Hey, we've got enough worries right here in the Valley, the Garden of the Sun, the California Cornucopia, without looking outside for more trouble than the worst drought in 1,200 years, right? Our economy is about agriculture and our main interest in foreign policy is more trade and better terms. Right?
Yes, but. Sometimes, despite our discipline and our famous ability to speak with One Voice on whatever short-term interest we have in mind and our ability to elect politicians that toe that ol' agribusiness line, other issues that affect the country as a whole intervene.
This was one of those weeks what a lot of things started to earnestly intervene. The three articles below, two of them the first parts of larger pieces to be posted in due course, provide avenues for reflection and research. As we all know by know, our ability to use the Internet is only as good as the questions we bring to the machine.
We will be posting some research on the issue closer to us, international trade, in a day or two. -- blj
Russia, China, Iran: In sync- Pepe Escobar
by Pepe Escobar
Over past decades, the pre-fabricated myth of an elusive “Iranian bomb” was never the real issue between the US and Iran; the issue was how to subdue – or “isolate” – a powerful, independent nation that refused to toe the exceptionalist line.
Now that the “rehabilitation” of Iran – at least for some exceptionalists and their minions – may be imminent, pending a nuclear deal to be clinched in June, various Washington factions still can’t get their act together.
The Pentagon has all but admitted the perennial wet dream of neocons and corporate media remains on the table; the military option.
The US Congress will go no holds barred in trying to scotch the deal. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed a bill that would give Congress the right to interfere with anything related to the removal of sanctions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif faces an even more uphill battle as the “fact sheet” the Obama administration insisted it needed to release to make the case in Washington complicates how the nuclear deal may be received in Iran. To top it off, “fact sheet” or not, the case was not made in Washington after all.
And now the usual suspects – from the State Department to Congress and the Israel lobby – are predictably going bonkers on a demented “Putin selling missiles to the ayatollahs” narrative.
GOT “S”, WILL SELL
What Russian President Vladimir Putin has just done is to get back to business as usual; even before sanctions are lifted, he signed a decree lifting Moscow’s own ban on the delivery of the S-300 surface-to-air anti-missile system to Tehran, following an $800 million 2010 contract that was not fulfilled due to relentless US pressure. Tehran expects to receive the S-300 by the end of the year.
Moscow’s official line has always been that the arms embargo on Iran must be lifted as soon as a final nuclear deal is clinched. The Obama administration insists that sanctions must be removed gradually. Tehran, from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on down, is adamant that sanctions must be lifted“on the day of the deal”, in Khamenei’s words.
The Supreme Leader had added a conciliatory note though, remarking that, “if the other side avoids its ambiguity in the [nuclear] talks, it’ll be an experience showing it’s possible to negotiate with them on other issues.” That remains a galaxy-sized “if”.
Meanwhile, and in sync, the director-general of Russia’s top weapons exporting company Rosoborobexport, Anatoly Isaykin, confirmed China has just bought S-400 missile defense systems from Russia. Beijing is the first in a long list of foreign buyers – as the Russian defense industry is obliged to give priority on the S-400s to the Russian Defense Ministry
Each S-400 is capable of launching up to 72 missiles, engaging up to 36 targets simultaneously, and shield territory from air strikes, strategic, cruise, tactical and operating tactical ballistic missiles, and medium-range ballistic missiles. It’s been operational since 2007, replacing the S-300 systems now sold to Iran.
The crucial issue is that the S-300s will render Iran’s air defenses virtually secure against anything the Pentagon may throw at them, except fifth-generation stealth fighters. And these – the S-300 and S-400 – are not even Russian state-of-art; that would be the S-500 system, which I’ve referred to here, capable of definitely sealing Russian – and any other – territory from anything the Pentagon may come up with.
STRATEGICALLY IN SYNC
The simultaneous rolling out of the S-300s and S-400s to Iran and China are yet one more graphic example of the strategic partnership involving the three Eurasian nations that actively contest the hyperpower’s hegemony. They are certainly in sync.
In parallel, discreetly, Moscow has already started, in practice, a $20 billion oil-for-goods swap with Tehran – exchanging grain, equipment and construction materials for up to 500,000 barrels of Iranian crude a day. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, “this is not banned or limited under the current sanctions regime.”
Ryabkov only stated the obvious; “It takes two to tango. We are ready to provide our services and I am sure they will be pretty advantageous compared to other countries…We never gave up on Iran in a difficult situation…”
Tehran responded in sync, via the Chairman for the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran, Alaeddin Boroujerdi; Iran is ready to expand cooperation with Russia in all spheres at the highest level. Crucially, “this is also the opinion of our supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about development of relations with Russia.”
The usual suspects, as usual, are clinging to any argument that “proves” Russia-Iran cooperation is doomed. For instance, “rehabilitated” Iran will doom Russia’s energy industry because of the “serious impact” on the oil market from Iran’s increased supply and competition with gas exporter Gazprom.
Ryabkov dismissed it by going straight to the point; “I am not confident as yet that the Iranian side would be ready to carry out supplies of natural gas from its fields quickly and in large quantities to Europe. This requires infrastructure that is difficult to build.”
This infrastructure upgrade is costly and will take years; it may happen, but with help from – once again – the Russians and the Chinese. Russia will be back in play in full force in Iran’s energy sector, as Gazprom, its oil arm, Gazprom Neft, and Lukoil had to put on hold many projects because of sanctions. Rosatom, for its part, will be able to clinch further contracts at the Bushehr nuclear power plant.
The EU – and especially the US – are betting on Iran’s “rehabilitation” as an economic/political bonanza; the first real benefit would be Tehran becoming a supplier to yet another troublesome ‘Pipelineistan’ gambit, the Trans-Anatolian (TAP) gas pipeline, which may – or may not – be finished by 2018. TAP will supply gas to the EU via Turkey, but it’s still unclear how much gas potential suppliers – Azerbaijan or Iran – are able to commit.
TAP coming online does not mean Gazprom’s exports to the EU must be cut down. In fact, what Russian and Iranian officials have been discussing for a while now is how profitable exporting to the EU may be for both nations. Besides, Russia has still another key ‘Pipelineistan’ card to play – Turkish Stream, which will channel Russian gas to Turkey and Greece.
And yes, Gazprom is getting ready to be a key provider to two essential markets at the same time. Here’s what Gazprom’s CEO Alexei Miller told Rossiya-24: “The resource base of Western Siberia is a resource that is used for delivering gas for exports to Europe. In other words, at this point we are on the cutting edge when actual competitiveness will begin for our energy resources between two mega-markets: Asian and European.”
Beijing, meanwhile, has also been on the offensive. As a top energy supplier – of both oil and gas – Iran is a matter of Chinese national security. So even with sanctions after sanctions, the US government was always forced to renew waivers for China, as Beijing kept importing energy from Iran at will.
Iran is an absolutely key node of the Chinese-led New Silk Road(s) – be it as part of the land route or as part of the Maritime Silk Road, which will touch the port of Chabahar. And the China-Iran partnership does not span only close ties on energy and trade/commerce; it also includes advanced Chinese defense technology, and Chinese input in Iran’s ballistic missile program.
China created a parallel SWIFT system to pay Iran for energy; Tehran, after the nuclear deal, will be free to access these funds in yuan. Iranian energy executives have already been to Beijing to discuss Chinese investment in the Iranian energy industry. Sinopec and CNPC will be instrumental in developing projects in the South Pars gas fields – the largest in the world – and in the monster Yadavaran and North Azadegan oil fields.
For Iran, all this will happen in parallel with European energy giants investing in liquefied natural gas (LNG) development and technology.
Investing in multiple fronts, China will also be instrumental in its push to finally help complete themuch-troubled Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline, which in the future may even include an extension to Xinjiang.
XI DOES TEHRAN
The icing in this vast energy cake is how both Russia and China are deeply committed to integrating Iran into their Eurasian vision. Iran may finally be admitted as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at the upcoming summer summit in Russia. That implies a full-fledged security/commercial/political partnership involving Russia, China, Iran and most Central Asian ’stans’.
Iran is already a founding member of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB); that means financing for an array of New Silk Road-related projects bound to benefit the Iranian economy. AIIB funding will certainly merge with loans and other assistance for infrastructure development related to the Chinese-established Silk Road Fund.
And last but not least, the China-Iran strategic partnership will be discussed in detail as Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Tehran next month.
It’s easy to remember how Iran was relentlessly derided as “isolated” by the exceptionalist crowd only a few months ago. Yet the fact is it was never isolated – but painstakingly building blocks towards Eurasian integration.
European firms are of course itching to unleash an avalanche of investment in the Iranian market post-sanctions, and most of all the energy giants badly yearn to lessen EU’s dependency on Gazprom. But they’ll be facing formidable competition, as it was up to Moscow and Beijing to identify, a long time ago, which way the wind was blowing; the inevitable (re)emergence of Iran as a key Eurasian power.
The Saker interviews Paul Craig Roberts
"The Saker" is a pseudonym for a top level American military analyst who lives in Florida, the author of the leading blog covering the Ukraine crisis, The Vineyard of the Saker, which gets an astounding 50,000 page views per day. (August - September 2014). His articles are some of the most popular on Russia Insider.-- russia-insider.com
Of the many blogs covering the subject, his has shot far ahead of the others, due to his sharp analysis and insight. Readers thought it so important that volunteers have begun putting out French, German, Serbian, and Russian language versions. There is even a New Zealand edition. These editions add another 20,000 views per day to his global reach.
A Saker is a very large falcon, native to Europe and Asia.
I had been wanting to interview Paul Craig Roberts for a long time already. For many years I have been following his writings and interviews and every time I read what he had to say I was hoping that one day I would have the privilege do interview him about the nature of the US deep state and the Empire. Recently, I emailed him and asked for such an interview, and he very kindly agreed. I am very grateful to him for this opportunity.
The Saker: It has become rather obvious to many, if not most, people that the USA is not a democracy or a republic, but rather a plutocracy run by a small elite which some call “the 1%”. Others speak of the “deep state”. So my first question to you is the following. Could you please take the time to assess the influence and power of each of the following entities one by one. In particular, can you specify for each of the following whether it has a decision-making “top” position, or a decision-implementing “middle” position in the real structure of power (listed in no specific order)
· Federal Reserve
· Big Banking
· Council on Foreign Relations
· Skull & Bones
· Goldman Sachs and top banks
· “Top 100 families” (Rothschild, Rockefeller, Dutch Royal Family, British Royal Family, etc.)
· Israel Lobby
· Freemasons and their lodges
· Big Business: Big Oil, Military Industrial Complex, etc.
· Other people or organizations not listed above?
Who, which group, what entity would you consider is really at the apex of power in the current US polity?
Paul Craig Roberts: The US is ruled by private interest groups and by the neoconservative ideology that History has chosen the US as the “exceptional and indispensable” country with the right and responsibility to impose its will on the world.
In my opinion the most powerful of the private interest groups are:
The Military/security Complex
The 4 or 5 mega-sized “banks too big to fail” and Wall Street
The Israel Lobby
The Extractive industries (oil, mining, timber).
The interests of these interest groups coincide with those of the neoconservatives. The neoconservative ideology supports American financial and military-political imperialism or hegemony.
There is no independent American print or TV media. In the last years of the Clinton regime, 90% of the print and TV media was concentrated in 6 mega-companies. During the Bush regime, National Public Radio lost its independence. So the media functions as a Ministry of Propaganda.
Both political parties, Republicans and Democrats, are dependent on the same private interest groups for campaign funds, so both parties dance to the same masters. Jobs offshoring destroyed the manufacturing and industrial unions and deprived the Democrats of Labor Union political contributions. In those days, Democrats represented the working people and Republicans represented business.
The Federal Reserve is there for the banks, mainly the large ones.The Federal Reserve was created as lender of last resort to prevent banks from failing because of runs on the bank or withdrawal of deposits. The New York Fed, which conducts the financial interventions, has a board that consists of the executives of the big banks. The last three Federal Reserve chairmen have been Jews, and the current vice chairman is the former head of the Israeli central bank. Jews are prominent in the financial sector, for example, Goldman Sachs. In recent years, the US Treasury Secretaries and heads of the financial regulatory agencies have mainly been the bank executives responsible for the fraud and excessive debt leverage that set off the last financial crisis.
In the 21st century, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have served only the interests of the large banks. This has been at the expense of the economy and the population. For example, retired people have had no interest income for eight years in order that the financial institutions can borrow at zero costs and make money.
No matter how rich some families are, they cannot compete with powerful interest groups such as the military/security complex or Wall Street and the banks. Long established wealth can look after its interests, and some, such as the Rockefellers, have activist foundations that most likely work hand in hand with the National Endowment for Democracy to fund and encourage various pro-American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in countries that the US wants to influence or overthrow, such as occurred in Ukraine. The NGOs are essentially US Fifth Columns and operate under such names as “human rights,” “democracy,” etc. A Chinese professor told me that the Rockefeller Foundation had created an American University in China and is used to organize various anti-regime Chinese. At one time, and perhaps still, there were hundreds of US and German financed NGOs in Russia, possibly as many as 1,000.
