Saturday, March 8, 2014

Putin, Crimea, David Michaels, and John Searle in Moscow

David Michaels has produced the Olympic figure skating program for NBC television for many years.  In his capacity as a sports producer he has visited Russia since the waning days of the Soviet Empire.  He has a fondness for the people.

He shared his observations during the Sochi Olympics on a personal blog.  He's a warmhearted guy, and he's optimistic, depending on the Olympic moment, that Putin will be a passing phase; that the people will overcome, leave Putin behind, and Russia will rise as a modern democratic republic.  

Paul Mason (British journalist) is not so sure
Where we are right now [in the wake of the Crimean Occupation] is the result of a huge failure of diplomacy. If we attribute that failure to the west – Nato, the UN, the EU – it is because Putin’s diplomacy is transparently based on force and injustice. The jailing and later tactical pardoning of political opponents; the use of polonium to poison dissidents; the assassination of troublesome journalists – Putin has made no pretense of observing the rule of law.
Mason, alludes to the lead up to World War I.  He's not alone.  Military occupations by strong opponents are apt to make people lose perspective and say stupid things.  He seems to agree with Roger Cohen of the New York Times, usually a reliable and cool-headed analyst, but not here, that the West showed weakness towards Russia on Syria, gave a green light to Putin to invade Ukraine, and that it's all apt to lead to another global armed conflict.  Well, that's nuts .... as is their innuendo that "We should have bombed Syria", or "We should be ready to send troops to Ukraine."  

Cohen is looking at this through the lens of the holocaust, which can lead to distorted thinking; I don't know where Mason is coming from. 
I just finished reading Christopher Clarke's nuanced and wonderful book, The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914, about the 30-year or so lead up to World War I.  It's depressing.  Such a huge tragedy; you see the train wreck coming from miles away...if only the engineers had known  (16 million dead, another 20 million injured--and likely, if World War I didn't happen, World War II and it's 60 million dead would not have happened either).  The Russian occupation doesn't feel anything like the lead up to World War I (or III). 

Frankly, Crimea is simply nothing to get that excited about.  Ukraine, like Russia, is run by Oligarchs who (like Oligarchs everywhere) did not acquire their economic empires through long hard work.  In this case they were in the right place at the right time, and had the right mix of criminality, venality, ambition, and skill to collect the spoils of the Soviet Empire as it was dismantled.  Whether Crimea is nominally a part of Ukraine, or Russia, is not so momentous. 

It does matter, a lot, to discourage this armed occupation because nationalist states expanding their territory through force is dangerous stuff.   The Chinese are paying close attention, and would be happy to follow suit in annexing minor islets and rocks in the South China Sea, along with their fishing and mining rights.  Not to mention Taiwan.  It's no way to behave.  

We have tools to discourage such behavior.  I found Peter Beinart's analysis, and others (no originality here), persuasive:  Oligarchs in a world economy are vulnerable to economic sanctions.  They are vulnerable to having their assets frozen. They do want and need to travel.  Human rights does play a mitigating role.  Russia has a stock market, and oligarchs do not like plunging stock markets.  These are tempering influences. 

Putin may not be "presidential", as we might say about Rick Perry, but he's less naive and innocent than Kaiser Wilhelm and his cousins in 1914.  

I'm an optimist, along with David Michaels.  This morning I watched an interesting interview with John Searle, a philosopher of mind at UC Berkeley.  It's not clear when this interview happened, looks like sometime in 2013.  It takes place at the Moscow Center for Consciousness Studies.  The Center flew him to Moscow, set him up in a room with a couple I-phone cameras, and two Russian philosophers asking knowledgeable and respectful questions.  Searle is loving it.  This shows off the Russians in their best light.  Non-commercial, earnest, engaged with the world and its problems in a non-political, non-confrontational manner.  

With people like that and a good bottle of vodka there is hope.   The pictures from Kiev, the interviews with people on the street in Sevastopol, they show that these people have interests we can recognize.  Like us, they have their oligarchs and political divisions to deal with.  There is no reason to bomb anyone, or to get too emotional in our responses.  There is lots of reason to help out, continue to engage, and strive to make the world a better place as best we can.  It's approximately what the West is trying to do with its muted response. 


1 comment:

  1. Roland - Really enjoyed your thoughtful reflections on Russia along with the world picture as well. Excellent links too. Thanks for including my musings.

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