The Munk Debates: Should the West Engage Putin’s Russia?

Pro – Stephen F. Cohen, Vladimir Pozner
Con – Anne Applebaum, Garry Kasparov

April 10th, 2015 — Toronto, ON

I bought the transcript of the 2015 Munk Debate at a local bookstore last year. ‘Should the West Engage Russia’ may be old news, but I have some fresh insights on the ideas presented by both panels.

When I bought Anne Applebaum’s ‘Gulag’ at our local Chapters a few years back the sales clerk commented, “just some light summer reading I see…” Usually book judgements piss me off but I had to laugh at that. ‘Gulag’ shows off Applebaum’s vast knowledge of Soviet Russia and is the reason I picked up the Munk Debates in the first place. I assumed she would have deeper insight into current Russian affairs because of that knowledge of the past. Maybe it was unfair to expect as much.

Then the celebrity draw, Garry Kasparov. I didn’t realize he was a raving lunatic but I guess how else do you spice up a debate on Russian politics for the masses.

This transcript was the first time I’d come across Stephen F. Cohen, whom I now consider to be the finest resource in the West on Russian matters today. He continues to provide, with unbiased clarity, great understanding of Russian politics and history. In a time of massive disinformation campaigns by the corporate media and their McCarthyist rhetoric being the status quo, Cohen’s been made something of a revolutionary.

This debate also led me to further research Vladimir Pozner’s perspective on Crimea/Sevastopol and the true sentiment of fear that led this defensive action, in response to Western aggression.

That being said, I do think that there is a side to this debate that hasn’t been explored.

My unanswered question in this: could it be in Russia’s best interests to disengage with the West?

I’ll start by explaining my views on Putin to avoid any confusion. My introduction to Vladimir Putin was ‘Words Will Break Cement,’ by Masha Gessen, reporting on Pussy Riot. I was enraged. Then her book, ‘The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin’ came out and I snapped it up.

Over time, reading many alternate perspectives and questioning the official narrative, I realized how misinformed I’d been to hate this “evil” man.

I was ignorant without understanding the history of it all: the Soviet Union, the Cold War, the ‘90s revolution and Yeltsin’s shock doctrine capitalism, and the disaster that was the free market economy. Western intervention in Russia fucked them up. It makes sense, common sense, to realize that Russia will react defensively against any American aggression, perceived or real, as all American actions have been questioned since. Once this becomes clear, Putin doesn’t seem to be so unreasonable.

What I see now, is a president doing what he deems right for his country. I don’t have to personally agree with his policies to see that he has made Russia a much better place than it was under Yeltsin’s disaster capitalism and oligarchy. Russia has as much of a right to self-determination and to serve its best interests as America does. We do not need to agree with their politics. We do not need to morally agree with their policies. We are grown ups – we can work with people we don’t like. I wouldn’t want Putin as my leader, but I’m Canadian, living in Canada, and grew up in the Canadian system. Different countries are allowed to be different. It’s not up to the West to keep policing the world and deciding what’s best for everyone. We don’t know better, however much we think we do. We only know different.

I don’t have to like Putin, but I respect that he’s made progress for his country. I respect that Russia, as a world power, as a country, as any country should be, is entitled to make their own decisions. And the decisions being made by Putin and his government seem to be good for Russia.

However, Anne Applebaum and Garry Kasparov do not agree.

Starting with what I deem the highlights and then getting into the opposing sides, this culminates in my theories on the unexplored side of the Should the West Engage Putin’s Russia debate.

Highlights

First off, everyone’s first line of defence, Ukraine, and more specifically, Crimea. Stephen F. Cohen knows what I’m saying:

“The towering example, and one which I knew Ms. Applebaum would mention is, Ukraine. What happened in Ukraine is entirely Putin’s fault. The West bears no responsibility: we made no mistakes in our policy whatsoever. This is not factual.

He later continues:

“…if you believe we should push our power as close to Russia as we can and bring Ukraine into the Western security system because it’s ultimately good for us, then say so and then let’s debate that issue. But don’t go on about the demon Putin, because the Russian understanding of Ukraine mirrors the concept of NATO expansion from the beginning.

The Russians invaded Ukraine because the Russian political class believed that NATO was on its way not only to Kiev, but also to Crimea. Now, we can say that’s crazy, but perception in politics is everything. If you isolate Russia, they’re going to perceive it in an even more extreme form, and we will never be safe.”

I think it’s fair to say since American “reforms” introducing capitalism in the ‘90s, Russia has felt it necessary to act defensively to any American action. Going back even further to the Cold War, NATO expansion has always triggered a defensive response.

Their country was almost destroyed economically and politically, and the effects are still felt to this day. Those actions have had consequences, especially in the perception of America’s intentions.

Vladimir Pozner goes on to say:

“Rightly or wrongly, this is the way Russia looks at NATO. It sees it as a threat. NATO was created to protect the West from a possible Soviet invasion, but there is no more Soviet Union and there has not been one in over twenty-five years. The Warsaw Pact, which was the Soviet’s answer for NATO, is no longer upheld.

