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The extraordinary Russian scholar, Georgy Mirsky, passed away on January 26, 2016. He was an exceptionally warm human being, and also a relentlessly honest observer of Moscow’s foreign policy and international affairs broadly.  I first became acquainted with his work while working on my dissertation at the beginning of the 1980’s.  I remember thinking then that unlike so much Soviet writing that portrayed the world in very simple, ideological terms, Mirsky understood and sought to explain the world in all its complexity. 

I first met him, thanks to my colleague Karen Dawisha, in Moscow in 1986. I met with him on numerous occasions afterward, including in Washington, Moscow, Tehran, and elsewhere.  He once came to George Mason University to speak to one of my classes. 

I last met him at his apartment in Moscow on May 28, 2014. He was not well, but he had several things about the “present situation” that he wanted to convey, and he insisted that I take notes.  I am posting these notes here as a remembrance to him and the way in which he thought.

There are four reasons why Putin is acting as he has done in Ukraine: 1) age-old Russian complexes; 2) Soviet mentality; 3) KGB conspiracy; and 4) Putin’s fear of being humiliated.

Russian complexes regarding the West consist of: 1) the view that life is better in the West than in Russia; and 2) the belief that despite this, Russians are more warm-hearted, open, hospitable, and spiritual than Westerners.  Thus, while Russians have an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West, they console themselves with the idea that Russian people are better than Western people.  Russians want to visit the West, but Russians have long believed that the West is hostile to Russia.

In the 19th century, there was in Russia wide distrust of Queen Victoria.  In Soviet times, the West was seen as besieging Russia.  There is, then, an age-old distrust of the West in Russia.  Russians believe that the West will harm Russia if it can.

The USSR collapsed, but Soviet mentality has remained. Inside the Soviet mentality is an inbuilt mechanism for anti-Western, anti-American feelings.  This only disappeared for four years during World War II.  On Victory Day in May 1945 (which Mirsky described from personal experience), American were genuinely popular in Red Square.

Putin does not see the possibility of war with the West. He is not afraid of war occurring.  But Putin and his supporters believe that America and the West want to hurt Russian interests wherever they can.  They feel strangled by NATO expansion.  Russians see NATO expansion as NATO coming closer to Russia, making the situation for Russia more dangerous.

But what, Mirsky asked, is the actual danger to Russia? Who cares if Poland and the Baltic states belong to NATO?  The answer is not clear, but Putin sees their belonging to NATO as bad.

The NATO bombing of Serbia in the 1990’s negatively affected Putin’s and Russian attitudes toward America. Mirsky was in Princeton when this occurred.  When he returned to Moscow, he saw what damage this war had done.  Serbs were seen as fellow Slavs.  Bombing them was seen as part of a plan for aggression against Russia.  “Yesterday Belgrade, today Baghdad, tomorrow Moscow,” was a common view after the U.S. intervened in Iraq.

Many saw the heat wave that occurred in Russia in 2010 as being due to deliberate American efforts at climate change (America had been blamed in the past as being somehow responsible for Soviet agricultural shortfalls). One third of Russian people that that it was possible that the U.S. introduced AIDS into Russia in order to harm it.  This was the sort of thinking that the KGB fostered among Russians, and succeeded in getting them used to.

Anti-Americanism in Russia is a popular, spontaneous sentiment resulting from the loss of superpower status and feeling of humiliation that Russia had been pushed out of world situations everywhere. Russia was feared in the past, but disrespected now.  This view is similar to anti-Americanism in Europe and Asia.  In fact, this form of anti-Americanism is universal, like anti-Semitism.  Even Israelis have this sort of anti-Americanism.   The only people who do not are Poles and Iraqi Kurds.

Putin exploits these feelings. After the Beslan attacks in 2004, Putin said that “certain forces” who were unhappy that Russia was still a nuclear power were responsible.  He also said that “some forces” want a part of Russian territory.  This, of course, must be the Americans.

Putin’s fear of being humiliated is based on his belief that American leaders have betrayed him. Putin supported Bush after 9/11, but Putin expected reciprocity from the U.S.  Putin thought Bush had double-crossed him when he strengthened U.S. forces in Europe and pulled out of the ABM Treaty.

Putin took all this badly. He saw the U.S. as deceiving him and Russia.  Putin was further upset by the 2004 “color revolution” in Ukraine.  (Mirsky noted that this was not a real revolution in the Marxist sense.)

The Arab Spring was seen by Putin as a color revolution, as an American scheme to instigate color revolutions to weaken Russia. Especially after Bolotnaya (anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow in May 2012 at the time Putin resumed the presidency), Putin and his supporters were upset and apprehensive.  When Medvedev was president (2008-2012), Putin saw his popularity decline.  He saw this as part of an American plot to bring color revolution to Russia.  This contributed to his bad feelings toward the West.

The capture of Crimea in early 2014 was not planned in advance. The pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Yanukovich, had disappointed Putin.  But Putin feared what would happen after he fled and a pro-Western government came to power in Kiev.  Even though it belonged to Ukraine, Crimea was the home of the Russian Navy.  Putin wanted to eliminate the possibility that the Russian Navy based in Crimea would be taken over.

Putin is a Russian nationalist. He described the breakup of the USSR in 1991 as a geopolitical disaster, but he also regarded the 1917 revolution and the subsequent federalization of the Russian Empire into separate union republics as a disaster too.  Putin saw turmoil in Kiev as giving Russia the chance to recapture Crimea for Russia.

After Ukrainians voted for independence in December 1991, Ukrainians were seen as untrustworthy. The recapture of Crimea, then, was seen as justified.  Putin denied that Russian troops were involved in this, but of course they were.

