Kyiv Post interview

The following is a repost of an interview I did recently with the Kyiv Post’s Ilya Timtchenko on Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the United States. I really like how it turned out.

A nation that is ‘both Ukrainian and Russian’

Dmitry Gorenburg is a lecturer at Harvard University, editor of Problems of Post-Communism and a senior analyst and director of Russian and East European Studies at CNA Strategic Studies, a non-profit think tank in Alexandria, Virginia. His is the author of Minority Ethnic Mobilization in the Russian Federation and a number of articles, including “Rethinking Interethnic Marriage in the Soviet Union.” In this Kyiv Post interview Gorenburg analyzes Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the U.S. and gives advice for Ukraine’s nation-building.

Kyiv Post: What has prompted your interest in Eastern Europe?

Dmitry Gorenburg: I think much of it had to do with my personal biography. I was born in Russia and came to the U.S. when I was a kid. Since I was fluent in Russian and the Soviet Union was in the middle of perestroika, I got interested in the region’s politics in college and continued in that field of study in graduate school. I studied ethnic politics for the first 10 years, finished my Ph.D. and went to D.C. where I started to work on security and defense issues for a think tank. I have been interested in that field ever since.

Kyiv Post: What exactly is “Problems of Post-Communism?
DG: It is a standard private non-profit and non-academic journal. The goal is to bring academic research to be published in a way that is accessible to the policy community. We strive to be at the intersection between academia and policy in a way that is more rigorous and scholarly than something like Foreign Affairs. There is more emphasis on field research but we try to avoid too much academic jargon, publishing articles that end up being interesting to both scholars and policy people.

Kyiv Post: In Failed Crusade Stephen Cohen criticizes the U.S. for approaching the Soviet Union too lightly, in the sense, that it was too optimistic of the full recovery of Russia after the Perestroika. Do you agree, and have you seen a change in Western scholarly thinking regarding the situation in post-Communist countries in the last decade? 

DG: I think it’s not quite as uniform as he portrays. There was a dominant view, but there are always those who were challenging it in terms of where they thought Russia was going. Certainly some were less familiar with the economic side of it, but on the political science side there were people challenging this idea of the inevitable transition of Russia to being just like us. There was hope and there were attempts; Steve (Cohen) would argue misguided attempts. In Russia there are many people who think this was done deliberately to weaken Russia. I don’t think anyone was being disingenuous. People had an idea on how to improve things and some of them did not favor Russian conditions. Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction and many Americans think the current Russia is the “return of the evil empire.” I think if there’s anything lacking it’s not the lack of models on how to improve relations but just an inability to understand how the other side thinks.

Kyiv Post: Do you see any potential positive results of the 2004 Orange Revolution and what should Ukrainians realize for future nation-building?

DG: It unified part of Ukraine but I am not sure if it unified the entire country.  I think it failed to transform Ukrainians and one reason is because of the infighting between Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko; they were never able to bridge that divide and bring the whole country forward. Certainly there were positive aspects in terms of liberalization and decrease in government control. But, unfortunately, I don’t think there was that much of an effort to fight corruption; new government officials would come in and do a lot of the same things. If you compare the situation with the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Georgians actually dealt with their corruption. For example, in today’s Georgia it is unheard of to give bribes to traffic police, whereas, that was a constant before. There were things that were done. For those years of Yushchenko’s presidency there was a lot of appearance of democracy and freedom but it wasn’t really institutionalized. There was no strong consensus on institutions of democracy because no one had the upper hand –there were “clans” fighting with each other. One really positive achievement that unfortunately didn’t last is the constitution that reduces the powers of the presidency. When that was repealed it again created a system that makes it easier to control a society.

Kyiv Post: How do you see Ukraine’s international position developing since the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych? Do you think Ukraine is becoming more pro-Russian?

DG: Definitely it is more pro-Russian than before. But at the same time there are limits. When Yanukovych was first elected I think there was this period of panic among the anti-Russian, pro-Western group in Ukraine where they thought he was just going to give everything away to Russia. I think he wants to have positive relations with Russia but he wants to have other options as well. In the grand scheme of things even for Moscow and certainly Washington this is just a small part of what they are interested in the world, whereas, if you are in Kyiv this is a much larger part.

