Unraveling the events in Ukraine, and the reaction in Russia, is another exercise in peeling back the layers of the onion of Russian imperial history. While most of the more spectacular events of the past few weeks are already well known in the West, there are some nuances that deserve examination with a little more depth -- in particular, their impact on civil society, particularly in Russia.
Russia’s ultimatum that Ukrainian forces defending the autonomous region of Crimea surrender -- or else -- may well lead Russia to be shunned and isolated by the world community as at no time since the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Damaging economic and visa sanctions are under discussion and other cooperative activities are being curtailed as well.
But it appears that Russian President Vladimir Putin is undeterred by such sanctions -- and may even secretly welcome them.
The economic sanctions alluded to by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last Sunday pertain mostly to the assets and activities of individuals linked to the aggression in Ukraine. But the economic environment is already turning sour. Bank loans to U.S. companies doing business in that part of the world are already becoming more costly because the risk premiums are higher. Uncertainties about future U.S. government action, and about potential Russian government retaliation, must be unpleasant company in many private U.S. board rooms. It suffices to recall that when the U.S. imposed relatively limited visa sanctions in the 2012 Magnitsky Act, Russia retaliated unsymmetrically with a sweeping ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children. Putin does not play softball.
Another unpleasant uncertainty for U.S. companies is that Europe seems cagey and perhaps a little intimidated about such actions because of their addiction to Russian hydrocarbons; unilateral U.S. actions that are unmatched by the EU will put U.S. businesses at a disadvantage.
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Turning to other areas of civil society, people-to-people contacts between the former residents of the USSR and the United States have been a pillar of U.S. foreign policy, even during some of the darkest days of the Cold War. Much as the Soviet regime manipulated them for propaganda purposes, they had the significant downside for the Soviet regime of exposing its educated elites to Western culture and Western values -- the very values that Putin famously denounces and disdains. This also why, perhaps paradoxically, some of the proposed measures may hurt those people whom we want to hurt the least. Sanctions in this area may not seem important to many, but they hit hard at those Russians of goodwill who have engaged in them because they become even more isolated and vulnerable.
These individuals often self-identify as members of that uniquely Russian social grouping of the “intelligentsia,” a concept that has no counterpart in the countries of the West. For them, contact with like-minded intellectuals in the West is their lifeblood. Being part of the world scientific, educational and cultural communities is one of their highest goals -- next to living in a rational and just society in their own country. Even so, it is important to understand that many of these Russians today, people who share the world’s disgust at the recent events, are stoically resigned to accept the West’s punitive actions for their country’s recent aggression. At the same time, many other Russians of equally goodwill, and confused and misled by the cynical and mendacious accounts in the state-controlled Russian media, a campaign of falsehood unprecedented even in Russia for many years.
During the Cold War, cooperation in the civil-society space was occasionally disrupted and damaged because scientific and scholarly exchanges were also tools of foreign policy, on both sides. But even in the worst of times, personal relations between scientists and others in the West and their Soviet and ex-Soviet counterparts have been of critical importance. For instance, important foreign policy and global security achievements are attributable to the informal ties between Soviet and American nuclear physicists during the direst days of the Cold War. In the post-Soviet period, it became almost self-evident on all sides that these days were gone and that the gates of the world community of scientists and scholars were wide open. Some even lamented that the old Soviet/Russian intelligentsia was dying due to the apparent dissipation of dictatorial government and the appeal of the creature comforts offered by the opening of Western markets.
But with the reappearance of harsh dictatorship at home and aggressive foreign policy abroad, it is now apparent that the Russian intelligentsia is back, alive and well -- as are the repressive government actions that are in fact its raison d’être.
Just this week, on Monday, a prominent Russian historian, Andrey Zubov, was fired from his post for writing a column harshly criticizing the Russian invasion of Crimea. Only two days later, however, his Rector reversed the action because of the unseemly nature of the dismissal process. Yet the message is not lost on Russian intellectuals: Speak out at your own risk. Zubov was fortunate because of his visibility and because of the courage of the institute’s Rector. Other Russian intellectuals who do not have this protection will not be so lucky.
It is therefore highly important that those in the West who have friends and counterparts in the sciences, arts, humanities and professions in Ukraine and Russia maintain and even invigorate their contacts with them. This is not a repeat of the failed, triumphalist Western policy of the 1990s, in which many, particularly in America, had delusions of making Russia over in our own image, nor certainly not a call for the overthrow of the current regime. While Putin and his associates may be justifiably frightened by what has happened in Ukraine -- i.e., the overthrow of a pro-Russian leader by a popular uprising -- the overthrow of Putin himself is not a realistic goal in Russia.
What is important, however, is to assure like-minded people of good will in these countries, and elsewhere in the former Soviet region of influence, that they are not forgotten and not being left as prey to what they, and many others, see as tyrannical power reminiscent of previous cycles and enduring themes of Eurasian history.
There are lessons, too, for those who have spent much effort in government-sponsored and private exchanges on sharing our experience about democratic process. In last week’s reportedly “unanimous” vote of the Russian Federation Council, essentially their Senate, to authorize President Putin to use military force in Ukraine, it turns out, according to reports, that the vote was somewhat tainted -- 85 delegates were present, with 81 absent. If this is true, it would appear that the 81 dissenters were simply told to stay home. Curiously, too, it is reported that 90 votes were recorded in favor -- also suggesting either that some Chicago-style politics were involved or that someone in that mathematically advanced nation could not count. Russians may well have learned about U.S. political process, but it is not to be excluded that some drew the wrong lessons.
That the Ukraine crisis has already squandered any conceivable goodwill that Putin has basked in during the Sochi Winter Olympics is obvious not only to the world, but also to him. It has also undoubtedly taken its toll in further undermining Putin’s legitimacy within Russia itself, although he is quite likely to survive and use even harsher repressive measures in the future. It is also extremely unlikely that he will be deterred in this by cries of anguish from Western governments or official sanctions, appropriate and indeed essential as they may be as expressions of foreign policy.
The only antidote—but certainly not a cure—is for private individuals and groups to make every effort to continue cooperation with people of goodwill in Russia, Ukraine, and all the countries of the region, in all areas of civil society—economic, scientific, technical, scholarly, professional, and cultural. At the same time it will be necessary for all to take sober account of the inevitable impact that official government sanctions—and inevitably, these will be sanctions from both sides, with Russian responses being more nuclear as compared to focused, disruptive Western actions—and to make the necessary adjustments. Fortunately, to meet a Russian colleague one no longer has to endure a 14-hour trip at 35,000 feet, suffer jet lag, and subject oneself to endless rounds of toasts. Today, modern technology offers many options, although hostile governments can do what they can to block these too.
Many years ago, there was a lively debate about whether advances in computer technology would help or hinder the dissident Soviet intelligentsia. Some said that Big Brother would seize the mainframes and gain total control of everything. Others foresaw that the personal computer and portable printers would breathe new life and vitality into those who sought change. Former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev settled the issue in the late 1980s by introducing glasnost -- open, public discussion -- in tacit acknowledgment that Big Brother had lost the battle.
Big Brother is vastly overrated, but he will thrive if we leave our colleagues to his whims.
Gerson S. Sher is a senior adviser with the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.