On February 21, 2014, an agreement had been signed between Yanukovich and the Ukrainian opposition on elections to be held in Ukraine. But the next day, the agreement collapsed and Yanukovich fled.  At this point, Putin saw acquiescing to the rise of a pro-Western government in Kiev as being a sign of weakness.  In his view, Yanukovich’s oppnents saw him as weak for signing the agreement, and so they pressed further.

Putin saw Russia as about to lose Ukraine, and believed that the West had double-crossed him yet again. The agreement had simply been a Western ruse.  He thought that after Crimea, the West would try to take the rest of Ukraine.  Putin hadn’t yet decided on annexation; Crimea could have been made into an independent state.  But once Yanukovich fled, Putin decided on annexation.

Eastern Ukraine: Putin was unhappy that the pro-Western Poroshenko won the Ukrainian presidency.  Putin then hoped Poroshenko would compromise regarding secessionist eastern Ukraine, with its large Russian population.  But Poroshenko decided to crush the pro-Russian rebels there instead.  Putin felt compelled to help “the people” in eastern Ukraine resist this.

But according to Mirsky, the Russian public isn’t really as concerned about eastern Ukraine as it is about Crimea. Crimea and eastern Ukraine were not regarded as the same by them.  But if Poroshenko succeeded in retaking eastern Ukraine, this would make Putin look bad.  And Putin did not want to look weak.

By this time, Russian relations with the West had deteriorated badly. The West was surprised and disappointed by Putin’s actions in Ukraine.  The West had expectations that Putin would play by Western rules, but these proved false.

In the short term, Putin has won. His ratings are high, and he hopes to be president for life.

Syria: Putin can’t be seen as backing down under Western pressure.  Thus, Putin is stuck with Assad.  If Putin stopped supporting Assad, he fears that he would be seen as a loser.

Putin is popular in Russia, but he has lost most of Ukraine for Russia. Putin is not afraid in the short-term, but what he has done will result in a long-term loss for Russia.

RIP, Georgy Mirsky.

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I visited Berlin March 10-14, 2015 to talk with people there about Russian policy toward Ukraine and related issues. I was able to speak with several highly knowledgeable German government officials and scholars about this subject. I will not cite the views of specific individuals here, but will give a general sense of the views I heard in Berlin.

Nobody I spoke with was happy about Russian foreign policy toward Ukraine or optimistic that the situation there would be resolved satisfactorily any time soon. Nor is anybody certain what Putin’s goals are or how far he will go. There is hope that the augmented version of the Minsk Accords that have led to a tentative ceasefire will hold, but there are widespread doubts about whether they will.

If not, the West may have to do something more than it is now doing. But none of my German interlocutors saw the proposals by some in Washington to send American arms to Ukraine as being a good idea. Indeed, there is fear that this is not something that just some Republicans in Congress want, but that influential figures in the Obama Administration are also enthusiasts for this approach. My German interlocutors are hopeful, though, that President Obama will not allow U.S. arms to go to Ukraine and so risk a bigger conflict which could have serious consequences for all of Europe.

On the whole, however, the people I spoke to in Berlin regard German-American cooperation as strong. The German government, though, is limited by two important factors. One is German public opinion, which has a large anti-American element. The U.S. is widely seen here as being too willing to use force without thinking about the long-term consequences of doing so. The German public, some noted, is not actually pro-Putin, but is desirous of understanding Russian concerns and accommodating them in order to resolve the crisis.

And this desire stems from the second factor limiting the German response to Russian policy in Ukraine: the legacy of the Nazi past. People I spoke with emphasized that this factor, and German angst over it, plays a huge role in determining—and limiting—Berlin’s response to what Russia is doing in Ukraine now. As is well known, Germans have gone to great lengths to acknowledge and atone for Nazi treatment of the Jews. One senior scholar told me that Germans have similar feelings about Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. (The German-Soviet war in the East, several emphasized, was far more vicious than the war in the West.)

But while this factor contributes to a greater German willingness to accommodate Russian concerns, it does not mean that Germans approve of what Russia is doing. Indeed, there is great disappointment that Putin has not respected the friendship and cooperation with Moscow that Germany has taken pains to build up over the course of several decades now. Putin’s sending Russian military aircraft to violate the airspace of several European countries—especially that of Sweden and Ireland, which are not NATO members—is seen in Berlin as inexcusable.

There is hope that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach of continuing to talk with Putin as well as continuing negotiations through the “Normandy Format” (Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine) will succeed in calming the situation and preventing further Russian incursions. People I spoke with, though, recognize that there is a possibility that this will not succeed (Russian action against the Baltic states is seen as possible, but less likely than further incursions into Ukraine as well as efforts to prevent Kiev from cooperating with the West). If so, then Chancellor Merkel can at least show the German public that Berlin tried hard to accommodate Moscow, but that Putin refused to cooperate. And this will justify Germany working more closely with America (as well as, of course, with NATO and the EU) on a tougher approach toward Russia. Nobody I met would specify, though, what a tougher approach would entail.

Germans I spoke with did not seem to be at all in awe of Putin. Having experienced a demagogic leader of their own, they have little doubt that the current one in Moscow will not serve to benefit Russia. While Putin is seen as having many advantages in the short-run regarding the crisis in Ukraine, Russia suffers from many structural disadvantages (population decline, economic stagnation, ethnic unrest, and suboptimal leadership, among others) that will weaken it in the long-run. Further, Putin’s policy toward Ukraine does nothing to ameliorate any of these problems.  Eventually, then, Russia’s long-term disadvantages will ripen to the point that they undercut Putin’s current short-term advantages in Ukraine.

How long this process will take is unclear. But many whom I spoke to in Berlin see Putin’s continued efforts to strengthen Moscow through reckless means as only making Russia’s further decline as more likely instead.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.  

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