Disregarding President Trump’s insistent claim that the establishment press propagates “fake news” requires a constant effort—especially when a prestigious outlet like the New York Times allows itself to be used for blatantly fraudulent purposes.
I cherish the First Amendment. Mark me down as favoring journalism that is loud, lively, and confrontational. When members of the media snooze—falling for fictitious claims about Saddam’s WMD program or Gaddafi’s genocidal intentions, for example—we all lose.
So the recent decision by Times editors to publish an op-ed  regarding Paul Manafort’s involvement in Ukraine is disturbing. That the Times is keen to bring down Donald Trump is no doubt the case. Yet if efforts to do so entail grotesque distortions of U.S. policy before Trump, then we are courting real trouble. Put simply, ousting Trump should not come at the cost of whitewashing the follies that contributed to Trump’s rise in the first place.
The offending Times op-ed, the handiwork of Evelyn N. Farkas, appears under the title “With Manafort, It Really Is About Russia, Not Ukraine.” During the Obama administration, Farkas served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, and Mess Kit Repair. Okay, I added that last bit, but it does seem like quite an expansive charter for a mere deputy assistant secretary.
The story Farkas tells goes like this.
First, from the moment it achieved independence in 1991, Ukraine was a divided nation, “torn between Western Europe and Russia.” Ukrainians in the country’s western precincts wanted to join the European Union and NATO. Those further to east “oriented themselves toward Russia, which exerted maximum influence to keep Ukraine closely aligned.” In one camp were enlightened Ukrainians. In the other camp, the unenlightened.
Second, Manafort’s involvement in this intra-Ukrainian dispute was—shockingly—never about “advanc[ing] the interests of democracy, Western Europe or the United States.” Manafort’s motives were strictly venal. In what Farkas describes as a “standoff between democracy and autocracy,” he threw in with the autocrats, thereby raking in millions.
Third, Manafort’s efforts mattered bigly. In 2010, he helped Victor F. Yanukovych become president of Ukraine. An unquestionably nasty piece of work, Yanukovych was, according to Farkas, “Putin’s man in Kiev.” Yet like it or not, he came to power as the result of democratic election. In 2013, Yanukovych opted against joining the EU, which along with NATO, had, in Farkas’s words, “experienced a burst of membership expansion” right up to Russia’s own borders.
In response to Yanukovych’s action, “the Ukrainian people,” that is, the enlightened ones, “took to the streets,” forcing him to flee the country. Rather than bowing to the expressed will of the people, however, Russia’s Vladimir Putin “instigated a separatist movement” in eastern Ukraine, thereby triggering “a war between Russia and Ukraine that continues to this day.”
To accept Farkas’s account as truthful, one would necessarily conclude that as Manafort was hijacking history, the United States remained quietly on the sidelines, an innocent bystander sending prayers heavenward in hopes that freedom and democracy might everywhere prevail.
Such was hardly the case, however. One need not be a Putin apologist to note that the United States was itself engaged in a program of instigation, one that ultimately induced a hostile—but arguably defensive—Russian response.
In the wake of the Cold War, the EU and NATO did not experience a “burst” of expansion, a formulation suggesting joyous spontaneity. Rather, with Washington’s enthusiastic support, the West embarked upon a deliberate eastward march at the Kremlin’s expense, an undertaking made possible by (and intended to exploit) Russia’s weakened state. In football, it’s called piling on.
That this project worked to the benefit of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, the Baltic Republics, and others is very much the case. On that score, it is to be applauded.
That at some point a resentful Russia would push back was all but certain. Indeed, more than a few Western observers had warned against such a response.
The proposed incorporation of Ukraine into NATO brought matters to a head. For Putin, this was an unacceptable prospect. He acted as would any U.S. president contemplating the absorption of a near neighbor into hostile bloc of nations. Indeed, he acted much as had Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy when they assessed the implications of Cuba joining the Soviet bloc.
That doesn’t justify or excuse Putin’s meddling in Ukraine. Yet it suggests an explanation for Russian behavior other than the bitterness of an ex-KGB colonel still with his shorts in a knot over losing the Cold War. Russia has an obvious and compelling interest in who controls Ukraine, even if few in Washington or in the editorial offices of the New York Times will acknowledge that reality.
Furthermore, Russia was not alone in its meddling. The United States has been equally guilty. When “the Ukrainian people took to the streets,” as Farkas puts it, the State Department and CIA were behind the scenes vigorously pulling strings. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland believed it was incumbent upon the United States to decide who should govern Ukraine. (“Yats is the guy,” she said on a leaked call). Nuland would brook no interference from allies slow to follow Washington’s lead. (“F–k the EU,” she told the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.)
That Ukraine is, as Farkas correctly states, a torn country, did not give Nuland pause. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers have assigned to themselves a magical ability to repair such tears and to make broken countries whole. The results of their labors are amply on display everywhere from Somalia and Haiti to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Now add Ukraine to that sorry list.
Even so, can’t we at least assume Nuland’s motives were morally superior to Putin’s? After all, President Putin is clearly a thug whereas Nuland is an estimable product of the American foreign policy establishment. She’s married to Robert Kagan, for heaven’s sake.
Persuade yourself that the United States is all about democracy promotion, as Farkas appears to believe, and the answer to that question is clearly yes. Alas, the record of American statecraft stretching over decades provides an abundance of contrary evidence. In practice, the United States supports democracy only when it finds it convenient to do so. Should circumstances require, it unhesitatingly befriends despots, especially rich ones that pay cash while purchasing American weaponry.
Yanukovych was Putin’s man, “and therefore, indirectly, so was Mr. Manafort,” Farkas concludes. All that now remains is to determine “the extent to which Mr. Manafort was Putin’s man in Washington.” For Farkas, the self-evident answer to that question cannot come too soon.
As to whether Russia—or any other great power—might have legitimate security interests that the United States would do well to respect, that’s not a matter worth bothering about. Thus does the imperative of ousting Trump eclipse the need to confront the pretensions and the hubris that helped make Trump possible.
Andrew Bacevich is writer-at-large at The American Conservative.