While Ukrainians are suffering from the hell of war that has followed the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, debates have raged in the West over how the war started and who is responsible. But if people in the US specifically and the West in general insist on putting themselves at the center of this conflict—whether as the chief instigators or the necessary saviors—they will continue to misunderstand what this war is about and what its outcome will mean for Ukraine, Russia, and the larger geopolitical realignment that is unfolding in real time. In this urgent, unscheduled segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc speaks with journalist, activist, and documentary filmmaker Lia Tarachansky about the West’s failure to see Russian imperialism for what it is and to comprehend the reality of a world moving beyond the bounds of Western hegemony.
Lia Tarachansky, born in Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union, is an Israeli-Canadian journalist, documentary filmmaker, and multimedia artist. Tarachansky is TRNN’s former Israel/Palestine correspondent and has directed a number of award-winning feature films and shorts, including On the Side of the Road, Ethnocracy: Israel’s African Refugees, and Ocean.
Tune in for new episodes of The Marc Steiner Show every Monday and Thursday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. Now, this is a special edition of The Marc Steiner Show. It’s part of The Real News coverage of the unfolding story of war and the future of Ukraine. And today we talk with Lia Tarachansky, who’s friend and a colleague, and for many years was The Real News correspondent in Palestine, Israel in the Middle East. Lia was born in Kyiv Ukraine. Her family moved – Some would say fled – From Ukraine to Israel, where she came of age on a settlement in the West Bank. Numerous things led her to becoming an award-winning documentary filmmaker.
The Side of The Road, her film about Israel’s denial and the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in ’48 was award-winning, as well as Ethnocracy: Israel’s African Refugees. And then she started doing shorts and her film Oceans among other short films also became award winning. And she helps run the Winchevsky School, a secular Jewish social justice school in Toronto, Canada, where she spends her life now – Or in between that – Because she’s joining us now from Israel and Lia’s been covering and following the events daily in Ukraine for all of us, leaving no stone unturned. And Lia, welcome. Good to have you with us.
Lia Tarachansky: Thanks for having me, Marc. But as a fellow Jew, you should really be able to pronounce complicated Eastern European last names.
Marc Steiner: [laughs] So we begin the program today with Lia… Okay, here we go. You’re right. You’re right. Sometimes teleprompters just roll and I probably can say it well when I’m not looking at something to read. But anyway, so where to begin. This could begin in so many places. I mean –
Lia Tarachansky: Yeah. I mean, where to start the timeline has been a very big part of the controversy of this thing. And I think that that’s not unique to Ukraine and Russia. I mean, as someone has been covering a number of conflicts. There’s the question of where do you start the clock is one of the crucial points of debate always because every side wants to start it where it’s convenient.
Marc Steiner: And where do you start it? I mean, it seems to me that it’s a complex affair on a number of levels. That Ukraine itself over the millennia has been part of Lithuania, has been part of Poland, a part of Russia. Very few times has it really been independent. It was the founding place of the Russian empire doing Kievan Rus. I mean, in the 600s with the first Vladimir. I mean, so it becomes a very complex situation about what is Ukraine? What is Russia? That’s always been a boiling point. So I mean –
Lia Tarachansky: Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, I think what is Ukraine is a question that only Ukrainians can answer, and Ukrainians are very clear about the contiguity and the history of their own people. And I think that a lot of those kinds of arguments are the kind of arguments that Zionists use to justify the occupation of Palestine, because they say, well, before we occupied Palestinians, the British were here, and before, and also the Jordanians. And before that, the Ottoman were here and before that, the Byzantines. So what could possibly be called Palestine if there’s no such thing as a contiguous Palestine?
When you talk to Palestinians they’re very clear about what Palestine is. And I think that a lot of these big philosophical questions are where we tend to slide when we don’t know the history of a particular place. And you see that a lot, every single article that’s been covering Ukraine in the West at least seems to focus for a line or two on what’s actually happening and then slide into some kind of global Brzezinsky chessboard philosophization about what could be at play here in terms of global powers. And I think that those are important questions, but they’re a distraction from what’s happening.
Marc Steiner: So I’m asking the question for two reasons. One that there are many people and emails I’ve gotten from some viewers and listeners who complain we are not giving Russia’s side of the story, A. B, that –
Lia Tarachansky: Are you giving Ukraine’s side of the story?
Marc Steiner: Well, that’s what I’m being accused of. But so –
Lia Tarachansky: Because if you know what Ukraine’s side of the story is, please tell me. I’m trying, I’m like, I wake up every few hours to check and try to wrap my mind around what the hell is going on, and I speak the languages. Most of your American press is so bankrupt that they don’t have Ukrainian and Russian speakers, when you have like one million Ukrainian Russian speakers in your country. And I understand the economics of journalism and how it’s suffered, but unfortunately you see a lot of misinformation. So if the West is presenting the picture of Ukraine, I would love to know what it is, because I’m just trying to wrap my mind around what’s happening. And all I can tell you is that it’s very confusing.
Marc Steiner: What do you mean?
Lia Tarachansky: So this two-sideism is another one of these very common things that happen in conflict where in order to engage, the audience needs to be told who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. And I think that as journalists, we have the freedom to not do that.
Marc Steiner: Okay. Well, so let’s pick up from that point. I mean, everyday I’ve been reading your posts on Facebook and you’ve been giving a chronology of events that are taking place in Ukraine and also in Russia. So I mean, I’d like to hear your analysis of A, what you think is going on, what your perceptions are about what’s going on, and let’s just start there.
Lia Tarachansky: Well, I mean, I think that it’s a very big question. I think that if I asked you, Marc, I heard about this racism that’s happening in your country. What’s going on? You’re asking to… What is the question exactly? Where do we draw the line? Because if you’re asking, what I think you’re asking is whose fault is it? And I think that that’s a completely different question from what’s happening.
Marc Steiner: Okay. There are two separate questions here. And I admit maybe how I approached this was a tad too large. So it’s in two parts. What I mentioned was kind of a history some people look at between the history of Ukraine and Russia. We can come to that in a minute. But let’s look at what’s happening at this very moment. And –
Lia Tarachansky: What’s happening at the very moment you can equate to one of the many [inaudible] post-colonial conflicts. This is a case of a people that have had geographical, cultural, linguistic, ethnic contiguity for centuries. Ukraine is a very diverse society even though it doesn’t seem that way. It has a lot of diversity in terms of everything you can imagine. And it has been attacked by colonial powers and conquered many times. Right now what we’re seeing is that the big empire that had gotten used to subjugating Ukraine, liquidating Ukraine like it did in the Soviet Union, is refusing to let go of its right to sovereignty over Ukraine. And Ukraine is an independent country. It declared independence shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed. I’m just flabbergasted as to why this is so difficult to comprehend when it’s fairly simple. We’ve been here a million times.
The only thing that’s different is that the whole Western world seems to be united in this show of solidarity, which has been mind blowing to watch, but the West is in a silo, in an echo chamber of itself, and the world has moved on. And a lot of the world is not with Ukraine. And a lot of the world is not with the West. And a lot of the world doesn’t care about the West and is not reading the Western press. And I think that if you’re in the West, as in Western Europe, North America, and you want to understand what’s going on, I can only tell you that this is happening not because of American imperialism, but despite it or rather out of its dying ashes.
Marc Steiner: Well, let’s pick up on that point. There are a couple of things I’d really like to explore in the time we have together and that’s one of them. Because many people who are part of the antiwar movements, many people on the left, many people who are also a part of the liberal world see the United States and the West as complicit in what’s happening in the Ukraine because of the NATO encroachment on Russia and moving to the east as what generated this in the first place, right? That’s part of what –
Lia Tarachansky: Well, that’s a very self-involved view of the world. I think that the West is so used to being so self-involved and self-centered that it’s not willing to hear that the world is unfolding not because of you, but despite you. And yes, obviously as long as the United States has military bases in more than 170 countries, as long as NATO sees itself as the world’s policeman, you are going to be complicit in conflicts all over the world. However, what is happening right now is not about NATO and it’s not about you. Let me explain. Ukraine declared independence shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed. It has been fighting for its sovereignty from the moment it declared independence. Since Russia managed to get back on its feet with the professionalization of the mafia into the oligarchy, with the exploitation of energy products, and with its realignment as a global superpower, it has been trying to liquidate that sovereignty and take it over.
If this was about NATO, don’t you think that this war would’ve started in 2004 when countries that are sharing a border with Russia joined NATO? All you have to do is take a look at a map of NATO countries to see that three countries share a border with Russia. Three NATO countries already share a border with Russia. They joined in 2004. This is not about NATO. What this is is a challenge to the West by the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa] countries, primarily Russia at this moment, which is trying to show, successfully, that both NATO and the United States are impotent in the new world order.
However, what is happening specifically to the Ukrainian people is a postcolonial struggle of a country that’s been colonized by its neighbors and by imperial powers for centuries and that has successfully managed to gain its independence through a lot of bloodshed and tears and toil, and has finally managed to secure a modicum of stability, and is currently completely devastated by an invasion by the largest country on earth, with one of the biggest nuclear arsenals on earth, with one of the strongest economies on earth. A country whose history is that it liquidated Ukraine. Okay? This is not about NATO.
Marc Steiner: So from your perspective again, let’s talk just a little bit about the dynamic between Russia and Ukraine. Why Russia’s doing this at this moment, why they took the areas that they say are Russian held, why they took over Crimea, why they’re doing this at this moment. What do you think both the kind of political and –
Lia Tarachansky: Why did God create the earth? [Marc laughs] Sorry, I was joking, God didn’t create the earth. Why the big bank? I mean, do you want to break it down into specific questions?
Marc Steiner: Are you trying to say my question was too biblical?
Lia Tarachansky: No, I’m trying to say that there’s like so many questions in your question. I can tell you roughly why now. I’m not sure specifically about why now, which is what I think is the big thing that’s very confusing. If you look at the timeline, in 2004 to 2005, Ukraine had the Orange Revolution. Russia clamped down, imposed basically puppet governments. In 2013, people finally in Ukraine managed to fight the Yanukovych government, the puppet government, and Russia clamped down. Russia annexed Crimea. Russia sent forces to Neo-Nazi groups, sent weapons to Neo-Nazi groups to annex the East and fracture Ukrainian unity in order to undermine the validity of a people who are trying to shed a puppet government.
Finally, they elect their own person. They successfully, in the landslide, managed to regain their sovereignty and now Russia’s invaded. Why specifically in February of 2022? I don’t know. I can tell you that Putin in Dec. 17, 2021 issued a list of absolutely ridiculous demands that he knew would not be respected. I don’t know why he did it specifically then, but I can guarantee you it’s not about NATO.
What I will say is that the West has been playing chicken with Russia for a very long time, and not just Russia. The West has been vilifying Russia, and China, and any major country like Iran that has had the balls basically to stand up – Or let me rephrase that. The West has been playing chicken with a lot of countries whose economies are growing and who have successfully managed to challenge American and Western hegemony as the only legitimate power in the world. That’s the big picture that’s happening here.
But specifically why Dec. 17, why Putin chose this particular year to actually pull out his invasion? I don’t know. But I can tell you it’s got nothing to do with NATO. I can also tell you that war is a distraction. Because while the West has been able to impose all kinds of very interesting sanctions, boycotts, and divestments, the kind of things that in the Palestine solidarity movement we could only dream of, not a single one of the sanctions imposed by the West and all these global corporations is irreversible. Every single one of these sanctions can be reversed in a single decision.
However, on the second day of the attack, Russia counter sanctioned the West by pulling its coal and gas and oil. And I think that that kind of unilateral move would’ve been impossible in peaceful times. A couple of days later, Russia signed an unprecedented energy agreement with China for 50 years, basically redirecting its energy products away from the West and towards China. That kind of agreement and that kind of pull would not be possible in peaceful times. I think that that’s a remarkable way to distract from, basically, a realignment.
At the same time, Putin, who has been leaving alive a number of opposition leaders throughout the years, especially independent press, keeping one or two alive throughout the years to show, see, I’m not a total dictator, I haven’t murdered these people, in this war managed to actually muzzle indefinitely the entire independent press, imprison more than 10,000 people, and his entire opposition. So there’s a number of things that are happening that I believe are if not the main at the very least parallel objectives of the war. Also, I think that after eight years of fighting off Russia’s influence in Ukraine, a civil war that cost the lives of 14,000 people in the East, I think Putin saw that Ukraine is weak and he can take it, and he can take the East, and he can take the South.
In 2008 when Putin invaded Georgia and basically annexed a chunk of the North, it’s not because Russia is lacking in territory. Russia is the biggest country in the world. The vast majority of it is unsettled. The vast majority of it is wide open. If there was any lack of territory, it’s about power. And he knows that for him to make permanent his influence over Ukraine he needs to annex a piece of it too. Crimea wanted to go and they left without a single shot being fired and that was, for Russia, an obvious success. What he’s going to do is in a few days, he’s going to say, fine. Cease fire. I’m going to pull out. I’m only going to take the East and the South or chunks of the South and the East. And the West is going to say, wow, Putin is so generous. And that’s what he wanted in the first place.