I don’t know if the Bilderbergs do the same. Possibly they are just very rich people and have their proteges in governments who try to protect their interests. I have never seen any signs of Bilderbergs or Masons or Rothchilds affecting congressional or executive branch decisions.
On the other hand, the Council for Foreign Relations is influential. The council consists of former government policy officials and academics involved in foreign policy and international relations. The council’s publication, Foreign Affairs, is the premier foreign policy forum. Some journalists are also members. When I was proposed for membership in the 1980s, I was blackballed.
Skull & Bones is a Yale University secret fraternity. A number of universities have such secret fraternities. For example, the University of Virginia has one, and the University of Georgia. These fraternities do not have secret governmental plots or ruling powers. Their influence would be limited to the personal influence of the members, who tend to be sons of elite families. In my opinion, these fraternities exist to convey elite status to members. They have no operational functions.
The Saker: What about individuals? Who are, in your opinion, the most powerful people in the USA today? Who takes the final, top level, strategic decision?
Paul Craig Roberts: There really are no people powerful in themselves. Powerful people are ones that powerful interest groups are behind. Ever since Secretary of Defense William Perry privatized so much of the military in 1991, the military/security complex has been extremely powerful, and its power is further amplified by its ability to finance political campaigns and by the fact that it is a source of employment in many states. Essentially Pentagon expenditures are controlled by defense contractors.
The Saker: I have always believed that in international terms, organizations such as NATO, the EU or all the others are only a front, and that the real alliance which controls the planet are the ECHELON countries: US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand aka “AUSCANNZUKUS” (they are also referred to as the “Anglosphere” or the “Five Eyes”) with the US and the UK are the senior partners while Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the junior partners here. Is this model correct?
Paul Craig Roberts: NATO was a US creation allegedly to protect Europe from a Soviet invasion. Its purpose expired in 1991. Today NATO provides cover for US aggression and provides mercenary forces for the American Empire. Britain, Canada, Australia, are simply US vassal states just as are Germany, France, Italy, Japan and the rest. There are no partners; just vassals. It is Washington’s empire, no one else’s.
The US favors the EU, because it is easier to control than the individual countries.
The Saker: It is often said that Israel controls the USA. Chomsky, and others, say that it is the USA which controls Israel. How would you characterize the relationship between Israel and the USA – does the dog wag the tail or does the tail wag the dog? Would you say that the Israel Lobby is in total control of the USA or are there still other forces capable of saying “no” to the Israel Lobby and impose their own agenda?
Paul Craig Roberts: I have never seen any evidence that the US controls Israel. All the evidence is that Israel controls the US, but only its MidEast policy. In recent years, Israel or the Israel Lobby, has been able to control or block academic appointments in the US and tenure for professors considered to be critics of Israel. Israel has successfully reached into both Catholic and State universities to block tenure and appointments. Israel can also block some presidential appointments and has vast influence over the print and TV media. The Israel Lobby also has plenty of money for political campaign funds and never fails to unseat US Representatives and Senators considered critical of Israel. The Israel lobby was able to reach into the black congressional district of Cynthia McKinney, a black woman, and defeat her reelection. As Admiral Tom Moorer, Chief of Naval Operations and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “No American President can stand up to Israel.” Adm. Moorer could not even get an official investigation of Israel’s deadly attack on the USS Liberty in 1967.
Anyone who criticizes Israeli policies even in a helpful way is labeled an “anti-Semite.”
In American politics, media, and universities, this is a death-dealing blow. You might as well get hit with a hellfire missile.
The Saker: Which of the 12 entities of power which I listed above have, in your opinion, played a key role in the planning and execution of the 9/11 “false flag” operation? After all, it is hard to imagine that this was planned and prepared between the inauguration of GW Bush and September 11th – it must have been prepared during the years of the Clinton Administration. Is it not true the the Oklahoma City bombing was a rehearsal for 9/11?
Paul Craig Roberts: In my opinion 9/11 was the product of the neoconservatives, many of whom are Jewish allied with Israel, Dick Cheney, and Israel. Its purpose was to provide “the new Pearl Harbor” that the neoconservatives said was necessary to launch their wars of conquest in the Middle East. I don’t know how far back it was planned, but Silverstein was obviously part of it and he had not had the WTC for very long before 9/11.
As for the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, US Air Force General Partin, the Air Force’s munitions expert, prepared an expert report proving beyond all doubt that the building blew up from the inside out and that the truck bomb was cover. Congress and the media ignored his report. The patsy, McVeigh, was already set up, and that was the only story allowed.
The Saker: Do you think that the people who run the USA today realize that they are on a collision course with Russia which could lead to thermonuclear war? If yes, why would they take such a risk? Do they really believe that at the last moment Russian will “blink” and back down, or do they actually believe that they can win a nuclear war? Are they not afraid that in a nuclear conflagration with Russia they will lose everything they have, including their power and even their lives?
Paul Craig Roberts: I am as puzzled as much as you. I think Washington is lost in hubris and arrogance and
is more or less insane. Also, there is belief that the US can win a nuclear war with Russia. There was an article in Foreign Affairs around 2005 or 2006 in which this conclusion was reached. The belief in the winnability of nuclear war has been boosted by faith in ABM defenses. The argument is that the US can hit Russia so hard in a preemptive first strike that Russia would not retaliate in fear of a second blow.
The Saker: How do you assess the current health of the Empire? For many years we have seen clear signs of decline, but there is still not visible collapse. Do you believe that such a collapse is inevitable and, if not, how could it be prevented? Will we see the day when the US Dollar suddenly become worthless or will another mechanism precipitate the collapse of this Empire?
Paul Craig Roberts: The US economy is hollowed out. There has been no real median family income growth for decades. Alan Greenspan as Fed Chairman used an expansion of consumer credit to take the place of the missing growth in consumer income, but the population is now too indebted to take on more. So there is nothing to drive the economy. So many manufacturing and tradable professional service jobs such as software engineering have been moved offshore that the middle class has shrunk. University graduates cannot get jobs that support an independent existence. So they can’t form households, buy houses, appliances and home furnishings. The government produces low inflation measures by not measuring inflation and low unemployment rates by not measuring unemployment. The financial markets are rigged, and gold is driven down despite rising demand by selling uncovered shorts in the futures market. It is a house of cards that has stood longer than I thought possible. Apparently, the house of cards can stand until the rest of the world ceases to hold the US dollar as reserves.
