The Worm Turns: Russian Pundits on the Ukrainian Crisis and Western Sanctions

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The Worm Turns: Russian Pundits on the Ukrainian Crisis and Western Sanctions
Published 5-08-2014, 08:59

Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow.

Russian journalism is emerging from pro-Western wishful thinking to something resembling consciousness of the national interest. For these salutary changes in Russian informational space, one can only thank President Obama and his neocon-dominated administration. Read on…

US and Western mass media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis has remained fairly uniform in its condemnation of Russia’s role through the spring and summer of 2014, with the latest developments surrounding the crash of the Malaysian airliner over separatist held territory in Eastern Ukraine tending to further lock out any hint of controversy over Russian intentions and culpability. The reporting perspective tends to be day-to-day, with the accent on human interest aspects of the day’s haul of news, such as the disposition of the corpses and body parts of the unfortunate passengers. Background information is largely missing. We are not told about the state of war in the zone where the crash occurred, about the other horrors going on amidst the Ukrainian army’s assault on cities in the Donbas

Sadly, US professional journals are not much more diligent in searching for and communicating what might constitute a view coming from the other side of the present confrontation with Russia.A worthy exception is the July-August issue ofForeign Affairsmagazine, which offers two back-to-back essays that buck the trend. One is by an authoritative Russian professor at the diplomatic academy under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Lukin. This is a rare instance when official Russia is given the microphone.

The other essay, by professor emeritus of Columbia University Robert Legvold, is entitled "Managing the New Cold War.” Legvold strikes a pose of neutrality in which he urges both the US and Russia to try harder to understand the reasoning and motivation of the other side in this dispute so as to head towards a political resolution and shallow period of rough relations. However, Legvold is willfully ignoring the possibility that one side has no interest in returning to normal intercourse, by which I mean Washington, and this possibility looks more like a probability upon close inspection. As a veteran of the first Cold War, Legvold is protecting his flanks against anticipated slings and arrows of his colleagues rather than seeking truth wherever it lies.

One might ask where are the traditional critics of U.S. foreign policy within the broader academic community?One of the most visible and consistent authors denouncing the American Empire in recent years has been Boston University Professor of International Relations Andrew Bacevich. Yet, he is conspicuously silent on Russia and Ukraine for reasons unknown. Perhaps as a non-expert on the countries involved, Bacevich has waited for those in the field to take the lead.

Or some other factor may be operative. The Ur-critic, the Great American Dissident, MIT Professor Noam Chomsky took a while to weigh in, holding his silence until his distaste for American bullying of Russia and its aggressive hypocrisy outweighed his distaste for what he construed as Mr. Putin’s authoritarian regime. When he did emerge, however, Chomsky was eloquent:see his "Red Lines in Ukraine and Elsewhere” published on May 2ndin the online

In effect, the mantle of Great American Dissident with respect to Russia and Ukraine has been assumed by America’s leading scholar and teacher in the field, Professor emeritus of Princeton and New York University Stephen Cohen. From the very beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Cohen has been waging a heroic campaign. He has exposed the absence of debate in American public space over the abrupt turn towards Cold War rhetoric and actions that the Obama administration has undertaken since the start of the year, with all the strategic military and economic security risks they entail. He has gone into direct combat with some of the most vicious Russia-bashers who enjoy privileged space in our journals for the chattering classes, Julia Ioffe inThe New Republicand Timothy Snyder inThe New York Review of Books.In an article inThe Nationentitled "The Silence of American Hawks About Kiev’s Atrocities,” Cohen has detailed the machinations of official Washington and subservient American journalism that have kept the public ignorant of the domestic forces driving escalation of the civil war in Ukraine.

Cohen has gotten air time on CNN, where he has appeared as a guest of Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square program. However, against the rhythmic beating of drums of war from nearly all other featured pundits in the mainstream media and with insults hurled at him in other outlets for his heterodox views, Cohen’s voice and reasoning struggles to be heard.


Meanwhile in Russia the confrontation with the West over Ukraine has prompted much soul-searching and realignment of political positions among press journalists and political commentators, who, paradoxically were in the past much more critically disposed to the powers-that-be than their counterparts in the West. The reason surely comes from the dramatic patriotic upsurge that followed the annexation of Crimea and the onset of Western sanctions. The tide that has brought Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings to more than 80%, the highest in his 14 years in federal office, also swamped the boats of opposition politicians and pundits. Moreover, the sheer stupidity of the authors of the sanctions in Washington, their ignorant assumption that they might split the Russian elites and achieve the ouster of Putin and his circle from power by waging economic warfare at no cost to themselves, has penetrated to even the most die-hard opponents of the Kremlin among Russian political commentators.

A case in point is the 28 July essay inThe Moscow Timesentitled "On how Western supporters of sanctions have not figured out Russian reality” by Georgiy Bovt, a regular columnist whose views have till now been in line with the paper’s editorial position of bashing Putin, the Kremlin and Russia in general.

It may come as a surprise to those who have heard ofThe Moscow Timesonly from news stories it and its Russian-language sister publicationVedomostihave fed to their partners inThe Wall Street JournalandThe Financial Times,but the political line of a paper originally created to serve the expatriate community in Moscow has been directed against its host country for more than a decade under the watchful eye of its Finnish owners, Sanoma. The publishing group is in daily contradiction with its registered name ofIndependent Media.

Another straw in the wind to illustrate my point that Russian journalism is emerging from pro-Western wishful thinking to something resembling consciousness of the national interest is an article published on 31 July in the non-mainstream outlet Transitions Online ( by Galina Stolyarova, a journalist with the Independent Media’sSt Petersburg Times.Stolyarova was for many years the main writer on cultural events in the Northern Capital, then moved to business reporting.Now she has made the jump to political commentary with an essay whose title tells the whole story:"Outrage and Double Standards. The flood of anti-Russian rhetoric in the West will lead us nowhere good.”

However, my most important exhibit of how the worm turns is Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a political analyst with a background in security issues, who has been widely published in the West as well as in Russia. Over the years, Trenin has blown hot and cold with respect to Putin and the Kremlin leadership. Pandering to the expectations of his paymasters in Washington, he has written some pretty foolish essays from time to time. Five years ago, I took him to task for just this weakness: see also have been obliged to call out the seditious behavior of leading members of his staff at the Carnegie Center, in particular Lilia Shevtsova: see

Judging from his latest writings over the past couple of months, Dr. Trenin has had an epiphany. His latent superior skills of broad-stroke strategic analysis have come to the fore as seen most convincingly in an article published on 29 July inRussia in Global Affairs(, a partner publication ofForeign Affairs: "Europe’s Nightmare Coming True: America vs. Russsia…Again. And the stakes could not be any higher.”In this piece, we get all the connections between the bits and pieces of US-Russian confrontation over Ukraine and the big picture of a struggle over American global hegemony. Seen in this light, the chances of the sides cooling things down by trying to be reasonable and accommodating, as suggested by Legvold, are close to nil. Personalities count for little or nothing, national interests for everything.

Meanwhile Trenin is these days accurately describing the challenge and the opportunity which Western sanctions have presented to the Kremlin. As he notes, if Putin can rise to the challenge and, on the strength of his overwhelming popularity, rein in the oligarchs further, curb corruption more and successfully launch the reindustrialization that import substitution invites, he will greatly broaden the economy away from mineral extraction and Russia may genuinely prosper. That in turn will take the country along its way on the path to full-fledged democracy.This is a vision which no Russian pundit would have ventured to put forward 18 months ago.

For these salutary changes in Russian informational space, we can only thank President Obama and his neocon-dominated administration.

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