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Getting Russia Right With Better Insight – Analysis

The Tabloid “New Cold War” Term

There continues to be some disagreement and misunderstanding of the past and present situations in Russia. Spying, Syria, the Magnitsky Act and the terrorist attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, are among the recent news headlines which relate to this matter.

As someone who welcomes the opportunity to engage in earnest dialogue on the various subjects that are of interest to me, I very much regret that a logistic and timing conflict prevented me from being a featured participant in an RT segment on the Magnitsky Act. (No longer formally known as “Russia Today”, RT is a Russian government funded 24/7 English language television news station.) In my regretful decline, I mentioned the renowned New York University Russian history Professor Stephen Cohen, who the RT contact acknowledged as a worthy analytical source. (He is certainly no stranger to RT and numerous other news venues which cover Russia.) On Russian issues, Dr. Cohen is known for giving a different take from what is often presented in English language mass media. I respectfully emphasize that his opinions are by no means the only valid and underrepresented perspectives, which constitute a more sympathetic and constructively critical approach to analyzing Russia, when compared to what is typically highlighted in English language mass media.

Within reason, issue can be taken with the “new Cold War” term brought up in the April 14 RT segment with Cohen. Arguably better put, the Cold War is over, unlike some of the Cold War thinking, which is still out there. The present day circumstances do not come close to the level of Soviet-American mistrust and rivalry that existed. (I am reminded of my April 16, 2008 American Chronicle article “Contradictions to the ‘New Cold War’ Theme”.)

Following World War II, a good number of Americans remained negative towards Germany and Japan. The 1961 Cold War comedy film “One, Two, Three” (which is available on You Tube), feature a Berlin based Coca-Cola executive (played by James Cagney), who among other things is suspicious of German males, that were of military age during World War II. An episode of the 1970s NBC television sitcom “CPO Sharkey”, depicts Sharkey (played by Don Rickles) being wary of a visiting Japanese naval officer. Time can heal old wounds. In the years after World War II, the level of American mistrust towards Japan and Germany has gradually and noticeably declined.

The recent spying accusation involving an American diplomat in Russia does not significantly deflate the opinion that the “new Cold War” term is a bit hyped. Among other instances, the case of Jonathan Pollard highlights the subject of spying which involves countries deemed as being on good to relatively good terms with each other. (In this instance, America and Israel.) In the post-Cold War era, Russia and America seem interested in acquiring classified information that can improve their respective standing, in a way which is not necessarily aimed at each other.

Maybe Russia is seeking some technological know how from abroad for use that is not intended against another power. Without meaning to threaten Russia, perhaps the United States (US) might feel a need to find out on its own more about Muslim extremism in the Caucasus. Some concern has been raised about people of a Caucasus background opposing American forces abroad. The terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon by two brothers with roots in the Russian Caucasus and former Soviet Central Asia, serves to further increase the American interest in such individuals.

American President Barack Obama is not such a hostage to an anti-Russian lobby as some suggest. During the last series of nationally televised American presidential debates, Obama took the initiative against Mitt Romney’s negative portrayal of Russia as a threat to the US. On his MSNBC television hosted show “Hardball”, the Democratic Party connected Chris Matthews chided Romney for not having noted the changes in post-Soviet Russia. Matthews positively referenced then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s rebuttal to Romney.

Appearing in The Atlantic, Michael Hirsh’s May 7 commentary “Mitt Romney is Right: Russia is Our Biggest Geopolitical Foe” takes more the form of a broad outline of Russian-American differences, in contrast to an overview detailing the actual disagreements. Lacking specifics, the image of Russia as America’s “biggest geopolitical foe” comes across as hyperbolic.

The Kremlin sees a basis for having good relations with the US, European Union and Israel. These relationships will probably not always be in agreement. (Keep in mind that Western nations have had differences with each other, as well as with Israel.)