Kyiv Post: In the book “Rebounding Identities” you mention that Russia is very strict with preserving the Russian Orthodox Church as its dominant denomination and religious agenda so to speak. What is your opinion on the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church?

DG: I think there is a very close cooperation there. The church depends on state support for promoting its agenda but the State also uses the Church for legitimacy or to increase its legitimacy because the Church is a popular and trusted institution. There have been interesting changes with Patriarch Kirill, who seems much more publicly active. He is more of a public persona I would say than Alexey was. Kirill is trying to push some church agenda items such as having chaplains in the military or courses on religion in schools. The point is that they are trying to get the Orthodoxy a little bit more embedded in society.

Kyiv Post: In your opinion how should the West develop its relations with countries like Ukraine and Belarus considering its long-term relations with Russia?

DG: These are countries that are much closer to Russia geographically and so it is inevitable that Russia cares more about its relationship with say Ukraine than the U.S. From that point of view it’s unrealistic to think that we are going to be able to shape this relationship since it is much more important for both Ukraine and Russia. Also, the U.S. is best served by taking ideology out of its foreign policy. For example, there is a lot of discussion about to what extent should we focus on pushing Russia to be more democratic and respect human rights. I think that is important but the tricky thing is not to turn it into lecturing. It’s more useful to do practical things in terms of supporting initiatives and developing positive relationships rather than making grandiose statements. There is one camp in the U.S. that thinks we need to protect Russia’s Near Abroad from Russia. We can’t do that. I would think that the focus would be more on figuring out what the interests are and pragmatically following them.

Kyiv Post: Do you find a fundamentally different thinking in Russia’s policy-making compared to the West? 

DG: I think that Russians have more doubt about Russia’s place in the world, and I think that leads to a lot of philosophizing; whereas, if anything, the U.S. has an overabundance of its certainty about its place in the world and there is less desire for reflection. There is more of “well we know what we stand for so let’s act on it.”

Kyiv Post: How do you see Ukraine’s main differences with other post-communist countries? What makes it different?

DG: I think that the division between eastern (Russian-speaking) and western (Ukrainian-speaking) is the most unique aspect of Ukraine. There are certainly other countries in the former Soviet Union like Kazakh-Russian, Estonian-Russian or Kyrgyz-Uzbek that have ethnic divisions; however, in those cases the divisions are much starker. The interesting thing about Ukraine is that you have this division but it’s much more fluid: there are people that are kind of both. You can see this in surveys where you ask about identity in Ukraine and you give more than two choices. You get a huge percentage that in some way feel both Ukrainian and Russian. That is unique. Today there seems to be division but that is something that could be reconciled and overcome with the right circumstances and the right actions by politicians to unify Ukraine. You do not have to be anti-Russian to also be pro-European or vice versa. Ukraine can really act as that bridge. That can give more hope for the future.

Why Russia Supports Repressive Regimes in Syria and the Middle East

The following post has just been published as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo. It was originally presented in early May at a PONARS workshop in Tartu, Estonia. Click here for more information and other memos from this conference.

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In recent months, Russia (with Chinese support) has increasingly staked out a strong position in support of the Assad regime in Syria. As Syria’s allies dwindle, Russia has become its foremost protector in the international arena. In doing so, it has followed a policy consistent with previous statements in support of regimes facing popular uprisings throughout the Middle East. This is not a new policy, as similar statements were made by Russian leaders during the Green revolution in Iran in 2009. To explain this policy, many analysts have focused on the importance of Russian economic investments in countries such as Libya and Syria or on political connections dating back from the Soviet days.

Undoubtedly,economic factors play a role in determining Russian policy. But the threat of spreading political instability and concern about setting precedents are at least as important for Russian leaders, who see the potential for the spread of unrest to other states in the region and fear the demonstration effects of successful revolts on vulnerable regimes in Central Asia. This memo will discuss the balance between interest-based and ideological factors in determining Russia’s response to the Arab Spring.

