The Generation of ’91

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Incredible as it seems, it was only a year ago that US relations with Russia began their serious slide downhill. The first sign of trouble that I noticed was the cover of The New Yorker for February 3, 2014, on the eve of the Sochi Olympics.  A figure-skating Vladimir Putin leaps while five little Putin lookalikes feign disinterest from the judges’ stand.

A month later, after a series of increasingly violent demonstrations in Kiev, the recently-elected Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Moscow.

I still don’t know what to believe about those events. Were they a “revolution,” or  “coup?” Whatever the case, there is ample evidence that the US was in the midst of things, in the form of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s famous phone call to the American ambassador to Ukraine, conveniently taped and made public by the Russians. .

At least I had watched enough of the Olympics to know that there was something off about the New Yorker cover. It was the kind of demonization of a foreign leader deemed wicked that had accompanied the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. In fact, Russia ran those Olympics pretty well, especially for a nation struggling mightily to find its footing among the community of nations.

Events have spiraled dangerously since. The flight of Yanukovich from Kiev set in motion the Russian annexation of the Crimea, with its Russian naval  base in Sevastopol, which in turn was followed by a civil war in eastern Ukraine. The US and its European allies imposed sanctions on Russia which, in combination with sharply lower oil prices, have sent the Russian economy into a severe recession. Ukrainian government forces attacked the separatists in the east, calling them “terrorists,” imposing a brutal toll on civilians in the cities. (The Ukrainian forces claim the separatists are shelling themselves.) Last month Russian forces began reinforcing the separatists.  The aims of the new campaign are not yet clear.

My most-trusted source of news all along has been Johnson’s Russia List. I’ve written before about this remarkable digest of news about Russia. Every few days David Johnson collects The full text of thirty or forty articles from the English- language press, as well as things the Russians write about themselves, often quite interesting. For $50, I receive an email edition — 266 of them last year. (Usually, I let them stack up and then scan four or five at a time.)

Recently, I have begun to regularly read Bloomberg News columnist Leonid Bershidsky as well, for his insider perspective, even in exile in Berlin. (He was  founding editor of Vedomosti, the Russian business daily, a joint project of the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, and the first publisher of the Russian edition of Forbes.)

I’ve also found Stephen Cohen a reliable guide. An emeritus professor of Russian Studies at New York University and Princeton, Cohen writes regularly in The Nation (which his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, edits and partly owns).  He was a friend and admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev, and consistently interprets Putin on Putin’s own terms.

Cohen is often attacked  by Russia hawks, but it was an especially bilious article about him that brought Julia Ioffe onto my screen. An energetic and perapatetic journalist, Ioffe was born in Moscow in 1982 and emigrated to the US in 1990. In 2005 she graduated from Princeton and went to work as a fact-checker for The New Yorker.  Since then she’s made a name for herself as a vigorous critic of Putin, mostly recently in The New Republic.

Court Jester: Putin’s American Toady at The Nation Gets Even Toadier (May 1, 2014) made me think that perhaps the demise of the once-great TNR was not such a bad thing after all, Whereupon The New York Times Magazine hired her as a contributing writer and The New Yorker ran her profile of Mikhail Khodorkovsky:  Remote Control: Can an Exiled Oligarch Prove to Russias that Putin Must Go?

What’s going on here?

The explanation that makes sense to me involves thinking in generational terms, in this case, the generation of US policy makers and journalists that took shape in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved.  The years before were so much  prologue:  the return to Europe of the satellite nations; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany; Tiananmen Square; the Gulf War; the August ‘91 coup attempt to wrest control from Gorbachev; Ukrainian independence;  and the election of Boris Yeltsin:  the beginnings of a Second Russian Revolution, or so it was said. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and resolved to make it so.

The Clinton administration put in place the policies towards Russia that George W. Bush and Barack Obama have continued since: support for privatization and the extension of membership in the Group of Eight, but NATO expansion as a precaution. For the Russians, however, eight years of Boris Yeltsin were enough.  Vladimir Putin succeeded him, in 2000, and Russia turned in a different direction.  What that direction may be surely continues to be a very complicated story.

But the direction of US policy remains unchanged. Strobe Talbott, Clinton’s Rhodes scholarship classmate at Oxford, was at the center of US policy towards Russia throughout the ’90s. A one-time Time magazine journalist, Talbott served as  Ambassador-at-Large to the New Independent States before becoming Deputy Secretary of State in 1994.Today he is president of the Brooking Institution.

Last week in an op-ed article in The Washington Post, Talbott urged the Obama administration to begin supplying weapons to the Ukrainian army, anti-tank missiles and counter-battery radar in particular. (That elicited a brave – and telling – counterargument from Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe of the Brookings Institution and Brookings fellow Clifford Gaddy.)

Talbott’s State Department chief of staff, Nuland, is at the helm of the State Department’s Eurasian affairs today.  During the Bush administration she advised Vice President Dick Cheney on the eve of the Iraq invasion and served as US ambassador to NATO.

Similarly, members of the generation of  ’91 in the press remain influential today.  To name just one; David Remnick had become Washington Post bureau chief in Moscow in 1988; in 1994 he published Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize); he became editor of The New Yorker in 1998.

Last week three major papers in the US editorialized in favor of sending lethal aid to the Ukrainians, and so beginning a proxy war with Russia – The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Times, albeit the last-named in an especially weasel-worded way (“But if the evidence continues to accumulate that Mr. Putin and the rebels are carving out a permanent rebel-held enclave in eastern Ukraine, à la Transdniestria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia, he must know that the United States and Europe will be compelled to increase the cost”). Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter on Wednesday told a Senate committee that he, too, favors sending weapons to Ukraine.

Let’s hope that President Obama has the sense and strength to resist this widespread but heedless itch to escalate a war that only Putin can win. Aiding Ukraine economically is one thing; almost everyone agrees on that. But Hill and Gaddy of Brookings get it right when they say, “if we plunge headlong into sending weapons, we may lose our allies, and we may never have the opportunity to get things right.”  The alternative is better news-gathering and more European diplomacy.

Ultimately, only a generation replaces a generation.  The thing that will halt this slide towards war is regime change – in Washington, D.C. Counterintuitive though it may seem, electing Jeb Bush, if he is able to gain his party’s nomination, may be the best way to break the mood of self-infatuation, often dangerous, that began with Bill Clinton and which for twenty-four years has afflicted Democrats and Republicans alike.