Thanks, Obama! Or: Why the Guard Needs Changing

The reader will have to forgive me for getting this from the Russian press, but apparently in an interview on CNN, Obama “admitted” US involvement in the change of regime in Ukraine. Here’s the quote I’ve translated, which is being gleefully passed around by the Russian media.

“Putin has made this decision with respect to the Crimea and Ukraine, not because he had any kind of grand strategy, but in fact, because he was caught unawares protests on Maidan, as well as the flight of Yanukovych after we acted as an intermediary in the transfer of power in Ukraine.”

Now it seems to me what he was referring to the US role in the so-called 21 February agreement. Russians insist that the protesters didn’t hold to this agreement, ignoring the fact that the EU and US didn’t have some kind of command over the protesters, and more importantly, Yanukovych didn’t stick around to see them implemented; he left in the early morning hours of 22 February, citing an assassination attempt on his life that he’s never managed to produce evidence of.

Of course the Russian press is twisting Obama’s words, but Obama could have said it in another way which wouldn’t play right in to the hands of the Kremlin. This is by no means the first time he or other administration officials have done so. The need to portray America as a leader in the world leads politicians to make statements which are tantamount to handing Putin crates of ammunition. Here is a little phrase book which shows how Washington’s statements are interpreted by Putin and his hacks.

Statements about leading the world in imposing sanctions on Russia

This will be interpreted as proof that America is trying to control the world, and that it is forcing nations to sanction Russia. The implication is that countries side with the US not because of shared values or far more lucrative trade opportunities, but rather because the US twists their arm in some way. The Kremlin promotes the idea that there are only two sides in this world- that which is controlled by the US and that which is supposedly with Russia. Yes it’s cute how they think they are leading some kind of global resistance front, but statements like the above only help confirm the fantasy.

Statements about how sanctions are hurting the Russian economy

This one’s a bit tricky because by default the Kremlin press tries to claim that the sanctions are either useless or that they actually help Russia. Thus not talking about the sanctions and their effects might seem like supporting the claims of the Putin press. On the other hand, taking credit for “ruining” the Russian economy or saying that it is “in tatters” due to sanctions is far more useful to Putin. This allows the government to shift the blame to the West when life gets hard over here. A major pillar of Putin’s regime is distracting people by pointing to America every time another one of his failures is made evident.

Statements which portray Russia as a grave threat

This is precisely what Putin wants; it’s his currency with his base of bitter, envious, perpetually angry and ignorant people who would rather live in squalor and believe the world fears a resurgent Russia than live in a Russia that is actually strong, both socially and economically, though without threatening its neighbors and engaging in empire building.  In the simple minds of these people, Russia can only be great if it is feared. Whereas many Americans see their country’s ability and willingness to project military power around the world as at best, a negative side-effect of capitalist economic success, many Russians don’t see it that way. They are not opposed to projecting military power around the world and bullying other countries, rather they’re just angry that it’s America doing all the projecting and not Russia. The fact that Russia abandoned all its rhetoric about “not interfering in internal affairs of other countries” in Ukraine, plus their desire to purchase Mistral helicopter carriers proves this.

Obviously I could go on about other ways Russia’s press uses the statements of Western leaders to pillory them, but you get the idea. Therefore the question remains as to why American politicians like Obama or McCain haven’t seemed to figure out how not to shoot themselves in the foot when making statements in regard to Russia. I suspect the answer can be found in the academics and experts who advise them on these matters. Put simply, the guard needs to change.

What is my evidence? Well results are some of the best evidence one can put forward, and we’ve seen that since the fall of the Soviet Union Western leaders have largely bungled relations with Russia. Defenders of the present school, many of whom are the first to invoke the term “New Cold War,” cannot have it both ways. Either they acknowledge that US-Russia relations went to hell in a handbasket on their watch, or they don’t get to crow about any new Cold Wars or the rising threat posed by Putin. Obviously the truth is that the former is precisely what happened. These academics and experts continually advised presidents and other politicians based on their years of training and education and the result has been the revival of a fascist, revanchist Russian empire which is currently involved in a conflict that has hitherto killed over 5,000 and displaced tens of thousands of refugees. Somebody wasn’t doing a very good job. Perhaps it’s time to try listening to somebody else.