Possibly the empire has put too much stress on Europe by involving Europe in a conflict with Russia. If Germany, for example, were to pull out of NATO, the empire would collapse, or if Russia can find the wits to finance Greece, Italy, and Spain in exchange for them leaving the Euro and EU, the empire would suffer a fatal blow.
Alternatively, Russia might tell Europe that Russia has no alternative but to target European capitals with nuclear weapons now that Europe has joined the US in conducting war against Russia.
The Saker: Russia and China have done something unique in history and they have gone beyond the traditional model of forming an alliance: they have agreed to become interdependent – one could say that they have agreed to a symbiotic relationship. Do you believe that those in charge of the Empire have understood the tectonic change which has just happen or are they simply going into deep denial because reality scares them too much?
Paul Craig Roberts: Stephen Cohen says that there is simply no foreign policy discussion. There is no debate. I think the empire thinks that it can destabilize Russia and China and that is one reason Washington has color revolutions working in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. As Washington is determined to prevent the rise of other powers and is lost in hubris and arrogance, Washington probably believes that it will succeed. After all, History chose Washington.
The Saker: In your opinion, do presidential elections still matter and, if yes, what is your best hope for 2016? I am personally very afraid of Hillary Clinton whom I see as an exceptionally dangerous and outright evil person, but with the current Neocon influence inside the Republican, can we really hope for a non-Neocon candidate to win the GOP nomination?
Paul Craig Roberts: The only way a presidential election could matter would be if the elected president had behind him a strong movement. Without a movement, the president has no independent power and no one to appoint who will do his bidding. Presidents are captives. Reagan had something of a movement, just enough that we were able to cure stagflation despite Wall Street’s opposition and we were able to end the cold war despite the opposition of the CIA and the military/security complex. Plus Reagan was very old and came from a long time ago. He assumed the office of the president was powerful and acted that way.
The Saker: What about the armed forces? Can you imagine a Chairman of the JCS saying “no, Mr President, that is crazy, we will not do this” or do you expect the generals to obey any order, including one starting a nuclear war against Russia? Do you have any hope that the US military could step in and stop the “crazies” currently in power in the White House and Congress?
Paul Craig Roberts: The US military is a creature of the armaments industries. The whole purpose of making general is to be qualified to be a consultant to the “defense” industry, or to become an executive or on the board of a “defense” contractor. The military serves as the source of retirement careers when the generals make the big money. The US military is totally corrupt. Read Andrew Cockburn’s book, Kill Chain.
The Saker: If the USA is really deliberately going down the path towards war with Russia – what should Russia do? Should Russia back down and accept to be subjugated as a preferable option to a thermonuclear war, or should Russia resist and thereby accept the possibility of a thermonuclear war? Do you believe that a very deliberate and strong show of strength on the part of Russia could deter a US attack?
Paul Craig Roberts: I have often wondered about this. I can’t say that I know. I think Putin is humane enough to surrender rather than to be part of the destruction of the world, but Putin has to answer to others inside Russia and I doubt the nationalists would stand for surrender.
In my opinion, I think Putin should focus on Europe and make Europe aware that Russia expects an American attack and will have no choice except to wipe out Europe in response. Putin should encourage Europe to break off from NATO in order to prevent World War 3.
Putin should also make sure China understands that China represents the same perceived threat to the US as Russia and that the two countries need to stand together. Perhaps if Russia and China were to maintain their forces on a nuclear alert, not the top one, but an elevated one that conveyed recognition of the American threat and conveyed this threat to the world, the US could be isolated.
Perhaps if the Indian press, the Japanese Press, the French and German press, the UK press, the Chinese and Russian press began reporting that Russia and China wonder if they will receive a pre-emptive nuclear attack from Washington the result would be to prevent the attack.
As far as I can tell from my many media interviews with the Russian media, there is no Russian awareness of the Wolfowitz Doctrine. Russians think that there is some kind of misunderstanding about Russian intentions. The Russian media does not understand that Russia is unacceptable, because Russia is not a US vassal. Russians believe all the Western bullshit about “freedom and democracy” and believe that they are short on both but making progress. In other words, Russians have no idea that they are targeted for destruction.
The Saker: What are, in your opinion, the roots of the hatred of so many members of the US elites for Russia? Is that just a leftover from the Cold War, or is there another reason for the almost universal russophobia amongst US elites? Even during the Cold War, it was unclear whether the US was anti-Communist or anti-Russian? Is there something in the Russian culture, nation or civilization which triggers that hostility and, if yes, what is it?
Paul Craig Roberts: The hostility toward Russia goes back to the Wolfowttz Doctrine:
“Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.”
While the US was focused on its MidEast wars, Putin restored Russia and blocked Washington’s planned invasion of Syria and bombing of Iran. The “first objective” of the neocon doctrine was breached. Russia had to be brought into line. That is the origin of Washington’s attack on Russia. The dependent and captive US and European media simply repeats “the Russian Threat” to the public, which is insouciant and otherwise uninformed.
The offense of Russian culture is also there–Christian morals, respect for law and humanity, diplomacy in place of coercion, traditional social mores–but these are in the background. Russia is hated because Russia (and China) is a check on Washington’s unilateral uni-power. This check is what will lead to war.
If the Russians and Chinese do not expect a pre-emptive nuclear attack from Washington, they will be destroyed.
The New York Times “basically rewrites whatever the Kiev authorities say”: Stephen F. Cohen on the U.S./Russia/Ukraine history the media won’t tell you
There's an alternative story of Russian relations we're not hearing. Historian Stephen Cohen tells it here
It is one thing to comment in a column as the Ukrainian crisis grinds on and Washington—senselessly, with no idea of what will come next—destroys relations with Moscow. It is quite another, as a long exchange with Stephen F. Cohen makes clear, to watch as an honorable career’s worth of scholarly truths are set aside in favor of unlawful subterfuge, a war fever not much short of Hearst’s and what Cohen ranks among the most extravagant expansion of a sphere of influence—NATO’s—in history.
