I was in Moscow last week where I participated in a conference at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (commonly known by its Russian acronym, MGIMO), did a radio interview with Ekho Moskvy, and talked with many Russian scholars and journalists about the current international situation. Here is a summary of the views I heard from my Russian interlocutors over the course of the week:
Crimea: Most Russians I spoke to strongly support President Putin’s annexation of Crimea. They believe that since the majority of Crimea’s residents are Russian, the region should belong to Russia. It was wrong of Khrushchev to transfer it from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. Whatever the West might think, they regard the March 2014 referendum in favor of Crimea joining Russia as generally reflecting the will of the people of Crimea. Even those few I spoke to who opposed the annexation (or the forceful way in which it was carried out) acknowledge that this has been highly popular in Russia and has boosted support for Putin tremendously.
Ukraine: The situation in Ukraine is seen as being extremely complicated and the risk of civil war there as being strong. Stalin is seen as being at fault for his redrawing of Eastern European borders at the end of World War II in which he assigned captured territory where the population was European-oriented to be the western provinces of Ukraine. Russians I spoke with view eastern and southern Ukraine as part of the “Russkiy Mir” (Russian World) that does not want to live in a Western-oriented country belonging to NATO. Western Ukraine (the region around Lviv that Stalin joined to Ukraine) they do not see as belonging to the Russkiy Mir. They see the region around Kiev in central Ukraine as being linked to both Russia and the West.
What to do about Ukraine is unclear. Some believe that it should remain intact (minus Crimea, of course) as a neutral nation that is allied neither with Russia nor the West. Others see the division between pro-Russian and pro-Western elements in the population as being so great that it would be best to divide the country. Eastern and southern Ukraine (plus Transnistria—that bit of eastern Moldova with a large Slavic population which had been part of Ukraine before Stalin redrew that border) should either be joined to Russia or become a new country, “Novorossiya,” that is allied to Russia. Many I spoke to could accept what remains of Ukraine being allied with the West, though some can’t bring themselves to exclude Kiev from the Russkiy Mir.
Whatever happens, Ukraine’s current problems are partly the result of being dominated by oligarchs who benefit from the country’s current borderland status which gives them the ability to extract support from both Russia and the West without having to make a firm choice between either. The increasing division within the Ukrainian population between pro-Russian and pro-Western groups, though, is undermining their ability to continue doing this and maintain order.
While Putin was very much in control over what happened in Crimea, he is not in control of the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk where pro-Russian separatists have declared independence from Kiev. While these groups are seen in the West as being under Russian control, several of my interlocutors insisted they are not, and that they are actually trying to force Putin to come to their aid through engaging in confrontation with Kiev’s forces. If this occurs, Russia could find itself involved in a messy, long-lasting conflict.
CNN and other media reported while I was in Moscow that Chechen fighters loyal to the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, were supporting Russian separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk. I heard three different explanations about why this has come about: 1) the Chechens have been sent to impose discipline over the unruly Russian separatists; 2) Kadyrov sent them to show his loyalty (and indispensability) to Putin; and 3) these Chechens came of their own accord to eastern Ukraine because they are being paid well to be there.
America and the West: The Russians I spoke with are all concerned about the economic sanctions that America and Europe have imposed on Moscow over Crimea and how this will affect them. I argued that these sanctions have been relatively minimal, and that they were imposed mainly to show domestic audiences in the West that their governments are “doing something” in response to Russian actions in Crimea. My Russian interlocutors, though, worry that the sanctions will soon increase. Together with decreased European purchases of Russian natural gas, they fear that the Russian economy could be hurt badly.
Whether supportive of Putin or not, the Russians I spoke with thought that America in particular was mishandling relations with Russia. Some referred to the expansion of NATO and the bombing of Serbia in the 1990’s as unnecessary acts that alienated not just the Russian government, but the Russian people too. Others noted that America has fewer people knowledgeable about Russia who can advise Washington than it did during the Cold War when relations were tense, but dialogue between us was too. Many noted that Moscow and Washington have a number of common interests, such as preventing conflict on the Korean Peninsula, making sure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons, eliminating chemical weapons in Syria, combating jihadism, and maintaining peace and prosperity in Europe. They worry that differences over Ukraine will put cooperation on all this in jeopardy. They are especially unhappy that America is encouraging Europeans to buy less gas from Russia and to buy more from other sources, including the United States itself.
China: In late May 2014, Russia and China signed an agreement whereby China will buy $400 billion worth of Russian gas over thirty years. This should more than make up for any Russian loss of gas sales to Europe. The Russians I spoke to, however, are all wary both of this agreement and of China generally. My Russian interlocutors interpreted the announcement that the price Russia would receive from China for this gas was a “trade secret” as being bad news for Russia. Moscow’s desperation to reach an agreement with Beijing, they believe, has allowed China to pay an embarrassingly (for Moscow) low price—perhaps so low that Russia will make no profit. Whatever the price, they worry that increased tensions between Russia and the West will result in Russia becoming increasingly dependent on China. One person indicated that while China has privately signaled its support for Moscow against America and the West in Ukraine and has offered to spend billions in Russia to re-orient its economy to export petroleum and much else to China, Beijing does expect something in return: Russian support for the Chinese position in all its disputes with other Asian countries. This is something that he did not see as being in Russia’s interest at all.
Putin and the Advice He Receives: Someone else I spoke to indicated that Putin is also quite wary of China and would never allow Russia to become so dependent on Beijing. But Putin may be assuming, this person said, that the current crisis with the West over Ukraine will blow over when, in six months or so, American and European leaders come to realize just how much they need Russia. It is not clear to my Russian interlocutor, though, that the West will come to any such realization.
Putin’s conviction that it will may be based on advisers who tell him basically what he wants to hear, and not on more thorough and objective assessments from academics. Indeed, the Russian government seems to be increasingly suspicious of Russian academics. My Russian interlocutors note that during the Cold War, the Kremlin sought and valued analyses from the international institutes (such as the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, and the USA and Canada Institute) of what was then the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Now, though, the Russian government seems highly distrustful of these as well as the many other research institutes that have sprung up. Researchers now live in fear of being identified as foreign agents for collaborating with foreign foundations and research institutes. But in addition to the negative impact that this distrust has on these individuals and institutions, it also means that Putin is depriving himself of advice that he needs to consider in order to avoid the pitfalls that will surely result from listening to those who tell him only what they think he wants to hear.
While the Russians I met with are generally (and genuinely) pleased with Putin for having rejoined Crimea to Russia, there is a sense of foreboding among them that the crisis in Ukraine has set in motion larger forces that are leading to a worsening situation in that country which Russia and the West cannot control, and to a worsening of Russian-Western relations that will only benefit China. And much to their regret, they feel that there is little that they can do to prevent any of this.