Tag Archives: Ukraine

The Power of Human Rights

 

Samantha Power, The Education of an Idealist:

A Memoir 

By almost any measure, Samantha Power should be considered an extraordinary American success story. An immigrant from Ireland who fled the Emerald Isle with her mother and brother at a young age to escape a turbulent family situation, Power earned degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School, rose to prominence in her mid-20s as a journalist covering civil wars and ethnic cleaning in Bosnia and the Balkans, won a Pulitzer Prize for a book on 20th century genocides, and helped found the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she served as its executive director — all before age 35.  Then she met an ambitious junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, and her career really took off.

Between 2009 and 2017, Power served in the Obama administration almost continually, first on the National Security Council and subsequently as Ambassador to the United Nations.  In both capacities, she became the administration’s most outspoken and influential voice for prioritizing human rights, arguing regularly for targeted United States and multi-lateral interventions to protect individuals from human rights abuses and mass atrocities, perpetrated in most cases by their own governments.  In what amounts to an autobiography, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, Power guides her readers through  the major foreign policy crises of the Obama administration.

Her life story, Power tells her readers at the outset, is one of idealism, “where it comes from, how it gets challenged, and why it must endure” (p.xii).  She is quick to emphasize that hers is not a story of how a person with “lofty dreams” about making a difference in the world came to be “’educated’ by the “brutish forces” (p.xii) she encountered throughout her professional career.  So what then is the nature of the idealist’s “education” that provides the title to her memoir?  The short answer probably lies in how Power learned to make her idealistic message on human rights both heard and effective within the complex bureaucratic structures of the United States government and the United Nations.

But Power almost invariably couples this idealistic message with the view that the promotion and protection of human rights across the globe is in the United States’ own national security interests; and that the United States can often advance those interests most effectively by working multi-laterally, through international organizations and with like-minded states.  The United States, by virtue of its multi-faceted strengths – economic, military and cultural – is in a unique position to influence the actions of other states, from its traditional allies all the way to those that inflict atrocities upon their citizens.

Power acknowledges that the United States has not always used its strength as a positive force for human rights and human betterment – one immediate example is the 2003 Iraq invasion, which she opposed. Nevertheless, the United States retains a reservoir of credibility sufficient to be effective on human rights matters when it choses to do so.   Although Power is sometimes labeled a foreign policy “hawk,” she recoils from that adjective.  To Power, the military is among the last of the tools that should be considered to advance America’s interests around the world.

Into this policy-rich discussion, Power weaves much detail about her personal life, beginning with her early years in Ireland,  the incompatibilities between her parents that prompted her mother to take her and her brother to the United States when she was nine, and her efforts as a schoolgirl to become American in the full sense of the term. After numerous failed romances, she finally met Mr. Right, her husband, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein (who also served briefly in the Obama administration). The marriage gave rise to a boy and a girl with lovely Irish names, Declan and Rían, both born while Power was in government.  With much emphasis upon her parents, husband, children and family life, the memoir is also a case study of how professional women balance the exacting demands of high-level jobs with the formidable responsibilities attached to being a parent and spouse.  It’s a tough balancing act for any parent, but especially for women, and Power admits that she did not always strike the right balance.

Memoirs by political and public figures are frequently attempts to write one’s biography before someone else does, and Power’s whopping 550-page work seems to fit this rule.  But Power provides much candor  – a willingness to admit to mistakes and share vulnerabilities – that is often missing in political memoirs. Refreshingly, she also abstains from serious score settling.  Most striking for me is the nostalgia that pervades the memoir.  Power takes her readers down memory lane, depicting a now by-gone time when the United States cared about human rights and believed in bi- and multi-lateral cooperation to accomplish its goals in its dealings with the rest of the world – a time that sure seems long ago.