Those are the territories that he’s been focusing on because fragmentation is the number one tactic of imperial powers. And he’s succeeding in that. He’s succeeding in that. He saw through the civil war he couldn’t do it, because if the East wanted to split and join Russia, 14,000 lives would not be lost in that fight. And now the East basically belongs to Russia because its forces have taken over and not a single Western state is imposing any kind of serious pressure on Russia that actually has consequences in the long term. And Putin knows that. If anything, what Putin wanted to show, he did. The West is impotent.
Marc Steiner: I think that this analysis you just gave has been one of the clearest that I’ve heard in terms of what the political dynamic is at work. So I think it was really important what you just said. It also seems as if what is happening in Ukraine once this particular war is over and what’s left to Ukraine, that this is the beginning of a new era of a Cold War. This is the beginning of tensions I think that can just grow out of this. This is bigger than Ukraine.
Lia Tarachansky: But it’s not the new… It’s been going on for, I mean, the BRICS countries have been trying to de-dollarize the world economy for 20 years. I really think that if you watch how this war is going, Russia has invested most of its ground invasion in the East, which is the part that it shares with Ukraine. It’s also invested heavily in the South, specifically strategic port towns. It’s been so far leaving the West alone, but we saw obviously with the Venezia bombing that they’re not entirely leaving that area alone and they can bomb even as far as Yavoriv and the border with Poland if they so wish. But I think that the way the war specifically is going is illustrating what Russia is there for. And the hyperfocus on farmland in the East I think illustrates what Russian forces actually went there for.
Marc Steiner: And that’s where it may all end up, with Russia controlling these parts of what was Ukraine and Ukraine being left with its whittled down self as a nation.
Lia Tarachansky: And it’s not even about the territories. It’s about the fact that how… Every scenario you can run through going forward, I mean, involves some kind of capitulation.
Marc Steiner: To the Russians.
Lia Tarachansky: Of course. Unless Ukraine turns into a European Syria, which is what’s going to happen if the United States gets involved in direct combat, every possible scenario involves capitulation.
Marc Steiner: So two things before we go. I mean, one of the things that, as you’re describing this, as you put forth your analysis, one of the things that says to me is that it’s going to be really difficult for many progressive and left forces around the world to put their hands around this in terms of what do we do? How do we respond? Because the power dynamics have shifted so much. The structures of both Russia and China internally, economically, and politically have shifted so much that it’s not as clean cut as it used to be. What you’re describing is an analysis –
Lia Tarachansky: I don’t think it ever was clean cut. I think that our narratives about it were clear cut because our narratives were, again, US focused. But I think that when you look, I think the world’s gotten more complex in terms of narrative. I think that there’s a lot more powers that are challenging the United States. But in terms of, yeah, it’s complicated. It’s a conflict. It’s a war. Israel-Palestine is complicated. It’s also very simple. Every postcolonial conflict has a lot of complexity to it. But I think that we need to, as journalists, our focus is on the way the narratives are being spun, how they’re being used, how we are being used, and focusing on what is actually happening on the ground.
What is actually happening? And I think that it’s very easy to slide into these mega analyses. I told you my position on what I think is happening. You could probably argue the exact opposite. Russia is a poor country. It’s all alone. Its GDP is not that strong and nobody cares about it and it’s just defending its borders. You can make that argument. But if you just look at what has been unfolding on the ground for the last 12 days, I think you will do your job as a journalist. And what’s been unfolding is that the US, with all of its rhetoric, is still buying Russian oil. Russia has not suffered a significant economic crisis because it’s redirected its economic focus on its primary allies and the West looks impotent.
So I think all of Russia’s objectives have been achieved. And the fact that a few soldiers died in Ukraine, or we can assume a few thousand soldiers, has never been a factor in Russia’s calculations. If you remember the Second World War, Russian generals would send hoards of Russians to run onto minefields to blow up so that other soldiers could walk over their dead bodies. The brutality of Russia’s military might and the forms in which it has maintained its imperial power have always been brutal. And I think that’s a… I don’t think that’s a character trait. I think that that’s a narrative, a thing that, just like Israel, Russia has to spin a very particular narrative because of the context in which it operates. It has to present to the world a seemingly unbalanced, almost irrational, almost psychopathic level of cruelty in order to ensure that it cannot be cornered.
