Bear-Baiting: What Ukraine can learn from Guatemala.



THE US SECRETARY OF STATE, John Kerry, has condemned the turmoil currently gripping eastern Ukraine as the work of Russian agents provocateurs.

“Russia’s clear and unmistakable involvement in destabilizing and engaging in separatist activities in the east of Ukraine is more than deeply disturbing. No one should be fooled, and believe me, no one is fooled by what could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea. It is clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalyst behind the chaos of the last 24 hours. Some have even been arrested and exposed.”

There can be little doubt that the Americans will have made an all-out effort to insert their own operatives into the fast deteriorating situation in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. The CIA undoubtedly has agents and assets at work in the region and the Russian news media has reported the presence of several hundred US mercenaries employed by the Greystone Corporation (an offshoot of the private US defence contractor previously known as Blackwater). The US’s interest is hardly surprising, given the CIA’s embarrassing failure to predict the Russian occupation and subsequent annexation of Crimea.

Whether or not the CIA is sharing everything it has with the State Department is a different question altogether. The relationship between State and the US Intelligence “Community” has always been rather fraught. In practical, day-to-day terms, the Secretary’s advisers will be relying on reports from the US Ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, augmented by the official statements of the Interim Ukrainian Government.

These latter should, however, be treated with the utmost caution. The extreme right-wing elements which spearheaded the overthrow of the Ukrainian President, Victor Yanukovych, moved swiftly in the power vacuum created by his sudden departure to seize positions of influence in the country’s security services. Such is the extremism of these neo-Nazi nationalists that the possibility they are doing all within their power to provoke a confrontation between the Russian Federation and NATO should not be discounted.

There is another reason for Kerry’s confident pronouncements on what is happening in the towns and cities close to Ukraine’s border with the Russian Federation. Put simply, it’s because the US pretty much wrote the book on how to destabilize and topple inconvenient regimes. If the combat boot was on the other foot, the Americans would be doing exactly what they accuse the Russians of doing.

The CIA’s destabilization playbook dates all the way back to the early 1950s when the newly formed CIA, alarmed at the emergence of a patriotic, social-democratic government in the Central-American nation of Guatemala, decided to make it the testing-ground for the Agency’s brand new theories about how to secure regime change without leaving too many American fingerprints.

Yes, there would be a small body of highly-trained soldiers, led by a carefully chosen individual who, assuming the operation’s success, could be relied upon to do Uncle Sam’s bidding without demur. But the crucial factor in the Guatemalan coup d’état of 1954 was to be the deployment of psychological warfare techniques, “psyops”, against the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman.

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The forces of Castillo Armas, the coup leader, were weak (no more than 400 men) and his “air force” amounted to a handful of aircraft piloted by American mercenaries on the payroll of the CIA. The rebel forces simply could not have won a direct confrontation with the 6,000-strong Guatemalan Army. But that was not the plan. In combination with the fierce diplomatic pressures being applied by the US Government, it was the CIA’s brilliant use of public relations techniques at home, on its own citizens, and its ruthless deployment of a morale-sapping, panic-inducing disinformation and propaganda campaign against the Guatemalan people, that caused the Guatemalan Army to turn on Arbenz’s government and demand his resignation. It was the only way his generals could see to prevent widespread bloodshed and halt what was, in reality, an almost entirely phantom attack.

If the Russians are planning to seize the eastern provinces of Ukraine from the Interim Government in Kiev, Moscow’s agents and special forces units will undoubtedly be drawing heavily from the CIA playbook. Small, highly specialised units will be training and organising larger bodies of local activists. Constant disinformation and propaganda will be broadcast from “liberation” radio stations across the border – some directed at the supporters of secession, some designed to confuse and demoralise the backers of Ukrainian unity.

Running parallel to the campaign on the ground will be the efforts of outlets like RT (Russia’s equivalent of CNN) to, first, build support for annexation among the Russian population; and second, to broadcast a strong counter-narrative to that of the western news media internationally.

And always, at the back of these efforts, breathing heavily like an angry bear, will be 40,000 Russian troops poised and ready to pour across the Ukrainian border in defence of their “persecuted” Russian-speaking brothers and sisters.

