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Obama's Cold War Rhetoric Is Outdated—And Masks Ukraine's Real Crises

Realities on the ground today are very different than the 1980's.

With his speech on foreign policy at West Point falling on deaf ears, and the scandal of the Bergdahl/Taliban exchange growing, President Obama decided to prop-up his foreign policy credentials by resorting to what I would call the “ Charlie Wilson solution”: maintain your political relevance by getting tough with Russia. As opposed to Israel, Arab countries, or China-- criticism of which can land you into economic or political trouble--Russia is always available. Furthermore, what can be a better place to exhibit one’s anti-Russian credentials than Poland, the country where suspicion of all things Russian goes back to the 17th century, the time when Russia had overshadowed Poland as the dominant power in Eastern Europe. Having his political career shaped in Chicago, whose metropolitan area boasts 1.5 million Polish descendants, Obama knows it well.

With its invocations of such concepts as “freedom,” “democracy,” and “moral and physical courage” intended to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Poland’s liberation from Soviet Communism, Obama hit all the proper Cold War notes speaking in Poland, striving to conjure the mood of President Reagan’s famous 1987 West Berlin Speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” delivered at the height of the Cold War. Only he didn’t. That type of rhetoric might still work well in Warsaw or Chicago, but for the rest of the world, realities on the ground are very much different from June 1987.

The speech’s invocation of Cold War concepts sounded as anachronistic as the explanation of Einstein through Newtonian physics or Euclidian geometry. The paradigm has definitely shifted, but neither politicians nor the press seem to notice. Ideas do age, and when an old idea is dressed in the latest fashion it looks as incongruent as a muscle shirt on an unfit body. I experienced such incongruence in the Soviet Union, when the rhetoric of the revolutionary era, with its equalitarian and internationalist ethos, would be used to justify the invasions of Hungary or Czechoslovakia or the suppression of dissidents. This desire to utilize the Cold War’s image of courageous East Europeans resisting Soviet tyranny is not just anachronistic, or ill-timed. It is also – when applied to the current situation is Ukraine – is deliberately misleading.

It hides the complex reality of Ukraine, a divided country, whose division grows as the bombing of the eastern Ukraine –blatantly condoned by western powers --continues. It clearly misrepresents the attacks on Donetsk, Sloviansk, Luhansk, Kramatorsk, Krasny Liman and other towns where CIVILIANS (and not just so called “separatists” or “terrorists”) are brutally killed. It obfuscates the fact that the grievances of eastern Ukrainians are similar to anyone living in Europe or in the States: job insecurity, falling standard of living, and the central government's neglect of their concerns. But besides these obvious grievances, it also obfuscates the fact that the eastern Ukrainians held their political referendums, and demanded that their economic, political, and cultural concerns be recognized by the Kievan government. Yet this new government—consisting of the same old oligarchs who were in power before, and whose corruption brought down the previous government—dismissed these demands as mere Putin propaganda, and proceeded to bomb instead. This Cold War narrative also fails to acknowledge that the recent rewriting of Ukrainian history, undertaken by western Ukrainians in order to pull their country away from Russia toward the West, is both false and divisive.

This obfuscation of history is particularly egregious at the time when western leaders descend on Normandy to celebrate 70 years of Normandy's invasion. Ukrainian heroic sacrifice in the war against Germany has been deliberately downplayed in recent Ukrainian history for the sake of highlighting another Ukrainian tragedy – Holodomor, the death of thousands of Ukrainian peasants as the result of Stalin’s brutal agricultural policies. This decision to replace one tragedy with another does not sit well with the people on the east—as opposed to some western Ukrainians, who insist that those who resisted Stalin, even if they collaborated with Nazis, should be treated as national heroes. During the last 20 years at least two dozen monuments were erected to Stepan Bandera, the controversial leader of Ukrainian nationalists, whose supporters killed thousands of Jews, Poles and Russians. It is easy to imagine the feelings of various Ukrainians when they witness historical revision done with such a vengeance.

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