Israeli forces have to be presented as potentially capable of anything so that Israel can maintain its total domination. Russia has to appear as if it is being run by a single psychopath in order to present itself as unpredictable and therefore dangerous. And unfortunately much of the American press has spent the last 12 days watching photographs of Putin and analyzing whether he’s crazy or not, which is exactly what he wants. You can’t know what is inside of his mind. Why are you wasting valuable air time debating it? What we can do as journalists is look at what is happening, and what is happening is that the president and his cabinet, his allies in the military, are ripping Ukraine apart and simultaneously sending paramilitary troops on their own people, and simultaneously silencing all independent press, and simultaneously enjoying a widespread support for the war. Those are the focus that we should have as journalists.
Marc Steiner: Well, I mean, it really is, it’s been fascinating. I mean, I think your analysis is really thorough and thought through here. And I think it deserves to be heard because of its complexity in many ways.
Lia Tarachansky: I mean, the Neo-Nazis thing, right? I mean, I’m a Jew. I left Ukraine because of Ukrainian nationalism and Nazis. I was born in Kyiv. Well, we had quotas in the Soviet Union. We were the Jew family in our building. I was the Jew in my kindergarten. My kindergarten teacher made sure everybody in my kindergarten knew that I was the Jew and therefore fill in the blanks. I have no illusions about antisemitism in Ukraine. However, I also have no illusions about antisemitism in Russia. And it was the Russian empire that created the pale of the settlement where all Ashkenazi Jews were basically shoved into more or less.
And yes, Ukrainian nationalists have historically done atrocious things. American nationalists have historically done atrocious things. Russian nationalists have historically done atrocious things. But if you’re going to judge the Ukrainian people by a group of a hundred idiots who still don’t understand that white people are not supreme, then it’s the same as looking at Palestine and judging the Palestinian people based on the actions of Wahhabis, the Islamic Jihad, and extreme elements inside of Gaza.
I think it’s an excuse in order to justify the narrative, that therefore it doesn’t matter. The number of times I’ve heard in the last 12 days, I don’t care, it’s a bunch of white people fighting each other in Europe, is a total misunderstanding of, first of all, what whiteness is and how it’s formed, and second of all, the history of Europe. White people as a race did not invade the world. Imperial powers invaded the world and justified white supremacy. Ukraine has been as much oppressed as most countries at the foot of European Imperialism and has nothing to do with the establishment of this whiteness. What is happening to Ukraine is imperative. What is happening to Ukraine is not only imperative to the 44 million people who live there, but to the one and a half million people who’ve had to flee there.
It’s also imperative to what happens to all of us going forward. Because if we in this moment say that it’s okay for anyone to violate all of these international regulations, rules, and laws that we have put in place after the end of the Second World War in order to prevent another World War, then what we’re basically saying to anyone watching this – And the whole world is watching – That you can do whatever you want because nothing actually matters. And to pull again on the parallel, Israeli lawyers and what they call law fair activists have been trying to get the world to abandon the four Geneva conventions and the regular rules of war, as well as other violators of human rights have joined in this attack on international rule of law and international regulations in order to justify their domination. And Russia is part of that.
What it’s currently doing is illustrating that those rules don’t matter. And if we let that stand, what we’re basically showing to anyone watching is that you can do whatever you want because nothing matters. Now I’m not a big fan of nations. I’m not a big fan of governments. I don’t believe that centralized power is good for humanity, but I also know that we are playing with fire here and we are all implicated.
Marc Steiner: I want to thank you so much for this time. You’ve really given a concise and serious and very different analysis to what’s happening in Ukraine and tying it to what’s happening to the Palestinians and more on the planet Earth, has been really critical. And I want to thank you for spending your time today and joining us, and thank you for your work.
Lia Tarachansky: Thanks Marc.
Marc Steiner: Once again, I’d like to thank Lia Tarachansky for bringing us a very nuanced and thoughtful analysis of not just the war in Ukraine, but the political forces that generated it and will define our future struggles. Now, if you have any thoughts on this conversation or anything else you’d like us to cover, what you’d like me to cover, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll write you right back. And a reminder, our new series on the rise of the right that I’m co-hosting with Bill Fletcher Jr. will premiere on March the 14th. So please join us for that. And now, for Dwayne Gladden, Kayla Rivara, Stephen Frank and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Take care, keep listening and stay involved.