* * *

Samantha Jane Power was born in 1970 to Irish parents, Vera Delaney, a doctor, and Jim Power, a part-time dentist.  She spent her early years in Dublin, in a tense family environment where, she can see now, her parents’ marriage was coming unraveled.  Her father put in far more time at Hartigan’s, a local pub in the neighborhood where he was known for his musical skills and “holding court,” than he did at his dentist’s office.  Although young Samantha didn’t recognize it at the time, her father had a serious alcohol problem, serious enough to lead her mother to escape by immigrating to the United States with the couple’s two children, Samantha, then age nine, and her brother Stephen, two years younger. They settled in Pittsburgh, where Samantha at a young age set about to become American, as she dropped her Irish accent, tried to learn the intricacies of American sports, and became a fervent Pittsburgh Pirates fan.

But the two children were required under the terms of their parents’ custody agreement to spend time with her father back in Ireland. On her trip back at Christmas 1979, Samantha’s father informed the nine-year old that he intended to keep her and her brother with him.  When her mother, who was staying nearby, showed up to object and collect her children to return to the United States, a parental confrontation ensued which would traumatize Samantha for decades.  The nine year old found herself caught between the conflicting commands of her two parents and, in a split second decision, left with her mother and returned to the Pittsburgh. She never again saw her father.

When her father died unexpectedly five years later, at age 47 of alcohol-related complications, Samantha, then in high school, blamed herself for her father’s death and carried a sense of guilt with her well into her adult years. It was not until she was thirty-five, after many therapy sessions, that she came to accept that she had not been responsible for her father’s death.  Then, a few years later, she made the mistake of returning to Hartigan’s, where she encountered the bar lady who had worked there in her father’s time.   Mostly out of curiosity, Power asked her why, given that so many people drank so much at Hartigan’s, her father had been the only one who died. The bar lady’s answer was matter-of-fact: “Because you left” (p.192) — not what Power needed to hear.

Power had by then already acquired a public persona as a human rights advocate through her work as a journalist in the 1990s in Bosnia, where she called attention to the ethnic cleansing that was sweeping the country in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.  Power ended up writing for a number of major publications, including The Economist, the New Republic and the Washington Post.   She was among the first to report on the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, the largest single massacre in Europe since World War II, in which around 10,000 Muslim men and boy were taken prisoner and “seemed to have simply vanished” (p.102). Although the United States and its NATO allies had imposed a no-fly zone over Bosnia, Power hoped the Clinton administration would commit to employing ground troops to prevent further atrocities. But she did not yet enjoy the clout to have a real chance at making her case directly with the administration.

Power wrote a chronology of the conflict, Breakdown in the Balkans, which was later put into book form and attracted attention from think tanks, and the diplomatic, policy and media communities.  Attracting even more attention was  A Problem for Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, her book exploring  American reluctance to take action in the face of 20th century mass atrocities and genocides.  The book appeared in 2002, and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.  It also provided Power with her inroad to Senator Barack Obama.

At the recommendation of a politically well-connected friend, in late 2004 Power sent a copy of the book to the recently elected Illinois Senator who had inspired the Democratic National Convention that summer with an electrifying keynote address.  Obama’s office scheduled a dinner for her with the Senator which was supposed to last 45 minutes.  The dinner went on for four hours as the two exchanged ideas about America’s place in the world and how, why and when it should advance human rights as a component of its foreign policy.  Although Obama considered Power to be primarily an academic, he offered her a position on his Senate staff, where she started working late in 2005.

Obama and Power would then be linked professionally more or less continually until the end of the Obama presidency in January 2017.   Once Obama enters the memoir, at about the one-third point, it becomes as much his story as hers. The two did not always see the world and specific world problems in the same way, but it’s clear that Obama had great appreciation both for Power’s intelligence and her intensity. He was a man who enjoyed being challenged intellectually, and plainly valued the human rights perspective that Power brought to their policy discussions even if he wasn’t prepared to push as far as Power advocated.

