A couple of days ago I was on the Moscow Metro. In the interchange I asked two women the direction. Then they asked me did I like Russia? I asked them the same question and they said “no”.
They didn’t like the way President Vladimir Putin was restricting freedom. Then I asked them what they thought of Ukraine. They said that it upset them. They had some Russian-speaking friends living in eastern Ukraine and the friends didn’t feel the militias represented them. Interestingly, the women said they knew there were Russian troops in Ukraine.
This was one of the most explicit but rare condemnations of Russia that I came across.
I also talked to two groups of students at Moscow’s prestigious Institute of World Economy and International Relations, where I had been invited to speak by the US-Russian Forum, where top think-tankers and academics tried to thrash out their differences.
The students were specialising in international law and relations. One theme in their answers was how emotional they felt about Crimea being part of Russia. But in the same breath they knew that Russia had broken international law- but then, so had the US quite often (which it has). A few of them also criticised the too fast way the referendum had been organised and compared it with the 18 months of careful debate in Scotland.
One suggested that the UN should have been invited in to monitor the elections. A lone voice said the situation could lead to war between the West and Russia.
Another pointed out that this was not possible when there was nuclear deterrence. All seemed to think that there were Russian troops in Ukraine.
To my surprise, despite being international law students, none remembered the Russian pledge in 1994 to respect Ukraine’s borders at the time its nuclear missiles were removed to Russia.
The US-Russian Forum debate was equally intense but the Russians there, much older, did not concede much, unlike the students. Self-criticism came entirely from Western participants, including myself who argued that the expansion of NATO, breaking US promises to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, triggered the political forces now tearing at Ukraine.
Some of the Russians argued that a new Cold War was returning.
One said, there were now no ideological differences between Russia and the US. Another argued that we have to prevent a World War III and that “the West would now support Hitler if he invaded”.
Fortunately, this was an extreme view, although one Russian, who had worked for the conservative Hudson Institute in the US, said that Ukraine was a proxy war between the US and Russia.
He also asked how would the US have felt if Russia had intervened on the side of the Quebec separatists at the time of their referendum 20 years ago?
Another argued that if we did go back to the Cold War it would be an improvement on the present situation- during the Cold War neither side tried to overthrow a government important to their own security.
How could the West have got it so wrong with Russia, asked another? In 2000 Putin thought that Russia could join NATO. Why wasn’t the hand of friendship offered as it was after Germany was defeated in World War II? Moreover, there was not one scintilla of evidence that Putin had any thought of seizing Crimea before the coup that overthrew Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych on February 22. Putin was also angry that in the days preceding it, the West gave overt support to the demonstrators, some violent and with fascist roots, in Kiev’s City Square.
One of the most sensible observations was made by an ex-NATO high official who argued that the talk of a new Cold War was exaggerated.
Ukraine fades into importance compared with the war in Syria, against ISIS, in Afghanistan and even against Nigeria’s Boko Harem.
“An arc of Islamic terror”, he called it, for which the US and Russia needed to cooperate.
“Is this a sensible time to be talking about a new Cold War? Instead of a breakdown in security issues we need a NATO-led programme to forge cooperation with Russia.
This occasion is the first time I have come across well-informed Russians, Americans (And one other European besides myself) talking intensely to each other about Ukraine.
There seems to have been a total breakdown in communication compared with the Cold War when high-level discussions were held at regular intervals.
After the Forum I walked the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg for four days, chatting as I went. I felt I was in a very Westernised country- the land of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky to boot.
" The US-Russian Forum debate was equally intense but the Russians there, much older, did not concede much, unlike the students. Self-criticism came entirely from Western participants, including myself who argued that the expansion of NATO, breaking US promises to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, triggered the political forces now tearing at Ukraine "
Russia in many ways is the epicentre of European high culture.
Surely this mutual hostility over Ukraine could be put right with some diplomatic will-power.
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