Cohen is a distinguished Russianist by any measure. While professing at Princeton and New York University, he has written of the revolutionary years (“Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution,” 1973), the Soviet era (“Rethinking the Soviet Experience,” 1985) and, contentiously but movingly and always with a steady eye, the post-Soviet decades (“Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia, 2000; “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” 2009). “The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin” (2010) is a singularly humane work, using scholarly method to relate the stories of the former prisoners who walk as ghosts in post-Soviet Russia. “I never actually lost the uneasy feeling of having left work unfinished and obligations unfulfilled,” Cohen explains in the opening chapter, “even though fewer and fewer of the victims I knew were still alive.”
If I had to describe the force and value of Cohen’s work in a single sentence, it would be this: It is a relentless insistence that we must bring history to bear upon what we see. One would think this an admirable project, but it has landed Cohen in the mother of all intellectual disputes since the U.S.-supported coup in Kiev last year. To say he is now “blackballed” or “blacklisted”—terms Cohen does not like—is too much. Let us leave it that a place may await him among America’s many prophets without honor among their own.
It is hardly surprising that the Ministry of Forgetting, otherwise known as the State Department, would eschew Cohen’s perspective on Ukraine and the relationship with Russia: He brings far too much by way of causality and responsibility to the case. But when scholarly colleagues attack him as “Putin’s apologist” one grows queasy at the prospect of a return to the McCarthyist period. By now, obedient ideologues in the academy have turned debate into freak show.
Cohen, who is 76, altogether game and remembers it all, does not think we are back in the 1950s just yet. But he is now enmeshed in a fight with the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, which last autumn rejected a $400,000 grant Cohen proposed with his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, because the fellowships to be funded would bear Cohen’s name. Believe it, readers, this is us in the early 21st century.
The interview that follows took place in Cohen’s Manhattan apartment some weeks after the cease-fire agreement known as Minsk II was signed in mid-February. It sprawled over several absorbing hours. As I worked with the transcript it became clear that Cohen had given me a valuable document, one making available to readers a concise, accessible, historically informed accounting of “where we are today,” as Cohen put it, in Ukraine and in the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Salon will run it in two parts. This is an edited transcript of the first. Part two follows next week.
What is your judgment of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine? In the current situation, the need is for good history and clear language. In a historical perspective, do you consider Russia justified?
Well, I can’t think otherwise. I began warning of such a crisis more than 20 years ago, back in the ’90s. I’ve been saying since February of last year [when Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in Kiev] that the 1990s is when everything went wrong between Russia and the United States and Europe. So you need at least that much history, 25 years. But, of course, it begins even earlier.
As I’ve said for more than a year, we’re in a new Cold War. We’ve been in one, indeed, for more than a decade. My view [for some time] was that the United States either had not ended the previous Cold War, though Moscow had, or had renewed it in Washington. The Russians simply hadn’t engaged it until recently because it wasn’t affecting them so directly.
What’s happened in Ukraine clearly has plunged us not only into a new or renewed—let historians decide that—Cold War, but one that is probably going to be more dangerous than the preceding one for two or three reasons. The epicenter is not in Berlin this time but in Ukraine, on Russia’s borders, within its own civilization: That’s dangerous. Over the 40-year history of the old Cold War, rules of behavior and recognition of red lines, in addition to the red hotline, were worked out. Now there are no rules. We see this every day—no rules on either side.
What galls me the most, there’s no significant opposition in the United States to this new Cold War, whereas in the past there was always an opposition. Even in the White House you could find a presidential aide who had a different opinion, certainly in the State Department, certainly in the Congress. The media were open—the New York Times, the Washington Post—to debate. They no longer are. It’s one hand clapping in our major newspapers and in our broadcast networks. So that’s where we are.
The Ukraine crisis in historical perspective. Very dangerous ground. You know this better than anyone, I’d’ve thought.
This is where I get attacked and assailed. It’s an historical judgment. The [crisis now] grew out of Clinton’s policies, what I call a “winner take all” American policy toward what was thought to be—but this isn’t true—a defeated post-Cold War Russia, leading people in the ’90s to think of Russia as in some ways analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II: Russia would decide its internal policies to some extent, and it would be allowed to resume its role as a state in international affairs—but as a junior partner pursuing new American national interests.
That was the pursuit that Clinton and Strobe Talbott, who’s now very upset about the failure of his policy, in the Yeltsin era. That’s what they wanted, and thought they were getting, from Boris Yeltsin. You can read Talbott’s memoir, “The Russia Hand,” and know that all the official talk about eternal friendship and partnership was malarkey. Now it’s all gone sour, predictably and for various reasons, and has led us to this situation.
The problem is that by taking the view, as the American media and political establishment do, that this crisis is entirely the fault of “Putin’s aggression,” there’s no rethinking of American policy over the last 20 years. I have yet to see a single influential person say, “Hey, maybe we did something wrong, maybe we ought to rethink something.” That’s a recipe for more of the same, of course, and more of the same could mean war with Russia….
Let me give you one example. It’s the hardest thing for the American foreign policy elite and the media elite to cope with.
Our position is that nobody is entitled to a sphere of influence in the 21st century. Russia wants a sphere of influence in the sense that it doesn’t want American military bases in Ukraine or in the Baltics or in Georgia. But what is the expansion of NATO other than the expansion of the American zone or sphere of influence? It’s not just military. It’s financial, it’s economic, it’s cultural, it’s intermarriage—soldiers, infrastructure. It’s probably the most dramatic expansion of a great sphere of influence in such a short time and in peacetime in the history of the world.
So you have Vice President Biden constantly saying, “Russia wants a sphere of influence and we won’t allow it.” Well, we are shoving our sphere of influence down Russia’s throat, on the assumption that it won’t push back. Obviously, the discussion might well begin: “Is Russia entitled to a zone or sphere in its neighborhood free of foreign military bases?” Just that, nothing more. If the answer is yes, NATO expansion should’ve ended in Eastern Germany, as the Russians were promised. But we’ve crept closer and closer. Ukraine is about NATO-expansion-no-matter-what. Washington can go on about democracy and sovereignty and all the rest, but it’s about that. And we can’t re-open this question…. The hypocrisy, or the inability to connect the dots in America, is astonishing.
The nature of the Kiev regime. Again, there’s a lot of fog. So there’re two parts to this question. The coup matter and the relationship of the Yatsenyuk government to the State Department—we now have a finance minister in Kiev who’s an American citizen, addressing the Council on Foreign Relations here as we speak—and then the relationship of the Kiev regime with the ultra-right.
