Top level Russian government officials have reacted angrily to the Ukrainian parliament’s recent vote to seek NATO membership.  But what did they expect after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, supported Russian secessionists in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and threatened to cut off gas supplies unless Ukraine pays what Moscow claims Kiev owes as if nothing untoward had happened?  Indeed, each one of these actions could reasonably be expected to induce Ukraine to seek NATO membership.  All of them together were practically guaranteed to do so.

If Moscow had really not wanted Ukraine to seek NATO membership, then it never should have seized Crimea from it in the first place.  Instead of regarding the downfall of Russia’s dubious ally, President Yanukovych, as a Western plot, Moscow could have recognized it for what it was (a popular uprising against an unpopular autocrat) and sought to establish good relations with the new government in Kiev.

Even if Moscow had insisted on seizing Crimea, it might have then sought to prevent Ukraine from seeking NATO membership by trying to assuage Kiev and those residents of Crimea who objected to the Russian annexation by offering to compensate them generously and by forswearing any further ambitions in Ukraine.

And even if Moscow went ahead (as it did) in supporting Russian secessionists in Donetsk and Luhansk, it could have made clear that these were the only regions where it would do this, and offer compensation to Kiev (including in the form of guaranteed petroleum deliveries at a reduced price).  Instead, though, Putin and his allies have indicated that they might well seek to protect Russian-speaking populations elsewhere in Ukraine as well as other Soviet republics if they do not behave how Moscow wants them to.

In short:  if Moscow really did not want Kiev to seek NATO membership, it would have sought to reassure Kiev (and everyone else) about the limits of its ambitions in Ukraine as well as offered compensation as a way of giving Ukrainians some incentive not to seek NATO membership.

Moscow, of course, has not done anything like this.  Indeed, it does not seem to even have occurred to Russia’s current leaders to do so.  They truly seem to think that they can take as much as they please from Ukraine, and that both the West and Ukraine should declare that Ukraine will never join NATO in response.

Moscow sees the Western imposition of economic sanctions on Russia in reply to its actions in Ukraine as completely unreasonable.  Russian leaders seem to believe that they should be able to take what they want from Ukraine, and that the West should simply accept this and continue doing business as usual with Moscow.

The truth, of course, is that Putin’s actions have pushed the Ukrainian government and public to seek NATO membership.  Putin seems to believe that by making others fear Moscow, they will respond by seeking to mollify Russian wrath through altering their behavior to please Moscow.  Predictably, though, this has backfired.  Instead, Putin’s making others fear Moscow has resulted in their seeking to work with others (including NATO) to constrain Russia.

The claim by Putin and Russian nationalists that Ukraine and other former Soviet states joining NATO is somehow a threat to Russia appears paranoid.  It is simply not credible to believe that NATO is planning to attack Russia. But if Moscow genuinely fears this, then the best way for Putin to prevent Ukraine and other former Soviet states from seeking NATO membership would be to reassure them that they have nothing to fear from Russia.  Threatening Russian behavior, by contrast, is what drives them to seek NATO membership.

Putin, though, seems not just unwilling to understand this, but unable.  If so, then he has condemned Russia to a vicious cycle in which its hostile responses to cooperation between its neighbors and the West only leads to further such cooperation between them and isolation for Russia.

Some twenty years ago, I wrote up the following notes for myself after reading John C. Wilkinson’s The Imamate Tradition of Oman (Cambridge University Press, 1987):

While Omanis are virtually all Muslim, many (roughly half) belong neither to the Sunni nor the Shi’a sects, but to a smaller third sect called Ibadi.  Temporal and spiritual authority in Oman was traditionally exercised by an Ibadi Imam.  The Ibadi Imam was, at least in theory, elected by the faithful on the basis of his personal qualifications.  Many elections to the Imamate in the past, though, had not been regarded as legitimate, and this lack of legitimacy had been the cause of civil wars among the Ibadis.  Ibadi political theory allowed for an Imam to be deposed by the faithful if he became incapacitated or acted against the precepts of Islam, and some had indeed been deposed.  Ibadi political theory “rigorously excluded…any notion of a hereditary Imamate,” though it tended to be dominated by different families in different periods (pp. 169-76).

According to Wilkinson, the Imamate has experienced repeated historical cycles in which it has “always declined into dynastic power, but equally inevitably re-emerged as the national ideology reuniting the state” (p. 4). At times, Wilkinson records, the Imamate has disappeared altogether due to defeat by foreign or non-Imamate Omani forces, but its memory has always remained among the Omanis who have restored it whenever the opportunity arose.