Russia is not marching lock step with the North Korean, Iranian and Syrian governments. At last notice, Russia is not supporting extremists who do things like fly airplanes into office buildings, take civilian hostages and attack US government property. The budgetary considerations of post-Soviet Russia are geared towards giving greater preference to domestic concerns, when compared to the more guns over butter economic approach of the Soviet Union. Post-Soviet Russia has a pretty much stay at home/closer to home armed forces, which is different from the wider global role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods) and how the Soviet Union had militarily carried on.

Faults notwithstanding, post-Soviet Russia is not such a repressively closed society. The current Russian leadership has taken and dished out criticism, much unlike what was evident in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. All things considered, post-Soviet Russian-American relations have not gotten so out of hand, despite some thorny differences over issues like NATO expansion (an ongoing topic), Yugoslavia (1999), Ukraine (2004) and the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (2008). At an April 26 panel discussion on the Caucasus hosted by the US Congress, California Republican Party Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said that America and Russia have common interests and can civilly express their differences on other issues.

Regarding Syria, this mindset was evident during a May 7 press conference between American Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. Despite differences on Syria, the Russian and American positions have some similarity. There is a Russian-American consensus that talks between the warring Syrian sides can begin with Bashar Assad still in the role of president. The US is keen on seeing Assad leave the political scene, inclusive of his not being part of a transitional government. Russia acknowledges faults on the Syrian government side and does not rule out a future Syria without Assad as its leader. The American government recognizes negative factors among some of the armed anti-Syrian government opposition.

Great powers can greatly influence a peace settlement on the combatants in a small country. Ultimately, it is the warring sides that have to accept a negotiated cessation of hostilities.

How the Magnitsky Act Could Have Possibly Been Nixed

Russia is not a great issue on Capitol Hill. All one has to do is check the web pages of American senators and congress people to see which issues are of the most importance to them. The tyranny of the minority stands a better chance at success when its activism is unchallenged on issues which are not so well known. Without meaning to belittle the death of Sergei Magnitsky, there is more than meets the eye to the simple image of an earnest crusader tragically dying in a Russian prison.

There is a reasoned basis to oppose the Magnitsky Act, while supporting something else in its place. The recently retired Arizona Republican Party Senator Senator Jon Kyl, noted that the Magnitsky Act specifically targets Russia, in a world of nations with noticeably worse human rights records. In contrast, the repealed Jackson-Vanik Amendment did not (in its wording) target one nation.

Given Obama’s opposition to Romney’s stance on Russia during the last American presidential election campaign, one can reasonably assume that the Obama administration might have fallen asleep behind the wheel in the lead up to the Congress and Senate votes on the Magnitsky Act. It has been suggested that the Russian government could have better communicated to Capitol Hill its opposition to the Magnitsky Act. In the US, the Obama administration has considerably greater clout than the Russian government. Ideally, it is the job of those in appointed positions to take the initiative in forecasting potential and existing sore points, which relate to their job responsibilities.

There is the possibility that within the Obama administration, there are private differences of opinion on how to deal with Russian related matters. Another factor might be at play. At times, it seems that some take a Jekyll and Hyde approach towards Russia. In turn, this observation can be answered with the impression that Russia has contradictory aspects, which contribute to reactions ranging from criticism, to a more positive assessment of developments in that country. Regardless of what has been motivating US policy on Russia, there have been some questionable stances.

As reported, the American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul says that the Obama administration is not supportive of the Magnitsky Act. There are some contradictions to this statement.

The Obama administration did not lobby against the Magnitsky Act, prior to the Congress and Senate votes in support of it. If anything, the Obama administration gave credence to this bill, as evidenced by State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland, suggesting that the arrest, trial and imprisonment of Pussy Riot, challenges the right to free expression in Russia. (The issue of Pussy Riot is discussed in my November 20, 2012 Eurasia Review article “Marketing Putin and Russia to a Foreign Audience”.) That statement and some of Ms. Nuland’s other comments (like one of them on Russian policy vis-a-vis Syria) suggest that she is not particularly interested in understanding and acknowledging the valid points of mainstream Russian views, which run counter to neoconservative to neoliberal leaning commentary. (Although Nuland’s current position seems to be structured in a subservient mouthpiece role, one senses that she might periodically emphasize her own views.)

