Wednesday, February 22, 2023

 The myth of the Nuland-organized coup in Ukraine

Putin’s American choir has lied for years about this. Its little lie has grown into a big prop for Russia’s return to war.

by Ira Straus

This post originally appeared on Johnson's Russia List, an internet daily news list that has become largely devoted to promoting Putin's line on the Ukraine war. It has heavily promoted the myth that the U.S. and Victoria Nuland were organizing a coup in Ukraine in 2014 to overthrow the pro-Russian Yanukovych, and moreover a fascist coup to install a fascist regime; and moreover, that this was the source of all the subsequent problems and the war.  It is all false, and was always plainly and demonstrably false.

It is not easy for people to correct falsehoods that they have become invested in promoting. It is to the credit of David Johnson that he ran this article correcting it, after years of promoting the myth. To be sure, many other articles on the site continue to take this myth for granted as Truth. And, to be sure, many other myths in the same vein, to which corrections have also been sent, remain uncorrected, But still, it was a creditable  moment of honesty on this one.


A totally false conspiracy theory was spun by Russia when Yanukovych fell in 2014, and repeated endlessly by Putin’s many acolytes in America. Here’s a good sample of this spin, in the well-worn anti-American style of the Western intelligentsia:

“Victoria Nuland, Asst. Sec. of State for Europe, phone call to US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, in a phone call leaked to the news media on 4 February 2014. F**k the EU. What's really important here is the level of planning for the coup that overthrew the elected President Viktor Yanukovych, which brought to power (as heard on the recording) a group of select individuals described as "moderate democrats." In fact, most of them, including Oleh Tyahnybok (whom Nuland insists the new head of state consult four times weekly), are a far-right nationalist faction with overt and long-standing ties to the neo-Nazi movement. Meet the characters in the story that led to what's called "the worst crisis since the old cold war" and which Russia experts at American universities describe as a new cold war more dangerous than the first.”

 ( , Apr 29, 2014)


Since the video is provided, anyone can see, if they trouble to watch carefully and critically, that the spin is entirely untrue. But few take that trouble. Instead their brain hears, not what actually comes into their ears, but the interpretation of it that they’re told they’re hearing.

Here are the actual facts.


The conversation did indeed take place. Its contents, shown precisely on that video, were the opposite of what the video’s own spin states about it. It was actually about Yanukovych appointing Yatsenyuk as his next prime minister, as a way of implementing the emerging deal with Yanukovych. It had nothing to do America overthrowing Yanukovych and replacing him with Yatsennyuk, as the video spin says.


The deal was to be that Yanukovych would dump his hated Prime Minister and replace him with an opposition leader, in order to calm down the situation. The opposition would in turn concede that Yanukovych could stay a few months longer and only after that face the defeat he expected in new elections. Nuland was talking, quite sensibly and constructively despite the colorful language, about how to proceed with that.


The spin was false on its secondary points, too. Nuland was talking about keeping Tyahnybok and the Maidan people on the “outside”, not bringing him into power as the spin also pretends. And it was the EU that wanted new, relatively untested and inexperienced Maidan people to be getting into power as PM; that’s why Nuland was saying F to the EU.


It’s easy to see these facts – if we simply listen and hear what’s actually there. The appalling thing is that most of the viewers, and probably the spinners themselves too, don’t trouble to notice or care that what they’re saying is the opposite of the facts on the very video that they present. Most viewers seem happy to have the matter framed for them in this lying way, and go away pretending to themselves that they’ve heard what the spinners told them they’d hear. As the mind so often does, when parts of the reality it expects are missing, it just fills in what it expects to see or hear. There was an evolutionary advantage to that, back in primitive times, before tricksters learned to exploit it to fool people.


It does not matter whether the spinners are lying to themselves or lying to the world. Or both. What matters is how big their little lies have grown.


Helpfully, the conversation was transcribed by the BBC -- Everyone can read it. People aren’t so easily fooled about a written text; they can look things up clearly there. Delusions are somewhat less readily induced by pre-spinning a written text than by pre-spinning an audio file (although they can occur with writing too; many an oped writer has had to suffer a title getting stuck on that makes readers assume they’re saying something different from what they actually wrote). While BBC also puts an anti-American spin on its text, it is without the brazen lying of the others.


So what do they actually discuss in that conversation? They discuss how Pres. Yanukovych can appoint a competent PM to head a government that can help him with the economic crisis. They specifically discuss reaching out to Yanukovych to help get this to go smoothly.


Obviously this was not a conversation about toppling Yanukovych in a coup. Reaching out to him to discuss his PM choice is obviously logically incompatible with that.


Yet a shocking number of people come away from the video saying that it was just that. How can they be so wrong?


