek

On Thursday, while Ukrainian government troops began an attempt to disarm, arrest and if it came to it kill the heavily armed pro-Russian fighters who have taken over government buildings in the Ukrainian town of Slavyansk, Russian government troops carried out an almost identical operation in the Russian town of Khasavyurt, in the Caucasus. Ukrainian troops killed between one and five anti-government fighters in the course of their operation. Russian troops killed four anti-government fighters during theirs.

I say 'almost identical', but in fact, while Ukrainian special forces were trying to clear anti-Ukrainian rebels from government buildings they had illegally taken over, Russian special forces killed four anti-Russian rebels in a private house. If they were rebels. In the version given by the Russian information outlet Vesti, a woman, described as an 'accomplice', was the first to open fire on the heavily armed Russian soldiers. They fired back, killing two men and two women; or rather, in the douce euphemism of the report, 'they received injuries incompatible with life'.

Another difference was in the way the events were reported. Vesti described the Ukrainian mission as a 'punitive operation' and the victims as 'local inhabitants'. It described the Russian mission as 'a special operation' and the victims as 'four fighters'. The headline adds cheerfully: 'Children saved!' The report is a little unclear, but it appears that the dead men and women were the children's parents.

It would have been interesting to compare reporting of the two events by the Kremlin's English language news channel, too, but although they have devoted a great deal of coverage to what has been happening in Ukraine, Russia Today seems to have missed the Khasavyurt story. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, described Ukraine's efforts to establish order within its own borders as 'a bloody crime', but of Russia's own efforts in that regard, he said nothing. Amid all the talk of double standards from Moscow, here, at least, is one point of clarity: Russia has no problem with the repression of Russian-speakers, bloody if necessary, as long as it is Russians who are doing the repression.


  • 26 April 2014 at 12:59am
    tony lynch says:
    "The Ukranian government" says it all. Please James, stop it.

  • 26 April 2014 at 9:39am
    DanJ says:
    Yes stop it now - how terribly biased of you to refer to the current government of Ukraine as the Ukrainian government. Of course, only when everyone agrees that a government is legitimate and fairly elected, whatever the circumstances, can we say that it is one. So half the countries on earth don't even have a government - who knew we lived in such a libertarian paradise?

  • 27 April 2014 at 8:26pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Perhaps alynch would like to give us a brief disquisition on the worthiness (or legitimacy) of "the Russian government". Now there's a term that requires tears and laughter all at the same time, those with the most reasons to smile (does "public buffoon" ring a bell here?) and weep being Russian citizens, the real victims of the creepy little ex-KGB thug. Please, al, engage in some "advanced Putinology" for your readers, so that we can understand just how the little big man has justice on his side.

  • 29 April 2014 at 10:42am
    Julia Atkins says:
    In his earlier piece Meek completely ignored the US provocation that led to the crisis, leave alone the historical background/NATO expansion, etc.
    Now he appears to have become a propagandist for the extreme right-wing clique that is being backed by Washington and its EU satellites. One can oppose all this WITHOUT supporting Putin. Creepy ex-CIA thugs have been Presidents of the USA as well.
    Ukraine's tragedy is that, apart from a handful of well-meaning and courageous activists and intellectuals, there is no real social force in the country that is truly independent of Moscow or Washington. What price a sovereign state in today's world?