From the 1850s until the 1950s, there existed two power centers in Oman:  the Imamate in the interior of the country and the Sultanate on the coast which was backed by the British.  There were several clashes between the two in which the Sultanate would have been defeated completely had it not been for the intervention of British forces.  In the mid-twentieth century, however, oil was discovered in interior Oman.  The Sultan’s British-backed forces overran the Imamate completely in 1955.  The Imamate leadership launched a rebellion in 1957 which it took the British two years to crush, and the Imamate then came to an end (pp. 299-328).

I cannot not help but wonder, though, whether it really did.  If the memory of the Imamate and the desire to restore it remained with the Omanis in other periods when it disappeared, is it possible that this is also true now?

This question has become more relevant than when I first wrote the above due to the  increasing uncertainty about the state of Sultan Qaboos’s health, about who will succeed him (no heir has been named and the process he set up for choosing his successor is untested), and about whether there will be a smooth transition or a power struggle.

I recently attended another conference in the Gulf:  the inaugural Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, which took place October 19-20, 2014 in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  The Debate was sponsored by the Emirates Policy Council with the support of the UAE Foreign Ministry.  I do not intend to give a detailed summary of what occurred (especially since this information can be found at http://www.epc.ae/?q=epcevents/22/eventdetails ), but to discuss how the organization of the Debate reveals what is especially important at present to the UAE—a small, but enormously wealthy oil exporting nation located in a highly turbulent neighborhood.

The Debate began the morning of October 19 with a speech by Dr. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Dr. Gargash set the tone for the conference, in my view, when he stated, “Over the past few years, the UAE has repeatedly warned about the growing threat that extremist actors and ideologies pose to our region.  While some of our allies thought that we were being too alarmist, the rise of Daesh [ISIS] confirms the magnitude of the threat.  Instead of becoming moderated through engagement, so-called ‘moderate Islamists’ are increasingly being drafted into the ranks of radical groups.  This demonstrates the fallacy of trying to distinguish between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ forms of ideological extremism.  Make no mistake:  many of these movements that are described as ‘moderate’ in some lexicons, provide the environment for greater radicalization and the emergence of groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh.  Therefore, countering the threat posed by these groups requires a clear-sighted and comprehensive strategy.”

The bulk of the conference consisted of nine debate panels in which different themes were discussed.  In the conference program, the “Premises of the Debate” stated that the UAE and other GCC states “are not recipients of regional and international powers’ impact only, but are regional and international actors as well.”  Despite this, the first three debate panels were devoted to a discussion of the policies toward the Gulf of the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia (the first session also included the Deputy Secretary General of NATO).  In much of the first session, though, the speakers from the West and from Russia argued about Ukraine—something that is of only secondary interest to the Gulf states.

Panel 4 focused on Iran (which most Gulf Arab states view quite negatively), Panel 5 on Turkey (whose “Islamist” foreign policy is viewed uneasily), Panel 6 on Egypt (where the UAE and Saudi Arabia welcomed the ouster of the elected president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military), Panel 7 on Iraq (where the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad is seen as being heavily influenced, if not completely controlled by, Iran), Panel 8 on Syria (where the need to oust the Alawite minority Assad regime as well as combat ISIS was emphasized), and Panel 9 on both Yemen and Libya (where America and the West are not seen as being sufficiently concerned about restoring order in these increasingly chaotic countries).

While the choice of subjects to discuss in the nine debate panels was a good indicator of what is currently of concern to the UAE, the choice of subjects not to discuss was also revealing.  Most noteworthy, there was no panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Indeed, this was barely mentioned by any of the speakers except by one each from Russia and China in Panel 2.  These two went on at length about the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.  Indeed, the Chinese speaker became quite emotional.  The Arab participants I spoke to during and after the panel, though, were not impressed.  They know full well that Russia and China both have strong ties to Israel, and that neither will do anything in support of the Palestinians that would risk their relations with the Jewish state.  What not having a panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at this conference suggested to me was that the rise of ISIS, the threat from Iran, the situation in Egypt, and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are all far more important to the UAE.

Other subjects that were not discussed include unrest in Bahrain (where relations are tense between the Shi’a majority and the Sunni monarchy which is backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE), uncertainty in Oman (where the long-reigning monarch, Sultan Qaboos, is rumored to be seriously ill and where his successor has not been named), the situation in Saudi Arabia (regarding both succession to the throne and Shi’a restiveness in the Eastern Province—where much of Saudi oil is), and the foreign policy of Qatar (which, as a result of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and efforts to engage moderate—and even not so moderate—Islamists, is very much out of step with Saudi and UAE foreign policies in particular).