I tend to trust Mikhail Gorbachev. He told me three times that James Baker, then U.S. secretary of state, expressed to him that if they agreed to the unification of Germany and took down the Berlin Wall, NATO would not move one inch to the east. Now, you may say he’s lying, but I think he’s telling the truth. During the Soviet period, which didn’t last very long after that, NATO did not move to the east. It only shifted under Clinton.

And when the Russians questioned this move east under Clinton, Yeltsin was told that they didn’t have an agreement. The U.S. said, we had an agreement with the Soviet Union, but you’re Russia. And so in 1991, Poland and Czechoslovakia, which was still Czechoslovakia back then, became members of NATO. And finally, NATO found itself on Russia’s border, in Estonia and Latvia.

You may think that there’s nothing dangerous about the whole scenario. I’m telling you – and this is perhaps a holdover of the Cold War mentality – that NATO is seen as a threat. In regards to Ukraine, the Russians have said, we will not allow NATO to be on our border in the southwest; we will not allow it, just as America did not allow the missiles in Cuba. You can condone it or not condone it, but that is how it is perceived.”

It was basically unknown to me at the time how Russia views NATO expansionism so I found this point especially interesting. Easy enough to understand the significant animosity associated with Ukraine becoming a member state of NATO, but what was it about Crimea‘s location specifically that required physical military intervention?

Vladimir Pozner explains:

“… Russia sees what’s happening in Ukraine as a threat. It sees Ukraine becoming a member of NATO in the future, meaning that NATO would be on Russia’s southwestern border. And in the case of Crimea, had Crimea remained in Ukraine, its most important naval base, in Sevastopol, could have become a NATO or American naval base.”

It’s this resounding and undeniable context that was left out of the official narrative across Western media. Rather than a random show of force to display his military power, Putin acted proactively in defence of a Russian military base – it’s “most important naval base” at that. There may not have been a sudden threat from America, but the fact that the Russian administration thought they were acting in defence, is itself significant enough to warrant discussion.

Speaking to the counter-argument that Russia didn’t view NATO expansion into Ukraine as a threat, Stephen F. Cohen retorts:

“Let’s be serious. We were continuously warned by liberal Russians – people we liked in Russia – that we (Americans) were pushing too far. Eventually, rightly or wrongly, the Russian political elite decided that this expansion of NATO was a way of making sure Russia would forever be a subservient state to the West.”

That fear isn’t unfounded when you consider the poverty, corruption, degradation, and depravity that ran rampant through the streets of Yeltsin’s new Russia. And during that tumultuous time, NATO was looking east.

Cohen says:

“Wasn’t NATO expanding toward Russia’s borders when we were supposedly embracing the country in the 1990s?”

He continues:

“There was tremendous pressure on Clinton in the United States to go back on the word that has been given to Gorbachev about NATO expansion. The whole history of NATO expansion that we’ve heard tonight is the fairy-tale version: NATO expanded to protect and save central and eastern European countries from a menacing Russia while bringing democracy along the way. But it isn’t the true story.”

So what is the true story?

In Cohen’s opinion:

“…Russia represents no threat to the Baltic states whatsoever. This notion that somehow Ukraine is also about the Baltics was conjured up by those members of NATO that have wanted to move front-line, permanent NATO infrastructure and bases to the Baltics right on Russia’s borders for fifteen years, but have been prohibited from doing so by an agreement with Russia. The West signed an agreement when NATO was expanded that there would be no such bases that close to Russia.”

Which then brings us to the question, what’s the solution?

Vladimir Pozner proposes:

“I don’t think any of this would have happened if there had been some kind of guarantee that Ukraine would not become a member of NATO for the next thirty years. I think there is a real fear of NATO in Russia. Why does it exist now? There is no more Soviet Union; there is no Warsaw Pact. Who is NATO being used against? Who is the threat? If it’s Russia, then come out and say so.”

Good point – why does NATO exist now? The North Atlantic Treaty Organization/Alliance, or NATO,  was created after WWII for the sole purpose of responding to threats by the Soviet Union and creating peace in Europe, or so their website says. Now those Cold War antics, typical at the time and once encouraged by the nuclear race, are no longer relevant. So why does NATO still exist when the Soviet Union no longer exists and none of those original factors are at play? And furthermore, why is their expansion then at all necessary? The fact that NATO still has authority and is still being deployed as an enforcement agency is a viable threat to Russia in and of itself.

America boasts NATO’s progress in the east to show how they are the heroes and defenders of democracy. That they are saving the poor former-Soviet countries from their old bully Russia. It plays perfectly into their patronizing, narcissistic mindset and resulting imperialist ambitions. They propagate that Russia wants its empire back and all the former Soviet countries back in Russian hands, tight under Russian control.

I would argue that having gone through America’s “liberating” disaster capitalism, Russia is more likely to be warning against similar economic destruction to their neighbours, allies, and trading partners.

What is NATO defending these Eastern European countries from?

Stephen F. Cohen claims: “Putin is not expansive.”

Then what is their role in the east?