It’s a central question. I addressed it in a Nation piece last year called “Distorting Russia.” One point was that the apologists in the media for the Kiev government as it came to power after Feb. 21, and for the Maidan demonstrations as they turned violent, ignored the role of a small but significant contingent of ultra-nationalists who looked, smelled and sounded like neo-fascists. And for this I was seriously attacked, including by Timothy Snyder at Yale, who is a great fan of Kiev, in the New Republic. I have no idea where he is coming from, or how any professor could make the allegations he did. But the argument was that this neo-fascist theme was Putin’s, that what I was saying was an apology for Putin and that the real fascists were in Russia, not in Ukraine.
Maybe there are fascists in Russia, but we’re not backing the Russian government or Russian fascists. The question is, and it’s extremely important, “Is there a neo-fascist movement in Ukraine that, regardless of its electoral success, which has not been great, is influencing affairs politically or militarily, and is this something we should be worried about?”
The answer is 100 percent yes. But admitting this in the United States has gotten a 100 percent no until recently, when, finally, a few newspapers began to cite Kiev’s battalions with swastikas on their helmets and tanks. So you’ve gotten a little more coverage. Foreign journalists, leaving aside Russians, have covered this neo-fascist phenomenon, which is not surprising. It grows out of Ukraine’s history. It should be a really important political question for Western policy makers, and I think it is now for the Germans. German intelligence is probably better than American intelligence when it comes to Ukraine—more candid in what it tells the top leadership. Merkel’s clearly worried about this.
It’s another example of something you can’t discuss in the mainstream media or elsewhere in the American establishment. When you read the testimony of [Assistant Secretary of State] Nuland, this is never mentioned. But what could be more important than the resurgence of a fascist movement on the European continent? I’m not talking about these sappy fascists who run around the streets in Western Europe. I’m talking about guys with a lot of weapons, guys who have done dastardly things and who have killed people. Does that warrant discussion? Well, people said, if they exist they’re a tiny minority. My clichéd answer is, “Of course, so was Hitler and so was Lenin at one time.” You pay attention and you think about it if you learn anything from history….
We say we’re doing everything we’re doing in Ukraine and against Russia, including running the risk of war, for a democratic Ukraine, by which we mean Ukraine under the rule of Kiev. Reasonably, we would ask to what extent Kiev is actually democratic. But correspondents of the Times and the Washington Post regularly file from Kiev and basically re-write whatever the Kiev authorities say while rarely, if ever, asking about democracy in Kiev-governed Ukraine.
Rewriting handouts. Is that actually so?
Until recently it was so…. I haven’t made this a study, and one could be done in a week by a sophisticated journalist or scholar who knew how to ask questions and had access to information. And I would be willing to wager that it would show that there’s less democracy, as reasonably understood, in those areas of Ukraine governed by Kiev today than there was before Yanukovych was overthrown. Now that’s a hypothesis, but I think it’s a hypothesis the Times and the Post should be exploring.
I take Kiev’s characterization of its war in the eastern sections as an “anti-terrorist campaign” to be one of the most preposterous labels out there right now.
But, then, why did Washington say OK to it? Washington has a say in this. Without Washington, Kiev would be in bankruptcy court and have no military at all. Why didn’t Washington say, “Don’t call it anti-terrorist?” Because if you call it “anti-terrorism” you can never have negotiations because you don’t negotiate with terrorists, you just kill them, a murderous organization with murderous intent.
By saying that this is not a civil war, it’s just Russian aggression—this omits the human dimension of the entire war, and also the agency of the people who are actually fighting in the east—the hairdressers, the taxi drivers, the former newspaper reporters, the school teachers, the garbage men, the electricians, who are probably 90 percent of those fighting. There are Russians there, from Russia. But Ukraine’s army has proved incapable of defeating or even holding off what began as a fairly ragtag, quasi-partisan, ill-equipped, untrained force.
The horror of this has been Kiev’s use of its artillery, mortars and even its airplanes, until recently, to bombard large residential cities, not only Donetsk and Luhansk, but other cities. These are cities of 500,000, I imagine, or 2 million to 3 million. This is against the law. These are war crimes, unless we assume the rebels were bombing their mothers and grandmothers and fathers and sisters. This was Kiev, backed by the United States. So the United States has been deeply complicit in the destruction of these eastern cities and peoples. When Nuland tells Congress there are 5,000 to 6,000 dead, that’s the U.N. number. That’s just a count of bodies they found in the morgues. Lots of bodies are never found. German intelligence says 50,000.
Ever since the Clinton administration, we’ve bleated on about the right to protect people who are victims of humanitarian crises. You’ve got a massive humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine. You’ve got 1 million people or more who have fled to Russia—this is according to the U.N.—another half a million having fled elsewhere in Ukraine. I don’t notice the United States organizing any big humanitarian effort. Where is Samantha Power, the architect of “right to protect?” We have shut our eyes to a humanitarian crisis in which we are deeply complicit. This is what’s shameful, whether you like or don’t like Putin. It’s got nothing to do with Putin. It has to do with the nature of American policy and the nature of Washington—and the nature of the American people, if they tolerate this.
You’ve written about the second Minsk accord as the only hope we’ve got left. Tell me briefly your take on Minsk II and whether there’s a chance it will hold.
The second Minsk Accord has a lot of moving parts. The primary part is the cease-fire and the withdrawal by both sides of heavy artillery. It would appear that this has been significantly accomplished, but the cease-fire is very unstable. The political parts are supposed to come now. Kiev is supposed to pass certain constitutional reforms, giving a certain autonomy to the eastern regions. The eastern regions are supposed to hold new elections that in some way comply with Ukrainian law. If all that happens by December, then the Ukrainian-Russian border will be turned over to the Kiev authorities along with some European monitors. The political parts are going to be the hardest because there is no political support for this in Kiev.
[President] Poroshenko went to Minsk because he had no choice: Merkel told him he had to sign Minsk II. But Kiev is ultra-nationalist. They want no concessions to the east or to Russia. Getting Minsk II through parliament in Kiev will be very difficult. But the main fact for now is that Minsk II is the last, best choice to avoid a wider war that might well cause a direct war with Russia. [Since this interview the Kiev parliament has passed legislation either contradicting or negating the Minsk II terms.]
Minsk II was Merkel’s initiative with President Hollande of France, and why, at the last minute, she suddenly realized that the situation was different than she thought—desperate—I don’t know. And remember, this is a woman with enormous executive responsibilities for the economic crisis of the European Union and Greece. The enemies of Minsk II…
I think the main enemy is Washington.