  • 29 April 2014 at 7:40pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Julia Atkins seems a bit hysterical here. Is there really a single “provocation” that emanated from the US government that is responsible for the rapid changes in Ukraine that led to the present crisis? What exactly was it? Putin has obviously been waiting for a pretext for involvement, and his motives are probably twofold: the desire to have Ukraine as a member of his cherished “Eurasian Union” or economic league or whatever you want to call it, which he feels is needed to restore Russia as a Great Power; his second reason may have been totally cynical, i.e., the desire to defray upwelling Russian criticism of the corruption (and incompetence) of his own government; the Sochi corruption debacle was ready to take off right after the temporary peace required to see the winter Olympics through –it has been muted by the patriotic frenzy linked to a no-cost – in the short run -- reacquisition of Crimea. Factors like this are far more important in determining what is happening in Ukraine than any specific actions taken by the US or the EU to “cause the situation” (what are those actions, Julia?). Proposing eventual NATO membership for Ukraine is obviously a bad idea, but was it ever a serious idea (i.e., one believed in by its proposers or by anyone of political significance within Ukraine)?
    The rest of her fairly moderate rant is cloudy. Right-wing extremists exist within both pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian supporters and organizations. Right-wing extremism often goes hand-in-hand with nationalism, not to say chauvinism. In this day it can find many allies among former communist apparatchiks in the region, because it is seen as a means of establishing or holding on to power – it’s “populist”. The merging of the old Party bureaucracy and nomenklatura with right-wing programs (and ideals) after the fall of communism is an interesting historical and psychological phenomenon, pointing to the total hollowness of the Leninist (Stalinist) version of communism that led to its internal collapse. The fact that the West was clumsy, stupid, and selfish in dealing with the fall and reconstruction of these societies is a sad one, but it is not responsible for what is happening in the old USSR and its former satellite states when anything there goes bad (or sour). The peoples of the region itself are creating their own problems, so it’s up to them to create their own solutions. Both the pro-EU and the pro-Russian folks in Ukraine need to organize serious political parties willing to make major concessions to each other in order to solve these problems; such parties, if they can be formed, will produce serious politicians, rather than the covey of incompetents and opportunists who dominate the scene in both Russia and Ukraine now. Activists and intellectuals are nice to write about and they do make issues public, but they seldom get down to the hard work of serious politics, where power has to be balanced and restrained by firm standards with respect to important things such as civil liberties and temporary sacrifices and hardships endured in order to produce functioning economies.

  • 30 April 2014 at 5:22pm
    Julia Atkins says:
    Timothy Rogers is either naive (unlikely) or blind to US imperial interests.
    Regardless of what one thinks of Putin or the new post-communist Russia why should it not defend what it regards as its own interests. Why are these more sordid than those of the United States.
    The US and its EU satellites have been determined to expand NATO eastwards despite the assurances given to Gorbachev prior to German reunification that this was not on the agenda. I'm not convinced that they would leave the Ukraine alone. Constant interference by the West has been well documented from the 'Orange revolution' onwards. The removal of one disgusting oligarch by another was, as Victoria Nuland's leaked conversation makes clear being seriously discussed by Washington and the Germans...each wanted a different oligarch. Washington won.
    Serious political parties in the Ukraine is a good idea but slightly utopian. All this means is two different sets of oligarchs with their own respective clients and sponsors. Cruder than what exists in the West but fundamentally not so different. The 'temporary sacrifices and hardships'
    that Timothy wants the Ukrainians to endure is a sick joke. What else have they been enduring since they became independent, just like the bulk of Russians.
    It was the hollowness of the nomenklatura that led to the collapse of the old system. They were bankrupt on every level but the social dictatorships over which they presided offered a protective safety net to ordinary citizens. That has now gone and the post-communist regimes (with the exception of East Germany) have not been able or willing to provide a social-democracy. As for civil liberties, yes they are vital, but which model. Universal surveillance on a scale that even the Stasi could not envisage; suspension of habeas corpus as is the case in the UK? A genuinely diverse media? Like the BBC and CNN? I think the Ukrainians deserve better. And 'serious politics'? US model? EU model? The parties who alternate agree on fundamentals. Hence the growing alienation of the present generation from 'serious politics.'

