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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
29 July 2023: The prize of peace, plus texts and tunes
Barring unforeseen circumstances — which, in my line of work, are more likely than not — this will be the last issue of TL;DRussia until September. I’m going to take some time off to read, work on some longer writing projects, and recharge a bit.
See you on the other side.
What I’m thinking about
We need to learn to listen.
On Monday, I had the extraordinary experience of chairing a conversation with three Nobel Laureates: Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine; Konstantin Staradubets, representing the imprisoned Belarusian activist Ales Bialatski and the Viasna movement he heads; and Aleksandr Cherkasov, exiled chairman of the outlawed Russian human rights group Memorial. The three organizations were joint recipients of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. We were fortunate to be able to host them for a private roundtable discussion at CEPA, and I’m not sure that I will ever be chance to witness — much less chair — such a remarkable conversation.
I wish I could say I knew that it would matter.
The mood music as I write this in Washington is grim. I am hearing more and more about the alleged futility of Ukraine’s current counter-offensive, and less and less about commitment to a Ukrainian victory on Ukrainian terms. That, I think, is why Matviichuk and her co-laureates came to Washington: to shift that dynamic. I may be wrong (and have been before), but this feels to me like a critical moment.
Matviichuk, Staradubets and Cherkasov came to Washington to remind American policymakers that the decisions they make now, in this moment of disquiet and uncertainty, will shape the world in which our children and our grandchildren live. (To hear directly from them, listen to their interview with NPR on Tuesday.) Taking the easy way out — choosing immediate comfort over long-term commitment, short-term prosperity over long-term peace, alleged judiciousness over genuine justice — would only condemn everyone to more violence, more suffering, more death.
Matviichuk in particular beseeched policymakers to call things by their names — their real names. That means recognizing that “occupation” is a euphemism for cultural genocide, for deportations, for torture, and for mass murder. That this is not a war over who gets to control this or that piece of territory, but about who gets to live.
That also means recognizing that long-range artillery , fighter jets and other systems that the Ukrainian military believes are capable of changing the situation on the front lines are not “weapons of war” — they are tools of justice. Because only a Ukrainian victory can open the door for accountability. And only accountability can transform that victory into a lasting, durable peace.
Those are fine words, of course, but fine words are often too fine to be true. This is not one of those cases. To explain why, let me take a step back.
When the Center for Civil Liberties, Memorial and Bialatski were awarded the Nobel last October, it was a controversial decision. Many felt that including a Russian organization — however worthy that organization might have been — belittled the suffering of Ukraine. Moreover, critics argued, it perpetuated the logic of colonialism, essentially telling Ukrainians that they had no future that would not somehow involve the supposedly fraternal embrace of Russia. Ukraine, they argued, had made its decision and set its course to the West. Why did the West keep insisting on pushing it back to the east?
Matviichuk was — and remains — magnanimous. She said at the time:
“This story is about resistance to common evil, about the fact that freedom has no borders, and the values of human rights are universal.”
But my sense from our discussion on Monday — and from the fact that she came to Washington together with Cherkasov and Staradubets — is that this magnanimity has transformed into a deeper strategic understanding. It is not simply that she and her Russian and Belarusian colleagues are all seeking justice. And it is not simply that Russia will always be Ukraine’s neighbor. Rather, I think it is a growing understanding that justice is the only weapon system that can reliably deter Russian aggression in the future. (To be clear, all of these are my words — not hers.)
In seeing justice as a deterrent, I am not referring to the fear commanders and political leaders might have of ending up in the Hague. Rather, I’m referring to what Cherkasov referred to as “breaking the cycle of impunity”. Cherkasov and his comrades created Memorial in 1989 to document the brutality of the Soviet regime — particularly Stalin’s regime — and to educate the public, so that it might never happen again. In that, we now know, they failed, together with the rest of Russian society. Cherkasov’s argument is that this failure emboldened the worst elements of the old regime to return to power and to reinstate brutality — in two wars in Chechnya, in Syria, in Ukraine, and elsewhere. Only one officer, Yury Budanov, was ever punished for atrocities in Chechnya. None have been tried for atrocities in Syria or Ukraine, or for assassinations at home and abroad. To the contrary, many have been promoted. Is it any wonder, then, that brutality persists?
