How effective has the US been in influencing developments in Russia? If Victoria Nuland said Washington had spent $5bn on ‘democratic change’ in Ukraine, would it not be reasonable to assume that some money has been channeled into Russia? What do we know about it?

The result of Western – predominantly US – pressure has so far been that Putin’s rating shot up to over 80 percent. So is this a reasonable strategy, if indeed the goal is to bring in those forces of democracy - and do away with all the wrongs that the West associates with Putin and his entourage?

To discuss this, VoR’s Dmitry Linnik is joined by:

Dr William Sheward, Programme Leader in Politics and Global Studies at the University of Winchester and a specialist in Contemporary American Politics and Political History

Charlie Wolf, American broadcaster and political commentator living in London 

Eric Kraus, director at the Moscow-based company Principal Asset Management

 

Soundbites

EK: “The United States found that the Yeltsin regime of the 1990s was quite positive. They were unchallenged by it, it was compliant and did not interfere with their policy objectives. The fact that for the Russian people it was an unmitigated disaster was unfortunate – but they could live with that. Russians are living much better under the current government, for all its shortcomings. But the government has been relatively assertive vis-a-vis the West, and Mr Putin sees Russia as an independent actor with its own set of interests, goals, fears and strategies and wishes to be taken as an equal, and thus far hasn’t got what he wanted along those lines.”

WS: “One of the problems is it’s probably a misreading of the Russian geopolitical imperative, which is essentially defensive in orientation. So when we see things like what happened in Crimea and Ukraine, to much of American foreign policy thinking that’s Russia being assertive and aggressive. Mitt Romney in 2012 said he saw Russia as America’s number one geopolitical foe, so that’s setting out a very specific marker that Russia is not be trusted, it only understand strength, et cetera, and I think a lot of that goes back 20 years. It’s not really a meeting of the minds… that fundamentally seems a major problem. In the American position there seems to be a misunderstanding, willful or otherwise, of what Russia wants to have happen. Essentially Russia is defensive, but it is seen as being aggressive.”

CW: “Ukraine probably helped seal the deal – not just in the minds of certain [people] – but I think it is fair to say we have an administration right now that doesn’t know what it wants. In the beginning there was the famous reset button, which to be fair I think was genuine, but I think there was probably a misunderstanding – well, the whole foreign policy was misunderstood. I think there was a lot of this feeling that Obama’s not George Bush, Obama’s charismatic, all I have to do is go round and give a couple of speeches and a smile and that’s how it works. And I look at Mr Putin and Mr Putin is more of a politician and an operator, and he’s in for Russia’s self-interest, which is fair enough, and there is no love lost between the two. So I see a combination of slightly confused foreign policy from the United States – you look at the sanctions, which to me are not strong enough but to me, the fact that Mr Lavrov is complaining means they must be doing something – they’re having some sort of an effect.”

EK: “The sanctions have been modestly effective, but not as intended …. And the view on the ground is a mixed bag… depending on certain decisions which will be made or not in the Kremlin. Russia has been revealed to be extremely vulnerable to western sanctioning or blackmail, depending on how you want to look at it. The financial system, in part the payment and credit card system – they’re rushing to create alternatives so as not to be held to ransom for geopolitical goals.”

WS: “The conventional thing with America in the past with what’s aimed at destabilising was to funnel money to democratic or dissident groups. I don’t see any evidence that’s being done - at least not overtly. I think they’ve certainly made it clear in Ukraine who was being supported. The weakness in the American position is that - what can they do? Militarily, or to influence the Russian position. The one thing that might have an influence … is that Russia’s a dying power, the population is decreasing … but of course that’s in the future and may not take place. The other [counterweight] is natural gas and oil, and clearly Russian concerns about the decline in the price of oil – that does have an impact on Russian policy. Now can you manipulate that? It’s difficult to see how you’d do that, because it affects everybody. And it’s extremely difficult to manipulate world oil markets, for example, but that’s the sort of thing you’re going to have to think about if you’re going to change policy. What implement can you use to make a difference?”

EK: “The likelihood of anyone durably changing Russian foreign policy from without is nil. It has been attempted ... There are human rights problems in all countries … I don’t think those problems can be solved from outside. The Russians will have to solve their own problems. The time when they looked at America for assistance, the 1990s, is gone. Certainly I don’t think it’s arguable that the sanctions have served to consolidate Mr Putin’s power. And according to polls, in China Putin has a 92 percent popularity rating as opposed to 86 percent in Russia. The policy has been to drive Russia far closer to China - which is a goal which has eluded Russian and Chinese policymakers for 20 years.

“Certainly the current US policy is not popular in Russia. There is a natural rally ‘round the flag impulse which you are going to have in any country. I would say that western influence is declining, so what we’re seeing now is a slow but substantial increase in the perceptions that China is the rising power, and that we best look eastwards, not only to China but to Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.

