This is what occupation looks like: Russian provocation and Serbian Chetniks in Crimea

e13-icon“We are often told our actions are illegitimate, but when I ask, ‘Do you think everything you do is legitimate?,’ they say ‘yes’,” President Vladimir Putin said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Then I have to recall the actions of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, where they either acted without any U.N. sanction or completely distorted the content of such resolutions, as was the case with Libya.”

For many critics of U.S. military action over the last thirteen years, Putin’s words resonate deeply.

There’s no question that when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” the hypocrisy in a top U.S. government official saying this, is glaring.

But here’s the problem: it’s starting to sound like for many of the people now chanting “Hypocrisy!”, they see hypocrisy as worse than occupation. Indeed, this insistence on focusing on the lack of integrity of Western political leaders is becoming an excuse to ignore or legitimize the Russian invasion of Crimea.

In his latest report from Crimea, Simon Ostrovsky offers a close-up view of the Russian occupation.

A Serb commander belonging to the Chetnik movement, controlling a checkpoint between Sevastopol and Simferpol and supporting the occupation, says — without a hint of irony — “it would be better to resolve this issue internally.” He sees himself and the Russians as part of this “internal” solution. (It should be noted that the Chetniks have a history of involvement in ethnic cleansing, mass murder and other war crimes.)

If a Serb, having traveled hundreds of miles to Crimea, identifies himself as part of an internal solution, this begs the question: how would he define external?

I guess an example would be OSCE observers invited by Ukraine’s interim government — that’s why they got shot at when they attempted to enter Crimea.

But here’s a final thought: if you think occupation is only a problem when it’s conducted by Americans or Israelis, then maybe it’s time to ask yourself whether you really understand the meaning of the word hypocrisy.

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  1. “If this is what occupation looks like,” it’s hard to see what’s there to be so upset about. What? A ragtag bunch of nut jobs from Serbia. Is that it? Your post looks like something from The Onion.

  2. Charles Featherstone says

    This will be equivalent when, and only when, Russia threatens war the U.S. next time Washington invades and occupies some country. The power is not equivalent, nor is the desire to use it. The rhetoric in the West against Russia, at this point, is beyond reason. When exactly was the last time a Russian army went hallway across the world to invade a country and topple its government? When was the last time Russia even threatened to do such a thing? And yet such threats are a regular part of American politics and statecraft. As if it’s a natural, American right to bomb and invade and threaten.

  3. Paul Woodward says

    Oh really, “bobs”? You imagine that if driving home you had to pass through checkpoints being manned by foreign militiamen, you’d view that as a joke? Foreign soldiers out on patrol trying to provoke gun fights with local security forces? What a hoot! And journalists who get beaten up while trying to report all this — well that must just add to the entertainment.

  4. Your point is well taken, and certainly valid to an extent. However, I think it remains the first responsibility of Americans to be honest and critical about the actions of the United States and its allies. Is it hypocrisy to focus on my own bad behavior in a given dispute? Or is that primarily what a person should do. That is the meaningful analogy, I believe. In addition, there is the practical problem that critics of American foreign policy often feel they are fighting an uphill battle to merely get some visibility of their critique against the tidal wave of propaganda and things such as your completely valid critique above take time and energy from that, in many ways, essential project.

    Now, having said that, even if we can, and should, see what appear to be the motives of Russia in the Crimea–pushing back against Western/NATO encroachment–we can still be critical of their reaction (or, at the very least, the means by which they react). And certainly the employment of Serbian Chetniks, with their record, as “insiders” is worthy of criticism.

  5. Steve Zerger says

    Of course the word “occupation” only becomes relevant when you regard borders which are often arbitrarily and accidentally drawn (as with the Crimea) to be sacrosanct. Aren’t there degrees of both “occupation” and “hypocrisy”? And isn’t this to some extent a matter of the proximity of the threat of chaos to the borders of one’s own country? U.S. leaders seem to believe in their inalienable right to control everything which happens on the planet. Russians have mostly stood by impotently the last 20 years and confined their actions trying to control events on their own borders.

