Bad to worse in Ukraine?

I am in Russia this week, and the view from Moscow is a bit more disquieting than from home.

It’s not that things are any different here. Life goes on in the University, traffic still clogs the street, and people are out and about. The weather is moving toward Spring and Muscovites are starting to wear lighter coats and enjoy the sunshine.

But the world in the newspapers is another matter entirely! It is not just the vitriol aimed at Europe and the US for undermining Ukraine, supporting thugs and terrorists, and planning to encircle and throttle Russia. I could dismiss this as trotting out Cold War rhetoric in response to the sanctions in order to prepare people to blame someone else should things get tougher.

No, what is worrying is the people who are writing these things who are identified as Putin advisors. Russians who for twenty years had been marginalized as hard-core Cold Warriors (their Dick Cheneys), who use the language of the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis, are now being welcomed back and appointed to senior positions. These are people who considered any easing of relations with the EU in the first place a mistake, who believe the Soviet Union should never have fallen, who want to nationalize everything, expropriate foreign firms, and lead Russia for Russians and the hell with anyone else. As for Ukraine, it was Russia’s soulmate and partner for 1000 years — it is inconceivable that true Ukrainians could have abandoned their real family (Russia) and turned toward outsiders from NATO and the EU! The whole run of events of the last few months must therefore be the work of foreign agents, and the current “government” in Ukraine a sham and a tool of Russia’s enemies. Only a line of tanks entering Kiev could correct this intolerable intrusion into Russia’s dear ally and brother-nation of Ukraine.

Or so say numerous commentators in the TV and Press. (Of course, Russians forget that former Soviet leaders let their Ukrainian brothers and sisters endure a rain of radiation from Chernobyl without saying a word to warn them; Ukrainians, however, do NOT forget.)

Still, a stroll around downtown Moscow shows familiar names everywhere: MacDonald’s (dozens of locations, some on both sides of the same street), Starbucks, Burger King, KFC, Sbarro, Vapiano, Coke, Pepsi. We may worry about Russia invading Ukraine, but it seems America has already invaded Russia, at least to judge by the fast food outlets! In addition, walking around the main shopping areas near Red Square (admittedly the high end of Russian shopping), the signs in the shops all scream “Europe”: Chanel, Breguet, Bentley, Bvlgari, Dolce & Gabbana, Mont Blanc, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Canali, Brioni, plus a few more Americans: Harry Winston, Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger. The cars whizzing by or waiting outside are Audis, Mercedes, BMWs, plus Fords, Skodas, Mazdas, and the occasional Lamborghini (Moscow is the city of billionaires, after all).

So the whole idea that Russia’s leaders would risk cutting off the flow of imported goods from Europe and America, or impede corporations based in those countries from doing business in Russia, seems insane. Half or more of the shops and restaurants in downtown Moscow would have to close up!

Yet my Russian colleagues tell me they think the people writing these stories care not a whit about the consumption of the Russian economy. These are ideologues for whom all that matters is power, who argue that Russia was humiliated by the end of the Cold War and must do whatever it takes to be reborn as a great power. This is, of course, delusional — Russia has the GDP of the Netherlands, an aging and shrinking population, and is technologically further behind the West than ever. If you stroll through Moscow, the shops are filled with foreign brands because there ARE NO familiar Russian brands — can you think of a Russian name-brand product you have ever seen to purchase in an American or European store? Russia can be a bully, but can never hope to be a world power on the scale of Europe (with 5 times as much population and 8 times the GDP) or America.

So my colleagues say, with a straight face and some anxiety, that given the tone in the TV and newspapers, it would not take much to stir up a crowd to march on a MacDonald’s and burn it down, even if that meant all MacDonald’s fleeing Russia. Beating the enemy is all that matters to these old Cold Warriors, whatever the cost.

The only thing that would be worse than not recovering Ukraine would be a military defeat. So it is essential for NATO to state clearly that it will fight to prevent any more of Ukraine from being snipped off. Otherwise, there is no meaningful risk for Russia to stop from doing so and soon.

I still think Putin is more rational than his extremist advisors. I hope that they are just being trotted out to rev up support for Russia’s retaking the Crimea. Yet my colleagues here in Moscow are worried there is worse to come. I hope they are just the victims of chronic Russian pessimism (“bleak house” say my American Russian relatives). But they could be right–I (and they) just hope they are not.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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