The ongoing war in Ukraine has been framed in multiple ways by multiple commentators of international affairs. Depending on one’s point of view, it could be characterized as a war between Russia and Ukraine, a proxy war between Russia and NATO, or a proxy war between Russia and a U.S.-backed West. The latter two perspectives anchor the war in the larger context of the gradual deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations since the high point at the end of the Cold War. In this framework, most scholars who adhere to this position perceive the expansion of NATO as a key reason for the deterioration and eventual break-down of ties between Moscow and Washington.
Although this position is amply supported by a substantial body of evidence, there are those who question it on the basis of excluding the agency of Ukraine. By framing the war and its origins entirely within the larger context of U.S.-Russia relations, these individuals contend, “does it not erase or mitigate the independent agency of Ukraine?” Similarly, those who adhere to this argument contend that Ukraine should be able to join NATO if it so freely chooses. The argument is applicable beyond Ukraine and, in different contexts, has been applied to various other former Soviet republics—Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, etc.
The response given to such arguments is usually that, yes, Ukraine (for example) has independent agency, but NATO membership is not, as the historian Stephen F. Cohen used to say, a fraternity or sorority, let alone the American Association of Retired People. Not anyone can join. The membership of the country must enhance the security of the other member states, not imperil it. A similar response, employed by John Mearsheimer, contends that while these countries do have agency, their interests have to take a back seat to the larger aim of averting a cataclysmic nuclear clash between the superpowers. Such was the case with Fidel Castro’s Cuba when it had to relinquish the Soviet missiles from its island as a necessary part of defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
While such arguments are fully valid, an equally compelling response to the agency question, and one that speaks much more directly to the people of the post-Soviet space, is the fact that former Soviet republics like Ukraine are usually compelled into such a difficult geopolitical position by external forces that do not have the interests of the people at heart. Again, this argument applies beyond Ukraine and, in different contexts, extends variously to Armenia, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and other ex-Soviet states.
The external forces in these cases are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based out of numerous Western countries, especially the United States. This is not to say that all Western-based NGOs exert some sort of nefarious influence in the region. However, certain NGOs have clearly used (or abused) the goodwill of several post-Soviet governments in order to advance larger geopolitical aims. These include the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Open Society Foundation, the Eurasia Foundation, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the International Republic Institute (IRI), among many others. In the 30-year period since the dissolution of the USSR, such organizations have taken full advantage of the acute socioeconomic conditions that emerged in these countries, with little or no regard for their independent agency, their national histories, or the longstanding economic, cultural, and personal ties that bind them together.
As a result of the loss of jobs, inter-republican economic ties, and the significant disruptions that occurred from haphazard market “reforms,” many citizens of these societies have gravitated toward these NGOs as sources of economic opportunity. Still others have fallen under the sway of the messaging of these organizations, which have a clear geopolitical imperative—to diminish Russia’s political and cultural presence in the post-Soviet space, with the objective of preventing any sort of restoration of economic, political, or person-to-person connections. Another, much more sinister aim, made all too painfully evident by the ongoing tragedy in Ukraine, is the effort on the part of these NGOs, in collusion with the Washington war party, to use these republics as geopolitical bludgeons against Russia, at the terrible expense of their own citizens.
Equipped with substantial budgets and a savvy understanding of soft power and social media, these same NGOs also know the value of marketing. If large majorities of Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians, and others might have opposed taking an overtly anti-Russian, pro-NATO stance in 1992 or 1998, then these NGOs work constantly to change public opinion, manipulating attitudes and manufacturing consent until the desired results are achieved. These newfound “desires” for NATO are then represented as being just as natural as the Caucasus mountains or the wheat fields of the Ukrainian steppe. To deny NATO, the NGOniks declare, would be to deny the long-awaited wish of the narod of the post-Soviet space to join the Western military alliance and purchase expensive military weaponry.