“What you have in Russia is a split. You have a small liberal intelligentsia which was heavily beholden to Washington and some of it very much remains so, [whilst] some of it is now feeling orphaned – you saw Mr Navalny [Alexey Navalny – Russian opposition activist], who was funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and was very close to Washington, saying that if he came to power, which of course he won’t, Crimea will remain Russian… So they [opposition figures] are now feeling more conflicted. And then you have the immense mass of the Russian populace which is somehow relatively patriotic, which believes in Russian values, whatever they may be, and some of which looks back to the old days of the Soviet Union as a period of stability, tranquility, of predictability.”

WS: “Certainly, in terms of the United States, public opinion on foreign policy is very much a sort of squirrel going off after the next nut – it goes from one thing to the next very-very quickly, and at the moment it’s all about ISIS, all the time. Back in the summer it was of course, all about Ukraine. So that makes it very difficult to focus public opinion, which is very unfocussed on foreign policy at the best of times – unless there’s a clear US interest involved.”

CW: “This does also go down to leadership. One of the great arguments on certain campaigns, and when you look at ISIS, is that you have a president that’s talking about what he’s not going to do, which is to put boots on the ground, and yes it’s a fair point to say that America is war-wary right now and would not want to see boots on the ground, but it is the job of the leader, of a Ronald Regan for instance, to convince people what you need to do to lead the people…

“Unfortunately, we do have a president who at times seems disinterested especially in foreign policy. This is a man who is more interested in pushing Obamacare and the War on Women, minimum wage… So it’s not his strong suit to begin with, but there is this lack of leadership and that is what is causing all of these problems.

“If you look back at George Bush, whether you agree or disagree with his policies, he sold it continually. He talked about his Freedom Agenda and why he was going into Iraq, and what he was doing in Afghanistan – he owned it.”

EK: “That is the point! The Pied Piper was a great leader who was followed by drolls off a cliff edge. Leadership is a wonderful thing if you’re leading in the right direction. Mr Bush created ISIS – they basically destabilised in some ways disagreeable regimes, but secular regimes of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and now what you’re getting is a power vacuum into which the worst forces are flowing in. I’m afraid they’ve done very much the same thing in Ukraine. You’ve basically got a government of oligarchs backed by a small but militant faction of fascists, and I’m using the term advisedly, and I don’t think they’d object to my use of that term, which had just been shown in the pages of the New York Times to be using cluster munitions on its own people… This may be a failure of leadership but I think it’s more a failure of diplomacy and of direction.”

WS: “There was an article written in 1990 by John Mearsheimer, an international relations scholar, saying – why we all missed the Cold War, and people thought it was a very strange thing to say back then, because we were about to win the Cold War, why would we miss it? Because it made things remarkably easy and straightforward for American foreign policy if you saw what you perceived to be a communist movement anywhere in the world, you’d rush to knock it on the head. That policy has become much more complicated, so I think leadership becomes more complicated as a consequence.”

CW: “I think that America has a very important place in the world and it has been founded on being a beacon of liberty – if you would allow me to flag-wave just for a moment, but it’s more than just flag-waving, it is a serious concept. We don’t always get it right but there needs to be leadership in the world because otherwise it creates vacuums and bad actors will fill them.”

EK: “Any country which becomes the global hegemon concentrates the fire of everyone else. It is not a stable situation – we are moving towards a multipolar world whether this pleases Washington or not, they are becoming very irritable when they see their power flaunted – certainly the situation with Georgia and South Ossetia and Abkhazia, now the fact that Crimea is clearly a part of Russia and is not going back is creating irritation.

“The problem is that European diplomacy has been hijacked and whereas a few years ago the Europeans did tend to look out for their own interests they’ve now been frogmarched into this impossible position where there is no solution – where the amount of money it is going to take to rescue Ukraine is enormous. The Americans gave them [Ukraine] a very kind 52 million dollars. What they need is something like a few hundred billion… Where is that money going to come from?”

CW: “One thing you do have to take note of at least as far as the United States and Hillary Clinton is concerned, remember – we have an election coming up in two years’ time… Hillary Clinton is now in a modus operandi of being the non-Obama, of separating herself from Obama and that administration. Mr Obama’s competence levels are very low right now and even in the midterm elections which are happening soon it will be interesting because there are a lot of democrats that are trying to stay clear of Mr Obama for the moment.

WS: “That reference [by Obama] to Russia as a regional power – it’s clearly not a superpower. We are not back in the Cold War days and Russia doesn’t have that international presence. The sense of the language of being that existential threat – it’s still a nuclear power, so from that perspective… But it has to be taken seriously because it is involved in areas where America has concerns…

“America knows that to solve these problems – you have to use Russia or at least to involve Russia…”

EK: “No educated adult Russian will speak in those terms [that America is evil]. This seems to be the management coming out of Washington were the political discourse has been dumbed down to quite a striking degree. Russians see a power struggle between America and this part of the world and they are now beginning to align themselves, looking to the BRICS, looking for a multipolar alignment against the US. Nobody calls them evil because they serve their own interests but nobody also believes that they are uniquely good or exceptional or destined to lead.”

(VoR)