Thursday, March 06, 2014

Amb. Jack Matlock on Ukraine's Impact on Putin

I received the following comments on yesterday’s essay from a Russian-speaking American now resident in Moscow. They include some important points about Russian opinion and on the impact of the Ukrainian events on politics in Russia itself. Each of the points deserves a separate essay, but I wish to share them without delay. (I have added some emphasis by italics or boldface here and there.)
[Begin Quote]
1) In Moscow even anti-Putin liberals seem to think that the US/EU has pushed too far in Ukraine. For example, last week I had lunch with two Russian professionals. The conversation turned to Ukraine and one of them remarked that US policy seemed driven solely by a desire to “stick it to Russia” (насолить). The leaked conversation between Nuland and Ambassador Pyatt shocked people. It appears to people that the US is encouraging anti-Russian nationalists or sending signals that they could easily misinterpret. At the end, they decided that it was probably more ineptitude than a deliberate effort to cause harm, but I imagine 90% of Russians assume American diplomats understand exactly what they’re doing and the potential consequences. It takes a great deal of sophistication to consider stupidity and incompetence as an explanation.
2) People understand perfectly well why Poles, Balts and some Ukrainians would be anti-Russian. But they don’t understand why this desire to settle historical scores gets so much support from the US.
3) If you read the US press, it’s axiomatic that Crimea and Eastern Ukraine would choose Russia, if given the choice. But I’m hearing it’s not a sure thing, especially in regards to Eastern Ukraine. There people want to keep their jobs and they don’t want their factories shut down in a trade war with Russia, but that doesn’t mean they want to be annexed.
4) People make a sharp distinction between Crimea and other parts of Ukraine. If a referendum does vote in favor of union, most Russians would be happy to take them, irrespective of political leaning.
5) It seems to me that any Russian President, of any political persuasion, would have had his or her hand forced by this meddling.
6) I sometimes think that Americans have benefited from democratic institutions so long (even if they are under assault by the political elite with gerrymandering and anonymous donations), that they don’t grasp the institutional framework that has to be in place for a democratic revolution actually to work. Also, people underestimate how much of this infrastructure is being built in Russia, even though the process is slow and boring. It’s one thing to scream that you want a democracy and the end to corruption; it’s another to organize people in a way that it happens over decades. In that respect, Russia, even under Putin, is far more advanced than Ukraine.
7) The immediate vote to remove the legal status of Russian (as well as other languages) confirmed suspicions that the new Ukrainian parliament is blindly anti-Russian, even though the idea was quickly stopped. It also raises the question of political competence.
8. I was in Donetsk and in Crimea for a Coal Miners’ Conference last spring. At the time I was shocked by the near apocalyptic pessimism of nearly everyone. I thought people were being hyperbolic when they said the political situation was hopeless and the country could split in two.
9) I suspect Putin will come out of this situation stronger, unless it all descends into chaos. It has certainly set back the Russian opposition. People won’t demonstrate, and not just because of fear of the police. It will simply seem unpatriotic and remind everyone of violence in Kiev, which no one wants. Even people who dislike Yanukovich do not like how he was kicked out of office. I think it’s a fair question to ask why elections couldn’t take place as agreed, and why he had to be forced out of office immediately.
10) Putin may well circumscribe civil liberties further. For which we can thank, in part, Poland, Western Ukraine, the EU and Obama.
11) I sometimes suspect that many East Europeans feel they will lose their identity as bulwarks against barbarianism if Russia ever becomes a normal country, so unconsciously they try to stop it. It’s going to be tough for the Poles when they have to go head to head with Russians on culture alone.
[End Quote of the comment from Moscow].
I will be commenting in greater detail on some of these points, but for now will simply say that though I have been a strong admirer and supporter of President Obama, I cannot understand how he could fail to recognize that confronting President Putin publicly on an issue that is so central to Russian national pride and honor, not only tends to have the opposite effect on the issue at hand, but actually strengthens tendencies in Russia that we should wish to discourage. It is as if he, along with his advisers, is living in some alternate ideological and psychological universe.