The Russian conflict with Ukraine has been the top story for months. With Ukraine’s elections now over and a new president in office, there are signs that Russia may be cooling its hostile attitude towards its neighbor and will work to improve relations. Will this last? With continued heavy fighting by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, one may doubt Russia’s sincerity, and a return to peace.
It was around these topics that representatives from academia, writers, social activists, artists, diplomats and policy-makers gathered for two days, from May 12-13, at an informal forum in Vilnius, titled ‘Russia Reality Check.’ The meeting was a policy review exercise, to hear the latest updates from inside Russia, and to discuss the economic and political consequences of the recent events and outline ways to further engage with our eastern neighbor. Opinions and ideas expressed over both days showed dismay over Russia’s actions, optimism over possible solutions, sobriety over the reality of the situation and a sincere desire by all to examine what is need to achieve a retreat from confrontation.
Dorian Ziedonis was there to join, and report on the discussions.
The conference was a joint initiative of the Eastern Europe Studies Center and the International Elections Study Center.
The Monday evening audience gathered to learn about Russia today was greeted with rather harsh words for the Russian president, as Senior Fellow of the Russian Academy of Sciences Andrei Piontkovsky explained that Vladimir Putin’s behavior is a “degradation for Russia, [and is] isolating Russia from the rest of the world.” Adding to a sentiment frequently heard today, he then compared Putin to Adolf Hitler, saying that it’s only “a matter of time that he brings Russia back to a concentration camp.”
Piontkovsky is not alone: former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Prince Charles recently caused a stir with their own Hitler comparisons.
The West has reacted quickly, if softly, to Russia’s land grab in the Crimea and its ongoing efforts at maintaining unrest in eastern Ukraine. Many are calling this conflict the start of a new Cold War.
But Piontkovsky likens the situation to something “much worse.” In the Cold War, and specifically after the Cuban missile crisis, he said, it was all about maintaining “the status quo.” Today, Russia’s aggression against neighboring Ukraine sees Putin changing European borders and upsetting the post-WWII world order, one of peace in Europe.
Keeping with the Putin-as-Hitler theme, the writer Andrei Kurkov said that the Russia people are being fed “Goebbels-style propaganda.” However, he feels that the people “were waiting for this [opportunity for patriotism]” after two decades of post-Soviet humiliation and unrest for Russia. The current patriotic hysteria, he says, won’t last very long, maybe for several months.
What the West needs to do, says Kurkov, is to “stay firm” against Putin. In the long run, he predicts, Russia will simply “collapse to China.” This is because the elites have created a Russia that is today dependent on oil and gas, and have not worked to develop other areas of the economy. Indeed, Russia’s economy today is one that is heavily dependent on commodity exports, not high value-added services, technology or manufactured products.
Being in power, even in the best of environments, leads to excesses and corruption. Putin in post-Soviet Russia is no exception.
The journalist and music critic Artemyi Troitsky said that after 15 years of unlimited power, Putin has developed “complexes, and is paranoid about Russia, European history. He has turned into a monster.”
But the issue is not to “stop Putin,” counters Piontkovsky. It is to “stop [his] Hitler[esque] recollection of history and of Russian lands.”
Russia today, is like a mental hospital, but where the doctors have left.
Upon this note, marking the end of the debate, the participants broke for dinner while enjoying the evening’s recital by master pianist Petras Geniusas.
The next morning’s discussions continued along similar lines, with opening remarks from Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius, who called Russia’s recent aggression “a moral threat, not just a military or political one.” He warned that “bonds are breaking in Europe” and a “new wall” between East and West is being built.
And though Russia’s government is increasingly oppressive at home, many different opinions are held by society. Defeat of Putin’s regime is possible through a “free Russia,” which includes strengthening freedoms of speech, expression. Western dialogue with Russia must continue, urges Linkevicius.
With Russia seeming to call the shots, literally and figuratively, in Ukraine, what can the West do? Is dialogue possible?
Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation Vladimir Soccor says “No, it is not possible to have a constructive dialogue with the Kremlin.” He adds that a redefinition of Putin’s interest is also needed. This territorial re-expansion is the new phase in post-Soviet Russia. It is being achieved, according to Soccor, through Russian media aggressively and openly inciting civil war in a neighboring country, and a para-military in Ukraine directed by Moscow. The West’s reaction to all this has been “confused and slow,” he laments.
Soccor’s prescription? Nato needs to address the security vacuum in the EU’s east, its neighborhood. NATO, with its distant operations in Afghanistan, has forgotten its primary responsibilities.
He also recommends supporting Ukraine with military equipment, warning that Ukraine today is “militarily helpless and will be crushed by Russian forces.” For the Baltics, this means “stationing combat forces [here] permanently.”
Though NATO leadership has not gone this far, it is increasing training activities in the Baltics, with additional troop deployments and an increased military presence, with more air and sea support.
Director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform Ian Bond, speaking to the audience, said that “We are bound to have a dialogue [with Russia], but on what terms? We have been trying for centuries, though [we haven’t] learned the lessons of history.” Russia’s invasion of the Crimea is “the most flagrant breach of international law in Europe, and the West’s response has been hesitant and divided,” said Bond. “Georgia ought to have been a warning.”
Russia attempts to justify itself by accusing the West of expansion and ignoring Russia’s interests. Bond disagrees, saying these are false claims. He disputes the assertion that the West provoked Russia by enlargement [of NATO and the EU], and that now the West owes Russia a sphere of influence. This is wrong because Nato and the EU are not threats, he said. And, Central Europe asked for Nato membership after the Soviet Union collapsed.
One of the West’s false beliefs, according to Bond, is that it has failed in engaging Russia. It has been “our belief that it will change with closer communication. This too is wrong, it turns out. The EU has had strong dialogue on every subject, and we can see the results.”
“What can we do?” he asks. Decisions should not be made over the heads of those concerned, over the interests of Ukraine, he suggests. It is not for outside parties to tell Ukraine what to do, to stay neutral. As well, “Russia is not Putin. We need to get a dialogue with the people.”
Some consider the problems today the result of differing interpretations of events, or a misunderstanding of each other’s intentions.
Head of the Russian Department at the Center for Eastern Studies Marek Menkiszak stated that “the definition of the neighborhood differs” between Russia and the West. The stakes are higher than just Ukraine. Russia is also threatening areas outside the former Soviet Union, and the pre-text started by Russia in Ukraine means global security is at stake. The very existence of the West, its unity, the intellectual concept of the West is at stake, he warns.
Menkiszak takes a hard line. “Putin will go as far as he is allowed,” he predicts. The West should put on sanctions designed for “smart” containment. Sanctions should be put in place on any legal entity that does business in the Crimea, temporarily suspend military cooperation along with a weapons embargo. Military and technology transfer blockage should be made permanent.
He allows that “sanctions are not a tool for deterrence,” but says this sends a message that the West is “principled, unified and determined.”
On the positive side, Menkiszak says there should be an increase in social contact with Russia, that the West needs to address more directly Russian society, NGOs, academics, and build on information campaigns through Russian language TV, into Russia to counter Russian propaganda. This includes tools such as Radio Free Europe, the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
Information is a tool of war, it’s the media, he says. And considering Russia’s ‘little green men’ that have been instrumental in incursions into Ukraine, Menkiszak urges the West to upgrade its defenses and understand and prepare for this new warfare.
Cleaning our home of corruption, improving transparency and honesty in politics and business, uniting, and rejecting the idea that Russia has legitimate rights to a sphere of influence are all areas needed to pursue to counter Putin’s actions.