Roxburgh’s Putin

Angus Roxburgh is an author, song writer, and PR man. For a while, he advised the Russian government, presumably on PR matters. Given where things are now, one hopes that the Russian government is not following his advice.

Let us assume that Angus knows a thing or two about Russia (I believe that he does) and that he is sincere. His views about the current crisis in Ukraine are summed up in a recent Guardian article

The solution is clear. Abandon the missile shield. End the expansion of Nato. And think boldly about a new security arrangement for the whole of Europe – one that will bring Russia in rather than leaving it outside feeling vulnerable. If this were done, everything I know about Putin and Russia tells me the crisis over Ukraine would be solved – and the Russian economy would not end up being needlessly destroyed, causing woe and bitterness among its people. If it is not done, we will have to deal with a resentful Russia for decades – for Putin’s successors will also demand security.

Let us return to the ideals of 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev envisaged a new “common European home”. That is what every Russian leader since him has wanted – while the west, it seems, never did.

We can dismiss the last paragraph as hyperbole. In fact, Mr. Gorbachev most wanted to keep the Soviet Union together. This suited him and his circle, but it ignored the wishes of many, Balts included, who wanted just the opposite. Shall we now resurrect that crisis?

One more thing about this hyperbole. Going back to 1991, there is ample evidence that the west actually wanted to fit Russia into a new European home. The main question was how to accomplish this. I know because I was part of the regional effort to make that happen. The regional programming was generic (not targeted to advance one country over another) and was aimed to assist countries to make the transition from Soviet to western institutional orientation. Let us be clear, at a certain point in time, Russian policy, from the top down, changed to reject this approach. The most probable reasons are that this policy approach presumed a devolution of power away from the Kremlin as well as increased accountability for the results of policy. The ruling elite in Russia wanted to have their cake (friendship with the west) and eat it too (consolidate power).

The most painful result of this change in policy was the end of legal reform in Russia. The end of legal reform surprised some. For example, Paul Klebnikov, thought it possible to report for Forbes on large scale corruption issues. He was shot in the head very soon after setting up shop in Moscow.  It surprised Mr. Khodorkovsky as well, who thought it possible to oppose the Kremlin.  But these two were not the only ones who faced unpleasant surprises. It also surprised scores of people who took over certain values that are at the core of the European experience – free speech and protection of human rights. Journalists, human rights workers, lawyers. The list of folks inside Russia who were unpleasantly surprised is rather long.

Was this policy change necessitated by the something the west did? I think it would be more accurate to say that we have been witnessing a long term clash over fundamental values. On one side are forces within Russia. Notice I do not say the Russian people. But certain forces have chosen to reject values that the west holds to be fundamental. On the other side are people who believe these values are fundamental to build a better future.

If we are in the midst of such a clash, is it appropriate to blame the west for having values? Well, I think not. I do think blaming the west for the crisis is the type of distraction that you would expect from propagandists or by persons taken in by their messaging.

But what about the first paragraph? Angus writes

… everything I know about Putin and Russia tells me the crisis over Ukraine would be solved (if the west reaches out to Russia).

This is ironic in that Angus admits earlier that Putin’s strength is precisely his inscrutability.

…  Putin’s response to sanctions is always bizarre.

So what could Angus actually know that the rest of us do not?  I would argue that the answer is nothing. But we do know one thing. about the situation. Putin has it in his power to end the Ukraine crisis tomorrow.  He has had this power from the beginning. He chose then and chooses now not to end it. Why? We can only guess.

This insight is critical. As Angus tells us, we cannot predict what Putin will choose if the west does reach out to him, He is as likely as not simply to proclaim victory and demand more concessions that secure and increase his power. That implies further attempts to erode the institutional structures that would constrain him. And yes, while NATO has never been a threat to Russia, it does constrain those in Russia who would like to extend their influence beyond Russia’s borders.

Based on this, I do apologize Angus if this sounds a bit harsh, but we either hold on to our shared values here or we give in to folks who do not share them. We may not be able to choose how to end this mess, but we do have that choice.

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