He continues:

“They talk about weapons being defensive, not offensive. … They want to escalate what is already a military crisis. And for what purpose? They think this will result in a defeat of Putin’s leadership and that he will just go away.”

It’s foolish and simplistic to think attempting to oust Putin will do anything but strengthen his base. Any time Putin takes a hard-line on foreign policy, his popularity soars. Any time he stands strong against America, he’s portrayed as the saviour of Russian freedom. He’s tapped into the Russian psyche and fulfills the basic fundamental need for security that was missing. That structure was lost to most of the population in the Yeltsin years in the experiment that was the free-market economy.

You wouldn’t expect it in a debate about Russian politics but there were a few moments of levity. The chess superstar had a few shots fired his way.

“Mr. Kasparov likely has resentments…. Things in Russia didn’t go the way he thought they would,” jabbed Cohen.

Could it be that he took losing to Putin in the 2008 presidential election personally? It’s been over 10 years now!

Even the interviewer, Rudyard Griffiths, couldn’t help but ask:

“Are you concerned that by being so critical of Putin – critical of the current Russian regime – you are playing into that propaganda? You are, in a sense, exhibit A for the negative critique of Russia abroad, to the degree that Russia isn’t being respected or acknowledged as a proper global power.”

…which of course he dodged. Or should I say, blundered?

Now that you know my basic stance, let’s get into the conflicting sides to these ideas brought up throughout the debate. There’s nothing worse than misinformation in print. Let’s try to rectify that.

Arguments

Anne Applebaum brings up the West’s “good intentions,” saying:

“We created Putin and his ruling clique. Our banking systems laundered their money and our tax havens protected it, so stop acting like they’re somehow a reaction to our isolation. We kept Putin on board. We invited him to the meetings and we tried to make him part of things. Initially, it was with very good intentions.”

And:

“We wanted Putin to be part of the West.”

What were the real intentions behind inviting Putin in? Were they the same intentions that brought Boris Yeltsin in? It seems Applebaum has forgotten America’s role in the Russian government of the 1990s. She goes on to question the Russian administration’s prerogatives:

“And what are their ends? They want to remain in power. Everything that Putin does is to support his ultimate goal of maintaining power, whether it’s building up nuclear arsenal, carrying out military exercises, claiming that Malaysian planes were shot down by Martians, or whatever else it may be.”

She keeps on with the standard U.S. party line:

“We have created Putin. Our policy of engagement for the last ten years – as well-intentioned as it was – created Putin. Allowing Russian companies access to our financial markets and our tax havens and our money laundering schemes have created the Russian oligarchy. The Russian oligarchy wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Western banking system that supports it. We helped create Putin. We gave Russia a seat at the UN. We invited Russia to join the G8. We allowed Putin to grow even when it was already clear which way his regime was going from the mid-2000s.”

Summarizing her point with:

“We allowed him to do what he’s done.”

Applebaum displays the classic American worldview. They are the owners of the world and they “allow” other countries and their governments to exist, but only if they act in accordance within America’s capitalist agenda. Their “well-intentions” created the oligarchy in Russia. Their “well-intentions” bankrupt nations and destroy everything in their path. Their “well-intentions” look like destructive intervention in foreign economies, masqueraded by “philanthropy” and the “freedom of democracy.”

It’s pretty ridiculous really. Democracy and communism have at least one thing in common – neither system of governance can be implemented through force. People are not free when they are forced to participate – democracy and communism can only exist in their true state through the evolution of society. Two sides of the same coin. But back to the debate.

The Soviet Union was an original member of the UN security council and was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945. Their place at the table was not given out of America’s charity – the role was made by Russia’s contributions to the establishment.

Speaking to the point, “we allowed him to do what he’s done,” shows the perspective that America’s sole intention of engaging Putin in the first place was to “allow” him to further bankrupt and corrupt his country to continue Yeltsin’s legacy of the imported American free-market in Russia and further, Russian subservience to the West.

The post-debate conversation with Edward Greenspon summarizes Anne Applebaum’s point well, although we do reach very different conclusions on Putin and NATO.

“The Ukrainian crisis was nothing more than a reaction against a movement, that in the words of Applebaum, was “fighting oligarchs, corruption, and Putinism.” It was not, as Cohen and Pozner contended, the natural by-product of a Russia that felt threatened by NATO expansion and is now basking in its re-emergence as a power to reckon with.”

He continues:

“… Cohen kept returning to the themes that the US had misjudged Putin (he was on his knees pleading to be part of the West) and that U.S. policy shouldn’t be about punishing Putin but serving its own national interest.”

I’ve argued that’s exactly what happened in Ukraine, yet I don’t agree that Russia is “basking” in anything just yet. There’s far more work to be done to ensure the system’s sustainability and longevity.

Greenspon infers that Cohen claimed Putin was somehow seen as, “on his knees pleading to be part of the West.” First of all, this behaviour isn’t something we’ve ever seen in Putin. He is notoriously known as being a “thug” or “gangster” president and well-known for his KGB career. He is consistent with his image of strength and infallibility. Anyone who knows anything about his character or leadership style would accuse him of kneeling to anyone. Anyone who’s ever seen him on TV or even in a photograph would be hesitant to make such a statement. The only reason he has to work with the West is to improve the security and economic standing of his country, while acting in accordance with what’s in Russia’s best interests.

U.S. policy always serves “its own national interest.” The leader of every country should be acting to serve their own interests. But America can’t accept that. Only they can do so, while everyone else must bow down to what’s best for America.

The funny part is, what’s best for “America” is hardly ever considered in America. The “America” that we speak of isn’t a collection of states across the ocean. It isn’t the physical place or the majority of the population, it’s the system. “America” is the monster that is corporate greed constantly in pursuit of opportunities for more wealth with complete disregard for human life across the world. It’s the corporatist empire created by and exclusively loyal to its beloved 0.01%.

Applebaum reflects on Russia:

“This is a country in which every single television channel and every single newspaper and almost every single internet website, with a few exceptions, is controlled by the state and run in such a way that they all appear to be slightly different. This is not one Pravda saying one thing every day. This is a wide spectrum of different media that all say the same thing using different perspectives and tones: the tabloid way, the sophisticated way, the entertaining way, or the news-focused way.

They’re telling people the same stories that Putin wants them to hear. And the story they’ve been telling for many months now is bitterly anti-American, bitterly anti-European, and coming very close to being warmongering in a way that I don’t remember.”

From that first sentence, I thought we were talking about America for a second there. Sounds very similar to our experience with the American anti-Russia propaganda we hear.

Question – logically, how can an American criticize a controlled media when 5 corporations own over 90% of the media in her country?

Also, from the local news outlets that I read, at least, Russian media is often critical of Putin. However, Anne Applebaum feels differently.

She thinks “we need to disengage from Russian media.”

By doing so, what source for Russian news would then be appropriate? The BBC? CNN? The Washington Post? (Applebaum writes for The Post).

And she doesn’t stop there.

“Ukraine is not Putin’s only target. He also wants to undermine our societies, corrupt our politicians, and spread conspiracies inside our media. He hopes to persuade Europeans to succumb to the old temptations of the fascist far right.

To stop this from happening, and to stop him from destroying Ukraine, we need to isolate Russia by enforcing our own corruption laws, disentangling ourselves from the drug of Russian money, and re-establishing Western solidarity, which he is trying to destroy.”

Which brings me to the question, why is Ukraine America’s responsibility? The only relevant thing to America about Ukraine is it’s geopolitical position. This point she makes is very paranoid and not based in fact. I only disagree based on sheer common sense. Europeans are embracing the fascist far right of their own free will, and exactly how would Putin go about destroying Western solidarity? Every move he makes unites the West against him.

And to further the insanity, cue Garry Kasparov.

“As for Syria, Putin’s priority from day one was to save a mass murderer named Bashar al-Assad, and he’s succeeded. There are many reasons why he stepped in to do so: one was probably some form of dictators brotherhood. Believe me, after so many dictators were washed away by public anger in the Arab world, Putin didn’t want to allow Assad to be toppled because then Russians could see that dictators were also vulnerable.”

I’d like to know, does he really believe his own words? Does he believe this lunacy charading as cognitive thought or is it all an act meant to be comedic entertainment? There’s nothing believable about it.

As complete bullshit does, when I read his theory on a “dictators’ brotherhood,” it actually made me laugh out loud. What the fuck, Garry? The point he makes about dictators being “washed away” is somewhat true, but it wasn’t out of public anger in the Arab world – it was at the hands of Western interventionists. Or should I say, proponents of democracy?

If Putin were trying to prove to his people that dictators are not vulnerable, why would Russian children learn history at school? Almost their entire thousand year history is one fallen dictator after another. Why would the country have skipped celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the 1917 Revolution and beloved dictator (Putin’s personal favourite Russian leader of the past), Vladimir Lenin? The list easily goes on.

Kasparov continues blithering on with his nonsensical narrative of Vladimir Putin:

“There are differences between the Soviet Union and Russia today, because, as Mr. Pozner said, in the bad old days there was the politburo. The ten worst people in the world can make more balanced decisions than one man. And with Vladimir Putin there is no way out. He presents himself as a strongman who can protect Russia against endless enemies.”

Maybe Garry skipped a few history lessons. Lenin and Stalin ran the politburo when it was first created – what point is he trying to make here? Surely not that they made well-balanced decisions. And comparing to Putin, the elected president of Russia, who has an elected parliament, the State Duma, of 450 members to refer to, is ridiculous at best.

And why shouldn’t the president be protective of his country? Or again, is that only okay for the American president to do? Does the rest of the world always have to kneel to American provocation?

And now, time for Kasparov’s complete ignorance in his account of recent Russian history.

“Russia was engaged from the very beginning. What about all the billions and billions of Western money given as aid to support Russia’s economy? And in 1998, during the financial crisis, it was an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan that actually helped Russia to escape from the abyss. By the end of Yeltsin’s rule Russia was already on the verge of recovery. Actually, the highest growth of gross domestic product (GDP) in Russia was in the year 2000. And then Putin came to power. The greatest mistake Yeltsin made was to hand over power to a KGB lieutenant colonel nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Billions and billions? It really wasn’t that much. Definitely far less than the $15 billion promised to the Russian government by the American IMF loan-wizard Jeffrey Sachs.

I love this: how can he cite thriving GDP as a sign of progress during an oligarchy? Oligarchs were looting the country, buying up entire industries for rock-bottom prices piece by piece. This was the lowest standard of living for the average person since the Second World War. The country was not on the verge of recovery, it was in the thick of despair.

Putin came to power in 1999. Since Putin, the economy, standard of living, Russia’s international standing, corruption levels, have all improved. Obviously it was Western intervention in Russian affairs that caused this chaos. The root of all evil in this case was America, not Putin. Can Garry handle that truth?

Vladimir Pozner counters Kasparov’s point:

“Billions and billions of dollars were not invested in Russia. You’ve got to be kidding me. And whatever was invested was invested to make money.”

He adds:

“Russia today would be a very different country had the West – the United States first and foremost – decided to engage Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and then Yeltsin’s Russia with the same aims with which it engaged post-World War II Germany and Italy, to help create and support democratic development and institutions.”

But they did not, and so Russia stands alone, a self-made country.

Alternate Theory

Knowing what we know about American intervention in Russia, it only makes sense Russia would feel threatened by any action taken by America. The destruction that came after the American-implemented free-market has always been painted as a picture of philanthropy.

So can America ever fully engage Russia?

“What is the alternative? Our opponents say it is to isolate Russia. They want to weaken, destabilize, and carry out regime change – as if it were that easy – in Russia,” says Stephen F. Cohen.

And Rudyard Griffiths ponders the other side:

“But is taking a hard line on Russia going to further peace and stability in Eastern Europe, or the West’s own geopolitical interests?”

Summing up America’s real interest in the east, Cohen poses the question:

“Are we going to have a discussion of what is in the best interest of the West? That is really embedded in the question, isn’t it? Should we engage Russia or should we have a debate about how we’re going to get rid of Putin?”

Looking back through history, we see the pattern of American conflict with Russia. Those motives don’t just disappear over time. What once began as a war on the threat of a differing ideology has since evolved into geopolitical agendas and the global threat that is American imperialism.

Vladimir Pozner explains:

“No, those were terrible days, (Soviet days), but it was an ideology from the beginning. You know as well as I do that the Red Scare was about ideology. It is no longer about ideology now. It is geopolitical. It is about whose interests are at stake.”

Russia is quite aware of American aggression and proposes policies in defense of the West’s history of violence. Regardless of if that threat is currently real, it is absolutely perceived as real.

My next question is then, should Russia disengage from the West?

One of the main arguments against dealing with Russia is the issue of corruption.

Anne Applebaum sums it up:

“On our side, you’ve heard an argument that Russia is actually a nation that thinks differently. The reason we keep talking about Putin and his cronies is because he is an owner-occupier – these are owner-occupiers. They are not just politicians. They own Gazprom. The owners of Gazprom are the leaders of the country. They use their businesses and their media inside their country, inside Ukraine, inside central Europe and all over the West in order to achieve their own ends.”

What bothers me is the hypocrisy of her stance on the matter. Russia has come a long way from the complete oligarchy that was Yeltsin’s Russia in the ‘90s.

Speaking of coming a long way, Gazprom was renationalized back in the mid 2000s. She’s describing the time of oligarchy. Which I agree, was a time of corruption. A level of corruption that was only possible because of America’s corrupting of the Russian economy, enabled by American intervention.

That’s where the hypocrisy comes in.

America had no issue with “owner-occupiers” when Yeltsin and his “Family” of oligarchs were doing it. Why? Because America was directly profiting.

The U.S. didn’t have an issue with this idea of owner-occupiers when Cheney was profiting from Haliburton contracts during the Iraq War. Or more recently when Scott Pruitt was head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after making a career of suing the Agency for what he views as meddling by the federal government. Are they not also corrupt, owner-occupiers, only in different shades of grey?

Let me theorize here. After American “reforms” in the ‘90s, we saw the rise of the oligarchy. The oligarchs were powerful under this new capitalist system because they were rich. Money meant power in this system. So Putin comes in, vows to rid the country of the corruption caused by the oligarchs and one by one, starts this resolution. Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Khodorkovsky etc. are taken down and he then attempts to re-nationalize these stolen industries. But what if until he can actually change the system, he has to retain his power to be able to effect change from within it, by adapting to this disaster capitalism? I wonder if to prevent the corruption of the past it is currently necessary for the president of Russia to also control the country’s wealth in order to prevent being bought or overpowered by anyone else in Russia (as it happened with the oligarchs).

To clarify, fear of American intervention in Russia is not interchangeable with fear of America as a country or fearing the West as a place to be. America’s foreign policy is what Russians are concerned with. The day-to-day-life of people in the West isn’t any kind of threat to their livelihood or well-being.

This is not something the chess champ has figured out yet.

He continues:

“And by the way, these Russian elites, as a combined entity, know exactly where to put their kids, their money, their fortunes: south Kensington in London, Miami, probably in this country as well. So this whole idea of the Russian elites being afraid of the West is not true because they know that they can be safe with their fortunes and their future generations here.”

Russians are afraid of their country being destabilized for what suits Western interests. And for the record, Kasparov brought this up because Pozner explained NATO expansion was something Russians feared. Someone please tell Kasparov that NATO expansion is not synonymous with Western life.

NATO’s expansion in the 1990s isn’t even where the threats began. It wasn’t the Cold War. It wasn’t the Second World War. It goes even further back than that.

Western intervention in Russian affairs goes back before the Revolution of 1917.

Edward Greenspon confirms:

“To hear Vladimir Pozner tell it, the current angst in the West over whether and how to isolate Vladimir Putin’s Russia for its Ukrainian transgressions is not only wrong-headed but part of a continuum of wrong-headedness dating back to at least the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which was followed by failed Western military expeditions against the newborn communist state.”

So what can Russia do?

It seems the West will never allow Russia to run their country without trying to aggravate some sort of self-serving result.

Does that make disengaging from the West a possible solution for Russia?

Certain strategic initiatives taken recently display their willingness to try.

The New Development Bank (NDB) was established in 2012 by the BRICS states: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. They have awarded Russian company Sibur with $300 million USD to construct a polymer production facility which will be the biggest of its type in the country. The goal of this project is to create self-sustainability in these products and to set up Russia to become a leading exporter as well.

The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was established in 2015 as the responding body to the European Union (EU). It currently has 5 member-states: the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Belarus, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and the Russian Federation.

And they’ve already had some drama.

It’s rumoured that this is how the Ukranian crisis and Euromaidan protests started in the first place. Then Ukranian president, Viktor Yanukovych, abandoned an agreement with the EU to pursue a partnership with the EAEU. This sparked outrage amongst the international community and he was rapidly replaced as president with the American-approved pawn, Petro Poroshenko. The EU was the only one Ukraine would be pursuing… we’ll have to wait and see what the future brings to this situation.

In the meantime, Russia has been moving away from solely depending on the export of its raw materials.

Another project the government has been investing in is organic produce. The agricultural growth of Russian organic food production has been significant. GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) have no place in Russia’s agricultural sector leaving space for massive growth in organics.

Russia is a major exporter of organic products to countries all over the world. $23 billion worth of produce will go to countries in Europe, Israel and Japan to name a few. And it’s not stopping there. The Russian government plans to set aside billions to invest in agriculture over the next five years, with plans to export $45 billion worth of goods in the near future.

Vladimir Putin signed a new law that will go into effect on January 1st, 2020 regarding agricultural practices. “Agrochemicals, pesticides, antibiotics, growth stimulators and hormones” are all banned under this new legislation. “The legislation may help Russia take 25 percent stake in the global organic produce market, said Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year,” reports RT.*

Other strides in Russia’s agricultural industry have been made in recent years as well.

Russia has become self-sufficient in pork and poultry in the past five years, says a report from the Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN). The report also states that after oil and gas, metals, and chemicals, agriculture is now the fourth highest-earning industry in Russia.

The economist shares that Russia became the world’s leading exporter of wheat again, for the first time since the Russian revolution, in 2016.

Exactly how much has Russia progressed in recent years?

According to the Russian Agricultural Bank, in 1999, 28.5% of Russia’s imports were agricultural goods. Since the sanctions introduced in 2014, that number has been steadily declining to the current level of 12.7% in 2017. Within a similar timeframe, Russia began exporting those products at a rate of 2% in the 2000s to 6% in 2017.

American/Western sanctions imposed after the “annexation of Crimea” looked to sink the Russian economy and teach them a lesson. The lesson learned – don’t trust the West with economic interests and become more self-sustainable.

It is rumoured that over one third of all rural Russians live completely independent of the government. The live off the natural resources available in their communities and are therefore not affected by the sanctions like urban populations are.

To help balance rates of food production throughout the country, Russia has also launched an initiative to improve greenhouses for growing produce. The Russian Ministry of Agriculture reports:

“Russia’s greenhouse vegetable production, which consists mostly of tomatoes and cucumbers, will reach 1.03 million tons in 2018. That’s 12.3% more in 2018 than in 2017. The growth is due to the launch of new greenhouses and the modernization of the old ones. At the end of 2017, there were 251 hectares of greenhouses in production. At present, approximately 450 hectares of greenhouses are under construction.” **

Great to note, what about recent innovations?

We’re all slowly starting to wake up to the fact that the cannabis plant is the world’s most sustainable and versatile resource. Surprisingly, Russia’s leading the way. The government has launched an agricultural hemp farming initiative. This is very promising for the future of self-sustainability and the growth of innovation and local economy in Russia. The potential for innovation with this plant is immense. With opportunities in biofuel, building materials, plastic, textiles and thousands more, the possibilities are almost limitless. Moving away from the majority export of raw materials to diversify with products and manufactured goods will greatly benefit the economy and improve the average person’s prospects as well as standard of living.

Did you know Russia was the world’s top producer of hemp in the 18th century and still was, even after the Russian Revolution? It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Russia’s economic interests changed. Even in the 1970s strains of cannabis were being adapted to grow a better quality product. A few years later under Mikhail Gorbachev, the cannabis plant was criminalized, harsh measures were taken and the plant fell into disfavour through the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But that’s changed in recent years.

In 2013 the government launched a hemp production initiative in easern Siberia. They have since heavily invested in the project, planning to use hemp as the main raw material in technical textiles and related products. Developing hemp as an innovative textile material will create a boom, but that means developing the production of the plant symbiotically.  It is predicted that an area of 6,000 hectares is being utilized for growing hemp from Vladivostok in the Far East to as far west as Kaliningrad, since 2018.

Hemp is currently produced for clothing, health care and defence, among other uses.

Eventually, hemp will be manufactured into some type of fuel. Until those innovations become more mainstream, Russia’s economy is still very reliant on the oil and gas industry. In recent years, they’ve been dedicated to finding more reliable partners to export their resources to.

A sub-sea gas pipeline proposed by Russia to Iran is in the works right now for exporting natural gas to India. The Iranian oil minister accepted the proposal in early February which, he says, plans to link Iran to India, “from Iran’s southern coast to India’s Gujarat, via the Gulf of Oman and Indian Ocean.” ***

Estimated to take two years to complete, companies from India, Pakistan, Russia and Iran will be working together on the joint project.

Russia’s come a long way since the time when Senator John McCain could call it “a gas station masquerading as a country.” ****

In order to uplift the entire country of Russia, I believe they need to work on both trade with regional partners and develop local, sustainable industries. If Russia seeks economic security that cannot be debased by America and its institutions, it will need to seek self-sustainability.

A secure Russia means a safer world for us all.

To bring it back to the debate, there’s just so much in these few pages of text but there were a few big topics I took away from it and wanted to research further. It sparked my research to gain deeper insight into Putin’s motives as president and greater understanding of the Crimean situation. It also left me questioning the role of NATO in our oversaturated world of defence and enforcement agencies.

For further reading on some things brought up in this debate, I’ve just finished Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder by Ben Mezrich, and am now reading Stephen F. Cohen’s War with Russia: From Putin and Ukraine To Trump and Russiagate. Regardless of my view on her political opinions, for anyone interested in learning more about the history of the Soviet Union I’d recommend Anne Applebaum’s Gulag – it’s important to see how far Russia has come in the last 50 years. What you’re reading about Russia right now?

I would recommend this debate to anyone looking to better understand Russia – and for anyone not used to hearing the official narrative being questioned!

I’d love to know your thoughts on the debate – feel free to leave a note in the comments below!

For notifications on future posts join me on Instagram @thatb00kishgirl

Thanks for reading!

* RT article HERE

** Ministry of Agriculture article HERE

*** Sub-sea Pipeline HERE

**** John McCain Quote HERE

2 thoughts on “The Munk Debates: Should the West Engage Putin’s Russia?

  1. Expanding on a few points made by you and participants:

    (1) Haven’t yet bought Cohen’s War With Russia? but it’s been on my list since Tucker’s interviewing him. I recommend Dan Kovalik’s 2017 The Plot to Scapegoat Russia: How the CIA and Deep State Have Conspired to Vilify Russia; interview with author here. He’s a touch credulous here and there but much of what he speaks and writes about is thought-provoking.

    (2) The importance of perception in international diplomacy (you, para. 10; Cohen, paras. 20,22; Pozner, paras. 27,126). A point not well enough appreciated is that a nation’s actions and intentions can be very different from how they are perceived. E.g. one of the many sparks leading to the conflagration of WW1 was the Kaiser’s building a fleet to rival Britain’s—but he had no intention of taking on our Royal Navy, Chancellor Bülow observing:

    What William II most desired was to see himself at the head of a glorious German fleet, starting out on a peaceful visit to England. The English sovereign with his fleet would meet the German Kaiser in Portsmouth. The two fleets would file past each other, the two monarchs each wearing the naval uniform of the other’s country would then stand on the bridge of their flagships. Then after they had embraced in the prescribed manner, a gala dinner with lovely speeches would be held in Cowes.

    (Wilkinson, R. (2002) Germany, Britain & the Coming of War in 1914. History Review, 42.)

    The Kaiser deserves blame for not realising that such a fleet could not but be perceived as a threat to us, our foreign policy then hinging on our island being secured by the dominance of our fleet; and his notorious congratulatory telegram to Kruger in 1896 and other sympathetic moves to our adversaries helped not at all. His intentions were one thing; how we perceived his actions, another.

    (3) You write (para. 11) how Russia has as much right to pursue her national interest as anyone else, and that does not require our agreeing with their politics: ‘we can work with people we don’t like.’ Exactly so: their being full-on Communist did not prevent our being Allies in WW2, and dispensing with Communism should have brought about a new era of European co-operation. They would be allies against extreme Islam, and indifferently to benignly neutral in other spheres. And comparing Russia’s promotion of Christianity and family and their stance against depravity with the West’s opposing positions, one can only think of the Mitchell & Webb line: ‘Are we the baddies?

    As Palmerston said in 1848:

    Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow. When we find other countries marching in the same course, and pursuing the same objects as ourselves, we consider them as our friends, and we think for the moment that we are on the most cordial footing; when we find other countries that take a different view, and thwart us in the object we pursue, it is our duty to make allowance for the different manner in which they may follow out the same objects. It is our duty not to pass too harsh a judgment upon others, because they do not exactly see things in the same light as we see; and it is our duty not lightly to engage this country in the frightful responsibilities of war, because from time to time we may find this or that Power disinclined to concur with us in matters where their opinion and ours may fairly differ.

    (Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston. Treaty of Adrianople—Charges against Viscount Palmerston. HC Deb 01 March 1848 vol 97 cc 121–123.)

    And Derby in 1866:

    [M]y principle is this—that it is the duty of the Government of this country, placed as this country is with respect to geographical position, to keep itself upon terms of goodwill with all surrounding nations, but not to entangle itself with any single or monopolizing alliance with any one of them; above all to endeavour not to interfere needlessly and vexatiously with the internal affairs of any foreign country, nor to volunteer to them unasked advice with regard to the conduct of their affairs, looking at them from our own point of view, and not considering how different are the views and feelings of those whom we address.

    (Edward Smith Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby. Ministerial Statement. HL Deb 09 July 1866 vol 184 cc 735.)

    The world would be far safer if all nations adopted those principles of foreign policy. Changes of government meant that Britain did not always follow those sound principles but, sadly, we have since so completely discarded them they now appear utterly alien to the wretches disgracing Parliament’s green benches and the NPCs comprising much of our electorate.

    (4) In para. 73, you write about democracy and communism, that they ‘can only exist in their true state through the evolution of society’. Of course communism failed in each and every instance it has been tried, only ever resulting in a wealthy, out-of-touch dictatorship governing an unnecessarily impoverished proletariat at best, and instigating terror and mass murder at worst. I’ve passed through a communist (Trotskyist) stage myself but one can only trot out the ‘not real communism’ line so often before concluding: ‘right theory, wrong species’. But I’m not going to whale on communism as the failing nations of the West (not least my own country) suggest we picked the wrong political path as well.

    There appears to be ongoing a certain confluence of ideas coming from many political homes, questioning the Whig principles underpinning Western society. So Putin, in a recent interview with the Financial Times said:

    What is happening in the West? What is the reason for the Trump phenomenon … in the United States? What is happening in Europe as well? The ruling elites have broken away from the people. The obvious problem is the gap between the interests of the elites and the overwhelming majority of the people. … [1:13:26] There is also the so-called liberal idea, which has outlived its purpose. … [1:15:38] As for the liberal idea, its proponents are not doing anything. They say that all is well, that everything is as it should be. But is it? They are sitting in their cosy offices, … [1:17:22] So, the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.

    (En passant, it’s too bad the US 1787 Constitution forbids non-citizens for running for POTUS, otherwise I think he’d walk it. Also, I’m curious what occupies his bookshelves—in this interview and elsewhere he says things that make me wonder if he’s read some of the same books I have (he can speak English), or if Russian authors, or he himself, independently think up similar ideas. E.g. (1:19:00) discussing Christianity, Putin says: ‘Have we forgotten that all of us live in a world based on Biblical values? Even atheists and everyone else live in this world,’ which is reminiscent of (often quoted by Douglas Murray in talks as well as his 2017 The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam):

    You may call yourself a non-Christian, but the dreams you dream are still Christian dreams, and you continue to be part of the history of Christianity. That’s your fate. You may consider yourself secular, but the modern Western secular world is itself a Christian creation.

    (Cupitt, Don. The Meaning of the West: An Apologia for Secular Christianity. SCM Press, 2008. 66–67.))

    So in the US, Notre Dame professor Patrick J. Deneen recently published to wide acclaim Why Liberalism Failed, a critique of both modern (l/w) liberalism and of ‘classical’ (r/w) liberalism and thus drawing qualified praise from both Left and Right, l/w reviewers relishing his criticisms of ‘classical’ liberalism but taking issue with his criticisms of modern liberalism, and r/w reviewers vice-versa.

    Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology. A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. Its success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve. Rather than seeing the accumulating catastrophe as evidence of our failure to live up to liberalism’s ideals, we need rather to see clearly that the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success.

    (Why Liberalism Failed. Yale University Press, 2018. 3–4.)

    And has it not failed? Every nation that embraced the liberal project is suffering immense problems at least if not seeming to be on the way out altogether. Burgeoning crime. An out-of-touch political class. Increasing tyranny. Demographic disaster. Every nation on the road to Hell, the only difference between any of our nations being how far along we are and how fast we’re travelling. We’re all of us in the s**t, only the depth varies. Thus, one can’t help but conclude that, as with communism, democracy also: right theory, wrong species.

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