Winter Is Coming: As the World Crumbles, We Must Re-Engage with Russia
Russian trucks headed to the border with Ukraine: What's in them?
John Kenneth Galbraith once termed foreign policy a choice between the merely unpalatable and the disastrous. As the U.S. launches multiple rounds of airstrikes against Iraq, in an attempt to halt Islamic State militants who have captured the country’s largest dam and embarked on a rash of blood-curdling atrocities – their strength fueled, incredibly enough, by the seizure of U.S. military equipment abandoned by a retreating Iraqi Army – U.S. leaders and public intellectuals must weigh some very difficult decisions. August, normally a sleepy vacation month, has been packed with one overseas disaster after another. As Israelis and Palestinians feud over an agreement in Gaza and the World Health Organization declares Ebola an “international health emergency” (and policy experts like Bruce Riedel, a 30-year CIA veteran, warn that the greatest pending threats to global security lie in yet a different direction, pointing to Afghanistan and Pakistan), we are going to have to pick our battles carefully. As Ned Stark would say, in Game of Thrones: “Winter is Coming.”
Like it or not, in such a setting we cannot afford to deepen our rift with Russia. Our airstrikes on Iraq, necessary as they are, have also furnished an ideal pretext for Russian President Vladimir Putin to initiate some type of militarized intervention in eastern Ukraine that he can argue falls under the banner of “peacekeeping” and “protection.” Case in point: Western politicians are openly wondering if the 260-truck convoy that set out from the Moscow region Tuesday is possibly carrying something other than what Russians profess is only “humanitarian aid” for the besieged city of Luhansk – and whether the trucks will actually stop, as claimed, at the Ukrainian border and hand control of the mission over to the International Red Cross.
The personalized animosity between U.S. and Russian leaders has led to an escalation of tensions that could never have been imagined even as recently as two months ago. So far, most “ordinary people,” even those who consider themselves pro-Putin, do not share in this hostility. Friends and colleagues in both countries are still trading information, still WhatsApping and Facebooking and finding humor where they can. With the Kremlin’s declaration of retaliatory sanctions on agricultural imports from the E.U. and U.S., families in Moscow and St. Petersburg are holding grim “banquet parties,” to savor the last of their foreign food “delicacies” (well over 50% of what they usually consume) before returning, so they joke, to the Russian staples of buckwheat and beets. Many are circulating a “comical” video clip hearkening back to the late-Soviet period when Western-made condiments were considered a special, sought-out treat. In it, a bleary-eyed Boris Yeltsin sits in a barren Russian kitchen saying: “We have tea with sugar, but what are you talking about, ketchup?” (Years ago in Moscow, my Russian boyfriend, now a U.S. citizen, said he always marveled at the refrigerators he saw in American movies during the late 1980s, where the inside of every door was crammed with bottles of different dressings and sauces. That was his adolescent image of fantastic luxury, and his contemporaries who remain in Russia are now making mocking reference to the fact that it might become such an image once again.)
This slide into mutually destructive hostility has to stop. The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17 was a crime, as well as a grotesque, what-are-the-odds mistake. And Putin’s regrettable response has been straight out of the Soviet playbook – deny and deceive in order to avoid looking weak. But even his most ardent anti-Western supporters in the Kremlin have expensive tastes and unofficial bank accounts that they do not want to have to relinquish and which depend on connections to Europe and the U.S. There is room for negotiation. But it is rapidly shrinking.
Russian television continues to be used in ever-more extreme fashion to whip up popular emotions of hatred and fear. One Moscow resident recently reported that every program, every movie is routinely interrupted for “emergency news flashes,” each one announcing a new alleged act of bloodshed in eastern Ukraine. He described the psychological pressure such alarmist warnings place even on those who are aware of the manipulation going on behind the scenes, and of the anger they inspire towards Ukrainian and U.S. leaders in less critical audiences.
