Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene parroted a Russian talking point with her claim that Ukraine is a country whose “government only exists because the Obama State Department helped to overthrow the previous regime.”
Experts in foreign policy related to Russia and Ukraine called Greene’s claim “ludicrous” and “preposterous and embarrassing.” Moreover, they said, Greene appears to have bought into Russian propaganda.
Greene’s comments came in a March 16 speech delivered on Rumble in which she warned against the U.S. being drawn into “World War III” with Russia. While “there is no doubt that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s actions in Ukraine are despicable and evil,” she said, “America is in no shape to throw herself into another foreign conflict.”
“This is an eight-year-old smoldering conflict in which peace agreements have been routinely violated by both sides,” Greene said, adding that it “concerns … a country which government only exists because the Obama State Department helped to overthrow the previous regime.”
The issue in question dates back to 2013 and 2014 when Ukraine’s Parliament voted — against the wishes of Russia — to establish closer ties to the European Union through the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement. But in 2014, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, suspended the agreement and sought closer economic ties with Russia. That sparked a popular revolt.
At the time, Russia blamed the West, and the U.S. in particular, of propping up what it called a coup against Yanukovych.
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during President Bill Clinton’s administration and deputy assistant secretary of state in the bureau of European and Eurasian affairs with responsibilities for Russia and Ukraine in President George W. Bush’s administration, said Greene is simply repeating “a long-standing Russian talking point.”
“In 2013, the Ukrainian government was ready to sign an association agreement with the European Union, when it came under huge pressure from the Russian government not to do so,” Pifer, who is now at the Brookings Institution and Stanford University, told us in an email. “About one week before the scheduled signing, it was announced that Ukrainian President Yanukovych would not sign. Mustafa Nayyem, a Ukrainian journalist, immediately posted a Facebook call for a pro-EU demonstration that night. Over the next three months, the protests continued and grew. After violence broke out in February (with police firing at demonstrators), Yanukovych concluded a power-sharing arrangement with opposition leaders. It would have been hard to sell that to the people in the streets (in part, because it allowed Yanukovych to remain in power), but Yanukovych just disappeared. The next day, Ukraine’s parliament appointed an acting president and acting prime minister.”
“That is what the Russians call a ‘coup,’ in part because they refuse to give the Ukrainian people agency,” Pifer said. “The US government took the position that Ukrainians had the right to peacefully protest, but the idea that this was a coup hatched in the State Department is ludicrous.”
In remarks on Feb. 19, 2014, then-President Barack Obama said, “The United States condemns in strongest terms the violence that’s taking place” in Ukraine and said that the U.S. had been working with its European partners, the Ukrainian government and the opposition “to try to assure that that violence ends.”
Obama said the Ukrainian government was “primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way; that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression.” He also warned there would be “consequences if people step over the line. And that includes making sure that the Ukrainian military does not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians.”
But Obama said he would continue to “engage with all sides in the dispute in Ukraine, and ultimately our interest is to make sure that the Ukrainian people can express their own desires. And we believe that a large majority of Ukrainians are interested in an integration with Europe, and the commerce and cultural exchanges that are possible for them to expand opportunity and prosperity. But regardless of how the Ukrainian people determine their own future, it is important that it is the people themselves that make those decisions.”
In comments about Ukraine on Feb. 28, 2014, Obama warned Russia not to involve its military “in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people.”
Some Republicans were critical of Obama at the time for not doing enough to support the pro-democracy demonstrators.
In March 2014, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, said the Russians moving troops into Crimea was a “direct [consequence] of a failure of American leadership,” criticizing Obama — according to Politico — in part for failing to show enough support for the protesters in Kyiv.
Peter Baker of the New York Times wrote in February 2014 that Obama “has approached the revolution of 2014 with a more clinical detachment aimed at avoiding instability.”
“Rather than an opportunity to spread freedom in a part of the world long plagued by corruption and oppression, Mr. Obama sees Ukraine’s crisis as a problem to be managed, ideally with a minimum of violence or geopolitical upheaval,” Baker wrote. “While certainly sympathetic to the pro-Western protesters who pushed out President Viktor F. Yanukovych and hopeful that they can establish a representatively elected government, Mr. Obama has not made global aspirations of democracy the animating force of his presidency.”