After Obama threw his hat in the ring for the 2008 Democratic Party nomination, Power became one of his primary foreign policy advisors and, more generally, a political operative. It was not a role that fit Power comfortably and it threatened to be short-lived.  In the heat of the primary campaign, with Obama and Hilary Clinton facing off in a vigorously contested battle for their party’s nomination, Power was quoted in an obscure British publication, the Scotsman, as describing Clinton as a “monster.” The right-wing Drudge Report picked up the quotation, whose accuracy Power does not contest, and suddenly Power found herself on the front page of major newspapers, the subject of a story she did not want.  Obama’s closest advisors were of the view that she would have to resign from the campaign.  But the candidate himself, who loved sports metaphors, told Power only that she would have to spend some time in the “penalty box” (p.187).  Obama’s relatively soft reaction was an indication of the potential he saw in her and his assessment of her prospective value to him if successful in the primaries and the general election.

Power’s time in the penalty box had expired when Obama, having defeated Clinton for his party’s nomination, won a resounding victory in the general election in November 2008.  Obama badly wanted Power on his team in some capacity, and the transition team placed her on the President’s National Security Council as principal deputy for international organizations, especially the United Nations.  But she was also able to carve out a concurrent position for herself as the President’s Senior Director for Human Rights.   In this portion of the memoir, Power describes learning the jargon and often-arcane skills needed to be effective on the council and within the vast foreign policy bureaucracy of the United States government.  Being solely responsibility for human rights, Power found that she had some leeway in deciding which issues to concentrate on and bring to the attention of the full Council.  Her mentor Richard Holbrook advised her that she could be most effective on subjects for which there was limited United States interest – pick “small fights,” Holbrook advised.

Power had a hand in a string of “small victories” while on the National Security Council: coaxing the United States to rejoin a number of UN agencies from which the Bush Administration had walked away; convincing President Obama to raise his voice over atrocities perpetrated by governments in Sri Lanka and Sudan against their own citizens; being appointed White House coordinator for Iraqi refugees; helping create an inter-agency board to coordinate the United States government’s response to war crimes and atrocities; and encouraging increased emphasis upon lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender issues (LGBT) overseas.  In pursuit of the latter, Obama delivered an address at the UN General Assembly on LGBT rights, and thereafter issued a Presidential Memorandum directing all US agencies to consider LGBT issues explicitly in crafting overseas assistance (disclosure: while with the Department of Justice, I served on the department’s portion of the inter-agency Atrocity Prevention Board, and represented the department in inter-agency coordination on the President’s LGBT memorandum; I never met Power in either capacity).

But the Arab Spring that erupted in late 2010 and early 2011 presented  anything but small issues and resulted in few victories for the Obama administration.  A “cascade of revolts that would reorder huge swaths of the Arab world,” the Arab Spring ended up “impacting the course of Obama’s presidency more than any other geopolitical development during his eight years in office” (p.288), Power writes, and the same could be said for Power’s time in government.  Power was among those at the National Security Council who pushed successfully for United States military intervention in Libya to protect Libyan citizens from the predations of their leader, Muammar Qaddafi.

The intervention, backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution and led jointly by the United States, France and Jordan, saved civilian lives and contributed to Qaddafi’s ouster and death.  ButPresident Obama was determined to avoid a longer-term and more open-ended United States commitment, and the mission stopped short of the follow-up needed to bring stability to the country.  With civil war in various guises continuing to this day, Power suggests that the outcome might have been different had the United States continued its engagement in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s death.

Shortly after Power became US Ambassador to the United Nations, the volatile issue of an American military commitment arose again, this time in Syria in August 2013, when proof came irrefutably to light that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons in his effort to suppress uprisings within the country.  The revelations came 13 months after Obama had asserted that use of such weapons would constitute a “red line” that would move him to intervene militarily in Syria.  Power favored targeted US air strikes within Syria.

Obama came excruciatingly close to approving such strikes.  He not only concluded that the “costs of not responding forcefully were greater than the risks of taking military action” (p.369), but was prepared to act without UN Security Council authorization, given the certainty of  a Russian veto of any Security Council resolution for concerted action.   With elevated stakes for “upholding the international norm against the use of chemical weapons” Power writes, Obama was “prepared to operate with what White House lawyers called a ‘traditionally recognized legal basis under international law’” (p.369).