  6. rackstraw says

    The Chekniks and the openly neo-Nazi supporters of Maidan – estimated at 20 percent of the movement – are equally despicable, and can’t even be distinguished from one other except for two things.

    First difference: that one is pro Russian, revering Mihailović; and the other anti Russian, revering Stepan Bandera. Both are fascists of the worst kind.

    Second difference: the numbers. I have no idea how many Chetniks have travelled to Crimea, but my guess – subject to correction – is fewer than one hundred. It seems more like a publicity stunt or an attempt by some out of work mercenaries to find a sponsor.

    There is no doubt that the original Chetniks, followers of Mihailović, murdered tens of thousands of Muslims, Partisans, and others in WW2. However, like the Nazis, both groups were completely wiped out after 1945.

    But there are tens of thousands of skinheads, thugs, and open anti-Semites right now in the “action wings” of the extreme rightist parties in the current Ukrainian governing coalition.

    I know which I am more afraid of.

  7. Paul: I am not saying it’s a picnic for the locals who’re not too fond of the Russians. But I think you’re losing all sense of proportion. This is not the Syria slaughter or the bloodbath of the US occupation of Iraq. It’s nothing like the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Even to call it occupation is a bit of a stretch. Wasn’t the Russian military already there before the “occupation”? Isn’t Sevastopol to the Russians what San Diego is to the US navy? Aren’t Crimeans largely pro-Russian? Isn’t the non-Russian status of Crimea an accident of history? Hasn’t the Russian occupation so far been basically nonviolent? I am not saying Putin made the right call. I am saying it’s a complicated mess that, thankfully, has been peaceful so far. To equate this with the blood-soaked US occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan or Panama is lacking the most elementary sense of perspective.

  8. Paul Woodward says

    Deir Yassin where perhaps no more than 107 Palestinians were massacred was a kind of publicity stunt, with its impact designed to reach far outside that village.

    Even if the Chetniks in Crimea right now number no more than dozens, their presence seems intended to send a message — most likely directed at the Tartar population.

  9. Paul Woodward says

    “Bobs” — your sanguine view of Russia’s actions makes it sound like even if not a picnic for the locals, the Russians are on a cake walk, being welcomed by a friendly population.

    The prospect of coming under Russian rule might not be welcomed by Crimea’s Muslim population (or the other Ukrainians there who are not pro-Russian), but I guess they can learn to bow to the majority just the same way that Palestinians who are citizens in Israel have acquiesced to the imposition of second-class citizenship.

    “Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army.” Art. 42., Hague Convention of 1907.

    Are the Russian forces friendly? Attacks on military bases and the blockading of the Ukraine fleet — are these actions being misinterpreted by mischievous journalists?

    To the extent that this occupation has thus far not involved bloodshed, it’s not because it has intrinsically been non-violent; it’s because the Ukrainian forces fear they’d be signing their own death sentences if they react to Russian provocation.

    What is open to debate is what the provocations are meant to signal: is it simply about showing who is now in charge? Or is it an effort to create a pretext under which the local forces can then forcibly be “pacified”? Whatever it is, it isn’t friendly.

    Sevastopol is to the Russians what San Diego is to the US navy, with the trivial distinction that Sevastopol happens not to be located in Russia — but I guess within a week that will be rectified, once Crimea is annexed.

    As for the questions about perspective and errors of false equivalence, all I’m saying is that when territory comes under the control of a hostile army, it’s an occupation. The size of the army, the size of the territory, it’s geographic location, the identities of the parties and how much or how little bloodshed there is, are not what determines whether it is an occupation.

    Anyone who wants to argue these issues on the basis of magnitude of suffering should concede all rhetorical ground to Israel’s defenders — unless you want to argue that the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians is worse than the Holocaust.

    Meanwhile, are we now condemned to view the rest of world history through the prism of Iraq? That to my mind represents an abysmal loss of perspective. Call me simple minded, but I believe the best foundation for forming an opinion about what’s happening in Crimea is by observing what’s happening in Crimea — not through repetitive comparisons with American actions — comparisons whose function is to minimize while casting little light.

    And yet if one insists on bringing American military adventurism into the picture, where that does have some relevance — as the quotation from Putin illustrates — is that America’s lawless behavior since 2001 has provided political cover for the lawless actions of others. And what baffles me is why those who objected so vehemently to American crimes now view with such nonchalance the crimes of others.

    It’s as though no one was ever particularly concerned about the victims of America’s crimes. All passion must be reserved for denouncing the supreme criminal. Thus, if the U.S. can manage to keep its dirty fingers out of Ukraine and out of Syria, who gives a shit about what happens in either place.

    That’s why I am coming to see that there is surprisingly little difference between those who identify with American power and those who despise it: both offer it their undivided attention — in admiration or contempt — as though there really is nothing else in the world that matters.

  10. A publicity stunt. Perpetrated by who? Notice that Iraq & Afghanistan were left out. Needless to say, the planning for the coup in the Ukraine took longer-much longer-then the few days/week[s] from start to finish. Whether or not the neonazis were intended to rise to the positions they hold today, it would surely hint that McCain/Nuland delivered a message of U.S. support, perhaps military too, as McCain spoke of sending elements of the Med fleet into the Black Sea as a show of force. Don’t misunderstand my position here, but as it’s your right to state what you believe are the facts, so to do I as others who make comments not just to be flippant, but after reading other sources, mostly from out of country-the U.S.-which have a totally different slant. This doesn’t mean that Russia is right by what they do, but it’s doing so right next door as well as having the huge Navel base there, even if most of the ships are ready for the scrape heap. Reverse the roles, and you’d find the comments saying what the hell is Russia saying about us? Dirty hands, no matter who they belong too, are still dirty. The question nobody seems to be asking, is the situation worth going to war over?

  11. Paul Woodward says

    Steve – borders are indeed often arbitrarily and accidentally drawn but anyone who looks at a map cannot fail to see that Crimea’s territorial form is defined by its physical form: a peninsula which is virtually an island, connected to the rest of Ukraine by a sliver of land and separated from Russia by the Strait of Kerch. Rather than being ruled by Kiev or Moscow, one might expect that it would seek autonomy — except it already is an autonomous republic with its own parliament. Ironically, Crimea’s contiguous form has been the very thing that makes it easy for it to fall under the control of larger powers.

    As for Russians strutting across the globe, American-style, indeed they have not, but I’d say that trying to control events in Syria is a case of operating well beyond their own borders.

  12. Steve Zerger says

    Yes, I was pretty much agreeing with Bobs and the other commenters. But I think you are right. It is silly to focus obsessively on American power – either in admiration or contempt. American power simply doesn’t matter much any more. In our time, anything conceived on a grand scale is doomed to failure. That’s why I feel more amused than alarmed by the NSA’s attempts to know absolutely everything about everyone. Devolution is the disorder of the day, and there is no stopping it – by Putin or Obama or anyone else. Failed states are going to disintegrate and multiply and pretty much all we can do is watch aghast until the visible horizon collapses upon us and we find ourselves back in a direct struggle for survival in our immediate neighborhood. And we should get over our illusions about “people-power” – another grand organizing principle which we should have learned to regard with suspicion by now – as the “people’s revolution” in the Ukraine clearly demonstrates.

  13. As an American, indeed, I feel special responsibility toward the governments whose salaries I pay directly (the US) and indirectly (Israel/Egypt/…) When a catastrophe on the scale of Syria or Rwanda occurs, I feel concerned as a human being whether my taxes are involved or not. But frankly what’s going now in Crimea is the sort of squabble whose only relevance is geopolitical power. There is no humanitarian crisis there. It’s just power politics. The concern of Westerners for the “freedom of Crimea” is plain BS: just the same old irresistible urge of Westerners to interfere in every single corner of the world. It’s “We’re all Georgians” one day and “We’re all Ukrainians” the next day. It’s more like “We’re all trying to keep Putin in his box and encircle with NATO firepower.” It’s a chess game. But no let’s pretend it’s the heart of humanity that’s at stake. Oh yes Clinton said Putin was Hitler. The Hitler of the month, I guess. This is ridiculous.

  14. “Conceding all rhetorical ground to Israelis defenders, unless you want to argue that the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians is worst then the Holocaust”. With all due respect, why is it that we always have to be reminded of the suffering that happened 60 years ago as if it happened today? I’m not trivializing here, but that in itself, is no excuse for the present Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians, as they had nothing to do with that act by the Nazis. That statement by you gives the impression that you condone this ongoing practice by the IDF and the hardliners of Israel. I might also say that there have been worse genocide acts in the past, but we’re not reminded of them on a constant basis. Is it only the Jews who matter in his world, everyone else is just collateral damage?

  15. Paul Woodward says

    Norman — You’re not following my line of reasoning. What I’m saying is that anyone who says that what the Russians are doing pales in comparison with what the U.S. has done in Iraq (which of course it does), would then have to concede that the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians is small in comparison with that inflicted on the Jews during the Holocaust (which it is, since Palestinians have not been exterminated by the millions). However, this inclination to grade injustices, crimes, and forms of suffering, viewing some as great and some as lesser is like a poisonous seed out of which brutality grows. No doubt interrogators at Gitmo found themselves rationalizing torture because they thought that whatever they did to their victims was minor in comparison to the suffering of the victims of 9/11. Likewise, anyone who believes that they have suffered more than anyone else is for that very reason going to have a diminished capacity to empathize.

    So this is my point: if you’re going to attempt to imagine what it’s like, for instance, to be a Crimean Tartar right now — which means someone whose family was subjected to brutal ethnic cleansing by Stalin and who were only able to resettle in their centuries-old homeland in recent decades; someone who for compelling reasons now feels threatened by the presence of Russian soldiers — then to remember what Americans did to Iraqis and conclude that the Crimeans don’t have it so bad, is to foster your own form of callous indifference.

  16. Thank you Paul for your explanation, but you seem to have me mixed up with someone else who may have made the comment[s] you cite, not what I said. I tool issue with your comment and stated my feeling about that comment. Perhaps a comment was made comparing the possibilities of actions being taken along the lines you’ve stated. I thought that was clear from what I wrote? Skipping to the end of your 2nd paragraph, that’s pretty callous of you to accuse me of such. I do leave you with this: “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure that you realize that what you read, is not what I meant”. But of course, you can say anything you want, as this is your blog.

  17. The Crimeans don’t have it so bad. The Russians are not oppressing the Tatars. If you think they are, then make your case. There are 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners. How many Tatars are held in pro-Russia Crimean prisons? The number is approximately zero. If all you have to document the oppression of the “occupation” is an aging bunch of Serbian nut cases, then you’ve got nothing, Paul. Please either do your homework or stick to the Middle East. You’re destroying your brand right now.

  18. Paul Woodward says

    Norman – You wrote: “That statement by you gives the impression that you condone this ongoing practice by the IDF and the hardliners of Israel.” That statement being: “Anyone who wants to argue these issues on the basis of magnitude of suffering should concede all rhetorical ground to Israel’s defenders — unless you want to argue that the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians is worse than the Holocaust.” So, I attempted to explain why it would be misconstruing what I’d written, if you were to conclude that it meant I was condoning the actions of the IDF.

