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Russia's Defenders Try to Sell Their Side of Ukraine Story
The Washington Diplomat / May 2015

By Larry Luxner

Most U.S. news articles about the crisis in Ukraine — and Russia’s role in fomenting it — have one or two lines that mention Moscow’s unhappiness with NATO’s expansion since the end of the Cold War. But for Russia, that one line tells the whole story.

Russians, not surprisingly, have a very different narrative of Ukraine’s civil war and the provocations that led up to it. They think American political leaders simply don’t understand how their Russian counterparts think, nor can they see why the Kremlin harbors such a deep distrust of NATO and the European Union even though the Cold War ended 25 years ago.

Oleg Stepanov, Moscow’s No. 2 man in Washington, and Evgeny Minchenko, one of Russia’s top political analysts, drove home these points during recent lectures here that seek to clarify why they say their president, Vladimir Putin, is misunderstood and demonized in the West.

In particular, Stepanov’s March 25 speech at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies was a rare chance for the 160 people in attendance — mostly SAIS political science students — to hear current Kremlin thinking, straight from the source.

Stepanov, deputy chief of mission at the Russian Embassy, said bilateral relations are now at their worst in years — a trend that has only accelerated since the current showdown over Ukraine began in early 2014.

“Our impression is that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been no willingness on behalf of the U.S. political establishment to understand and see Russia as a valuable partner, with its own specific cultural and historical aspects and peculiarities,” he argued. “This has caused a lot of misunderstandings and tensions between our countries.”

That’s putting it mildly. While hopes were high that President Obama’s so-called reset with Russia in 2009 would fundamentally alter bilateral relations, those ties began to deteriorate long before fighting broke out between Moscow-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine and the new pro-Europe government in Kiev last year. Things went downhill after Putin regained the presidency in 2012 — he’s now been at the helm, one way or another, for 15 years — and he opposed Washington on issues ranging from Syria to Edward Snowden.

Stepanov, though, says the two sides diverged long before that. Repeating Putin’s official party line, he blamed President Obama and his predecessors for destroying the goodwill that had been established following the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s.

“For years, our governments were engaged in talks on how to establish mutually beneficial strategic relations, how to build joint mechanisms. We said a lot of good words, and we claimed that we were building common spaces with no dividing lines,” he said, lamenting that such a goal never came to pass.

“Dividing lines still exist, and despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, what we saw in Europe during previous administrations was a constant wave of NATO enlargement,” said Stepanov, blasting Washington’s recent strengthening of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe and around the world. “In 2002, the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was a strong blow to our relations, threatening the strategic balance of power that existed for so many years. For us, it’s a big concern because they can undermine our strategic arsenal.”

He added that “building such systems is also detrimental to U.S. security because it creates the illusion of invincibility.”

The question of invincibility is also important to Putin, a former KGB officer who for years has lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union. Harvard’s Stephen Walt and other foreign policy realists argue that, in fact, Russia’s insecurity has largely driven its response to Ukraine.

Contrary to conventional wisdom that Putin “is a relentless aggressor who is trying to recreate something akin to the old Soviet empire,” Walt describes Russia as “an aging, depopulating, and declining great power trying to cling to whatever international influence it still possesses and preserve a modest sphere of influence near its borders, so that stronger states — and especially the United States — cannot take advantage of its growing vulnerabilities,” he wrote in the Feb. 9 Foreign Policy article titled “Why Arming Kiev Is a Really, Really Bad Idea.”

Walt argues that the needless expansion of NATO along Russia’s borders, even though its raison d’être ceased to exist after the Soviet Union crumbled, only exacerbated Moscow’s paranoia. “As the critics warned it would, open-ended NATO expansion has done more to poison relations with Russia than any other single Western policy,” he declared.

Putin had been complaining for years that the U.S. was trying to pull neighboring countries such as Georgia into the West’s orbit. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO after its pro-Russian president was ousted was a red line for Putin, who promptly annexed the strategic peninsula of Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Despite international condemnation, Putin proudly defends the land grab as necessary to protect Crimea’s large ethnic Russian population. As self-serving as that justification may be, there is little doubt that Putin sees Ukraine — a former Soviet satellite of 45 million people located on Russia’s doorstep — as a vital strategic interest.

Ukraine’s historical and cultural ties to Russia run deep (Crimea itself was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev). Aware of these ties, Obama has thus far refused to send weaponry to Kiev, fearful of triggering an arms race with Russia, which has far more vested in Ukraine than does Washington.

Evgeny Minchenko, director of International Institute for Political Expertise in Moscow, says both Americans and Europeans underestimate the deep-rooted bonds between Russia and Ukraine. The protests that broke out in Kiev last year calling for closer relations with the European Union only tell half the story, he said.