And so Cherkasov stood side-by-side with Matviichuk at CEPA, on Capitol Hill, at other thinktanks around town and in the newsmedia, joining in her call for the US to give Ukraine the support it needs to defeat his country at war. Why? Because Cherkasov understands that a resounding military defeat is the necessary condition for the cycle of impunity in Russia finally to be broken.
The problem is, is anyone listening?
Part of the reason Memorial failed in its mission to prevent the repetition of history is that the Russian people didn’t want to listen to what they had to say. But another part — and perhaps an equally large part, if not larger — is that we did not want to listen. As the hardships of the 1990s wore on, and as Putin consolidated power in the 2000s, Memorial and others raised the alarm about Russians’ fading memories of the Soviet past, about the rise of Soviet nostalgia, and the rehabilitation of Stalin himself. Western policymakers, and even a great many academics, didn’t want to hear it. For some period of time, I probably ought to put myself in that category. The Soviet Union was gone. Russia was not democratic, but it was broadly capitalist, addicted to wealth and increasingly integrated in global — and particularly European — trade and finance flows. Why should we keep fetishizing Stalin, the long-dead leader of a nonexistent country?
Policymakers similarly didn’t want to hear the Russian political opposition when they warned that corruption was not just a problem for the Russian state, economy and society. For years, prior even to the initial 2014 invasion of Ukraine, opposition groups pointed to the increasing unaccountability of Russia’s ruling elite and the Kremlin’s growing fixation on conflict. They pleaded with Western governments to stop providing safe havens for ill-gotten Russian money, which enabled this kind of behavior. The response? Until it was too late — crickets.
For Ukraine to win this war and achieve justice, Matviichuk doesn’t need American policymakers just to listen to her. She needs them to listen to Cherkasov and other Russians of good faith, and to Belarusians like Staradubets. The road to a lasting peace runs through a Ukrainian victory. Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians understand that.
What I’m reading
To continue a theme, there’s listening — and there’s listening.
One of the ways I think you know you’ve really made it in the world is when the Financial Times takes you out to lunch and writes about it, an honor that was bestowed this week on Tim Snyder. In a restaurant in Vienna, Snyder has risotto with mushrooms; his interlocutor has chicken. The conversation, obviously, is about Russia.
Now, Snyder is one of those people I respect and even admire — apart from anything else, he’s an excellent writer and speaker — even if I very rarely find myself agreeing with anything he has so excellently written or said. This interview is no exception. He interpretation of the Prigozhin affair makes little sense to me, and his explanations of Russian politics (“Russia can’t have a domestic policy. The elite have stolen all the money, the laws are corrupted … so foreign policy has to compensate”) are simplistic to the point of being silly. But what gets my goat is what has always gotten my goat with explanations of the war that center on ideology. Snyder tells the FT:
“Ideas, it turns out, matter. Until far too recently [western] policy discussions about Putin were shaped by our own ideas about technocracy and pragmatism and stability — categories which I think have already worn out their welcome. … When Putin returned to the office of the presidency [in 2012] you could see in his Russian-language proclamations, radio interviews and in print, a clear worldview, which is essentially the world view that has become more familiar to us since February 2022, according to which it’s not about states, it’s about civilisations; it’s not about interests, it’s about missions.”
There are two problems with this point of view. One is that it doesn’t actually tell us anything about cause and effect. It doesn’t help us distinguish between rhetoric that is meaningful and that is not. In short, it’s not enough to tell us that ideas matter if you don’t have a causal explanation for why and how they matter. But my bigger problem — at least for the moment, and probably because of where my head is after the Nobel conversation — is that it fixates too much on listening to one man in particular, which very easily becomes an excuse for not listening to anyone else. Snyder complains that the West didn’t listen to Putin closely enough. That does not mean that we should overcompensate and listen to him too closely. Putin is powerful, but he is not equal to Russia.