But almost overnight, Obama decided that he needed prior Congressional authorization for a military strike in Syria, a decision taken seemingly with little effort to ascertain whether there was sufficient support in Congress for such a strike.  With neither the Congress nor the American public supporting military action within Syria to save civilian lives, Obama backed down.  On no other issue did Power see Obama as torn as he was on Syria,  “convinced that even limited military action would mire the United States in another open-ended conflict, yet wracked by the human toll of the slaughter.  I don’t believe he ever stopped interrogating his choices” (p.508).

Looking back at that decision with the passage of more than five years, Power’s disappointment remains palpable.  The consequences of inaction in Syria, she maintains, went:

beyond unfathomable levels of death, destruction, and displacement. The spillover of the conflict into neighboring countries through massive refugee flows and the spread of ISIS’s ideology has created dangers for people in many parts of the world. . . [T]hose of us involved in helping devise Syria policy will forever carry regret over our inability to do more to stem the crisis.  And we know the consequences of the policies we did choose. For generations to come, the Syrian people and the wide world will be living with the horrific aftermath of the most diabolical atrocities carried out since the Rwanda genocide (p.513-14).

But if incomplete action in Libya and inaction in Syria constitute major disappointments for Power, she considers exemplary the response of both the United States and the United Nations to the July 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus that occurred in three West African countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  United States experts initially foresaw more than one million infections of the deadly and contagious disease by the end of 2015.  The United States devised its own plan to send supplies, doctors and nurses to the region to facilitate the training of local health workers to care for Ebola patients, along with 3,000 military personnel to assist with on-the-ground logistics.  Power was able to talk President Obama out of a travel ban to the United States from the three impacted countries, a measure favored not only by Donald Trump, then contemplating an improbable run for the presidency, but also by many members of the President’s own party.

At the United Nations, Power was charged with marshaling global assistance.   She convinced 134 fellow Ambassadors to co-sponsor a Security Council resolution declaring the Ebola outbreak a public health threat to international peace and security, the largest number of co-sponsors for any Security Council resolution in UN history and the first ever directed to a public health crisis.  Thereafter, UN Member States committed $4 billion in supplies, facilities and medical treatments.  The surge of international resources that followed meant that the three West African countries “got what they needed to conquer Ebola” (p.455).  At different times in 2015, each of the countries was declared Ebola-free.

The most deadly and dangerous Ebola outbreak in history was contained, Power observes, above all because of the “heroic efforts of the people and governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone” (p.456). But America’s involvement was also crucial.  President Obama provided what she describes as an “awesome demonstration of US leadership and capability – and a vivid example of how a country advances its values and interests at once” (p.438).  But the multi-national, collective success further illustrated “why the world needed the United Nations, because no one country – even one as powerful as the United States – could have slayed the epidemic on its own” (p.457).

Although Russia supported the UN Ebola intervention, Power more often found herself in an adversarial posture with Russia on both geo-political and UN administrative issues.  Yet, she used creative  diplomatic skills to develop a more nuanced relationship with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin.  Cherkin, a talented negotiator and master of the art of strategically storming out of meetings, valued US-Russia cooperation and often “pushed for compromises that Moscow was disinclined to make” (p.405).  Over time, Power writes, she and Churkin “developed something resembling genuine friendship” (p.406). But “I also spent much of my time at the UN in pitched, public battle with him” (p.408).

The most heated of these battles ensued after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2014, a flagrant violation of international law. Later that year, troops associated with Russia shot down a Malaysian passenger jet, killing all passengers aboard.  In the UN debates on Ukraine, Power found her Russian counterpart “defending the indefensible, repeating lines sent by Moscow that he was too intelligent to believe and speaking in binary terms that belied his nuanced grasp of what was actually happening” (p.426). Yet, Power and Churkin continued to meet privately to seek solutions to the Ukraine crisis, none of which bore fruit.