If you want to see how these expert advisers will no doubt bungle things further, keep an eye on Belarus. Belarus is often portrayed as a puppet of Putin’s Russia and its president Alexander Lukashenko is labeled “Europe’s last dictator.” In spite of this, however, Lukashenko has for the most part thrown in his lot with Ukraine against Putin. Aside from condemning Russian involvement in Ukraine and not recognizing the annexation of Crimea, Belarus recently revised its military doctrine to treat the presence of foreign troops without insignia as a hostile invasion. This revision is clearly aimed at a “little green men” scenario like the one that happened in the Crimea. As if this weren’t enough, Lukashenko directly addressed the Kremlin’s imperialist theory of the “Russkiy Mir”(Russian world) and those who don’t respect Belarus’ sovereignty and independence.

It is clear to anyone with real, practical knowledge of the pro-Kremlin ideology, that Lukashenko isn’t making a broad statement that could be aimed as much at the West as it is at Russia. When he talks about people saying that “Belarus is practically Russia” and “No such country as Belarus ever existed,” he’s talking about Russians, I assure you. What is more, Lukashenko’s answer to this is realistic and positive- “There was no such country…Now there is.”

Of course there are two ways Western leaders can react to this. They can listen to the academics who have brought nothing but failure and who could be held somewhat responsible for the bloodshed in Ukraine, or they can try a new strategy by looking for new voices. If they listen to the old guard, they’ll most likely insist on isolating and removing Lukashenko by any means possible, hoping that the next opposition protest wave will be another Maidan. Once again they’ll turn a blind eye to the actual composition of that movement, and support anyone who’s anti-Lukashenko regardless of their ideology or behavior. That’s going to play right into the hands of Putin, who will be given another golden opportunity to start another frozen conflict, assuming he doesn’t just annex the country altogether. This would certainly be a lot easier than Ukraine. Even if such an annexation doesn’t happen, it’s likely that the old school experts will support leaders who are incredibly unpopular at home, but appealing to the US and EU. This will also ensure that Putin can continue to dominate the country and derive currency from this.

Now what if US and EU leaders tried a different approach, driving a wedge between Belarus and Russia by making friendly overtures toward Lukashenko? Oh what’s that? He’s a dictator you say? I’m going to have to ask you to go ahead and shut up right there. The fawning praise Obama and European leaders gave to the recently deceased Saudi monarch is an indisputable reminder that Western leaders are more than happy to praise and support dictators who have done far worse than Lukashenko ever has. Now while you backward types are sitting there tight-lipped as you should be, listen up. What I am suggesting is a Western attempt to reconcile what opposition remains in Belarus with the government, and encouraging them to work together to hammer out a program of transition to a functioning democracy without mass disorder that Putin could use as a pretext for an invasion. Moreover, Western leaders can acknowledge their mistakes in Ukraine and make it clear that these will not be repeated. Toward that end, the process of mediation should be portrayed as protecting Belorussian sovereignty from any interlopers, an attempt to avoid the bloodshed and chaos that broke out in Ukraine, and the promotion of national unity instead of backward, radical nationalism which polarizes society.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly expecting a different result. That may not always be true in the real world, but it certainly is when it comes to US and European policies in regards to Eastern Europe. Putin is a Cold Warrior, and American and European leaders are being advised by other Cold Warriors or people who were trained by them. While Putin certainly isn’t the master chess player as portrayed by his press, he has thus far been able to keep up with Western leaders mainly because they aren’t really bringing anything new to the table.

Ultimately to reverse this situation it will require the eventual cleansing of academia when it comes to Russian studies. If I could I’d implement a sort of performance metric by which your job is tied to how accurately your work on Russia and Eastern Europe reflects actual reality on the ground, and what results from following your recommendations. Naturally this is a long way off in coming, so in the mean time I think it’s important to listen to the people on the ground- the journalists. We have a new generation of Russia reporters from diverse backgrounds and experience in Russia and Eastern Europe. Many of these people, myself included, come to the table with years of solid background knowledge from the get-go. That cultural contact and immersion sharpens our instinct when it comes to who to trust and who’s lying. I believe this is why there seems to have been, at least in my opinion, a notable increase in more objective journalism on Russia compared to five or ten years ago.