  • 30 April 2014 at 7:27pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    My final comment here on what is beginning to turn into a “flame war” is that Julia Atkins is very naïve about Russian imperial interests. – and Putin’s intentions. US and/or EU and/or NATO expansion to incorporate the old Soviet satellite states rests on the motives and fears of those states as much as it does on Western “geopolitical” games. Poland, the Baltic States, Slovakia, and Hungary not only wanted the residual Russian forces (and political allies) out, they are fearful that they might come back some day. If they have to be “pawns” (which they are most definitely not at present), then better pawns of the US/EU, from their point of view. People of the region may have many specific complaints about US influence (political and cultural, the latter of which no one can really do anything about), but these are minor grievances when compared to a perennial fear of Russian influence. Putin hinting that he will come to the aid of unhappy Russians (or Russophones) dwelling in Russia’s borderlands terrifies the Baltic-Staters, who have sizable (but aging out) Russian minorities living in their big cities (and they weren’t exactly invited there during the glory days of the USSR). Serious politics and serious politicians are the only way to manage political crises – progressive or radical rhetoric and demonstrations just won’t do the job, and if “youth” (“the present generation”) doesn’t understand this or sympathize with it – so what? There’s nothing new or peculiar about youthful alienation from conventional politics in this part of the world – or any other – but some of these youthful activists will have to engage in conventional politics if non-extreme solutions are to be found – that’s what serious politics is. Ukraine as it is constituted now is in the unfortunate position of being a somewhat artificial political entity due to its long-term and recent history, so maybe it will have to resign itself to being either partitioned or remaining a “bridge country” between semi-hostile blocks, trying to tease out aid from both while avoiding alienating either. Promises to Gorbachev – now there’s a piece of naïve inanity – he was here today, gone tomorrow, and absolutely blind to the fact that loyalty to a notional “reformed Leninism” was dead in the water, because it was dead in everyone’s minds and had no mass support. Promises in political life are somewhat akin to treaties, which are only as good as the willingness of the two or more parties to honor them. US imperialism (we may as well give it that name) has a lot of black-eyes right now (failure in Iraq, pending failure in Afghanistan, inability to curb Chinese power and influence, etc.) and the political forces in the US that support it are a little confused and disorganized while they try to regroup and think about our next holy war, but they don’t look like they’re going to find it in Ukraine, where only the loudmouths on the margins of US political life proceed without caution. Stop banging your noisy tin can about that one in this situation. I don’t know where Ms. Atkins lives, but I’ll wager that she actually enjoys far more civil liberties than the average Russian citizen, while being any kind of activist opposed to Putin puts a body in even greater jeopardy. Sure, the jerks at NSA have grandiose ambitions to know everything, but their incompetence, combined with the difficulty of actually extracting useful information from their collections, is hardly something to lose sleep over (as E. Luttwak – I know, I know, an old-codger hawk – recently pointed out in his highly critical piece about the NSA, it is bloated, overfunded, overstaffed, and completely underachieving). And, the possibility of reversing the various expensive national security manias through electoral politics still exists in the US (an issue in which a weird alliance between progressives and libertarians might be formed). As to sacrifice (enduring some painful public-spending cuts, including military defense) does Ms. Atkins have any other practical (rather than rhetorical) suggestions about how Ukraine might change its challenged economy? It has to start somewhere. Massive infusions from the West might help, but that doesn’t look like it’s in the cards

  • 30 April 2014 at 10:08pm
    Julia Atkins says:
    US and Russian power are asymmetrical. There is no real comparison as any serious scholar will tell you. The notion that the US in serious decline, suffering setback after setback and that Teddy Luttwak is an authority on US intelligence capacities and capabilities (this is always his response when any US intelligence atrocity is highlighted) is not serious. Has there been a worse setback for the US than Vietnam. Then too, and it was at the height of the cold war, many on both left and right thought that it was finished, that it would never fight a war again, etc., etc. And then too some covered up the horrors of the war: 50,000 US dead, 3 million Vietnamese, napalm, Agent Orange, the most brutal tortures of the time by insisting that all this was necessary because the Western way of life was superior. Timothy Rogers reiterates this by asking where I live. I live in London. And yes, unlike Putin's Russia or even worse, Saudi Arabia or Sisi's Egypt or Netanyahu's Israel, I have more freedoms than citizens in those countries,
    though others who live here do not. So let's not brag too much about our superiorities.
    The Ukraine poses very real problems in a world where national sovereignty is not highly regarded. How independent can any country in Europe today be? Is there a single sovereign state in the EU today. Not Britain, not Germany and increasingly, not France. They have tied themselves with an umbilical cord to the Empire supposedly in decline. Even before Putin became a temporary enemy the West declined to consider Russian membership of the EU or NATO. Why? Surely they could have integrated Moscow. The real reason was that Washington feared a Moscow-Berlin axis within the EU. So the expansion of the EU as it happened was designed to weaken it as a political entity, which it has succeeded in doing.
    And Timothy might consider the speed with which a bulk of the Western media networks follow the official line. Reminds one a bit of the Brezhnev period in the oldSoviet Union.