Had the Obama administration actively opposed the Magnitsky Act, the Congress and Senate votes on that bill would have undoubtedly been less supportive than what occurred, thereby making it easier for Obama to veto it. Instead, he signed the bill in question. In the US, presidential vetoes are rarely overridden, when the vote is over 50% in favor. The Senate vote on the Magnitsky Act was near unanimous (92 to 4, with the Congress earlier voting 365 to 43). Given the lack of interest in Russia among American lawmakers, there is good reason to believe that an intelligently presented Obama administration lobbying against the Magnitsky Act, might have influenced a tally that was closer to a range of between 2/3 and 50%.

Now, Obama faces a Russian government which is not happy about the bill in question, as well as those who spearheaded it. The latter believing that Obama watered down the bill by stating a limited number (from what others seek) of alleged wrong doers who are not high profile. In turn, the Russian government is aware that this list can be expanded.

The higher levels of the American and Russian governments seem like they want to diffuse whatever level of tension was ignited by the Magnitsky Act. There will be no “new Cold War” over this bill. At the same time, the Magnitsky Act serves as an unnecessary provocation.

Intelligence Sharing

Relative to Russia and the terrorist attack by the Tsarnaev brothers at the 2013 Boston Marathon, American mass media has focused on two issues. The coverage of the Russian-American intelligence exchanges and the history of Russia in the Caucasus region, include some negatively inaccurate and hypocritical presentations.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has come under a mix of second guessing and loyalist defense – the latter coming from some former FBI officials in the role of television commentators. On the televised April 22 MSNBC Chris Matthews hosted show “Hardball”, former FBI agent Clint Van Zandt, brazenly singled out Russia, for not providing more intelligence information to his former employer. Mr. Van Zandt added that the Russians “owe” something to their American peers. In comparison, Mr. Van Zandt did not have much if anything to critically say about how the FBI handled the situation.

Between 2012 and his death, Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent most of his time in the US. This was also true for several years before his six month trip to Russia in 2012. Prior to the last Boston Marathon, there does not seem to have been any compiled intelligence information of a planned terrorist attack in the US by the Tsarnaev brothers. Before the recent bombing in Boston, there was no evidence of terrorist activity in the US from people of a background from the Caucasus and/or former Soviet Central Asia. Hence, it stands to reason that the pre-2013 Boston Marathon American-Russian interaction on the Tsarnaevs (specifically, the oldest son and mother) likely concerned terrorist actions outside the US.

On the April 24 CNN television show “Anderson Cooper 360°”, former FBI official Thomas Fuentes (to be quite frank), ignorantly said that the Russian authorities could have done more to clamp down on the Tsarnaevs because Pussy Riot was arrested in Russia for simply opposing that country’s government. Mr. Fuentes also stated that US officials have civil liberties restriction when monitoring suspects.

If Tamerlan Tsarnaev was apprehended in Russia without clear evidence against him, it would come as no surprise to see some non-governmental organizations use that action as an example of a human rights violation. Contrary to Fuentes, Pussy Riot freely performed their “art” without penalty on numerous occasions. The arrest, trial and imprisonment accorded to them concerns their disrespectful act in a house of worship, which had been persecuted in the Soviet period. One of the Pussy Riot performers was released from prison on a legal technicality. The two year sentence given to the two other Pussy Riot performers might have something to do with their smug courtroom manner and an arguably incompetent defense counsel.

Former Central Intelligence official Robert Baer was on the same April 24 CNN segment with Fuentes. Mr. Baer said that contemporary Russia is not a police state and that its security apparatus can at times appear incompetent, in keeping tabs on suspects – much like what has been said of American domestic security efforts.