Who listens carefully to the recording? Not, it seems, very many. Most people listen carelessly. They hear the expletive “fuck”, which is indeed there as stated in the framing. They take the rest of the framing on faith. They believe that they must have heard about a coup being plotted, since that’s what the framing tells them they’re going to hear.


Just in case the pre-framing is insufficient, more of the same completely fabricated framing appears at the end of the recording cited above. That post-framing not only falsifies what was heard, but tell the viewer what attitude to have toward it; in the process making obvious the political coloration of the video maker, and the ideological mentality to which this spin was expected -- rightly expected -- to appeal.


That false framing has been flung at the world on a massive scale.


A second false framing often heard is that the video was about the US appointing the new government instead of the Ukrainian people electing it. That almost sounds plausible, if you know nothing about what the issue was in Ukraine at the time. But in plain fact – a fact known to anyone who knows anything about the situation at that time -- it was Pres. Yanukovych and his backers in Moscow, not America, that opposed holding prompt new popular elections for President. They wanted Yanukovych instead to appoint a new PM from the opposition. This is what left the opposition no choice, if it wanted to have a peaceful compromise, but to accept Yanukovych’s appointing a new PM instead for the interim, and holding elections some time later. And that is what caused America, as a party involved in aid to Ukraine, to be discussing how best that deal could be implemented.


This deal was in due course accepted by the parliamentary opposition in Ukraine for the sake of a peaceful evolution. But it was never accepted by the entirety of the protest movement in the Maidan square, which understandably doubted that Yanukovych would really carry out the deal if they went home and relieved him of the pressure. Meanwhile, people naturally disagreed over who would be the best person to appoint as PM in order to repair the country and convince the protesters that the deal could be trusted and they could go home.  That is what Nuland was talking about. Quite obviously, if you pay any attention to the actual context.


But who cares about the obvious fact of the matter, if your main goal in public life is to blame the US for things and make lurid accusations against it?


And yes, horrors, Nuland said “f___” the Europeans, arguing quite reasonably that they were urging the wrong person on Yanukovych for him to choose as PM. She recommended instead that Yanukovych appoint an economist, Yatsenyuk, who also had the virtue of being leader of a main opposition party in the parliament. It was at the time a good suggestion.


But it was not to work out that way. Instead, Yanukovych’s security forces gave up and fled. Yanukovych next ran away himself. The security detail knew that many of the protesters, including their more forceful wing, never agreed to the deal. It figured that, Yanukovych having agreed to the deal and renounced in it any further use of force against the protesters, the game was over for the regime.


The parliament (Rada) elected an interim president (and very temporary prime minister), Oleksandr Turchynov, pending new popular elections. Turchynov and the parliament quickly appointed Yatsenyuk as the real interim Prime Minister.


This choice by parliament of an interim government was called a “coup” in the Kremlin media, and by a number of American conspiracy theorists, who acted more and more as Kremlin copycats. This falsehood about a “coup” had the comparative benefit that it had a small grain of truth in the middle of its primary mound of falsehood. Every revolution has something like a coup within the revolutionary process. The grain of coup in Ukraine 2014 was small; it was simply that Yanukovych and his security fled. The 1917 revolution in Russia had three much larger coups, in February against the Tsar, in October against the Provisional Government, and the next January, when the Bolsheviks  arbitrarily disbanded the Constituent Assembly. This did not stop it from also being a revolution. What happened in Ukraine in 2014 was a revolution; Yanukovych’s flight was the little bit of the coup in it, but that was enough for people with an ax to grind to call the whole thing a coup, and one plotted by hidden plotters at that. Evidently there are a lot of people dedicated to promoting the most lurid, and false, explanation of events.


The mislabeling was quickly compounded by calling it a “fascist” coup, and an American-organized one. This nonsense was in turn parlayed, in the years to come, into labeling all the actual, parliament-chosen and elected governments of Ukraine, as America-dictated “fascist” governments. The next step was to tack on an absurd claim that this “America-dictated fascist government” in Kiev was organizing a genocide against the Eastern Ukrainians.


It could have hardly been more ridiculous. Yet this became the universal language of the Russian mass media. Moreover, it became the established language in a large anti-American sector of the American and European social media space.


The huge lies about a fascist coup were meshed with the seemingly petty lies about the Nuland conversation having plotted a coup. Those who believed the petty lie came to convince themselves of the bigger lies as well.


A few months later, elections were held for president. Poroshenko won, and for a few days, Sergei Lavrov and the Kremlin congratulated Ukraine on having a legitimate elected government. But they very quickly went back to calling it all a fascist coup, when they proved unable to get their way with it; as did the myriad publicists in the West who had been repeating this Kremlin lie as a matter of course.