I argue that although Russia’s economic and strategic interests in the Middle East have played a role in shaping its response to the Arab Spring, fear of demonstration effects and positioning in the international arena have arguably had a larger effect on Russia’s support for Middle Eastern dictators over the last year. Russian leaders’ primary goal has been to prevent the establishment of a norm that allows for international intervention in response to government repression of domestic protests or violent uprisings. Second, the Russian government has sought to counter what it perceives as U.S. strategic gains in the Middle East. Economic factors, including arms sales, are thus only the third most important reason for Russian support for Bashar al-Assad and other Middle Eastern authoritarian leaders facing popular revolts over the past year. Continue reading

Syria, Russia, the US, and the Implications of those Helicopters…

Josh Tucker from The Monkey Cage asked me to comment on the Russian helicopters supposedly heading to Syria. Here’s what I wrote:

Yesterday’s statement by Hillary Clinton that Russia is supplying Syria with attack helicopters has stirred up a great deal of controversy, providing more ammunition (so to speak) to US domestic opponents of the Obama administration’s policy of normalization of relations with Russia. This policy has already been damaged by Russian actions against domestic political protests, by serious disagreements over missile defense, and by the two countries’ diametrically opposed positions on the ongoing conflict in Syria. In this post, I want to quickly address the specific question of Russian arms exports to Syria and then turn to the political impact of this most recent contretemps.

I have written before on Russian arms sales to Syria. Most of the recent contracts in this sphere have involved missiles of various kinds, as well as the modernization of tanks and fighter aircraft. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia has not sold any helicopters to Syria since the Soviet days. Although this is not evident from the SIPRI data, Russian sources indicate that a contract was concluded in 2005 for Russia to modernize Syria’s Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters. Russian media is speculating that US intelligence confused the return shipment of Syria’s own (newly modernized) helicopters for brand new helicopters that have been sold to Syria.

While I don’t have the information to come down definitively on one side or another of this debate, I would just say that it is generally very difficult for Russian arms exporters to conclude a major contract of this type in complete secrecy. It also takes time to make the helicopters, so any such contract would have had to have been concluded at least a year or two ago, when there would have been no need for secrecy. There is I suppose some possibility that Russia is supplying Syria with helicopters from its own inventory, rather than newly built ones. But that seems relatively unlikely given the relative scarcity of good equipment in the Russian military after years of low procurement. So I would say that the most likely scenario is in fact that these helicopters are in fact modernized Syrian Mi-17s, rather than new ones secretly sold to Syria.

Regardless of the exact provenance of these helicopters, recent events and the rhetoric on both sides show that the conflict is rapidly heading in the direction of a civil war. Moreover, this would be a civil war with echoes of the proxy civil wars of the Cold War days, with Russia potentially arming the Assad regime while Western countries (and their Gulf State allies) arm the rebels. Such wars were fairly ubiquitous in the 1970s and 1980s, but have largely faded from our memory since the end of communism. At the time, both superpowers were able to compartmentalize their relations in such a way as to continue negotiations on critical issues like arms control while fighting these proxy wars and engaging in rhetorical battles over the relative virtues of communism, capitalism, Western democracy and people’s democracy. It may be that leaders on both sides will soon need to relearn those compartmentalization skills so they can continue to cooperate on issues that are important for both sides (Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, dealing with the rise of China) even as they take opposite sides in a likely civil war in Syria and engage in increasingly heated rhetoric about repression of grassroots protests (or, from the Putin government’s point of view—Western efforts to foment regime change) in Russia.

UPDATE: Actually, the helicopters are modernized Mi-24s. Not sure whether the Russian media reports were mistaken and the mid-2000s modernization contract was for Mi-24s rather than Mi-17s or if there were two separate contracts.

How was bin Laden’s death received in Russia?

Russian reaction to the news that U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden was somewhat muted because of the May Day holiday, which continued into Monday, May 2. The Kremlin limited itself to a brief statement congratulating the United States for its success and noting that Russians unfortunately have first-hand experience in dealing with international terrorism. Russian leaders noted that they were ready to further expand their participation in international cooperative efforts to stop terrorism.