“For Americans, Ukraine is a separate country, very different from Russia. But actually, about 30 percent of the Russian population has family in Ukraine, and more than 60 percent of Ukrainians speak Russian,” he told us. “Most of them are bilingual. The idea for one part of the country to establish its own rule for the whole country was wrong. That’s why more than 80 percent of people living in Crimea wanted to secede.”

With pro-Russian rebels breathing down their necks at the voting booths, it’s impossible to know how many of Crimea’s residents actually wanted to secede, but Minchenko says the support was there and quipped: “I don’t understand why Americans are so angry about secession. If this is such an unbreakable rule, you should be a part of the British Empire.”

Stepanov, who joined Russia’s Foreign Service in 1994 and began his current job in January 2010, also sees a double standard applied to the 2014 overthrow of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, which he called a coup d’état — despite State Department pronouncements to the contrary.

“The U.S. and European Union always said it’s unacceptable to overthrow a democratically elected government. In 2010, when Yanukovych was elected president, [U.S. Vice President] Joe Biden called and congratulated him. The EU recognized him too,” he pointed out. “But in 2014, when this president was overthrown by force, we didn’t hear any condemnation from the United States or Europe. More than that, both Washington and Brussels supported those people who overthrew him. This is an exercise in double standards.”

Likewise, Stepanov said the West’s coverage of last year’s protests glossed over some of the more unsavory elements within the pro-democracy movement. Ukrainians who didn’t support the Maidan Square revolution were beaten, Stepanov alleged; some police officers were killed and government property was destroyed. Anyone who disagreed with the protesters was called a fascist and neo-Nazi.

“Some were even burned alive,” he charged, “and we all remember the last time in Europe people were burned alive.”

Stepanov didn’t provide any evidence to substantiate those claims. He also conveniently failed to mention the many abuses that rebels have been accused of perpetrating since unilaterally seizing territory in Ukraine’s industrial heartland.

Russia has been a lifeline to those rebels, providing weapons, military assistance and “volunteers” to help them overpower Ukraine’s weak army, which has been starved of men and matériel since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

While some EU member states like Germany worry that providing Ukrainian forces with advanced weaponry will trigger Russian retaliation, those fears ring hollow to countries that lived under Soviet occupation for decades. Given this history — and the recent upsurge in Russian military incursions into EU airspace — it’s little surprise that countries such as Poland are clamoring for a stepped-up NATO presence to deter future Russian meddling.

In fact, the same day as Stepanov’s talk at SAIS, the secretary-general of NATO, Gen. Jens Stoltenberg, spoke at the nearby Willard InterContinental hotel to warn member states not to slash military expenditures in the face of Kremlin aggression.

“While we have been cutting our defense budgets, others have invested heavily,” Stoltenberg said in a March 25 address at the NATO Allied Command Transformation seminar. “Russia is investing in new tanks, new aircraft, new ships, new submarines and long-range cruise missiles. China is testing its first carrier battle group and building a second. And it has just announced a further 10 percent increase in its defense budget.”

Of the 14 NATO countries that have so far announced their military budgets for 2015, only the United States and Estonia have surpassed the 2 percent of national GDP that all 28 members of the alliance pledged to spend on defense at the last NATO summit in Wales in 2014. Poland has promised to meet that goal by 2016 — when NATO will hold its next summit in Warsaw — and Lithuania bumped up its budget to nearly 1.5 percent of its GDP. Despite the increases, NATO is still an American enterprise: U.S. taxpayers currently fund 75 percent of the bloc’s expenditures. And like Russia, the United States is set to increase its defense spending in the coming fiscal year.

While Washington and Moscow accuse each other of boosting defense spending at the other’s expense, there was a time, not that long ago, when NATO and Russia weren’t mortal enemies.

Before the Western security bloc underwent a major enlargement in 2004 that added seven former communist states to its ranks, Minchenko noted that Putin, back in March 2000, shocked fans and critics alike when he told the BBC’s David Frost that “we believe we can talk about more profound integration with NATO, but only if Russia is regarded as an equal partner.”

Putin also warned that any attempt by the Brussels-based alliance to exclude the Russians from the debate over NATO’s eastward expansion would only provoke anger. NATO disregarded those threats and counters that there were never any political or legally binding commitments forbidding the extension of NATO beyond the borders of a reunified Germany, as Putin often claims.

“Russia was not happy with the West, and the U.S. especially did not view Russia as an equal partner,” Minchenko told The Diplomat following his April 1 lecture at Washington’s Center on Global Interests. “From a Russian point of view, this behavior seemed arrogant. When Putin helped [President George W.] Bush with Afghanistan, what did he receive in return? NATO’s expansion to the Baltic countries.”

Minchenko said trust was further eroded during the Clinton administration.

“NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 had a very serious impact on Russian public opinion,” he said. So did the 2011 NATO attack on Libya, where a humanitarian mission quickly morphed into an air-bombing campaign to overthrow the Qaddafi regime, Minchenko said. “Russia did not use its veto in the U.N. Security Council to stop the invasion. But a lot of people in Russia think that was a mistake. In fact, for the Russian public, NATO is aggressive and dangerous.”

Those two adjectives are also often used to describe Putin himself. He’s inspired a cottage industry of experts speculating on what drives the enigmatic Russian leader’s behavior (narcissism, greed, thuggishness, even autism have all been mentioned).

But a few lone voices say Putin is a rational actor “motivated by the same geopolitical considerations that influence all great powers, including the United States,” as the University of Chicago’s John J. Mearsheimer wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year.

“Putin’s pushback should have come as no surprise. After all, the West had been moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests, a point Putin made emphatically and repeatedly,” Mearsheimer argued in the Foreign Affairs piece “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.”

“Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it. This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory,” he added. “After all, the United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, much less on its borders. Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it.”

Minchenko, in his D.C. lecture titled “Politburo 2.0: Can Putin’s Inner Circle Survive the Crisis?,” also insisted that Russia’s president is not nearly as evil as the Beltway consensus paints him out to be.

In fact, Putin is not a Russian ultra-nationalist, he’s not a dictator and he’s not even anti-Western — nor can he be influenced by money, said the political consultant, as he listed and then attempted to debunk five common myths about the Russian leader.

“Actually, Putin is very attentive, sometimes too attentive, to public opinion. Of course he has an influence on opinion, but I would not overestimate the role of so-called propaganda,” said Minchenko, who in 2013 was ranked first in popularity among political analysts rated by Russian journalists.

“Some people think that Russia is the same Soviet Union, but smaller. In reality, we have a market economy and we have a democracy,” said Minchenko, whose lecture sparked more than a few rather nasty comments from audience members who grumbled about the speaker’s obviously pro-Putin stance.

“Maybe it’s not perfect, but it works,” he continued, undeterred. “And we have an independent media. What’s interesting is that people who get their information from the Internet and social media are more pro-Putin and anti-American than those who get information from official media, which is trying to stay neutral. People on the Internet are more radical.”

Of course, the numerous media outlets that have been harassed or shut down for criticizing the Kremlin would beg to disagree with Minchenko’s assertions. Outside of Russia, analysts frequently accuse Putin of whipping up nationalistic fervor with the state-sponsored media’s one-sided, sensationalist coverage of the Ukraine crisis.

Polls show overwhelming domestic support for Putin’s Ukraine policy — so much so that it may be difficult for the Russian leader to put the lid back on the nationalist fever he helped stoke.

He may have no choice, though. Since the United States and 28-member EU imposed tough economic sanctions against Russia, foreign investment has spilled out of Russia, the value of the ruble has plummeted and Moscow’s energy-reliant budget has been squeezed by tumbling oil prices. The downturn threatens to undo the otherwise impressive economic gains made under Putin’s rule. In response, the Russian ruler has been courting EU allies such as Greece and Hungary to break the bloc’s unity on sanctions and end his country’s isolation.

U.S. officials credit sanctions for bringing Moscow, and by extension Ukraine’s rebels, to the bargaining table to forge a tenuous ceasefire in February. After months of fighting that killed more than 6,000 people and displaced a million more, the truce between Kiev and the separatists appears to be holding, although neither side has made progress on the core issues that divide them, like the political status of the separatist-held regions.

But Stepanov lashed out at the Western sanctions, denying that they have in any way influenced Russia’s calculations.

“Sanctions do not help to advance the peace process in Ukraine. Obviously they will not work with Russia, because you cannot isolate the sixth- or seventh-largest economy in the world. To have illusions that putting economic pressure on us will make us change course or stop believing in what we believe is a bit absurd,” he said.

“The policy of unilateral sanctions undermines the credibility of the United States as a partner in the international arena,” Stepanov continued. “On one hand, the U.S. claims it’s a leading voice for global trade, liberalization and market freedoms — and then on the other hand, you violate the same principles you claim to believe in.”

Moscow was always against violence in Ukraine, he said, insisting that Russian-backed rebels “don’t want to capture Kiev; they’re just defending their areas.”

However, Stepanov predicted that eventually, the conflict will come to an end.

“Realistically speaking, it doesn’t have a military solution,” he told his audience. “It can be solved only politically, through dialogue, but there has to be political will.”

After Stepanov’s speech at SAIS, the diplomat agreed to take a few questions.

One SAIS student bravely asked Stepanov what he really thinks of Putin. The diplomat thought for a minute, smiled and said, “Personally, I envy him. Next question?”

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