I surmise that there were no debate panels on these topics not because the UAE isn’t interested in them, but because they were deemed as being too sensitive to discuss openly.  I have no doubt, though, that they are all being discussed privately throughout the Gulf.  Hopefully, though, the realm of what can be discussed openly will increase in future Abu Dhabi Strategic Debates.  Indeed, if some of the problems that were not discussed this time get bad enough, they will need to be.

I attended the “Arabian Gulf and Regional Challenges” conference that took place September 16-17, 2014, in Riyadh.  The conference was sponsored by the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s Institute of Diplomatic Studies, and co-organized by the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.  I am not going to summarize all the presentations that were made (many are already available on the web), but highlight what I saw as the principal points being conveyed by the Saudi and other Gulf speakers.  These were:

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is not the only threat that the region faces.  There are several others, including the threat from Iran, the actions of the Assad regime in Syria, Shi’a extremism in Iraq and elsewhere, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the deteriorating situation in Yemen.  The importance of these last two was underlined in presentations by Dr. Saeb Erekat (Palestinian Chief Negotiator), and Jamal Al Salal (Yemeni Foreign Minister).

While the West focuses on Sunni extremists (such as ISIS), Shi’a extremism is also a major threat.  Shi’a extremists whom Saudi and Gulf speakers regard as especially threatening include the Shi’a militias in Iraq, elements within Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated government, the Assad regime in Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen.  Standing behind them all, Saudi and other Gulf speakers emphasized, is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Effectively battling ISIS requires an understanding of the root causes of its current strength.  This, in the view of the Saudi and other Gulf speakers, resulted from 1) the American-led invasion of Iraq; 2) the American withdrawal from Iraq; and 3) the failure of the Obama Administration to follow through on its declared intention of launching an attack on the Assad regime in Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons against its own people.  Since this last development in particular, Damascus has focused on targeting the more moderate Syrian opposition and not ISIS.  As American actions (or non-actions) are primarily responsible for allowing ISIS to grow strong, it is America that is primarily responsible for combating it.

Military means alone will not defeat ISIS and other jihadist movements.  Too many Sunnis have become convinced that ISIS is either their champion or is less worse than its Shi’a opponents.  They need to be persuaded that jihadism is not the right way to solve their problems.  America and the West cannot do this effectively.  This battle for Sunni hearts and minds must be undertaken by Sunnis themselves, including Muslim authorities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Iran cannot be considered a true partner in the battle against ISIS.  This is because although Tehran genuinely fears ISIS, it wants to combat it through strengthening the Assad regime in Syria and Shi’a forces in Iraq—whose aim is to suppress the Sunnis in general in these two countries.  Fear was expressed that the Obama Administration, through prioritizing negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue, is overlooking the ongoing Iranian and Shi’a threat to Sunnis, and Sunni governments, in the region.  On the sidelines of the conference, there were Saudis and others from the Gulf who even expressed fear of the rise of an Iranian lobby in Washington.

The rise of ISIS and other regional challenges underlines the importance of pressing ahead with the “Gulf Union” project.  At this conference, the proposal was supported not just by Saudi speakers, but also by the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and Kuwait’s former Minister of Information Saad bin Tefla Al Ajmi.  It was emphasized that the Gulf Union would not involve the loss of sovereignty of the six projected members (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman), but would have a federal structure instead.  The Gulf Union, though, would establish common foreign and defense policies for the six members.

In addition to the above points which were made by Saudi and other Gulf speakers, there were several specific statements made during the conference that were noteworthy:

In the second session (on Gulf Security and the Impact of Regional Political Transformations), Prof. Mostafa Elwi of Egypt indicated that he saw Syria’s Assad regime as a partner in the coalition fighting ISIS.  This seems to be the position of the Egyptian government also, but is not that of the Saudi, UAE, or Kuwaiti governments.

In the sixth session (on Gulf Security and the Role of Rising Powers), Ambassador Rajiv Sikri made what I thought was an especially interesting proposal.  ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) sponsors a regional forum that includes ASEAN members, neighboring states, and external actors with an interest in the region.  Indeed, the ASEAN Regional Forum includes governments that are hostile to one another:  North Korea on the one hand and the U.S. and South Korea on the other.  Just as the ASEAN Regional Forum gives these governments an opportunity to talk to each other, a Gulf regional forum that included all states in the region as well as external actors active in it would provide an opportunity for discussions among Arab governments, Iran, and Israel.