The historical periods of Khrushchev’s Thaw and Gorbachev’s glasnost underscore the indisputable historical fact that the countries of the former Soviet Union have a rich history of endogenous democratization efforts. Yet, the post-Soviet NGO class represents democratization as only being possible through the “enlightened” influence of the United States and other Western societies. To allow these countries to find their way to democracy independently is considered an anathema, a rejection of “European values,” and indicative of “democratic backsliding,” to use a very demeaning term all too common in the neocolonial lexicon of post-Soviet NGO-speak. This line of thinking is horribly Hobbesian, assuming that without the “civilizing influence” of Washington, these “poor people” would revert to a “natural state” of “barbarism” and “Cyrillic autocracy” (as if use of the Latin alphabet indicates “civilization” and “democracy”).
With the discreet charm of used car salesmen, the representatives of these NGOs also extol markets and hyper-individualistic neoliberal values, while ignoring genuine social concerns like poverty and joblessness. In terms of the historical memory of the Soviet experience, those affiliated with NGOs in former Soviet republics often emphasize the “totalitarian model,” asserting that there were virtually no differences between the various Soviet leaders and their contexts (e.g., that there was “no difference” between Lenin and Stalin, or even Stalin and Gorbachev).
Likewise, the NGO emissaries often represent the October Revolution of 1917 not as a genuine revolution (which it was, as the research of Alexander Rabinowitch and others highlight), but as a “Bolshevik coup.” In this context, they also often downplay the major Soviet-era achievements of these republics, be they artistic, scientific, or economic. Furthermore, these NGOs emphasize the (incorrect) narrative (adopted as truth by the U.S. foreign policy establishment) that the Washington “won” the Cold War and single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union, the dissolution of which they framed as “inevitable.” Yet, as former U.S. ambassador Jack Matlock regularly reminds us, this was simply not the case. However, if one questions these narratives, they are attacked for peddling “Russian disinformation.”
Rather than reflecting the desires of the societies of the post-Soviet space, these Western-based NGOs usually subordinate wishes for genuine independence to the geopolitical objectives of Washington’s war class. In this respect, they only succeed in acting as disruptors, upsetting the ability of countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia from developing genuinely democratic societies and truly independent agency on the international stage. The recent controversy in Georgia over the “foreign agent” bill is vividly illustrative of the roles of these NGOs as “disruptors” preventing these countries from achieving actual independence and democracy. Rather than indicating a “roll-back of democracy” or a “contradiction of European aspirations,” the aim of Tbilisi was to move toward a genuinely independent and transparent democratic society. After all, there is a reason why the “foreign agent” bill was based on the example of FARA in the United States.
Above all, by forcing the post-Soviet states to make a hard geopolitical “civilizational choice” between Russia and the West, these NGOs are being incredibly unfair to the peoples of these societies. In this regard, they deny them the true agency and independence that they genuinely desire, barring them from the right to imbibe in the fruits of both sides as independent actors. Moreover, the professed NGO aspiration of “democratization” has resulted in the opposite intended effect. Across the former Soviet space today, from Russia to Ukraine, one encounters far more illiberal governments than liberal, democratic ones. Indeed, the interference of external organizations into the endogenous political development of these states has led to a greater de-democratization throughout the region.
Perhaps most ironically and tragically, the professed zeal for “democratic enlightenment” has also led to a de-democratization of the United States itself. In the drive to “contain Russia,” the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower once eloquently warned against has now joined forces with corporate interests and a pervasive political culture of righteous conformity to erode the basic liberties upon which the country was founded. The results bode poorly for America’s image abroad and only succeed in setting a bad example for the rest of the world, including the post-Soviet space. Even more alarmingly, they also have the potential to bring humanity perilously close to nuclear catastrophe. If the deafening silence on the journalism of Sy Hersh is any indication of the state of American democracy, then it becomes clear that the chief priority of Washington lawmakers should be fixing democracy at home rather than searching for monsters abroad.
Dr. Pietro A. Shakarian is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Historical Research, National Research University—Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Russia. He previously worked as a lecturer in history at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan.