"Successful diplomacy requires a measure of mutual accommodation," were the words of former NATO official Michael Stopford at the 31st US-Russia World Forum in Washington, DC this week. Shrilly denounced as "Putin apologists," the participants in the conference actually ran the gamut from outspoken Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen to Leonid Gozman, leader of a minor Russian party who openly backed the Kiev junta’s war on the Russian-speaking East.
Unlike the establishment, which has adopted a rigid Manichean dogma of "US good, Russia evil", the conference featured a lively debate between current and former government officials, diplomats and scholars on the nature of the current conflict between Washington and Moscow, and the ways to resolve it.
Much of the time, however, the simple truth from ambassador Stopford’s statement quoted above was missing from the discussion. Even more ironically, Mr. Stopford’s current employer is a key force behind the "Ukraine Crisis Media Center", a PR machine feeding the Western press "information" favoring the Kiev junta.
The Two Dissidents
One of the best-known participants was surely Professor Stephen F. Cohen, whose vocal opposition to U.S. warmongering in Ukraine has put him in the crosshairs of media character assassins. Cohen qualified the current crisis as a "turning point in history", a new Cold War more dangerous than the original.
Calling Putin a "reactive leader", Cohen identified five fallacies about the current conflict promoted by the Western mainstream media: The US has not treated Russia well, or generously, but rather as a defeated nation; The Ukraine is not a nation, but a historically divided country; the EU accession agreement offered to Ukraine was not a hand of friendship but "velvet aggression"; the current civil war is not the result of "Russian aggression" but the February 22 coup; and it is the coup junta that started the war, not Putin – but Putin intends to finish it.
A completely different take was offered by Leonid Y. Gozman, a liberal Russian politician who in 2011 resurrected the party led by such former Atlanticists as Nemtsov, Chubais, and Gaidar. The party (Union of Right Forces, SPS) calls for Russia’s full membership in NATO and integration into the West.
Gozman argued that the annexation of Crimea was "a terrible mistake", and that the sanctions were hurting Russia by frustrating the financial and personal dreams of the elite. He admitted, however, that Putin’s approval rating was close to 90%, and expressed frustration of Russia’s Atlanticists with the US policy, which they see as "weak, contradictory and difficult to understand." At least twice during his presentation, Gozman endorsed Kiev’s onslaught against the two rebel regions in the east of Ukraine, saying that, "The sooner President Poroshenko wins, the better."
Phantom Tanks and Real Nazis
While the conference was going on, Kiev’s war against the Russian-speaking East was escalating, almost as if the junta was intent on provoking a Russian intervention. Last weekend, Kiev’s propaganda reported – and was duly echoed by the US mainstream media – that "Russian tanks" had entered Ukraine. Once again, the claim was easily debunked: all T-64s in Russia’s arsenal had been scrapped years ago; the tanks in question were Ukrainian machines, recently captured by the rebels.
Meanwhile, Kiev’s "Prime Minister" Yatsenyuk called the rebels "invaders" and Russians "subhumans" – echoing the rhetoric of the Third Reich even as he sought to resurrect its policies and practices. His government has also refused to pay its outstanding gas debt, leading Russia to suspend all further deliveries. Europe’s gas supply ought to be safe in theory, but it is almost certain that Kiev will siphon it away for its own use, just like in 2009. Furthermore, a major pipeline was disabled in an explosion Tuesday, deep in Kiev-controlled territory.
Though the militias loyal to Kiev and the oligarchs have failed to take any major towns from the rebels, they are shelling them constantly. Reports from the war-torn east are putting a great deal of pressure on Moscow to use force.
As Prof. Cohen mentioned at the conference, the further escalation of the civil war could suck in both Russia and NATO, which would be a disaster. Preserving Ukraine as a single state – federalized, with military and economic neutrality – would be the best outcome of the current crisis, but less likely with each passing day of Kiev’s onslaught. Partition may be inevitable.
The Blind Spot
Yet the understanding of Washington’s role in Ukrainian events has been strangely absent from much of the discussion at the US-Russia Forum. For example, Wayne Merry – who astutely observed that the "neoliberal reforms" of the 1990s had turned Russia into an enemy of the West, and suggested the best course of action would be to heed George Kennan’s advice to "leave Russia alone" – said not a word about the US involvement in Ukraine. The Nuland tape, the $5 billion for "democracy", VP Biden and the CIA director visiting Kiev – none of this apparently seemed relevant. While Merry did acknowledge that Russophobia in Washington is contributing to "toxic" relations with Russia, he still blamed the EU for the current crisis.
Is the EU really an independent player, or simply an appendage of Washington? Professor Robert Legvold of Columbia University inadvertently confirmed the latter, when he told the audience with near-absolute certainty the EU-Ukraine accession treaty would be signed on June 27, even though Brussels would have preferred to postpone it. Who could have possibly compelled the EU to act against its own interests?
While acknowledging that the US has violated international law (e.g. Iraq), Legvold nonetheless claimed that the "annexation" of Crimea jeopardized future nonproliferation talks, as it violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s integrity in exchange for nuclear weapons inherited from the USSR. It took former CIA analyst Ray McGovern to note that the February coup was itself an act of aggression. Yet aside from Prof. Cohen, none of the other panelists even mentioned the fact that the US and EU failed to defend the February 21 agreement they sponsored, backing the coup instead.
A Genuine Disconnect
James Carden of The American Conservative called for a radical revision to the US approach to foreign policy, one that would accept limits and stop trying to remake the world based on the false theory of "democratic peace." Yet the odds of the US establishment actually doing so are slim to none.
Former US Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, helped put things into perspective somewhat by bringing up the end of the original Cold War. He reminded everyone that it was a negotiated agreement, not a surrender by the Soviets – as US propaganda has presented it since – and that a path to peace would look at results that favored both sides. He also criticized the NATO expansion into the former USSR, and insistence on Communist-drawn borders.
"How is Ukraine a vital US interest?" asked Ambassador Matlock. Yet when the "vital interest" is defined as world domination, and enforcing the ideology of uniting the world around "democracy" (as defined and enforced by Washington), then everything is America’s business – especially nations that resist being conquered thus.
Matlock’s description of the US-Russian relations as a "genuine disconnect in how each society sees the other" is particularly apt. For all the diversity of opinion and open debate at this week’s Forum, the US media and politicians’ understanding of Russia remains largely disconnected from reality.
"The world is moving on and the US has trouble keeping up," said Ambassador Matlock at one point. So long as Washington keeps looking for motes in others’ eyes, and ignoring the beam in its own, it cannot be otherwise.