The seeming bit of petty nonsense about Nuland became the very real basis for Russia’s taking over Crimea and fomenting and coordinating a war in Eastern Ukraine, the same war that has continued to this day. It has turned a petty lie into a really big lie, one that is in some ways putting the entire world at risk.


After Yanukovych collapsed and the parliament appointed an interim president, Ukraine’s parliament quickly made the same choice for PM that Nuland had thought of: Yatsenyuk. This was not surprising, given the central placement of Yatsenyuk and his faction in the parliament. The conspiracy theorists ignored that minor fact and called it American-dictated. It wasn't. But it also wasn't wise. In the changed conditions after Yanukovych fled and Russia started organizing secessions, it turned out to be the wrong choice. It would have been right if Yanukovych had carried through on appointing Yatsenyuk earlier, as in fact Yanukovych had a couple times offered to do, on the wrong terms; but after Yanukovych fled, the need now was to find someone who could focus on holding the country together, and on stopping Russia and its minions from succeeding in fomenting the war. Yatsenyuk proved to be the wrong person for that.


Life is messy. Mistakes are made all over the place. The mistakes are best understood in a naturalistic manner, not a supernatural conspiratorial manner. They will be so understood if their contexts are accurately represented.


But never mind all these minor details of fact and history. Those who thought in terms of blaming America as all-controlling were happy taking for granted that it was America, not the parliament, that caused the Yanukovych to flee and for Yatsenyuk to be chosen PM. After all, didn’t they imagine that they heard this on the leaked audio? Didn’t they in fact hear the name “Yatsenyuk” there as a good choice for PM, never mind what they actually heard there was about Yanukovych choosing him? Wasn’t this a proof of the conspiracy that they had heroically helped to expose? Nothing minor, like the facts, was going to dissuade them from believing what they wanted to believe. Even the faintest glimmer of a semblance of confirmation for their conspiracy theory would serve for them as a proof of it. Even an airtight logical disproof of it sent down from Heaven on High would have been ignored by them.


What does all this depressing mendacity and self-deception actually show?


1 - It shows us how incredibly gullible and suggestible people can be.


2- And it shows us how much harm they can do, by spouting lies that serve their prejudices.


1. The gullibility: It shows how extraordinarily ready many people are to hear what they’re told to hear, or to believe that’s what they’ve heard. And how much they can become committed to lying to themselves about what they’ve heard, when it fits in with the political prejudices -- their hatreds, their resentments, their conspiratorial frames of mind. How they can ingrain the lies in their minds and souls, can feel proud of passing them on, can tell themselves that they are Speaking Truth to Power when they lie like this. They don’t mind that there is not a word of truth in what they are saying. They don’t listen when it’s pointed out that the facts are demonstrably against them. I myself tried telling a few of them about that back at the same time when this myth structure was getting started. They didn’t care. They don’t really check out the facts, even when they go through the motions of doing so. No matter how often they listen to the audio, they can keep on hearing what they want and were told to expect to hear, rather than what’s actually there, because the difference lies mainly in the false context and framing that they want to accept, not in the words themselves. They go on lying to themselves and to the rest of us, and go on believing that they’re courageously speaking truth to power. They complain that they’re being persecuted for this courage. They beat their breasts and cry that they’re being smeared as paid FSB agents. They say they’re victims of McCarthyism. They manage to keep convincing themselves this way that they’re the virtuous ones.


Of course, their counterparts in Moscow, the Westerners who work for RT, really are paid Russian agents. But even they are probably motivated more by their camaraderie in venting their anti-Western resentments than by the money. This is an ideological identity problem, not a paid agent problem.


2. The harm they do: It turned them into important propagandists for Russia’s invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. They ran interference for the invasions, creating as much confusion as they could in the Western intellectual space about it, and providing crucial mood music to cheer the Kremlin on. They fed into the Kremlin narrative about facing a fascist threat; a narrative that, repeated long enough and often enough, became a real motivation for the Kremlin’s aggressions. At some point early on, its authors almost certainly knew that it was nonsense; but by dint of endless repetition, it became the mental universe they operated in -- the way they talked with each other, the way they formulated things to themselves, the false basis for the false deductions which they quite logically made. The war is but one of those false deductions. A very dangerous one. It has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and put at risk far more than that.


But what do they care? They’ve lived in a universe in which they’ve told themselves for years that they are the good honest people of the world, people being persecuted by the Western powers-that-be and liars-that-be. It is their ingrained self-image. It is their very identity. It has worked for them. They’re quite proud of it.


How could they possibly give up this proud identity and face the truth that they’ve been lying on a colossal scale for years? How could they grow a conscience about all the harm they’ve done and try to fix a bit of it in the time they have left in this world? It’s asking too much.


Or is it?





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