I realize I am making a bold assertion which will upset many people with fancy degrees, but again, disaster after disaster happened on their watch, not mine. Once again the president made a foolish statement which exploded like a bomb on the Russian media and as one of my Twitter followers accurately put it, will be played by the Russian press “on a loop for at least a year.” If people in Washington want to avoid such gaffes in the future, there needs to be a changing of the guard.


9 thoughts on “Thanks, Obama! Or: Why the Guard Needs Changing

  1. Senya

    Thanks nobsrussia, you have been an invaluable source of information. Your comments re Belarus reflect what I have been thinking recently. It is self evident current advisors are inadequate, more are needed and certainly from a wider source but let’s not advocate throwing baby out with the bathwater. Academic historians here, in the UK, feel they are most definitely NOT listened to by government, or even consulted much – who knows what advice No 10 seeking but it does not seem to be from a particularly wide academic source on Ukraine.

    I remember back in 2003, academics at SOAS received a very basic e mail request the NIGHT BEFORE THE INVASION for information about Iraq, how “we” might be received by the general Iraqi population etc……

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I understand. I just tend to suspect that the people who have the president’s ear most likely have impressive degrees from top-tier universities. Also I may be prejudiced because I have a lot of experience with Russian studies majors with very weird ideas about Russia which are not reflected in daily reality. It sometimes produces a knee-jerk reaction in me, unfortunately.

      1. Senya

        Yep, I couldn’t comment on the situation in the USA, just reflecting on the UK experience of academics. Of course advice to foreign office is always under condition of silence I just hear from certain academics that they haven’t felt listened to on Putin, especially on Crimea (nice politicians who just couldn’t accept the reality of what was staring them in the face).

        The 2003 example was an eye opener for me – the night before the invasion being the first invitation beyond their normal sources (whatever/whomever that was). Certainly here the Defence Committee report in the Autumn cited, mainly from the Chair Rory Stewart, that Britain (and Nato) main fault on Putin was lack of intelligence, wider and more sources were the only way forward and much lamenting on why this has not been happening since 2008.

        Thanks again for your site – it’s been a welcome refuge in a sea of bullshit.

  2. Ivor Crotty

    Enjoyed your piece. Read your site. The US wasn’t a signatory to the Feb 21st agreement. It ‘brokered’ nothing, officially (though neither did Steinmeier, Fabius and Sikorski)). I think your point on language us very pertinent but don’t give Obama the benefit of any doubt, unfortunately) He knows exactly what he’s saying.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      That just makes it even more absurd that Obama said or implied that, because there really was no basis for it.

      Let’s be frank, some US-funded NGOs definitely played a role in the protests, but as I’ve pointed out on this blog before, this only works when you have an unresponsive, corrupt government that makes people instinctively seek out anyone who appears to be similarly opposed to it. If Yanukovych’s Ukraine were a wonderful place, people wouldn’t listen to foreign-funded NGOs. They’d start their own NGOs, raise their own funds, and tackle the problems they see in their society via normal, legal means.

      Of course even with the NGO involvement, that is a far cry from saying the US engineered the transition from power.

      It would have made more sense to say the first part about Putin’s desperate improvised reactions, and then leave it at that. The first part is at least accurate.

      1. Asehpe

        I think ultimately Obama, and politicians like McCain, are thinking of the American voter when they make these broad statements about how ‘we’re leading the world’, etc. Maybe they’ve been told that the effect in Russia is not good; but they think to themselves that Russians aren’t going to vote them into Congress or the White House, so why bother?

        By the way, I’m curious about the “crazy opinions” you’ve heard from Russian studies majors without a clue. I never studied Russia academically — Russia is more of a hobby to me, for family reasons — so I never actually encountered, in the flesh, a living, breathing Russia specialist. What kinds of strange things have you heard them declare as god’s truth? I’m curious.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        It’s hard to recall off the top of my head, but one working example is you’ll be talking about some problem that cropped up after the fall of the USSR and they’ll attribute this to Stalin. Long reach that man has.

        Another time this woman who had studied Georgia informed me that “the whole Caucasus” was rising against Putin- in 2009. I informed her that no, actually it clearly wasn’t.

  3. Estragon

    Speaking of Luka, whatever happened to the “Russky Mir” foundation that was launched around 2010? This was supposed to be a major cultural initiative. Did something actually happen, or is it just another case of the Russian gov’t announcing grandiose plans and then failing to follow through?


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