It is this vast force that translates Kerry’s stern words into mere bluster. The United States does not want to unleash a full-scale European land war for the sake of Ukrainian sovereignty – anymore than the Russian Federation would want to back militarily a Mexican attempt to reclaim California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico from the United States.

Of the other NATO states, only Poland (urged on no doubt by the bite-sized Baltic trio of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania) has shown the slightest willingness to contemplate a war in defence her Ukrainian neighbour. But then the Poles have never been ones to shirk a fight. Inconveniently positioned on the great invasion routes into and out of Europe, the Polish nation has had little choice. “The Germans we fight out of necessity”, quip the Poles, “the Russians we fight for pleasure!” All very well in the era of sabres and lances, but today’s Russians, if pressed, have a nuclear arsenal to keep an over-enthusiastic Poland (and the rest of NATO for that matter) at a safe distance.

All of which leaves the Interim Ukrainian Government of 2014 in roughly the same position as the hapless Guatemalan Army of 1954 – facing opponents backed by a regional power too vast and too powerful to defy. If they’re wise, they’ll muzzle their extreme nationalists and negotiate Ukraine’s peaceful readmission to Russia’s sphere of influence. If not, they’re likely to rediscover how uncomfortable it feels to be hugged by an angry bear.



  1. I am watching Putin with interest. This stunt on a bear proves what a complete tool he his. Scary thing is it probably works on the deluded Russian populist masses. I would be very scared if I was Ukrainian. Putin is 100% emboldened by a gutless US president having to make a real decision for once that he can’t back out of easily based on previous Presidents mistakes. Hard times, welcome to the real world Obama. Good luck. Bet USA does nothing. Or maybe pointless sanctions, yes that will work, no more big macs for you Putin you big fella you. Have to admit I think that bear and him make a good looking pair, the bear does look genuinely happy.

    • I’d be surprised if Putin personally authorised the “stunt on a bear” image and I’d be even more surprised if the Russian population bought it.

    • I’m pretty sure that’s a digitally manipulated photo mate.
      I recall a rather similar photo of Putin on a horse a year or two back.

    • You are right though the USA won’t do anything more than ban McDonald’s and Visa from Crimea —the US don’t pick a fight with anyone who can actually fight back!

    • You make a good point. Putin is tugging at the emotions of elderly Russians who are looking back at its ‘glorious past’ with rose tinted glasses. They hanker for a day when Russia is seen as something more important than ‘Saudi Arabia with snow’, because that’s all it is now.

      Lest we forget, Putin bears a great deal of responsibility for the chaos in Syria too. He cared more for his Naval access to Tartus than the million displaced persons and tens of thousands murdered by Assad. So one can conclude he will stop at nothing.

      And you’re right about Obama too – he’s all mouth.

  2. “Such is the extremism of these neo-Nazi nationalists that the possibility they are doing all within their power to provoke a confrontation between the Russian Federation and NATO should not be discounted.”

    It is my increasing impression that Chris has a strong personal faible for Russia and Putin. There is no other explanation in his repeated efforts to portray Russia as simply a “victim” and “defender” in the developments in and around Ukraine.

    Putin is the one who gave up his Prime Minister job, as he wanted to be Russian President again. He did years earlier become Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, because he could not be President for any longer (due to the constitution). Putin loves power and to cling to it.

    With his mostly loyal buddy Medvedev he shares the near absolute controls and powers over the Federation, and his personal adventures show his power hunger and chauvinism. He supported the disgusting laws to persecute homosexuals, and he has got his “mates” in powerful positions, and the oligarchs can rule if they pay loyalty to him, or else they may end up dead, by mysterious circumstances.

    Russia under Putin clearly wants to reassert itself, to re-establish firm control and dominance over the whole region, and what was once the Soviet Union. Chris Trotter may have missed that the SU is no longer, and that Russia is no longer a “socialist” state, but a country where there are many nationalists, patriots and also neo nazis.

    Talking about nazis in Ukraine may meet the description of some fringe groups there, and yes, one party once was further to the right, but has over recent years moderated its stand.

    I think it is foolish to compare Ukraine with Guatamala in the days of CIA intervention in Latin American states. These days the US and CIA work in smarter, less direct ways. Hence I doubt there are that many “operatives” from the US, or paid by them, in the East of Ukraine.