Baer characterized Russia’s Federal Security Bureau (FSB), as an organization with a generally negative view of the US, suggesting that their very act of giving any intelligence information to their American counterparts can be seen as positive. It stands to reason that the FSB most likely has different views within their ranks, while sharing a common goal to combat terrorism. Regarding Russia, just how much fondness is there among some (stress some) leading American pundits, including those with intelligence backgrounds? Consider what has been said in American mass media. (NOTE – a CNN online transcript of that show does not include the aforementioned comments by Baer and Fuentes, while having the disclaimer: THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.)

Russian Activity in Chechnya and Some Other Parts of the Caucasus Region

Awhile back, I recall Stephen Cohen saying that the study of foreign policy should ideally include the perspectives of all sides to an issue, as opposed to looking at a conflict from one of several available vantage points. This thought leads to the one-sided mass media portrayals of heavy handed Russian activity in the Caucasus. Appearing on several different American television stations, Dr. Cohen went along with this image around the time of the 2004 hostage taking at a school in Beslan, Russia. The perpetrators who carried out this act were comprised mostly of Chechen and Ingush militants. In answer to why that occurrence happened, Cohen repeatedly stated the line about the Russians killing Chechens.

American television mass media at large would not be so willing to accept a host and/or analyst flippantly carry on about Israelis killing Arabs and Americans killing Iraqis and Afghans, without a clear offset to that presentation. During the terrorist attack against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich summer Olympics, many would see the mention of Israelis killing Palestinians as gratuitous. Likewise with the rationalization that 9/11 is a payback, having to do with faulty American policies abroad.

This ongoing bias once again brings to mind the selective outrage exhibited by American United Nations (UN) Ambassador Susan Rice and one of her predecessors John Bolton. They have expressed displeasure with UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk, for suggesting that some American policies are responsible for anti-American terrorist actions. In contrast, it is readily acceptable to blame Russia on issues that involve a considerable degree of non-Russian fault lines.

Gary Leupp’s May 7 Counterpunch article “The Terrorist ‘Radicalization’ of the Tsarnaev Brothers”, is a counterweight to American mass media in general and in line with Dr. Falk’s contention. At times, there might be too much of a pissing contest over which side is more virtuous, on issues involving right and wrong, among the given adversaries. It is an oversimplification to characterize brutish Russia/Russians opposing a noble Chechen separatist opposition. (On CNN during the 2008 war in the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili had carte blanche, when he gave this characterization of Russia/Russians, relative to Georgia/Georgians.) This point does not negate Russian wrongdoing and the hardships that innocent civilians in Chechnya and some nearby areas have experienced.

In the recent round of Boston Marathon terrorist attack influenced Russia bashing commentary, Cohen did not appear to be along the punditocracy who chose that line. Like Cohen, the Carnegie Endowment’s Matthew Rojansky is considered an American source, who has attempted to better understand mainstream Russian opinions. Last October 21, Mr. Rojansky’s National Interest piece “Engaging the Post-Soviet Generation in Russia”, emphasizes the belief that Russia’s current situation reveals a growing number of forward thinking and relatively objective Russians, who want to see their country even-handedly treated.

On Piers Morgan’s CNN show of April 24, Rojansky repeatedly characterized Russian manner in the Caucasus as harsh. (The online video of that segment is incomplete. On the night of this broadcast, I played it back a couple of times to confirm my impression of an overall unbalanced presentation. The edited version depicts a more balanced overview from Rojansky.) In Rojansky’s May 2 National Interest article “Fixing Russian Cooperation After Boston”, the depiction of Russian brutality in the Caucasus is mentioned as a perceived image, without a direct reply from a mainstream Russian perspective.

Elsewhere, on Chris Matthews’ MSNBC “Hardball” show of April 22, David Remnick embellished the line of Russian brutality in the Caucasus, as did former Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney on Fox News. (Mr. Gaffney’s views on the Caucasus region are well established.)