  • 1 May 2014 at 1:31am
    Timothy Rogers says:
    “Asymmetrical power” is one of those pricey seminar terms that conceals as much as it reveals. Look at the cases and then decide. Since the demise of the USSR, Russia, in disarray, has had its way with Georgia (establishing Abkhazia as a pro-Russian autonomous region) and had much of its way with the Chechens, as well as acquiring Crimea at piddling expense. It “lost” the Baltic States, its loot from co-operating with Hitler (fruits of the infamous “secret protocols” of the Moltov-Ribbentrop Pact), but it only had those lands for 45 years. Its acquisition of eastern Poland (admittedly having a Polish demographic minority) during the same years (1939-41, then again from 1944 on out, the same for the Baltics) is firmly ensconced as part of today’s Belarus, which is as pro-Russian as any allegedly sovereign nation can be (I can see no reason to object to their partiality, though the government also seems to be a fairly spectacular criminal enterprise and the citizenry demoralized, just like their Russian cousins). It lost its old southern belt of Moslem lands, but hardly seems distressed by this (“do we really need these strange minorities?”), since they all have Putinesque rulers who like to do business as usual with Russia. The US, on the other hand, having recently launched two much larger and equally ill-founded wars has? Achieved nothing in Iraq (except the opposite of its original plans or fantasies). And looks about to achieve the same nothing in Afghanistan. Both at great expense of treasure and people. So how has the undoubted military superiority of the US stacked up against Putin’s cheap victories that always produce a spike in his popularity at home? Not very well. When rough symmetry prevailed, the US misadventure in Vietnam, and its bloody consequences for all involved (much bloodier for the Vietnamese) was matched in scope and consequences by the failed Soviet war in Afghanistan. Symmetry, asymmetry – inflated ideas of little value in determining the outcome of political struggles in the real world. Asymmetry is the basic condition of the Great Powers (a term of convenience) with respect to small and medium-sized lands, but doesn’t always result in their getting what they want. Sometimes your client states just keep on draining your resources while they themselves become more unstable (and useless to your foreign policy aims - they are often no more than symbolic markers on an imaginary chessboard that is a field of play for “geopolitical prestige”, another useless idea fancied by the statesmen and stateswomen of the Great Powers).
    As to Luttwak, like any well-read and experienced “defense intellectual” he makes lousy analyses and predictions at times, and good ones at others (by the way, he’s not “Teddy” to me, so perhaps “Julie” exchanges Xmas cards with him – as little Timmy on the sidelines I find that personal touch very funny). Neither he nor I said that the US is “in decline”, but rather that NSA is as much of a (very costly) joke as it is a threat. “Superiority” is the last feeling in the world any citizen of a western democracy should experience about his or her civil liberties, rather thankfulness combined with vigilance about keeping them.