That’s right. I wouldn’t call them the enemy, but we can’t be children about this. Washington controls the IMF. Washington controls NATO. NATO and the IMF are the two agencies that can make war happen on a broader basis in Ukraine and in regard to Russia, or stop it. Whoever is the decider in Washington, if it’s Obama, if it’s somebody else, now has to make the decision.
All the enemies of Minsk II speak freely and are quoted in the papers and on the networks as rational people. And yet there’s not one dissenting voice from the establishment. Outwardly, it appears to be a very uneven struggle. One hopes that somewhere in dark corridors and dimly-lit rooms in Washington, serious conversations are taking place, but I don’t think so. [One March 23, 48 members of Congress did vote against sending weapons to Kiev, a point Cohen commended in an email note.]
Our post-Soviet politics after 1991, it turns out to be war by other means. The Cold War never ended, in my view. The tactics changed, perhaps the strategy did, too, but there was very little by way of even a pause.
It’s complicated. The main problem today of getting the American political class to think freshly is Putin. They use Putin as the excuse to do whatever they want and not rethink anything. But Putin came much later.
The historical facts are not convenient to the triumphalist narrative, which says that we defeated the Soviet Union and thereby ended the Cold War, and therefore and therefore. According to Gorbachev, Reagan and Bush, the Cold War ended either in 1988 or 1990. When Reagan left the White House—I think he wrote in his diary in January 1989, “We have ended the Cold War”—so he thought he had ended it with Gorbachev. I was in Moscow when he walked across Red Square in that heat, I think it was July 1988, and somebody shouted to him “President Reagan, is this still the Evil Empire?” And he, in that affable way, said “Oh, no, that was then… everything’s changed.”
The Cold War was a structural phenomenon. Just because the president says its over doesn’t mean it’s over, but then there was Malta in December 1989, when [George H.W.] Bush and Gorbachev said the Cold War was over, and that continued all through the reunification of Germany. Between ’88 and ’90 we were told repeatedly by the world’s leaders that it was over. Jack Matlock, Reagan’s ambassador to Russia, has written very well about this, and because he was there as a personal testimony, of how this truly was. So the conflation of the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War is an historical mistake.
Bush then continued to maintain the official line that he had pursued with Gorbachev that there were no losers at the end of the Cold War, everybody had won. Bush maintained that position until the polls showed he was running behind Clinton in his reelection campaign. And then he declared in 1992 that we, and he in particular, had won the Cold War. I saw Gorbachev shortly thereafter. My wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and I had been friends with him for several years. He was deeply, deeply hurt, with a sense of betrayal. He’s forgiven Bush, being a forgiving man.
But at that moment, ’91 and ’92… well, words are words, but as Russians say, words are also deeds. By announcing that we had won the Cold War, Bush set the stage for the Clinton administration’s decision to act on an American victory, including the expansion of NATO.
This history brings us to where we are today.
What has changed in U.S. policy toward Russia between 1991 and now, and what hasn’t?
I think the history that we know is what I just told you. Behind the scenes, there were clearly discussions going on throughout the ’90s, and there were different groups. Big historical decisions, whether we talk about the war in Vietnam, or, a subject that interests me, why slavery and segregation lasted so long in the American South, where I grew up, can never be explained by one factor. Almost always they’re multi-factored. But you got, in the 1990s, some people who genuinely believed that this was the moment for an enduring post-Cold War, American-Russian, full-scale strategic partnership and friendship between equals. There were these Romantics, so to speak.
On this side of the ocean?
I think there were people who believed in this. Just like there’re people who really believe in democracy promotion as a virtuous profession—some of my students have gone into it. They believe in it: It’s a good thing. Why not help good countries achieve democracy? The dark side of democracy promotion for them is either not visible or not in their calculation. People are diverse. I don’t judge them harshly for their beliefs.
There were others who were saying Russia will rise again, and we have to make sure that never happens. To do that, we need to strip Russia of Ukraine, in particular. Brzezinski was writing that. At some point during this time he wrote that Russia with Ukraine is a great imperial power, without Ukraine it’s a normal country. But there were people in Washington, the same people I heard in private discussions, saying that Russia’s down and we’re going to keep it down. They were feeding opinion into the Clinton administration, and that clearly helped lead to the NATO expansion.
They use the excuse that everybody wants to join NATO. How can we deny them the right? It’s very simple. People say every country that qualifies has a right to join NATO. No, they do not. NATO is not a junior Chamber of Commerce. It’s not a non-selective fraternity or sorority. It’s a security organization, and the only criterion for membership should be, “Does a nation enhance the security of the other member countries?” The Ukrainian crisis proves beyond any doubt, being the worst international crisis of our time, that the indiscriminate expansion of NATO has worsened our international security. That’s the end of that story. I don’t know what they think NATO is. Is it like AARP membership and you get discounts in the form of U.S. defense funds? It’s crazy, this argument.
But then you got these guys who are either Russophobes or eternal Cold Warriors or deep strategic thinkers. You remember when [Paul] Wolfowitz wrote this article saying Russia had to be stripped of any possibility ever to be a great power again? These people were all talking like…
It goes back to your comparison with Japan in ’45.
The question is why Clinton bought into this. That would then take you to Strobe Talbott. Strobe was a disciple of Isaiah Berlin, who taught that if you want to understand Russia, you have to understand the history, the culture and the civilization. And certainly if you took that view, you never would have done, as George Kennan said in 1996 or 1997, you never would have expanded NATO. I knew George during my 30 years at Princeton. George’s social attitudes were deeply alarming, but about Russia he had a very important idea. Russia marches to its own drummer, let it, don’t try to intervene or you’ll make things worse. Be patient, understand Russian history, the forces in Russia. That was Isaiah Berlin’s position. Once, that was Strobe’s position. Look at Strobe Talbott today: We have to send in weapons and overthrow Putin and turn Russia around. Now it’s all outside agency.
How did this guy go from A to B?
Well, they say power corrupts, or at least changes people. He had been Clinton’s roommate at Oxford, and he ended up in the White House as a Russia aide, very smart guy. I think Russia disappointed him. One phenomenon among Russia-watchers is that you create an artifice, and that’s your Russia. And when it disappoints you, you never forgive Russia. Check out Fred Hiatt at the Washington Post. Fred was writing from Moscow during the ’90s that democracy was going to be great. So did most the guys who are now were still in editorial positions. Russia let them down. They can’t forgive Russia anymore than they can the ex-wife who cheated on them. They can’t think anew. It’s a phenomenon, probably not only American, but it’s particularly American. You cannot reopen any discussion with these people who bought into Yeltsin’s Russia in the 1990s and were certain that though the road was rocky, as they liked to say… “Failed Crusade” is about this. They can’t get over it.