    What we have there is ethnic Russian nationalists trying to force Russia into a situation where the Russians may feel they have to intervene. That is their agenda, they want Russian forces to march in. Ukraine does hardly want war or even just local conflict, as it does not have the arms and manpower to fight Russia. The US also has no interest in war, as they would risk having a massive conflict, that will ruin them financially for good.

    As for Russia, I think that they are not that keen either, and while they may try similar tactics as the US and CIA played in Guatemala decades ago, it is a game with fire, for sure.

    The Europeans are split, but try to show a unified force, and for Poland, the Baltic States, and some others, they have in memory the cold war and how Russian tanks were stationed in their territories for decades, ruling with local regimes and the iron fist.

    So I would not blame the Poles and others to be worried and ready to show resolute force, if needed. They do not want Russia regain the power it once had over them.

    Chris is traveling into history again, but I fear the present scenario is a little different. The strategic realities look dissimilar from decades and centuries ago.

    So this piece by Chris raises prospects that are mere speculation, but may become real only in the worst case scenario.

  3. Very typical old school anti-Americanism from an old school leftist. I felt like I have been transported back to the early 1980’s again. Nice that the whole fascist angle was being played up. Quick question for you though. Why do you think nations that were previously un der the sway of Russia like the Baltic states and Poland prefer to belong to Nato and generally like the US?

    • The facism angle is pure fact in present day Ukraine. Don’t you find it strange that the USA has to support Al Qaeda in Syria/Libya, and Ukrainian neo-Nazi’s in order to carry out the US’s “foreign policy”?

  4. Thanks Chris Trotter . I’m more enlightened re the Ukrainian situation thanks to your most excellent work .

    Surely that’s a photo shopped image of Putin and the bear . I don’t see reigns on the bear , therefore the bear could in fact just , well turn around and eat Putin nipples and all .

    Watch this if you bear . I mean dare .

    While barely caring , pardon the pun , about two groups , or gangs of Uber egotistical narcissists , i.e. the Russians and the Americans , posturing at each other over the garden fence as the barbecue goers become drunk and unruly , I do perk up when you mention ‘ psyops . ‘
    A form of control of particular interest to me .

    Off topic I know but when you wonder how teflon jonky manages to hang on in there .
    And only this morning I hear that big donny brash contemplated suicide after the break down of his two marriages . ‘ Awww…. ( Sniff ) . Bleessss . ‘
    donny gets weepy .
    donny is ACT .
    donny is jonky by proxy .
    The donny / jonky crony capitalist clone gets all smooched up by the public because there’s nothing like a suicide threat to bring out the hankies .

    What a great shame , for all those poor souls who actually did commit suicide after losing their life’s work thanks to big donnys fiscal tinkering , ( read corruption ) that it was only a contemplation .

    Psyops comes in many guises from behind misty veils .

  5. @ Gasman . You never left the 1980’s so what’re you talking about ? While I’m no betting man ; I bet you still wear shoulder pads when you cross-dress . I bet you have a pink leather lounge suite . I bet it looks lovely on your white carpet . With a quaint attitude like yours , I bet the carpets match the drapes .

  6. Legitimacy in the Ukraine rests with the Ukrainian people. Any action without their consent or assent is inappropriate. Putin is certainly no better than the CIA. The situation is complex, with many players, but the Ukrainian people have the determinate franchise. Their interest in resisting recolonisation is pretty understandable.

  7. Killing Hope by William Blum is a great book about CIA interventions since WW2 and I’d highly recommend reading it.

  8. The really horrifying thing from the New Zealand perspective is the way the shirtless Putin meme has inspired Don Brash to front en deshabille.
    It’d be better if he tried the bear riding.

    • @ Stuart Munro: “has inspired Don Brash to front en deshabille.
      It’d be better if he tried the bear riding.”

      Ha! Couldn’t agree more…

  9. ” The CIA undoubtedly has agents and assets at work in the region and the Russian news media has reported the presence of several hundred US mercenaries employed by the Greystone Corporation (an offshoot of the private US defence contractor previously known as Blackwater).”

    Indeed. The State Department denies it; however, it’s also been reported in the British media. The Mail has an article, with accompanying pic. They sure don’t look like Russians; and they appear to be carrying American weapons.