Also in the sixth session, the Chinese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Li Chengwen, gave a speech—in Arabic—on Chinese policy toward the region.  In the Q&A session afterward, a Saudi female journalist was highly critical of China.  While China claims to be a rising power, she noted, it does not play much of a role in the region.  While China is also threatened by the rise of ISIS, China has just been a “free rider” while others act to combat it.  She also raised the question of the status of Muslims in China—an obvious reference to Beijing’s policy of suppressing Muslims in Xinjiang.

In the seventh session (on Future Perspectives), Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz of the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources gave a highly detailed speech challenging the increasingly popular view that the “shale revolution” in North America will reduce the economic and security importance of the Gulf to the West.  He questioned whether the shale revolution will really allow the U.S. to satisfy its own energy needs.  Even if it does, he argued, many other countries (including those allied to the U.S.) will remain dependent on Gulf oil, and that the ability of the Gulf to continue supplying oil to the world market will have a major impact on petroleum prices everywhere.  Gulf security, then, should remain a priority for American foreign policy even if the U.S. imports no oil itself from the region.

This conference was especially interesting due both to the high quality of the presentations and to the spirited Q&A sessions afterwards.  Especially noteworthy was the vigorous participation of women from the Gulf region in these Q&A sessions.  This, in my view, was a highly positive development in a region where there are all too many negative ones.

Gorby and Me

I often tell my students and other audiences the story about how I wrote my dissertation on Soviet policy toward the Third World and how my career benefited from this being a hot topic throughout the 1980s, but then how the Soviet retreat from the Third World and elsewhere under Gorbachev resulted in this topic becoming increasingly unimportant by the early 1990s. I then relate how I lamented this development in a Washington Post op-ed piece published in January 1991 entitled, “Gorbachev Ruined My Career.”

“My only consolation,” I then observe, “is that he ruined his own career too.”

But things changed, I go on to say, after Putin came to power. His assertive foreign policy led to so much renewed interest in my expertise that in February 2008 I was able to publish another op-ed piece, this time in the Moscow Times, entitled, “Putin Saved My Career.” I conclude by saying that Putin’s policies have not only kept me in business ever since then, but they appear likely to do so for many years to come.

Yet although I have told this story to many people in many places, I never expected that it would come to the attention of Mikhail Gorbachev himself. Yet it did. Here’s how:

A few years ago, Gorbachev accepted an invitation to speak at George Mason University.   One day shortly before he arrived, I was informed that Jack Censer (who was then the Dean of our College of Humanities and Social Sciences) wanted to include a book of mine as one of four that would be presented to Gorbachev. The book Jack chose was one I had published in 1989 entitled, Gorbachev’s Military Policy in the Third World. This was not my most recent book, but it had the advantage (I was told) of being the only book by a GMU faculty member with Gorbachev’s name in the title.

On the evening of March 24, 2009, I was one of the estimated 1,575 people who came to the GMU Center for the Arts in order to hear Gorbachev speak. C-SPAN, it turned out, also sent a crew to record the event.

Gorbachev gave his speech through his interpreter, who had accompanied him from Russia. When the speech was finished, Jack Censer came up on stage to make the book presentation while microphones were being set up for the question and answer session. “I want to offer to President Gorbachev a gift from the University,” Jack said.

After a little back and forth with his good buddy Mikhail over whether being given this gift meant that the lecture had been good, Jack went on to say, “Let me explain the gift. The gift is something [of] a tribute to you. There are four books. One book is by a political scientist and [he] is at George Mason, and it is basically about you.” After this was translated for him, Gorbachev nodded.

“And, I give you a little story about that,” Jack continued. Much to my surprise and amazement, he then proceeded to tell Gorbachev, the 1,575-strong audience, and everyone watching C-SPAN 2 the whole story of my two op-ed pieces describing how Gorbachev, by his liberal reforms, had put me out of business, but how Putin had put me back in business.

When all this was translated for him, Gorbachev smiled. Through his interpreter, he observed, “That is interesting.”

A moment later, he added, “It means that he is doing a better job.”

Putin, I have no doubt, would agree wholeheartedly.


The conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Jack Censer can be seen beginning just after 29 minutes into the C-SPAN 2 broadcast of “Mikhail Gorbachev on the Cold War” at http://www.c-span.org/video/?284802-1/mikhail-gorbachev-cold-war




Iran’s Tasnim News Agency published an interview with me today. The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article appeared in Farsi. I am posting here the English-language e-mail interview:

Tasnim: On ISIS/IS, how do you assess their recent ups and downs in the battlefields on Syrian and Iraqi soil?

Katz: The ability of ISIS to gain a footing in Syria allowed it to gain a footing in Iraq. ISIS was helped in Iraq by the fact that Sunni Arab communities view the Shi’a-led government in Baghdad as more of a threat to them than ISIS. What is especially remarkable about the spread of ISIS in Iraq is not so much that ISIS is strong but that Iraqi government forces initially proved so weak.

