Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Russia, Ukraine, and NATO

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.

Read Full Post »

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




Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Many believe that Putin intends to do with eastern Ukraine what he did with Crimea:  annex it to Russia.  Putin, though, may well prefer the “federal solution” that he has proposed that would leave Ukraine (shorn of Crimea) intact, but devolve power from the central government to its regions.  Here’s why:

If Russia annexes eastern Ukraine, what remains of Ukraine is likely to be even more anti-Russian than it is now and seek to join NATO—something Putin does not want.  Putin, though, does not want to have to annex all Ukraine in order to prevent any of it from joining NATO.  Attempting to occupy such a huge country where much of the population is hostile to Russia would undoubtedly prove difficult and costly for Russia.  Indeed, even annexing eastern Ukraine could prove to be so.

A “federal solution” similar to the one prevailing in Bosnia, however, could alleviate these difficulties.  While Ukraine, like Bosnia, would be an independent country with a pro-Western government, the more Russified eastern Ukraine would play a similar role to that now being played by the predominantly Serbian “Republika Srpska” region within Bosnia.  Just as Republika Srpska is largely autonomous from the central Bosnian government in Sarajevo and coordinates closely with its eastern neighbor Serbia, eastern Ukraine would be largely autonomous from the central Ukrainian government in Kiev and coordinate closely with its eastern neighbor Russia.

Further, just as Republika Srpska has been able to veto Sarajevo’s ambition to join NATO, Putin may well anticipate that eastern Ukraine would veto Kiev’s ambition to do so.  Putin, then, could prevent that part of Ukraine controlled by Kiev from joining NATO without actually having to occupy it.  And if NATO can accept such a situation in Bosnia which is so close to the center of Europe, Putin may reason that NATO will do likewise in Ukraine on its eastern edge.

NATO, of course, will not want to do this.  Putin, though, may calculate that it will have no other realistic choice.

Read Full Post »

Quick Comment on Crimea

The disposition of Crimea has an odd history.  At some point after the Bolshevik Revolution, it was assigned to the Russian Federation, but in 1954 Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine.  The majority of Crimea’s population, though, is Russian.  And ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russians there and in Russia itself have called for its return to Russia.  Ideally, the question of whether Crimea should belong to Ukraine or Russia, or be independent, should be decided by an internationally-monitored referendum.  What Putin has done is highly provocative, but it also has support on the ground.  The question now is whether he’ll go after other parts of eastern Ukraine where there are large Russian populations but where they are not a majority (Crimea is the only place in Ukraine where they are).  Obama’s reaction so far has been underwhelming.  On the other hand, I’m not sure what he can do.  

Read Full Post »

How Powerful Is Putin’s Russia?

I recently received a query from Greek journalist Ειρήνη Μητροπούλου (Irini Mitropoulou) of Το Βήμα (To Vima) asking me to comment on whether I think that Russia is back as a major or even a super power in the global economy and the international arena.  In an article published in her newspaper on December 8, she was kind enough to include a quote from the much-longer-than-asked for response that  I sent back to her.  I am not sure, though, what part of my response she quoted from since it’s all Greek to me.  So here is my entire commentary in English:

Many see Russian President Vladimir Putin as having successfully built Russia into a major power both politically and economically.  The influential American business magazine, Forbes, even listed him as number one in its 2013 list of the world’s most powerful people.  But while Putin has succeeded in restoring the image of Russia as a great power that was shattered by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, that image is largely illusory.  Indeed, it is not clear that Putin will even be able to succeed in maintaining the illusion of Russia as a great power for much longer.

In the economic realm, Putin benefited from the steady rise in oil prices that occurred during his first stint as president (1999-2008).  While still high, oil prices have come down considerably since then.  More importantly, the leverage many believed Russia would gain over Europe through being its major gas supplier has eroded as a result of Europe’s ability to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, Algeria, and other sources.  Further, the increased possibility of improved ties between Iran and the West raises the prospect that Iranian gas will soon become available on the European market.  In addition, the increase in American petroleum production combined with Russia’s problems with maintain its current production levels are further eroding Moscow’s ability to leverage petroleum exports into political influence.

In the political realm, Russia’s weakness has been starkly revealed by the popular protest in Ukraine when pressure from Putin influenced that country’s president not to sign an association agreement with the EU.  The mark of a true great power is that other countries ally with it voluntarily.  Putin’s Russia has precious few such allies.  And Putin’s efforts to gain allies through intimidation either push countries toward the West or result in alliances that only last as long as unpopular leaders remain in power.