    “…given the CIA’s embarrassing failure to predict the Russian occupation and subsequent annexation of Crimea.”

    At the risk of being pedantic, Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede. Within a few days only of Yanukovich’s overthrow, the Crimean parliament had resolved to hold in May a referendum on secession. Not very long after that, they moved quicksmart to bring the referendum date forward to March. Turnout was huge. This ought to have come as no surprise to the CIA, given the history of Crimea, and the longtime restiveness of much of the population about its being part of the Ukraine.

    But it seems that the CIA fails to take any advice on the countries in which it operates, presumably because in-depth knowledge would force operatives to take a more nuanced view, and thus put at risk the achievement of US foreign policy objectives.

    “…the Russian occupation….”

    A bit more pedantry: under the terms of the Black Sea Fleet Treaty, Russia was entitled to have up to 25,000 troops based in Crimea, along with the resources required to support them. See this:

    There’s no evidence that this limit was breached; had that been the case we can be sure the Western media would’ve shouted about it: it’s a difficult thing to hide.

    A fortiori, there’s no evidence that the soldiers who took over public buildings and the like were Russian. In an interview at the time, Putin denied it, claiming that they were local self-defence militias. There’s no reason to doubt this: it’d be strange indeed, were Putin to dissemble, given that Russian troops had a legitimate right to be in Crimea. On the other hand, it’s almost certain that those militias were trained by the Russians.

    @ Marc: “Talking about nazis in Ukraine may meet the description of some fringe groups there, and yes, one party once was further to the right, but has over recent years moderated its stand.”

    No. As Chris Trotter says, far-right and neo-nazi extremists hijacked the protests in Kiev and forced Yanukovich out. They’ve seized power, and a number of their members have secured influential ministries for themselves. This is what has been reported, even by some Western media. These people haven’t moderated their ideology in any way.

    Go take a look at some of these names: Dimitro Yarosh, Andriy Parubiy, Ihor Tenyukh, Oleh Makhnitsky, Oleksander Sych and Serhiy Kvit.

    Parubiy is the one to watch: if you look at his history, he has chops as a strategist and is the smartest of the lot, combining pragmatism and zeal to promote ultra-nationalist ideology. And he looks to do this in a way that doesn’t scare the foreign backers. This is why Muzychko had to be killed: he was an extremist who’d got out of control. Think “Night of the Long Knives”: Muzychko’s murder was authorised at the highest levels of the interim government. He was a piece of work all right. Just google his name: videos of him are all over the internet.

    The following links are worth a look:

    @ Gosman: “Very typical old school anti-Americanism from an old school leftist.”

    This is facile: CIA involvement in the domestic affairs of many countries over the past 60 years or more is a matter of record. Plenty of Americans have written about it. Try Noam Chomsky, for an account of what’s gone on in Central and South America and the Caribbean, for instance.

    With regard to the overthrow of Yanukovich, there is evidence of American involvement in the protests. Remember Victoria Nuland’s phone conversation with Geoffrey Pyatt? Nuland herself was seen on Independence Square; John McCain is on record as having had a meeting with Oleg Tyahnibok, a choice example of Svoboda leadership. While it’s possible the CIA wasn’t involved, it’s wildly implausible.

    “Why do you think nations that were previously un der the sway of Russia like the Baltic states and Poland prefer to belong to Nato and generally like the US?”

    Poland has struggled unsuccessfully for 1000 years for dominance over Russia; hostility between them is deep and ancient. Membership of Nato gives Poland allies with more and bigger weapons. Small wonder then that Russia doesn’t much like Poland’s membership of Nato.

    The Baltic states derive a measure of military security from membership of Nato; scarcely surprising, given that they’re relatively small and potentially vulnerable in that geopolitical environment.

    These countries may well like the US; I doubt that the sentiment is reciprocated. The US cares little for such polities except insofar as they’re useful instruments for helping achieve US foreign policy objectives.

    Narratives of the “Russia bad: US good” variety are simplistic, and echo the old Cold War propaganda. Given the unprecedented access we now have to information via social networks and the internet, there is no excuse for anyone continuing to uncritically accept propaganda as truth.

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