While at the UN, Power went out of her way to visit the offices of the ambassadors of the smaller countries represented in the General Assembly, many of whom had never received  a United States Ambassador.  During her UN tenure, she managed to meet personally with the ambassadors from every country except North Korea.  Power also started a group that gathered the UN’s 37 female Ambassadors together one day a week for coffee and discussion of common issues.  Some involved  substantive matters that the UN had to deal with, but just as often the group focused on workplace matters that affected the women ambassadors as women, matters that their male colleagues did not have to deal with.

* * *

Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016 left Power stunned.  His nativist campaign to “Make America Great Again” seemed to her like a “repudiation of many of the central tenets of my life” (p.534).  As an  immigrant, a category Trump seemed to relish denigrating, she “felt fortunate to have experienced many countries and cultures. I saw the fate of the American people as intertwined with that of individuals elsewhere on the planet.   And I knew that if the United States retreated from the world, global crises would fester, harming US interests” (p.534-35).  As Obama passed the baton to Trump in January 2017, Power left government.

Not long after, her husband suffered a near-fatal automobile accident, from which he recovered. Today, the pair team-teach courses at Harvard, while Power seems to have found the time for her family that proved so elusive when she was in government.  She is coaching her son’s baseball team and helping her daughter survey rocks and leaves in their backyard.  No one would begrudge Power’s quality time with her family. But her memoir will likely leave many readers wistful, daring to hope that there may someday  be room again for  her and her energetic idealism in the formulation of United States foreign policy.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 26, 2020

7 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics, United States History

Why Isn’t Russia More Like Us?

Peter Conradi, Who Lost Russia?

How the World Entered a New Cold War 

             In Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War, Peter Conradi, formerly Moscow-based correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times and presently its foreign editor, looks at Russian history over the past quarter of a century, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “through the prism of [Russia’s] relations with the West” (p.x).  Given his somewhat overly dramatic title, there is an odd suspense to this otherwise straightforward, solidly written work, as the reader asks along the way, “Well, who really did ‘lose’ Russia?”  Conradi’s narrative invites readers to proffer their own nominees for the person or entity that “lost” Russia.  Only in the final pages does he inform us of his nominee – and no way will I reveal his selection here.  But the real question is not who “lost” Russia — that’s fine for a catchy title, evoking the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the question of the 1950s, who lost China.

            Rather, the questions at the heart of Conradi’s methodical study are why the once promising relationship between Russia and the West evolved into one best described today as adversarial; and, relatedly, why Russia did not follow the path toward Western-style liberal democracy after what looked like an earnest start in the 1990s. There are no simple or single answers to these questions but, by looking at post-Communist Russia’s relationship with the West during the years 1991-2016, Conradi manages to tease out a host of partial answers.  His book went to press in January 2017, during the earliest days of the Trump administration.  He alludes in an afterthought to the possibility of links between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and the Russian state.  With much on this subject having come to light since the book first appeared, Conradi’s observations are not a reason to read his book.  But the book does provide much needed context to help understand why Russia’s relationship with the West deteriorated to the point where no one should be surprised that Russia deliberately sought to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

          Conradi dedicates a substantial portion of his work to the personal interactions between the leaders of the United States and Russia over the 25-year period: George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton with Boris Yeltsin; George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin; Barack Obama and first Dimitri Medvedev, then Obama and Putin. He further includes speculation toward the end about how the relationship between Trump and Putin might unfold.  Numerous substantive issues bedeviled the leaders of the two countries between 1991 and 2016, but foremost among them were the intertwined questions of eastward expansion of NATO and Russia’s relationship with Ukraine.

      Throughout the quarter century, Russia and the West maintained entirely different perspectives on NATO’s embrace of the former Warsaw Pact countries once under Soviet control, and its potential embrace of several former Soviet Republics, most notably Ukraine. While the West regarded NATO expansion as a benign extension of universal democratic values to newly independent states, Russia construed expansion as a direct threat to its territorial integrity and geopolitical interests. And although the Soviet Union dissolved peaceably, Ukraine’s independence proved particularly vexing for Russia from the earliest post-Soviet days.