A number of newspapers and bloggers published some reactions as the day went on. There were two main themes to these articles. The first topic of discussion among Russian analysts was the impact of the successful operation to kill bin Laden on American politics. Here, the analysts were pretty much unanimous in declaring that the killing of bin Laden would guarantee President Obama’s re-election. In this, they showed far more certainty than American analysts, many of whom thought the positive effect on Obama’s approval would not be sufficiently long-lasting and would in any case be drowned out by the state of the economy in 2012. The parallel drawn by Russian commentators was to the capture of Saddam Hussein a year before President Bush’s reelection in 2004.

Second, there was unanimous agreement that bin Laden’s death would have very little impact on the incidence  of international terrorism. The argument paralleled that made by many American commentators, noting that in recent years bin Laden had become merely a symbolic figure for the jihadist movement, rather than a planner of terrorist attacks in his own right. Some argued that the death of capture of Ayman al-Zawahiri might have had a greater impact, as he was seen to have a greater role in operational planning and had in fact become al-Qaeda’s de facto leader in recent years. Others pointed to previous Russian experience, noting that the death of prominent Chechen rebel leaders such as Dzhokhar Dudaev and Shamil Basaev did not end the conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus.

While there was widespread agreement bin Laden was the symbolic leader of Islamic terrorism, this led to a wide range of conclusions. Some Russian analysts argued that his symbolic role as the founder of international Islamic terrorism would outlast his death and would allow al-Qaeda and other jihadi organizations to continue their terrorist activity with little disruption. One commentator compared bin Laden’s future role for Islamism to Lenin’s role for Communism, quoting the Soviet slogan “Lenin’s ideas live and are winning.” Others argued that because sponsors of radical Islamist activity in various Muslim countries were oriented primarily toward supporting bin Laden personally, his death may lead to a disruption of financing for radical groups and therefore a potential decline in terrorism.

One commentator related the impact of bin Laden’s ideas to public opinion in the Arab world, arguing that young people in the Middle East enter adulthood with a strong sense of unfairness. This comes first from media representations that the world is unfair in its treatment of Arabs. But young Arabs quickly learn that their own society is deeply unfair. The argument is that bin Laden’s success over the last two decades is the result of having a simple answer to the question of what is to be done about this unfairness. The commentator believes that bin Ladenism as an ideology will continue to prosper until some spiritual leader appears who is able to provide a less blood-thirsty answer to this question.

The obvious answer, of course, is that an alternative answer has already been provided — by the organizers of the mass protests that in recent months brought down the regimes  in Egypt and Tunisia and are threatening to do the same in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The fact that the Russian analyst does not reach this conclusion, arguing instead that for now bin Ladenism is alive and well in the Middle East, says more about the state of the Russian political system than about the relevance of bin Laden’s ideas for the next generation of Arab and Muslim youth growing up in the Middle East.

Russia’s Conflicts on Libya

Earlier this month, the Russian Government surprised many observers by going along with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized international enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. Russia was initially expected to veto the resolution. Instead, Russia chose to abstain in order to ensure the protection of civilians, while its ambassador to the United Nations made statements expressing concern about how the resolution would be implemented.

In recent years, Russia has had close trade relations with the Libyan Government. In particular it has signed billions of dollars worth of arms contracts with the regime of Muammar Gaddhafi. This is the context that partially explains the removal of Vladimir Chamov, Russia’s ambassador to Libya, after he sent a telegram to Moscow arguing that allowing the UN resolution to pass would represent a betrayal of Russia’s state interests. Chamov has since returned to Moscow where he has publicly spoken out against the implementation of the no-fly zone.

In the last week, Russia’s attitude toward the no-fly zone has unexpectedly become a factor in Russian domestic politics. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s statement on March 21 criticized the UN resolution for getting involved in an internal conflict. In the most controversial part of his remarks, Putin argued that the resolution allowed international forces to take virtually any measures against a sovereign state, and in this he said it resembled medieval calls to crusades, “when someone called on others to go to a certain place and liberate it.”