Samuel Greene, professor in Russian politics and director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, called Rep. Greene’s claim “highly problematic.”
“During the 2013-14 protests, the Obama Administration — together with many European governments — consistently called for Yanukovych to negotiate with the protesters, something he refused to do (and which Moscow repeatedly encouraged him to refuse to do, calling the protesters terrorists and bandits),” Greene told us via email. “When events turned violent, many Western politicians, including some within the administration, expressed their solidarity with the protesters, but at no point did the US pursue a policy of regime change. Instead, Washington encouraged Yanukovych and the opposition to enter into open-ended negotiations, in order to arrive at some kind of a power-sharing arrangement that would allow the country to move forward (although it is true and a matter of record that specialists in the Administration and the State Department thought the negotiations were likely to fail, and that Yanukovych’s eventual resignation was a probable outcome). It was in the midst of exactly those negotiations that Yanukovych fled the country, under escort by Vladimir Lukin, a senior Russian diplomat sent from Moscow to observe the talks.”
Rep. Greene’s comment also ignores that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration is actually the second that has been elected since Yanukovych’s ouster.
In early 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seized on a comment that Obama made in a Feb. 1, 2015, interview on CNN about Yanukovych “fleeing after we had brokered a deal to transition power in Ukraine.”
Lavrov claimed the next day that Obama’s remarks were “proof that from the very beginning, the United States was involved in the antigovernment coup that Obama neutrally described as a ‘power transition.'”
Writing about Lavrov’s comment, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quoted an unidentified senior Obama administration official who said Lavrov was pushing a “revisionist narrative of the crisis in Ukraine” that is “deeply troubling, but utterly unconvincing.” The official said Obama was referring to an agreement brokered by three EU diplomats — signed by Yanukovych and opposition leaders — that called for the creation of a national unity government.
Russian state-run media ran with Lavrov’s version that Obama’s statement was an admission of participation in a coup, which the Obama administration denied.
Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University, said Greene has “[swallowed] Russian propaganda hook, line, and sinker.”
“The government of Ukraine ‘exists’ because in 2014 the then-president [of Ukraine] provoked mass demonstrations against an agreement he made with Putin, demonstrations that he repeatedly over several months tried to put down with force,” Sestanovich told us via email. “When the bloodshed got too great, the parliament deposed him (members of his own party voting against him) and he fled the country. New elections were called, and a new president [Petro Poroshenko was] elected in internationally-monitored voting. When his term was up, he was voted out and a new president — Mr. Zelensky — was elected with 73% of the vote. Democracy in action, in a word. Rep. Greene’s description is preposterous and embarrassing; no one but Putin (okay, foreign minister Lavrov too) would consider it factual.”
Experts also took issue with Greene’s statement: “This is an eight-year-old smoldering conflict in which peace agreements have been routinely violated by both sides.”
“The Russian military (using troops whose identifying insignia had been removed) seized Crimea in late February-early March 2014, and a ‘separatist’ conflict broke out in Donbas in eastern Ukraine that April,” Pifer told us. “However, it quickly became clear that Russia was providing the so-called ‘separatists’ with leadership, funding, heavy weapons, ammunition and other supplies. At several points, regular units of the Russian [military] entered Ukraine and joined the fight.
“A ceasefire was brokered for Donbas in February 2015 as part of the Minsk 2 agreement, but it never really took hold,” Pifer said. “For eight years, the conflict ‘simmered.’ Violations occurred and were committed by both sides, but reports attributed the bulk of the violations to Russian and Russian proxy forces.”
Samuel Greene, at King’s College London, pointed to data from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitors ceasefire violations in Ukraine, that indicates 85% of the nearly 2,000 weapons-related ceasefire violations in 2021 were attributable to the Russian-backed separatists.
“So, a ‘both sides’ claim here — while not technically entirely false — represents a severe distortion,” Greene told us.
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