One person who certainly does listen more broadly is Paul Goode, a professor of politics at Carleton University in Ottawa, who has an excellent project tracking narratives on Russian state-run and state-linked media. He put out a succinct but data-rich Twitter thread (X-thread?) on Friday, demonstrating how the Russian messaging machine deals with bad news from the war: call it terrorism, or blame it on NATO (or both). I think, on some level, we intuited this, but it’s good to see it reflected in the data.
Lawry Freedman is always worth reading, but especially this week. His piece in Foreign Affairs on Tuesday is the first thing I’ve read in a while that shifted my sense of the mood music I was describing earlier. While it would be wrong to say that he sounds an optimistic note about the Ukrainian counter-offensive or even the broader prospects for the war, he shows rather convincingly that the ability of the Russian military to adapt and respond to the course of the war is inexorably shrinking.
In other news, iStories published a blockbuster story on Thursday on the lengths that Russian companies are going to in order to transact internationally and keep at least some goods flowing into the economy. Companies are bouncing around from bank to bank, as windows of opportunity open and close. Deals take forever to complete, and not infrequently fail; those that don’t fail cost money. The market for facilitators — people who have connections and can transact without being seen — is booming. Are companies adapting? Yes, but the picture that emerges is one of a continual game of cat-and-mouse, which is imposing ever increasing inefficiencies on the economy.
Turning to the academic literature, I came across three articles of note this week (though all of them are a little bit older):
Dinissa Duvanova (Lehigh University), Alex Nikolso-Rzhevskyy (Kozminski University) and Olha Zadorozhna (also from Kozminski University) published an analysis of the relationship between reported Russian casualties and various forms of political protest and found that there is a robust relationship — but only when the casualties are ethnic Russians.
Daria Kuznetsova (University of Iowa) compared pro- and anti-regime Telegram channels in Belarus and Russia and found, among other things, that while anti-regime channels dominate Telegram in Belarus, the opposite is true in Russia, allowing the Kremlin to maintain traction with those portions of the Russian public that are increasingly turning away from television. Broadly, this comports with my own research on media audiences in Belarus and Russia, though my expectation is that the Kremlin’s dominance will gradually fade.
Gubad Ibadoghlu (Azerbaijan State University of Economics) and Rashad Sadigov (Lehigh Hanson, Inc) published a novel statistical analysis of the relationship between oil wealth and the (poor) quality of governance, which goes a long way to reestablishing the empirical basis for the theory of the “resource curse”. As if to prove the authors’ point still further, Azerbaijani authorities arrested Ibadoghlu on Monday.
Finally, coming back to the issue of listening, I highly recommend listening to Mikhail Zygar’s interview from Thursday with NPR, discussing his new book on the Russian mythology around Ukraine, War and Punishment. As Mikhail tells Leila Fadel:
“I was trying to write the crime story written through the eyes of the murderer.”
What I’m listening to
There aren’t a lot of groups whose work I got into as a teenager who are still making music. There are even fewer whose new work I think is worth listening to. Ben Folds, however, may be the biggest exception to the rule.
I got my first Ben Folds Five album probably in my third year of university (ok, so no longer a teenager, but not by much), and I think I’ve bought every album since. “Do It Anyway” from 2013 has gotten me through as many situations as 1997’s “Battle of Who Could Care Less”.
Point being, I’ve just sunk my teeth into the recently released What Matters Most, and it’s classic Ben Folds in ever respect — mellow, mostly minor, lots of lilting piano interspersed with pop licks, masterful storytelling, and a sardonic kind of melancholy. I’m listening to “Kristine From the 7th Grade” for probably the third time as I write this. The opening track, “But Wait, There’s More” is slyly brilliant (even if it does remind me a bit too much of the Decemberists’ “Everything is Awful” — which is wonderful, anyway). But I’ll leave you, for now, with this one, just because it’s the one you least expect.