The response from President Dmitry Medvedev was almost immediate. He argued that Russia’s abstention on the resolution vote was the proper position. Furthermore, he dressed down Putin (though not by name) by saying:

Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusades’ and so on. It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse than what is going on now. Everyone should remember that.

And he removed Chamov from his position, essentially for public insubordination. Putin came out the next day with a statement indicating that the president is responsible for foreign policy in Russia and that he backed his president’s policies. A spokesman indicated that Putin’s previous statement was simply an indication of his own personal views rather than an official policy statement.

It may be that this conflict was yet another example of the good cop-bad cop show that the Russian leadership tandem have been putting on for the last three years. Or it may be that this is the first serious indication that Medvedev and Putin are engaged in a serious behind the scenes tussle for the right to run for president in 2012. I am still slightly on the side of the former, though a second public disagreement of this level of seriousness would be enough to convince me that this is a genuine conflict.

Rather than focus on the domestic conflict, I want to examine why Russian politicians see this conflict the way they do. I would argue that Russian leaders’ inconsistent position on Libya is essentially a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

I believe that Russian leaders decided not to veto Resolution 1973 for two reasons. First, they did not want to alienate Western leaders who were pushing for the intervention. While the rapprochement with the United States is important to them and certainly played a role here, we should also remember the importance of Russian political and economic ties with European states and especially France and Italy, both of whom were strongly in favor of a no-fly zone because of the potential for a humanitarian and refugee disaster in the event of an attack by Gaddhafi’s forces on Benghazi. Second, Russian leaders did not want to be blamed for blocking the intervention if the result was a large scale massacre of civilians.

On the other hand, Russian leaders also did not want to create a new norm of international intervention in internal conflicts, particularly when these conflicts were the result of a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler. They genuinely dislike what they see as a Western predilection for imposing their values and forms of government on other parts of the world. They remember the color revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia, in which friendly regimes were replaced by ones that were to a greater or lesser extent anti-Russian.

Furthermore, they believe that these popular protest movements were organized and funded by Western governments, particularly the United States. This creates a certain amount of suspicion of similar protests leading to the removal of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, even when the deposed rulers do not have particularly close ties to Russia.

So Russian leaders are understandably nervous about the coalition’s rather expansive interpretation of Resolution 1973. They were willing to allow for the establishment of a no-fly zone in order to avert a likely massacre of civilians and to help their European partners avoid a flood of refugees on their soil. They are much less willing to see NATO forces provide military assistance to a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler that it has traditionally supported.

I suspect that Russian leaders will increasingly begin to speak out against the military campaign if this conflict drags on. They will be especially concerned if it becomes increasingly clear that NATO air strikes are targeting Gaddhafi’s ground forces rather than limiting themselves to preventing Libyan air forces from targeting civilian areas.

This article was originally posted at Atlantic Sentinel, where I blog occasionally about Russian politics.

Wikileaks reaction makes the US government look bad

Wikileaks continues to stir a lot of discussion. It seems to me that the US government’s reaction has so far been entirely counter-productive. The heavy-handed efforts to destroy the site’s ability to function has only fed the image that Wikileaks is the victim here. It seems pretty clear from past experience that it is pretty much impossible to prevent information hosted on one site from being replicated elsewhere on the internet if the original site is taken down. After it was taken down in the US, it has relocated its primary site to Europe, while dozens, if not hundreds, of mirror sites have sprung up all over the world. It seems clear that it will not be possible for the US government, even with the cooperation of other governments, to take down all these sites. And even if they did, new ones will just appear. All Wikileaks has to do is maintain its ability to upload new cables once in a while, and the mirrors will continue. Plus, the traditional newspapers that have collaborated with Wikileaks on releasing the materials will continue to publish the stories and the cables that accompany them.

