I have been told that some of my comments on this blog have been taken out of context by some Russian media and presented as if I were justifying current Russian policy toward Ukraine. I do not have time to search out on the internet and listen to what was actually said, but if I have been quoted in a way to suggest that my comments in any way approve or condone the recent Russian actions in and in regard to Ukraine, then the impression given is the opposite of that intended.
Though I criticized some public statements by President Obama early on in the recent outbursts of mutual recrimination, it was not because I thought he was indulging in unfair criticism of Russian actions, but only that I thought that these comments should be expressed in private to avoid inflaming the situation. Given the atmosphere, public comments by the president of the United States that seemed to challenge personally the president of Russia were likely, it seemed to me, to elicit an emotional reaction that would impede rational policy making.
Perhaps I have been too indirect in my wording. In fact, I believe that Russia’s recent actions in regard to Ukraine, especially the military seizure of the Crimea, have been not only unjustified but dangerous. Not that there is going to be war over it—of course not. Our governments are acting not as prudently and wisely as I would hope, but nobody is insane. There is not going to be a hot war between east and west, and if relations should come to resemble a cold war, the biggest loser will not be the United States or the European Union but Russia itself. My criticism of U.S. policy has related primarily to tactics that, given the current psychological atmosphere, seemed to encourage reactions on the Russian part that are ultimately destructive of both Russia’s and Ukraine’s true interests.
Therefore, I hope our Russian friends who have taken notice of my comments realize that what I am trying to convey is that current Russian policy is undermining Russia’s prestige and power and definitely not enhancing it. I think the sort of public challenges some American leaders have made are not helpful, but that doesn’t mean they have no basis. It’s just that I believe that comments, advice, and warnings by senior officials should be made in private and whenever possible by representatives with diplomatic skill and sensibility. (Notice I do not say “diplomats” because it would seem that some of our professional diplomats today lack the qualities necessary for effective diplomacy.)
If Russia continues on its current course in Ukraine, the greatest damage to its interests will occur not because of any sanctions or ostracism foreign leaders impose, but the repercussions along Russia’s long and vulnerable borders. The dangers there do not emanate from the United States or the European Union. Furthermore, the problems Russia sees in Ukraine are not the products of Western scheming, but, at least in part, of Russia’s own actions.
The distortion of events in Ukraine by Russian media has been outrageous. It has gone beyond selective use of facts to include gross exaggeration and outright fabrication. The fact that the Western press has not always been objective and has frequently ignored or misunderstood relevant historical facts neither justifies nor excuses the deliberate disinformation the Russian media have purveyed, all too evidently on the orders of a government determined to wage a propaganda war. The Russian officials who are fanning this campaign seem to ignore at least three considerations: (1) It is totally unconvincing to anyone who has even partial knowledge of the situation; (2) It convinces most thoughtful people, even those inclined to give Russia the benefit of doubts, that Russia is incapable of defending its current policy by the use of actual fact, but only by misrepresentation; and (3) perhaps most dangerous of all for Russia, it risks persuading Russians that the lies are true. As perceptive observers noted regarding both Communist and Fascist regimes, false propaganda may start as a deliberate political instrument, but if it is repeated often enough even its perpetrators begin believing it. Ultimately, people who do not understand the real problems are unlikely to cope successfully with them.
What will hurt Russia’s interests most is the attitude of other parts of the “near abroad.” If the Russian leader keeps looking like a mafia boss who is supporting a criminal regime in Ukraine and trying to grab Ukrainian territory, he is going to isolate Russia from the very rapidly changing world that requires integration, not separation. On the territorial issues, most people outside simply don’t understand the real complexities and ambiguities. It just looks, at best, like Russia the heavy leaning on its weaker neighbors, but more commonly, like an enraged bear terrorizing the neighborhood. If these actions continue, Russia’s position in the world, its prospect for economic growth and healthy politics, and even its safety at home will deteriorate.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s we found ways to end the much more serious confrontations of the Cold War by dealing privately with the most emotional and contentious issues. Both sides toned down the rhetoric, concentrated public attention on our common interests and areas where we could cooperate, and tried privately to find ways to defuse the most dangerous situations.
The political atmosphere that has induced our leaders to resort to public polemics and Russia to engage in self-damaging activity is the result of inconsiderate actions and inappropriate reactions by both sides over the years since the 1990s. I chronicled my views of them in my book Superpower Illusions. Given the passions of the moment, we cannot expect to go instantly back to the spirit of cooperation that marked Russia’s relations with the United States and Western Europe in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, it is even now not too late for Russia’s leaders to halt the country’s plunge into isolation by making clear that Russia is not seeking to change national boundaries and beginning reasonable negotiations to find a route to political and economic reform in Ukraine that will not be to the detriment of any of Ukraine’s neighbors.