         During the presidency of Vladimir Putin, differences between Russia and the West over these and related issues transformed an uneven and sometimes uneasy partnership between Russia and the West into an adversarial one.   Western triumphalism of the early 1990s, when both Western Europe and the United States basked in their Cold War “victory” over the Soviet Union, plainly fueled Russian resentment. The breakdown of the partnership finds its roots, Conradi contends, in the “inability of both sides to agree on what happened in 1991 . . . and, in particular, [in] Russian resentment at being treated as a vanquished foe” (p.341).  The West underestimated how badly the loses that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union “rankled with Moscow, and how much the Kremlin continued to consider the former Soviet republics as part of its sphere of influence” (p.161).

         By the time Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, ending Dimitri Medvedev’s four-year interregnum, Russia had abandoned any pretense of striving for Western style liberal democracy.  It was now, Conradi writes, “positioning itself as a beacon of traditional, conservative values in a decadent, liberal world” (p,235).  The official narrative was that it had been “duped to believe in the promises of democracy . . . [which] did not work for Russia; the nation was corrupted by Western values and [was] under constant attack from those who would seek to dismantle it” (p.236).  Borrowing from the other portion of Conradi’s title, the world in the 21st century’s second decade had thus entered a “new Cold War,” with a level of hostility between Russia and the West “not seen even at the height of Soviet rule” (p.xiii).

* * *

            Conradi ably captures the momentous changes that ensued in Russia after the Soviet Union abruptly dissolved in December 1991.  He describes January 2, 1992, the first day of Russia’s transition to a free market, as a “life-defining moment. The previous six months had a seen a series of political events, each more dramatic than the last, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet none had such a direct and immediate impact as the Yeltsin government’s decision to end the price controls that had been a feature of Soviet life since the 1920s” (p.20).  The end of price controls was part of a broader process that “challenged everything the Soviets had been brought up to believe in. Buying and selling for a profit had once been denounced as speculation and been punishable with jail. Now it was the foundation of the economy. Money-changing used to be conducted by shady characters on street corners; now it was carried out by financial experts sitting at rows of computer screens in swanky offices” (p.21).

           The early post-Soviet years were a wild and woolly time in Russia, with a mad grab for ownership and control of previously state-owned property. During the 1990s, Russia’s famous oligarchs emerged, some of the richest and, in many cases, most ruthless, businessmen on the planet.  Yet, Conradi notes, the early post-Soviet years also “created more losers than winners, and it took years before living standards drew level even with the last years of the Soviet era. Many people, especially members of the older generations, still felt a sense not so much of liberation but rather of disorientation after so much of what they had been brought up to believe in had been denounced as a lie. There was a feeling of wasted lives, of humiliation and wounded pride” (p.98).

           Conradi nonetheless gives Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin — a “charismatic larger-than-life figure whose ruddy cheeks betrayed his weakness for alcohol” (p.3) — high marks for avoiding the type of ethnic and nationalist violence that ravaged the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Yeltsin also steered a new constitution through to adoption by referendum, representing a “break with Soviet practice by, among other things, abolishing the leading role of the Communist (or indeed, any other) Party and guaranteeing a pluralistic political system” (p.47).  Although George H.W. Bush was the American president when the Soviet Union dissolved and Yeltsin rose to power, most of the Yeltsin years corresponded to the Clinton years.

          In a chapter entitled “Bill and Ol’ Boris,” Conradi shows how the two leaders struck up what seemed from the outside to have been a productive relationship between the two countries, with the United States providing substantial assistance to Russia in the hope of establishing a framework for a functioning democracy with a market economy.  Ol’ Boris sometimes chaffed at the nature of the American-Russian partnership, with America always the dominant partner and Russia reduced to a supplicant. He saw a special role for Russia as a regional peacekeeper in the other former Soviet republics – what the Russians termed the “near abroad” — an idea that fell flat with Bill.   More than a little uneasy about Ukraine’s drive for independence, Ol’ Bois periodically objected to Bill’s dogged determination to bring the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe under the NATO umbrella.  NATO’s eastward expansion looked to the Russian president like a “brazen attempt by the West to exploit [Russian] weakness to take over countries formerly part of Moscow’s sphere of influence” (p.64).   “Got to get over it, Boris,” seemed to be Bill’s response. “We don’t mean ya’ll no harm.”