    When I wrote: “So this is my point: if you’re going to attempt to imagine what it’s like, for instance, to be a Crimean Tartar right now…” etc., I should for the sake of clarity have said “one” rather than “you.” I was using “you” as the informal substitute for “one”.

    In response to “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure that you realize that what you read, is not what I meant,” all I can say to you or anyone else leaving a comment is that your written words are all I have to work with in attempting to understand what you mean.

  19. Paul Woodward says

    “Bobs” — If you’re convinced the Crimeans don’t have it so bad (and by implication have nothing to worry about in the future), why are you wasting your time on this thread? And since you insist on addressing me by my name, why don’t you use yours?

    I find it irritating when people try and affect some kind of personal rapport while hiding behind a pseudonym. It seems like they haven’t resolved their own conflicted desire to both gain attention yet remain invisible.

  20. People talk about something, but in the same time, they know nothing about that something. you need to understand that Russians are Serbian brothers, and that many Russians on the side of Serbia in the previous wars. This is only for a good image of Serbian people, because Serbian leadership is hesitating to speak about the conflict between Russians and Ukrainians. Serbs are brothers with Ukrainians too, they are all Slavs. About ethnic cleansing: in Croatia there is a small number of Serbs right now, and once they were equal with Croats in the republic of Croatia. In Sarajevo, there were few hundreds of thousands of Serbs – the number of them is very small right now. Kosovo, 90% of the population right now are Albanians, and Serb are counted there on fingers in some places,once, that was not the case. This is truth ladies and gentlemen.

  21. As always everything is seen through the prism of politics and Governments, groups and so on. The only prism we should look at is the people who wake up every morning to feed their kids, go to work if there is any and watch TV in the evenings. Without the will of the people non of this would have been possible, no the shaking of Syrian government nor the fall of Yanukovich. Groups, extremists and governments might take advantage of fragile situations but non of them can make any revolution happen if there would not be the will of the people.
    And really, excuse me.. are Syrians or Ukrainians responsible of what US did?
    And these extremists – they never had any real support. Why? Because they are nothing more than a punch of losers without a goal for their own life. No one wants them, not even in Arab countries. So they are always there when it is suitable for them hijacking others’ revolutions.

    I hope I said it all with very simple words so kids could understand.

  22. Bringing in Serbian war veterans, letting them take over checkpoints in Crimea and planting mines between Ukraine and Crimea is not nice thing to do, isn’t it?

  23. Julian Zinovieff says

    “bobs” has made a number of good points, notably:
    “It’s just power politics. The concern of Westerners for the “freedom of Crimea” is plain BS” and ff.
    To respond by being queruous about his pseudonymity without responding to his points looks suspiciously like a desire to be seen to be right all the time, or never to be wrong.

    I find it frightening how Western media and politicians are in lock-step, and across an astonishingly wide gulf from a number of historians and academics. I also find it sad that Paul, normally such an astute commentator on, for instance, US-Israeli politics, is as reluctant to take on Russian history and understand its geopolitical and cultural position as the rest of them. Of course, I appreciate the desire to avoid some knee-jerk reaction, but it is very much misplaced here. Counterpunch is a much better and more interesting site to follow on the subject. If that’s too leftwing for you, then Liam Halligan in the Daily Telegraph is another good source, for instance:
    This is interesting on the business case and, in discussion of views about hypocrisy, please note its second last sentence.

  24. Paul Woodward says

    Julian — my gripe with the commenter that calls itself “bobs” and hides behind a pseudonym, I would apply to most other people who are afraid of using their own names. Freedom and responsibility, commonly viewed as operating in tension, are actually complimentary. Unless there is some very compelling reason to do otherwise (such as fear of losing their job), anyone who truly believes what they are saying should be able to demonstrate that conviction by being willing to speak without hiding behind a mask.

    Some people argue that anonymity facilitates creativity but I see very little evidence of that. On the contrary, I observe that most of the time, online anonymity breaks down inhibitions so that individuals can become more strident than they would dare in real life. Anonymity helps people turn up the volume without improving the quality of the sound.