Part of it also had to do with Yeltsin. He was so desperate, not only for American affirmation but for American affection. He was so insecure, as his health declined and he became more and more the captive of the oligarchs, that he wanted to mean as much to Washington as Gorbachev had. He was getting close to virtually giving Washington anything, saying anything, until the Serbian war. Then it dawned on him that Washington had a certain agenda, and the expansion of NATO [was part of it], but by then it was too late, he was a spent force.
Later, when Dmitri Medvedev was president [2008-12], I think, he told a group of people that Yeltsin hadn’t actually won the election, that Gennadi Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, had. So assuming that Medvedev wasn’t lying and assuming he was in a position to know, all this talk of American support for democracy, when it comes to Russia, at least, is, shall we say, complex.
Let’s go to Putin. What is your view here? What is he trying to accomplish?
It’s impossible to answer briefly or simply. This is a separate university course, this is a book, this is for somebody with a much bigger brain that I have. This really is for historians to judge.
I wrote an article in, I think, 2012 called the “The Demonization of Putin,” arguing that there is very little basis for many of the allegations made against Putin, and that the net result was to make rational analysis in Washington on Russian affairs at home and abroad impossible, because it was all filtered through this demonization. If we didn’t stop, I argued, it was only going to get worse to the point where we would become like heroin addicts at fix time, unable to think about anything except our obsession with Putin. We couldn’t think about other issues. This has now happened fully. The article was turned down by the New York Times, and an editor I knew at Reuters published it on Reuters.com.
The history of how this came about [begins] when Putin came to power, promoted by Yeltsin and the people around Yeltsin, who were all connected in Washington. These people in Moscow included Anatoly Chubais, who had overseen the privatizations, had relations with the IMF and had fostered a lot of the corruption. He came to United States to assure us that Putin was a democrat, even though he had been at the KGB.
When he came to power, both the Times and the Post wrote that Putin was a democrat and, better yet, he was sober, unlike Yeltsin. How we got from 2000 to now, when he’s Hitler, Saddam, Stalin, Gaddafi, everybody that we have to get rid of, whom we know killed Boris Nemtsov because from the bridge where Nemtsov was killed [on February 27] you can see the Kremlin…. Well, remember, Sarah Palin could see Russia from Alaska! It’s preposterous. But the demonization of Putin has become an institution in America. It is literally a political institution that prevents the kind of discussion that you and I are having.
Kissinger had the same thought. He wrote, last year, I think, “The demonization of Putin is not a policy. It’s an alibi for not having a policy.” That’s half correct. It’s much worse now, because they did have a policy. I think the “policy” growing in some minds was how to get rid of Putin. The question is, “Do they have the capacity to make decisions?” I didn’t think so, but now I’m not so sure, because in a lot of what comes out of Washington, including the State Department, the implication is that Putin has to go.
I asked a question rhetorically several years ago of these regime changers: Have you thought about what would happen in Russia in the event of regime change? If what you say is true, if Putin is the pivot of the whole system, you remove Putin the whole system collapses. Russia has every known weapon of mass destruction in vast quantities. What would be the consequence of that conceit on your part—that we’re going to get rid of Putin—for the rest of the world?
So this Putin phenomenon has to be explained. How did he go from a democrat for sure, now to maybe the worst Russian leader since Ivan the Terrible. How do you explain it? Does that tell us more about Putin or more about us?
I think his sin is an unacceptable take on, broad-brush terms, Eastern ethos vs. Western ethos, and on narrower terms a rejection of a neoliberal economic regime in the Washington consensus style. Although he’s got a lot to answer for, I think, in this respect, he’s not an evangelist for what he’s doing. What does he face domestically? What’s he trying to do?
Let me tell you just briefly. When I ask Russians, they think the answer is American presidential envy. We’ve had a lot of unsuccessful presidents lately. Clinton left basically in disgrace, Bush left not beloved for the war that he had got us into and lied about, Obama is before our eyes a shrinking, failing president. And here’s Putin, now in his 15th year of growing stature inside Russia.
And by the way, until recently the preeminent European statesman of his time, no doubt of this. In the 21st century, only Merkel can stand anywhere near him as a European statesman, whether you like what a statesman does or not. This, of course, changes everything. Not to take the famous cop-out, but let history judge. X number of years from now, when we’ve joined the majority, as Lenin used to say, historians will undoubtedly look back and do the pluses and minuses, and it’s going to be a very close call.
For my short-term take on Putin, he was put in power to save the Yeltsin family from corruption charges, and the first decree he signed upon becoming acting president was to exempt the Yeltsin family from future prosecution. He has honored that, by the way. One of the beefs against Putin in Russia is that he’s honorable to his friends and appointees to an extreme; he can’t bring himself to fire anybody. He’s got this KGB code of honor. I kind of like it. I’d rather that than people stab you in your back….
I operate under the assumption that no matter how or why people come to power, when in power they begin to ponder what their mission is, what history asks of them. For Putin it was quite clear: The Russian state had collapsed twice in the 20th century. Stop and think what that means. It had collapsed in the 1917 Revolution and the Soviet Union didn’t collapse in 1991— it was plucked apart— but then the state collapsed and the result was what Russians call smuta, a time of troubles. It means misery; it means foreign invasion; it means civil war; it means that people fall into poverty. This is the Russia that Putin inherited. Remember, when he came to power in 2000, Russia was on the verge of collapsing for a third time as a result of Yeltsin’s policies. The governors were corrupt, were not obeying the law, were not paying taxes, were running criminal fiefdoms in scores of regions. Russia was highly vulnerable, NATO was expanding, Russia had no influence in world affairs.
Putin comes to power and perceives that his first mission has to be to stop the collapse of the Russian state— which he calls the vertical, because Russia has always been governed from the top down, which has made it ungovernable because it’s so big— and, most of all, to make sure it never, ever, ever happens again. In Russian history, the worst thing that can happen to Russia is smuta, when the state collapses. Stop and think: Between 1917 and 1991, it happened twice in the largest territorial country in the world. Is there any precedent for that in history? How a leader could come to power and not see that….
The second piece of this conversation will run next week.
Patrick Smith is the author of “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century.” He was the International Herald Tribune’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and then Tokyo from 1985 to 1992. During this time he also wrote “Letter from Tokyo” for the New Yorker. He is the author of four previous books and has contributed frequently to the New York Times, the Nation, the Washington Quarterly, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter, @thefloutist.