Meanwhile, after hardening punishments for unauthorized political demonstrations (and making it a crime to refer to Crimea as something other than part of Russia), the Kremlin is gradually placing tighter and tighter controls on internet access and social media – the sole spaces left for free exchange of information and opinion. Blogs must be registered with police authorities. As of August 8, those same authorities have blocked anonymous internet access on public wireless networks: users must now enter their domestic passport number (the equivalent of a U.S. citizen’s social-security number) in order to log on. The government has also ordered a number of popular social media sites to install special hardware and software “that will enable the security services to automatically receive information about the actions of individual users of those sites,” and has made it a crime for these sites to block such surveillance in any way. These developments are chilling. However, lest they prompt overheated comparisons to past Soviet dictators, one tyrant in particular, we need to keep in mind: it is terrible, from our position, to see civic freedoms as they are gradually rolled up before our eyes. Yet powerful countries we do not generally condemn in public, China being a prime example, have had far greater restrictions in place for years. We accept them more easily, perhaps, because we are not witnessing in such excruciating detail, the process of their imposition.
Unpalatable, yes, but the only way to halt this evolution is through engagement with Putin and a display of public willingness to work with him, rather than against him. Call it appeasement, if you will. But Putin is not Hitler, and objectionable as his anti-Western, macho, homophobic and even racist rhetoric may be, he is far from calling for the collective extermination of his country’s purported enemies. Although an array of experienced diplomats such as former Russia Ambassador Michael McFaul are urging us to show our support for democracy by supporting Ukraine, we also need to consider just what such a commitment would involve and how it could ever, ever be sustained. Ukraine is financially unviable as an independent entity, without a massive infusion of cash that any sanctions-strapped European Union will simply be unable to pay. Just to reiterate a few uncomfortable statistics: Ukraine imports and exports more from Russia (its single largest trading partner) than from the E.U. It depends on Russia for natural gas – for which it has racked up at least 1.7 billion dollars in unpaid bills. In addition, Russia holds a chunk of the Ukrainian debt and can legally force Kiev to default if said debt ever exceeds 60% of its GDP – which seems increasingly likely. While Ukraine is a wonderful place for foreign academics like myself to work, far more open and free than its Russian neighbor and with a democracy movement championed by a number of articulate, cosmopolitan young people, the country also has a record of egregious ruling-cadre corruption and disarray, in which frequent fistfights among lawmakers during parliament sessions are upheld, by some, as a sign of healthy political due-process. In 2012, Ernst & Young rated Ukraine the third most corrupt nation in the world – the same year its per capital GDP clocked in just below that of Namibia and Iraq.
Today, the Ukrainian government is to some degree imitating Moscow, similarly using television to shape public opinion, exaggerating stories of rebel atrocities and censoring negative accounts of the behavior of government troops, stifling oppositional voices, and manipulating both language and information to appeal for Western aid. My sympathies are deeply with the Ukrainian people caught up in this tragic conflict, struggling with even greater difficulty than usual to make ends meet amid rampant lawlessness and arbitrary brutality. But the idea that a ceasefire could not be imposed long enough for bodies to be adequately recovered from the MH17 crash site is, itself, an atrocity – one for which both sides carry a degree of blame.
The rebels must disarm, but that can only happen by including Russia, with the E.U., as part of the solution to the Ukraine crisis rather than as its major problem. The situation in Ukraine is not going to be resolved in a perfectly happy nor perfectly moral way. I respect the wishes of Ukrainian citizens who yearn for a peaceful, autonomous, and law-abiding society. But I would a thousand times rather fight ISIS than Russia, and that over a bitterly poor region full of antiquated coal mines, where many residents seem to feel increasingly disgusted with (and endangered by) all the various armed forces that surround them. I would rather Europe sustain its economic recovery, instead of sinking into financial crisis should one-third of its natural gas supplies be cut, as the nights grow longer and temperatures fall. We need to have an endgame in mind in the Ukrainian conflict, as much as Russia does. Particularly now that winter is coming, when the world’s superpowers should be working together to stabilize situations that threaten us all.
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