    “It’s just power politics. The concern of Westerners for the ‘freedom of Crimea’ is plain BS” — If that comment was being directed at a cable news editor, I would have no argument with the second part. The media is clearly cynical in the way it attempts to fuel the passions of the day. But to dismiss what’s going on in Ukraine as nothing more than power politics makes it that much easier to avoid making the effort to try and empathize with the experiences of ordinary people who are being directly impacted by these events.

    The commentary I write here, as the site’s description says, is occasional. Most of what I do is editing, and yet the frequency with which readers point me to sources they think I should be using or take issue with the ones I’ve picked out, makes it seem like — at least in their minds — it’s as though I’m doing nothing more than fill a basket up with my favorite brands.

    In reality, there isn’t a single publication whose work I highlight because I have unshakable faith in its quality. Neither do I revere the output of individual writers or journalists — including ones I know. It all comes down to the content: do I find it informative, thought-provoking, or having some other merit that makes it worth sharing with others.

    A few days ago, Andrew Bacevich, whose quality of writing and thought I often regard as commendable, wrote:

    Should Obama’s advisers look for guidance to the opinion pages of the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, much less the Weekly Standard or Fox News, we’re in deep trouble. One might as well leaf through the latest Victoria’s Secret catalog for guidance on empowering women.

    Even if that might sound like a reasonable sweeping generalization, his timing turned out to be abysmal. The same day, the following words appeared on the Washington Post op-ed page:

    Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.

    For readers who choose to be shepherded by those they have anointed as “reliable,” the fact that these words came from Henry Kissinger may have made them too unpalatable to digest, yet to insist on putting people and publications in political boxes only has one effect: it stifles thought and reinforces prejudice. This time — even if it never happens again — Kissinger was worth listening to.

  25. Julian Zinovieff says

    Paul – thanks for the response. Pointing out the power politics that have inveigled themselves into the perfectly legitimate, original protest against corruption in Ukraine and that threaten wider war is no attempt “to avoid making the effort to try and empathize with the experiences of ordinary people who are being directly impacted by these events”. Quite the reverse.
    As for Kissinger, I greatly appreciated his article. If that goal – for Ukraine to be a bridge – is worth pursuing, then some consideration, comprehension and appreciation of Russia’s position on Crimea, let alone Ukraine, must be worth it. I believe that is pretty much what he said himself. This might defuse the extraordinarily aggressive and reckless statements coming from the U.S. – which certainly make the so-called ‘Brzezinski doctrine’ appear to be a present threat.

  26. As always Paul, you put things into perspective, thank you for the update[s]. This is the reason I’ve been a subscriber to this blog these many years, that and the occasional “music selections” that no other blog such as this offer. As for my comment pertaining to the words I write, as you noted, even I fall under that same theme, as you said as much to me in your comment. Again, thank you, Norman. Oh, and this is my real name, not a nom de gare.

  27. Paul Woodward says

    Monica — well said. And I’m glad to hear a new voice here.

  28. Paul Woodward says

    Comment from Danilo C sent through contact form:

    Interesting post and discussion in the comments. But I’m afraid the
    thesis of your post rests entirely on misinterpretation of Serbian
    (which is striking seeing how you seem to speak the language). At 1:50
    your weekend Chetnik says (according to your translation): “…and to
    prevent the area from falling under the lies of America and the EU
    because it would be better to resolve this issue internally.”

    What was ACTUALLY said is: “…and to prevent the area from falling
    under the lies of America and the EU – that they [i.e. Russians &
    Ukrainians] would be better off fighting between each other.” (“…da
    će im biti bolje ako se pobiju između sebe”).

    This of course changes the context of the entire footage making the
    statement much less belligerent, so please EDIT post. Serbians have
    sufficient bad rep as it is 🙂

    The translation in question comes from Simon Ostrovsky — who reports in the video — not me.