Tasnim: How successful are the Syrian and Iraqi government in defeating or countering ISIS/IS fighters?

Katz: Clearly, neither government has defeated ISIS, but they appear now to at least be more successful in preventing its further spread and even rolling back some of its gains.

Tasnim: As we know, ISIS/IS simultaneously has severe confrontations with two national armies, some governmental affiliated militia and almost all of other rebellious groups in Syria. How could ISIS/IS handle this situation?

Katz: ISIS doesn’t seem to care how many enemies that it has, and seems ready to fight against everyone. While it hasn’t so far, this will eventually prove to be a problem for it.

Tasnim: What set of goals are followed by ISIS/IS? Do they have any practical roadmap to gain their goals?

Katz: ISIS seems to want to take over as much territory it can to establish its “caliphate” in Syria, Iraq, and beyond.

Tasnim: The US State Department Spokesperson has said that the US continues its support to the “moderate opposition” of the Syrian government, while recently it speaks about countering ISIS/IS. In this situation the former leads to weakening of Assad’s government while the latter one results in Assad’s strength. How can this contradiction can be figured out, especially when it seems that ISIS has the upper hand and defeated the “moderate opposition,” in this regard this stance can benefit Assad more.

Katz: American policy is indeed highly confused. It is debatable whether a “moderate opposition” could have been supported successfully in 2011-12, but actions on the part of Assad and ISIS appear to have eliminated this possibility at present.

Tasnim: Might the US, for balancing of power, attack some Syrian government targets?

Katz: I don’t think that this is likely. Although Washington has announced that it will not coordinate with Damascus any attacks America might launch against ISIS on Syrian soil, Washington will not want to push Damascus into undertaking actions that limit America’s freedom of action.

Tasnim: In western countries, what’s their policy to counter these extremist groups? Have they really determined to eliminate these groups? How?

Katz: As previous experience with Marxists, extreme nationalists (such as the IRA and ETA), as well as jihadists has shown, it is very difficult to eliminate these groups, especially in the short-term. In the long-term, however, these groups’ bad behavior serves to undermine their appeal.

Tasnim: Obviously, ISIS/IS poses a huge threat against Iran and the US. What hinders these two old rivals to coordinate and cooperate with each other to cope with this group? At least in the case of Iraq?

Katz: It has long been my view that Iranian-American relations will improve when a common threat to both emerges. ISIS is that common threat. As long as it remains so–and especially if that threat grows worse–then Tehran and Washington will have to cooperate in order to combat it. Both, however, have to recognize this. When they will both do so is unclear.

Tasnim: In the case of Syria and Iraq (and even though Ukraine), it seems that Russia takes a more active position and gets involved in the crisis to defend its interests and allies, but in all of them there is not any major/determinant activity from American side. How do you analyze this situation? Is this a sign of a New world Order which the US no longer has global hegemony in?

Katz: There is a line of reasoning that has emerged in Washington that believes that because of the “shale revolution” in North America, the US no longer needs petroleum from the Middle East, and that America may be able to supply some of its Western allies with petroleum. This being the case, then what happens in the Middle East simply is no longer as important as it used to be. America, then, can simply let those for whom events in the Middle East are important deal with problems there.

Tasnim: As mentioned earlier, for how many and which countries (like Russia), is it feasible to take a decisive stance and enforce their desired policy to fulfill their interests?

Katz: If America cannot enforce its will in the Middle East, then it is unlikely that less powerful nations will be able to do so. The more that Russia gets bogged down in Ukraine, the less able will it in particular be to influence events in the Middle East.

Tasnim: How do you estimate/predict Iran and 5+1 talks’ results? What sort of compromise is possible?

Katz: It seems to me that the more of a threat that ISIS is seen to be to everyone, then the more willing everyone should be to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

Tasnim: Is it possible any deal will be achieved by current deadline or is more time needed?

Katz: More time will probably be needed.

Tasnim: Might the recent updates of US sanctions against Iran harm nuclear negotiations?

Katz: The recent tightening of US sanctions on Iran certainly does not help achieve an agreement.

Tasnim: If the final comprehensive deal get signed, does the US keep its other sanctions against Iran or impose new ones based on other issues?

Katz: If a final comprehensive deal does get signed, I do not believe that the US will impose any new sanctions. Congress, though, may not let the Obama Administration reduce the existing US sanctions quickly. This is not so much because Congress distrusts Iran (though it does), as because Republicans in Congress distrust Obama.

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.


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