  • 1 May 2014 at 9:31am
    Julia Atkins says:
    Achieved nothing in Iraq? What world do you live in? It destroyed Saddam's Army (an Israeli demand for many years); it totally destroyed the old state (something it not do in Japan and Italy after the last war and even in Germany many Nazis/ex-Nazis were retained in their positions in the intelligence services and the judiciary), handed over power to the clerical Shia parties, thus institutionalising and exacerbating the Shia-Sunni divide that was Saudi policy since the Iranian Revolution and that destroyed any hopes of united resistance to the imperial presence in the region. Iraqi oil was privatised and made available to multinationals. What were they meant to achieve? Democracy? Afghanistan, I agree, has been a disaster and a failure of the US effort to have bases in perpetuity on China's border will make it a total disaster. But setbacks on their own do not affect the global position of powerful Empires. You're also right on Chechnya but here (unlike the Crimea) there was a huge resistance and Yeltsin/Putin destroyed most of Groszny with the total backing of the West. Hence no big or small outcry in the corporate media.
    Asymmetry on the military front (total US dominance on sea and air if not on land) is not unimportant, but to that one must add ideological and cultural hegemony as well. Neither Russia nor China are immune to this and the worship of Hayek, Friedman, et al in China is far greater than in the United states. Add to this a bizarre footnote: Kim the Third in North Korea was so besotted with 'Breaking Bad' that he asked his scientists to start producing crystal meth of which the DPRK is now the largest exporter in the region. Here cultural hegemony becomes linked to the market.
    I thought you had decided to stop, Timothy.

  • 1 May 2014 at 11:16am
    Charles Haskins says:
    A really tremendous exchange from you two, extremely edifying for a reader who only knows about Ukraine what he reads in the papers. Slightly marred by the trading of insults, an understandable lapse given the strength of your respective convictions, although I thought describing Julia as "a bit hysterical here" was a little below the belt. I am hoping your debate about US shenanigans might spread to include Africa, my area of interest. Anyway, keep going, you are both great!

  • 1 May 2014 at 3:06pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Yes, forgive me, I thought I’d stop, but each time Ms. Atkins replies, she does two amusing things that keep me going like that little bunny on the high-powered battery. First, she avoids actually replying to what I wrote so that, second, she can unsaddle and let roam her own favorite “ideological” hobbyhorses (e.g., asymmetrical cultural hegemony – whew! and double-whew!, sounds like a compliant student’s thesis written for the Frankfurt School, with a proper A+ awarded by Adorno or Marcuse – for the detailed analytical and empirical takedown of this pretentious and nugatory intellectual movement, read Leszek Kolakowski, and then weep over its dismal influence). But back to the battleground. Other than deposing Saddam, the easy part, the US achieved none of its original or then changing goals in Iraq (remember “mission creep”, i.e. a term which in itself was an admission of failure). The Iraq oil factor remains a minor one in both the world market and as a motive for undertaking the war. Since the current Maliki government is quite a good friend of the Iranian clerical-political establishment (“clerico-fascism”, a term of art from the 1930s fits well here), the exact opposite regional influence desired by those in the US who initiated the war has been achieved. I call that failure. The planners of the war also envisioned a multinational corporate and investors’ paradise being established in Iraq. No such thing exists, and neither finance nor corporate capitalists are rushing in to boost their profits – it’s not exactly a “stable business climate”. So, we have another failure to achieve the original goals. Please note, while all the usual suspects (the neo-conservative Republicans and their Democratic Party allies who enthused about the war at its outset), while not apologizing to the US public are also not crowing about “victory” because that just won’t wash with the public, or even the dreaded establishment media that so worries Ms. Atkins. Kim the Dim – oh, come on. If a popular entertainment TV show influences the behavior of an immature and poorly educated man who just happens to be the leader (or military front man) of a rogue state, seek the answer in individual psychology, not some abstract “cultural hegemony”. When people start believing in the reality of various cultural stereotypes, or ideals, that are formulated and conveyed by the popular arts (or, daresay, even the “high arts”), it’s not a sign of successful media conspiracies or “cultural hegemony” but a sign of the feeble-mindedness of those folks who believe in this sappy stuff (which emanates from sources with both right- and left-wing beliefs).

  • 3 May 2014 at 7:26pm
    ejh says:
    I suppose it is better to pursue your politics at the expense of paragraphs rather than at the expense of people.

  • 3 May 2014 at 8:06pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    It's definitely better to pursue sense in a leisurely and detailed fashion than through sententious pithiness. Would that be some specific people or just any old people? No more flame wars for me on this one - I'm out and you should be relieved, basking in your own deep humanity. As they say in Russian, Ekh, ejh.

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