If the US government can’t actually stop the release of the cables at this point, then what is the purpose of its attacks on Wikileaks and its founder? It seems to me that the goal is to punish Assange  and his organization. As I’ve written before, I think publishing the cables is reprehensible. But at the same time, it seems to me that the way the government has chosen to go after Assange has only made it look like a bully, throwing its weight around, while Assange and Wikileaks have taken up the role of David courageously fighting off Goliath with whatever minimal resources it can find at hand. In this situation, world opinion will rapidly swing (if it hasn’t already) toward the underdog. Wikileaks will find much more support than it would have otherwise. And the US government’s standing in the world will be damaged more from its reaction than from the revelations in the cables themselves.

Domestic reaction within the US is also in flux. The policy of preventing government employees from viewing the cables, which I mentioned in my previous post on this subject, has now gotten widespread attention, especially because of ham-handed efforts to warn students at various universities that sharing information about the content of the cables may negatively impact their ability to get government jobs in the future. Again, the US government seems to be on the side of censorship and acting like “big brother.” Everyone on some level understands that getting a government job requires background checks, which involve doing things like checking people’s facebook accounts. But it really doesn’t help the government’s image to rub this fact in people’s faces, especially in the immediate aftermath of last month’s flap about overly intrusive airport screenings.

This is not to say that there should be no consequences for the leaks. If laws were broken by Wikileaks and/or Julian Assange, either those of the US or of another country, then the legal system should be used to prosecute the violator(s). And if Wikileaks’ actions aren’t actually illegal, then efforts to go after Assange and his organization seem even less appropriate.

The US government should stop its efforts to shut down Wikileaks, end its idiotic policy that prevents government employees and contractors from viewing the publicly available cables, and focus on changing its security procedures so that this type of leak can never happen again.

The pros and cons of Wikileaks disclosures

In a post on The Monkey Cage, Josh Tucker invites colleagues to debate the pros and cons of using the classified documents posted on Wikileaks in their research. For various reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue over the last few days, as well as in the aftermath of previous releases of documents over the last few months.

While I was initially torn about the extent to which the first two sets of leaks (the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs) actually harmed US national security, I firmly believe that the leaking of the diplomatic cables is a horrible act that will damage not just US policy but will actually harm international relations and increase the likelihood of conflict in the world in the future. There are two obvious harms: 1) US diplomats will fear that their cables will be leaked in the future and will be less forthright in their assessments. 2) Leaders and diplomats around the world will fear future leaks and will be less candid in their private conversations — preventing potential future diplomatic breakthroughs.

Having said this, I think it would be silly to avoid using the data now that it has been released. This would be kind of like the official position of the Defense Department, which states that the material found on Wikileaks is still considered classified and therefore should not be accessed from an unclassified computer by anyone with a US security clearance. It seems to me that this puts such people, all of whom can freely access these documents (and many others just like them) on their classified computers,  in the slightly silly position of being the only people around who cannot actually look at the documents. I wonder if they should also skip reading the front page of the New York Times for the next two weeks….

One might argue that there is a moral hazard issue — if one uses the data, it would encourage Wikileaks to release more data. But I think that the extent to which the data is used is irrelevant to the motivations of Assange and Co. They believe that the  “US is essentially an authoritarian conspiracy and … that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind.” Given this mentality, they are going to post anything they can get their hands on, regardless of whether academics use it in their analysis or not. So we might as well make the best of it.

One excellent example of the kind of work that can be done with this data can be found in a recent article by the political geographer John O’Laughlin using the Afghanistan war logs data to perform a geo-spatial analysis of where violence has occurred. It seems to me that this type of analysis will benefit not just scholarship, but also the US military operation itself, allowing it to better understand trends in violence, etc.

Perhaps there would be benefit from the government releasing this type of information in a controlled format — a database of events, without the sensitive personal information that puts people in danger or has a negative effect on various diplomatic efforts. This would address the argument of many critics of the US government’s tendency toward excessive secrecy and over-classification of documents whose release, many argue, would not actually harm US security. Of course, this seems highly unlikely in the current political environment, where the Wikileaks disclosures are likely to prompt more secrecy on the government’s part. Of course, greater secrecy will likely make it more difficult for those who have a legitimate reason to access classified documents in the course of their work to do their jobs, thus potentially making the US less secure….