CNN television host Fareed Zakaria exhibited a noticeable bias on his April 28 show “GPS”. Dr. Zakaria repeatedly referred to Russians killing Chechens in an overly simplistic manner. If I correctly recall, in that segment, the astute British academic Anatol Lieven, answered Zakaria, with a comparatively passive response (from how Zakaria was carrying on), noting that the two wars in 1990s Chechnya also involved Russian and other non-Chechen casualties. As a follow-up, the number of civilian casualties does not always jive with which warring side is considered more just. To underscore this point is the numerical difference between civilian World War II American and Japanese casualties.

Concerning Chechnya, the following includes some valid overview, which has been downplayed in English language mass media:

Russian 19th century activity in the Caucasus was in part a response to the threat posed by Ottoman Turkey. Not everyone in the Caucasus rejected the Russian presence. Modern day Chechnya includes land that had been previously inhabited by Cossacks.

Among World War II era Allied nations opposed to the Axis, the Chechens were not the only ones who were subjected to a collective guilt. Such discrimination was evident in North America against people of Japanese background. The Japanese-North Americans received better treatment than the Chechens – something that was true with the overall situation between Canadian and American citizens vis-à-vis Soviets. Another factor to consider is how much more difficult WW II period life was in the USSR, when compared to the situation in North America.

In the 1990s, Chechnya twice had considerable autonomy. In each of these situations, growing lawlessness occurred there.

The first Chechen war of the 1990s involved a Russian military that lacked funding and training. In the second Chechen war of that decade, Russia was still in need of improving its armed forces – something that is ongoing. Pitting a military of this kind against some brutal separatist elements, will play a role in the number of war related casualties. Substantial funding and appropriate training of an armed forces is required to fight a “clean war”. Even then, unethical wartime behavior can exist. Without meaning to belittle the loss of life, the Russian armed forces did not act particularly brutal during the 2008 war in the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, when contrasted with the post-Cold War armed action taken by some others elsewhere.

Since the end of the last Chechen war, Chechnya’s infrastructure has been substantially rebuilt, with Russian government approved aid. Especially when considering what had existed, Chechnya is now relatively calm, to the point that the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan is now seen as having a greater terrorist problem.

The 2003 referendum in Chechnya accords that republic autonomy as a continued part of Russia. There has been some second guessing on how free and fair the vote was on this referendum. It nevertheless seems reasonable to believe that the separatist appeal in Chechnya has declined, since the end of the last war there. In the Russian Caucasus, human rights and socioeconomic challenges remain a problem, where terrorism is most rampant.

The emphasis of people like the Tsarnaevs coming to America as a sign of American goodwill, brings to mind the many non-Russians and Russians who have left the Caucasus for the northwestern part of Russia, as well as mother and father Tsarnaev leaving the US to return to the Russian Caucasus. A negatively inaccurate and hypocritical coverage of Russia does not serve to nurture a better understanding of that country, while hindering the further development of mutually beneficial Russian-American relations.

Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic.


About the Author

Michael Averko
Michael Averko
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic. He has appeared as a guest commentator on the BBC and WABC talk radio, in addition to having been a panelist at the World Russia Forum, Russia Forum New York and US-Russia.org Experts' Panel. Besides Averko's Eurasia Review column - Counterpunch, Foreign Policy Journal, Global Research, History News Network, InoSMI.Ru, Johnson's Russia List, Journal of Turkish Weekly, Kyiv Post, Oriental Review, Penza News, Pravda.Ru, Pravoslavie.Ru, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Russia Insider, Sputnik News, Strategic Culture Foundation, The Huffington Post, Valdai Discussion Club and WikiLeaks, are among the numerous venues where his commentary have either appeared or been referenced. The American Institute in Ukraine and the Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies, have referenced some of his commentary, along with academic white papers prepared for NATO Watch, Ohio State University, Problems of Post-Communism and the Royal College of Defence Studies. He is source referenced in Richard Sakwa's book "Frontline Ukraine". Averko's Eurasia Review article on Pavlo Skoropadsky, provides the first full online transcript of Skoropadsky's edict calling for an "All-Russian Federation", inclusive of Russia and Ukraine. Among other issues, that article explains the relationships among the major combatants in the Russian Civil War. He can be reached via [email protected]

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