            In his 1999 televised New Year’s address to the Russia people, six months prior to the expiration of his second term, Yeltsin stunned his viewers and the rest of the world by announcing, “in a characteristic piece of theater” (p.106), that he was resigning immediately.  Previously, there had been speculation that he might seek to change the constitution to pursue a third presidential term.  Yeltsin announced that former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, appointed Prime Minister the preceding August, would be his replacement.  Yeltsin was not obligated to anoint a successor. He could have “played the true democrat and not nominated anyone at all, instead creating a level playing field on which rival candidates could compete for votes”(p.322). Conradi suggests that Yeltsin had three candidates in mind; the other two in retrospect seem to have been more likely to continue the country along the road toward liberal democracy.  Yeltsin chose Putin, Conradi argues, because he, Yeltsin,  was “obsessed with securing a guarantee of immunity for himself and the ‘family’ from prosecution for their past misdemeanors” (p.322).

            As a 36 year old KGB agent based in Dresden in 1989, Putin had watched East Germany disintegrate and disappear, demonstrating for him the “frailty of political elites and the ease with which they can be toppled by ‘people power’”(p.110). Prior to his appointment as Prime Minister in August 1999, Putin had served as an assistant city administrator in his native St. Petersburg.   The literature on Putin in English seems to be growing on an almost daily basis, with many works seeking to probe Putin’s psyche to find psychological explanations for why he steered Russia in a direction outwardly different from that of Yeltsin. This is not one of them.  Instead, Conradi systematically shows how more than why the former KGB officer, unlike his predecessor, “pursued policies both at home and abroad that would inevitably challenge the West” (p.322).

* * *

            In the early years of his presidency, Putin, like Yeltsin, said many things that the West wanted to hear about Russia’s quest for democracy and its belief in individual freedom after years of Soviet oppression.  There was even talk about possible Russian membership in the EU and NATO, with Putin recommending that NATO’s focus be shifted to terrorism, piracy and cybercrime.  The initial meetings between Putin and George W. Bush, who had succeeded Clinton in 2001, augured well for the US-Russia partnership. Bush tried to avoid what he considered Clinton’s tendency to hector his Russian counterpart about free markets and attempts to curb freedom of speech.  He famously told reporters after his first meeting with Putin that he had been able to get a sense of the Russian leader’s “soul.”  Having “looked the man in the eye,” Bush said, he found his counterpart to be “straight-forward and trustworthy,” and “deeply committed to his country” (p.137)

            Yet, for all the warm talk, the Bush administration recurrently sent out signals of its “intention to treat Russia as a mid-ranking country rather than a superpower” (p.132-33).  Although Putin was the first world leader to express solidarity with the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 did incalculable damage to U.S.-Russia relations. “A really strong, anti-terrorist international coalition was created after September 2001,” Igor Ivanov, former Russian foreign minister, said. “It was destroyed in 2003 when the Americans decided to start their war in Iraq” (p.203). In Putin’s view, Washington had given itself a “license to support regime change wherever it wished,” with countries closest to Russia geographically and economically “at the top of its hit list”(p.174).

           American support for the pro-Western “Rose” demonstrations in Georgia in 2003 and “Orange” in Ukraine in 2004 — the so-called “Color Revolutions”  – aroused Putin’s fury because of the “existential threat” which they appeared to pose to the Kremlin (p.173).  Georgians and Ukrainians had:

provided a compelling model of how ordinary people could mobilize in a post-Soviet society to prevent a discredited regime from clinging to office – with more than a helping hand from the CIA, in Putin’s view. Putin’s concern was that Bush, with his determination to promote democracy around the world, might now try to encourage similar such forces in Russia to challenge Putin’s own hold on power (p.173).

Conradi perceives a “growing assertiveness” to Putin’s governance after the Color Revolutions, in which he “consolidated political and economic power in his hand and marginalized his opponents” (p.177).

            Barred from running for a third consecutive term, Putin stepped aside in 2008 and his Deputy Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev, was elected president.  Medvedev, trained as a lawyer and a decade younger than Putin, was more polished and less paranoid.  But he was without an independent power base and thus dependent for support upon Putin, who became Prime Minister.  The Medvedev years, 2008-2012, overlapped with the last year of George W. Bush’s term and Barack Obama’s first term. Obama assumed the presidency with the idea of a “reset” in Russian-American relations. But neither administration in Conradi’s view ever fully figured out who was in control in Moscow during these years, Medvedev or Putin.

            Conradi observes a discernible shift in Putin’s style of governance when he was re-elected president in 2012.  During his first eight years, Putin had governed according to an unwritten pact: “citizens stayed out of the state’s business, and in return it guaranteed them growing prosperity, underwritten by surging oil revenues” (p.234).  After 2012, Putin sought a “new source of legitimacy,” described as “‘patriotic mobilization.’ This new direction was accompanied by tighter control of television and a tougher line against opposition parties and civil society. The move was given greater urgency by the Arab Spring, which provided a salutary reminder of the ease with which regimes could be toppled if popular protests were allowed to get out of hand” (p.234).

            The 2013-14 crises in Ukraine and Crimea marked the end of the last glimmer of hope for a workable general partnership between Russia and the West. When Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abruptly backed out of an assistance agreement with the European Union in November 2013, massive pro-Western demonstrations erupted in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Yanukovych fled to Russia and sought Russian assistance. Putin followed in March 2014 with the boldest move of his presidency: military invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, a largely autonomous region within Ukraine with a large Russian-speaking population and several Russian naval bases. The purported basis of the intervention was to protect beleaguered ethnic Russians.

          Conradi cautions against considering Putin’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine as the “first staging in a carefully thought-out plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union” (p.301). His actions appear instead to have been prompted more by fear that Ukraine, a country still considered part of the Russian homeland, was “in danger of drifting into the Western camp.  He was also counting on a warm reception from the locals and gambled, rightly, that the West would do nothing to stop him” (p.303). The 2013-2014 crises “put a definitive end to any further expansion of NATO” and “allowed Putin to reassert his right of veto over any change in the ‘near abroad’” (p.295).

         If Russian governance today might be considered “Putinism,” it is based “neither on Soviet nostalgia nor on integration with the West” (p.235). Its distinctly anti-Western appeals are to an emotive Russian nationalism and ethnicity as the “backbone of the Russian state” (p.234); and to a social conservatism that is blatantly anti-homosexual, reinforced by the Russian Orthodox Church as “arbiter and enforcer of national mores” (p.234).  Oppressed during the Soviet era, the Orthodox Church saw a resurgence after the fall of communism and, as in Tsarist times, is once again “intimately woven into the affairs of state,” wielding “extraordinary power” (p.235).

            Putinism sees foreign policy as a “zero sum game” (p.339), where  plots and conspiracies against Russia abound.  Yet Russia’s role on the world stage, Conradi argues, is that of a “wrecker of the established order rather than as a positive force . . . The attempt to position Russia as a socially conservative rival to the liberal democracies of the West [has] attracted few takers in Europe beyond backers of the fringe parties on the right” (p.295).

* * *

            Conradi alludes to a common understanding of Russian history and culture divided between two camps: “Europhiles,” who look to the West for models; and “Slavophiles,” who look inward, rejecting Western values and celebrating Russian culture and history (a more elaborate discussion may be found in Steven Marks’ How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December 2014).   The interplay between these competing camps was largely kept below the surface during the Soviet regime. When Putin came to power in the year 2000, he appeared to have a foot in each camp. But at some point in the new century’s first decade, both Putin feet moved firmly into the Slavophile camp.  Setting aside Conradi’s answer to his question who lost Russia — you will have to read the book to find that answer – Conradi’s astute analysis leads to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin “found” or “refound” the traditional Slavophile Russia, a Russia that the West in the 1990s too readily assumed had disappeared altogether.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 8, 2017

 

 

 

 

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