A prosperous, democratic Russia might be more successful in attracting allies—as well as customers and investors.  But so long as Putin’s stagnant authoritarian rule continues, Russia’s economic and political influence in the world appears destined to decline.

Read Full Post »


The latest issue of the German journal OSTEUROPA contains a virtual roundtable on Russia and Syria.  The editors sent a set of questions to six different scholars (including myself) and invited us each to pick from among them several to address.  Their questions and our responses were published by the journal in German. Here in English are my responses to the questions I chose to address:

OSTEUROPA:  The Syrian civil war has sectarian, ethnical, social, and geopolitical dimensions. It is an internal conflict, but regional and even global actors also play an important role. Moreover, in most of the states involved, Syria policy has a domestic function. Which of the conflict’s dimensions does Russian diplomacy emphasize? On which level (local, regional, global) is Moscow most engaged? Why?

Katz:  The Syrian conflict has been especially important for Moscow on the global and regional level as well as on the domestic Russian political level.  Moscow has identified Syria as the place where it seeks to halt American “unipolarism” if it can.  In addition, Moscow believes that however bad the Assad regime is, it is better than what Moscow sees as most likely to arise after its downfall:  a Sunni radical regime.  Finally, after so publicly backing Assad for so long, Putin does not want to be seen as giving in to U.S. demands that Moscow cooperate in bringing about his downfall.

OSTEUROPA:  Moscow argues that an international jihadist movement threatens order throughout the region, from the Caucasus via Syria to North Africa. Is this an actual danger? Does Moscow really fear such a jihadist movement or is it wilfully exaggerating the risk?

Katz:  It is not clear that this is an actual danger, but it does appear that Moscow really believes that it is one.

OSTEUROPA:  When Russia launched airstrikes against Georgia in 2008, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invoked not only the Russian Constitution, which calls for the protection of Russian citizens abroad, but also the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), a norm that is grounded in international law since 2005 and binds the international community to prevent or halt mass atrocity crimes. Is there any debate on R2P in Russia today (at least in the sense that, in Syria, the requirements for international measures of enforcement according to principle of R2P have not yet been met)?

Katz:  Russia has adopted a double-standard with regard to R2P.  While opposing Western intervention on the basis of R2P (as well as expressing deep scepticism about whether concern for R2P underlies it), Moscow reserves for itself the right to intervene in former Soviet republics on the basis of its unilateral assertion of an R2P justification without consulting the UN Security Council.

OSTEUROPA:  Russia has an interest in enforcing compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Why does Moscow refuse even limited air strikes aimed at punishing the use of chemical weapons?

Katz:  The Kremlin fears that if it agrees to this, the West will not limit itself to limited air strikes, but will give large-scale aid to the Syrian opposition to topple Assad.

OSTEUROPA:  Is Russia seriously interested in resolving the Syrian conflict? Does Moscow have concrete proposals for settling the conflict? Or is Moscow content with simply countervailing the United States?

Katz:  Moscow would like to see the Syrian conflict end through the Assad regime totally crushing its opponents, and thereby restoring “order.”  Until that occurs, Moscow seeks to block the U.S. and its allies from helping the Syrian opposition stop Assad from doing this.

OSTEUROPA:  What would a joint U.S.-Russian position on Syria look like? What would Washington have to do to convince Moscow to accept such a compromise?

Katz: Despite their agreement about placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control, Moscow and Washington agree on little else regarding Syria.  Their most crucial disagreement is about whether the Assad regime should remain in power or not.  It is doubtful that either will convince the other to adopt its view.

OSTEUROPA:  What role does Iran play in the conflict? Could Moscow help to resolve the conflict by using its connections in Tehran?

Katz:  Like Russia, Iran provides important support to the Assad regime.  If anything, Tehran is more committed to the Assad regime remaining in power than Moscow is.  This being the case, it is highly unlikely that Moscow could make use of its Iranian connections to resolve this conflict.  If, however, an Iranian-American rapprochement takes place, then Washington and Tehran may be able to work together to do so—and thereby force Moscow to go along with them or be completely isolated over Syria otherwise.

OSTEUROPA:  Could the involvement of the International Criminal Court serve to de-escalate the conflict?

Katz:  No.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »