An Impressionistic View of the Russian Federation

Jill Dougherty
Jill Dougherty

On October 17, Jill Doherty, a Russia expert and frequent traveler to that country, painted a verbal impressionistic portrait of today’s Russian Federation.

Russia today is weak militarily and economically, primarily due to low world prices for oil and gas and also to sanctions against Russia. This also makes Russia weak militarily with forced reductions in military budgets. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 1999, knows that, but is nonetheless determined to put Russia back on the world stage.

He has done so by injecting Russia into the Syrian conflict and Middle East affairs.[1] He has created conflicts on Russia’s perimeter with Georgia and Ukraine. He is pleased that Russia is at the center of the U.S. presidential campaign: “they may not love us, but they fear us.” He hates Hillary Clinton, whom he deems responsible for demonstrations against Russia’s parliamentary election in 2011. [The original version of this post erroneously said it was the 2012 Russian presidential election.] With respect to Trump, Putin flatters him and plays to his ego just as he did in Germany when he recruited people for the KGB.

Putin is galled by expressions of Western triumphalism over the USSR. He has a big sense of resentment against the West and quickly reacts to Western slights against Russia. Earlier this month Russia withdrew from a nuclear security agreement regarding plutonium with the U.S. Even more recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for a war crimes investigation of Russia and Syria. Russia immediately responded by suspending talks with the U.S. over reducing violence in Syria, deploying sophisticated antiaircraft weapons in Syria and redeploying long-range ballistic missiles to Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.[2] Putin also talked about installing military bases in Cuba, but Doherty believes this is bluster to upset the U.S. in its pursuit of normalization with Cuba.

Russia now has an ability to criticize the West and its faith in liberal democracy. Russia sees Trump as saying just that while Europe is turning away migrants and falling apart. Robotics and artificial intelligence are increasing threats to jobs in the West. Putin believes that Russia provides a moral compass for the world with its socially conservative values.

Putin does not want to invade the Baltic states nor war with the U.S. Many Russians today, however, expect such a war in the near future. They talk about Russian military prowess, including nuclear weapons. They are buying emergency supplies of food and candles.

Russia’s relations with China are very important to Russia, which knows China could “eat its lunch.” China sees Russia as very weak, but an important source of energy for China. Russia also worries about China’s activities in central Asia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Russia was very weak and chaotic with fears of a civil war with nuclear weapons. But the USSR did not dissolve in important ways. Thereafter Russia was challenged to create a new national identity. Yeltsin even had a commission to do just that, but it never completed the task. Putin, however, has done so. These are the main elements of that identity: Russian tsarism; Russian culture (the great composers, musicians, authors, playwrights and ballet dancers and choreographers); Russian bravery in the Great War for the Fatherland (World War II); the Russian Orthodox Church and its social conservatism; and modern technological accomplishments and talents.

Doherty’s mention of the contemporary importance of the Russian Orthodox Church reminded me of the 2014 Russian film, “The Leviathan,” which shows the Church’s complicity in a local government’s corruption and the absence of law; it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Advice for next U.S. President? Do not expect to reset U.S.-Russia policies; Putin does not want that. Instead he looks for U.S. weaknesses and then reacts. He strives to be unpredictable. Do not insult or denigrate him or Russia. Try for disarmament and trade. Continue space cooperation and encourage scientific cooperation in the Arctic. Stop Russian aggression against former USSR countries. Help Ukraine economically. Putin’s presidential term ends in 2018, but it is very difficult to predict what will happen then.

Putin does not trust a lot of people and relies on a small circle of advisers. He is very popular with the people, especially the young people.

Putin had seen chaos before: he was from Leningrad, where during World War II his mother almost died of starvation, and his older brother died of dysentery at age three. After the war, Putin served the KGB in Germany and Russia and saw more chaos.

Doherty is a former thirty-year CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent and former public policy scholar at the Kennan Institute. She holds a B.A. in Slavic languages from the University of Michigan and a M.A. from Georgetown University.

Her presentation at the University of Minnesota was sponsored by Global Minnesota, the University’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication and Minneapolis’ Museum of Russian Art.

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[1] E.g., Rosner, Israel Knows That Putin Is the Middle East’s New Sheriff, N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2016).

[2] E.g., Kramer, Vladimir Putin Exits Nuclear Security Pact, Citing ‘Hostile Acts’ by U.S., N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2016); Gordon & Sengupta, John Kerry Calls for War Crimes Investigation of Russia and Assad Government, N.Y. Times (Oct. 7, 2016); MacFarquhar, Behind Putin’s Combativeness, Some See Motives Other Than Syria,   N.Y. Times (Oct. 14, 2016); Sengupta, A Senior Russian Envoy’s Take on Relations with the United States: ‘Pretty Bad,’ N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2016).

 

Fidel Castro’s Disingenuous Criticism of President Obama Over Nuclear Weapons

As reported in a prior post, Fidel Castro on August 12, 2016, criticized President Obama over his not apologizing to Japan over the 1945 U.S. dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This criticism on its face was unfair. Although Obama in his recent speech at Hiroshima did not apologize, he recounted the horror of the bombing and stressed the need for the U.S. and other countries to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Fidel’s criticism of Obama also was disingenuous because near the end of what we call the Cuban Missile Crisis Fidel was urging the Soviet Union to conduct a nuclear attack on the U.S. and to keep its nuclear missiles in Cuba. Here are the details according to historians with access to original records.[1]

Background: The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Let us first, however, set the stage for these remarks by Fidel from what is now known.

In April 1961 at the start of the third year of the Cuban Revolution’s operation of the Cuban government, a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group conducted an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba’s de Playa Girón (the Bay of Pigs).[2]

Soon thereafter, Fidel Castro told the Cuban people, “The result of aggression against Cuba will be the start of a conflagration of incalculable consequences, and they will be affected too. It will no longer be a matter of them feasting on us. They will get as good as they give.”

In July 1961, at a secret meeting of Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union agreed to Castro’s request to station nuclear missiles on the island to deter U.S. harassment of Cuba. Later that summer construction commenced on the sites for such missiles.

On October 14, 1962, an American U-2 spy plane making a high-altitude pass over Cuba photographed a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile being assembled for installation.[3]

On October 16, 1962, President Kennedy was briefed about the situation, and he immediately called together a group of advisors and officials. For nearly the next two weeks, the president and his team wrestled with this weighty crisis as did their counterparts in the Soviet Union.

On October 22, 1962, in a national television broadcast President Kennedy notified the American people about the presence of the missiles, explained his decision to enact a naval blockade of shipping to and from Cuba and made it clear that the U.S. was prepared to use military force if necessary to neutralize this perceived threat to U.S. national security.

On October 24, Soviet ships bound for Cuba neared the line of U.S. vessels enforcing the blockade, but stopped short of the blockade.

On October 26, Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy offering to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for a promise by U.S. leaders not to invade Cuba. The letter stated, “Let us then display statesmenlike wisdom. I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will be obviated.”

The following day, the Soviet leader sent a second letter proposing that the Soviets would dismantle its missiles in Cuba if the Americans removed their missile installations in Turkey.

The Kennedy administration decided to accept the terms of the first letter, and on October 28, Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General, hand delivered to the Soviet Ambassador in Washington the administration’s letter accepting the terms of the first message. (The administration officially ignored the second letter, but privately agreed to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey.)

On October 28, the immediate crisis drew to a close with a joint U.S. and Soviet announcement of the agreement.

On November 20, 1962, after all Soviet offensive missiles and light bombers had been withdrawn from Cuba, the blockade was formally ended.

Fidel’s Urging Nuclear Armageddon and Nuclear Missiles in Cuba

In the midst of this crisis Fidel strenuously objected to the Soviets removing nuclear missiles from Cuba and pleaded for those missiles to remain on the island. “Castro fumed. He had been bypassed in negotiations between the two superpowers. Set on keeping the nuclear warheads [on the island], he began to chafe at his handlers in Moscow.”

On October 26, Castro summoned the Soviet Ambassador, Aleksandr Alekseev, to the Cuban command post. Fidel could not understand why Soviet troops in Cuba were sitting on their hands while American planes were flying over the island with impunity. He urged them to start shooting at U-2 spy planes with surface-to-air missiles and suggested that Cuban troops should begin firing on low-flying planes with antiaircraft guns, contrary to Soviet wishes. Alekseev promised to relay Castro’s complaints to the Kremlin.

Very early the next day, October 27, Castro, unaware of Kennedy and Khrushchev’s progress toward a deal, decided to send a cable to Khrushchev, encouraging him to use his nuclear weapons to destroy the United States in the event of an invasion of Cuba. At 3:00 a.m., he arrived at the Soviet Embassy in Havana and told Ambassador Alekseev that they should go into the bunker beneath the embassy because a U.S. attack was imminent. According to declassified Soviet cables, a groggy but sympathetic Alekseev agreed, and soon they were set up underground with Castro dictating and aides transcribing and translating a letter.

Castro became frustrated, uncertain about what to say. After nine drafts, with the sun rising, Alekseev finally confronted Castro: are you asking Comrade Khrushchev to deliver a nuclear strike on the U.S.? Castro responded, “If they attack Cuba, we should wipe them off the face of the earth!” Alekseev was shocked, but he dutifully assisted Castro in fine-tuning the 10th and final draft of the cable and then cabled it to Moscow.

That cable stated that in the event of an American invasion, “the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.” A U.S. invasion of Cuba “would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear, legitimate defense however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.”

Premier Khrushchev, according to his son and biographer, received the Castro cable in the midst of a tense leadership meeting and shouted, “This is insane; Fidel wants to drag us into the grave with him!” Khrushchev had not understood that Castro believed that Cuba was doomed, that war was inevitable, and that the Soviets should transform Cuba from a mere victim into a world martyr.

To calm Castro down, Khrushchev in early November sent Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan to Havana. Mikoyan initially told Castro he could keep the tactical nukes that had escaped U.S. notice. On November 20, Castro instructed Cuba’s U.N. ambassador to tell the world that Cuba possessed tactical nuclear warheads, but that announcement was never made because Mikoyan said all Soviet missiles had to be removed from the island.

This rescission happened on November 22 after Mikoyan on his own had concluded that Castro could not be trusted and that the USSR could not control Cuba. Mikoyan told Castro that a Soviet law — which did not exist — banned a permanent transfer to the Cubans. Fidel responded, “So you have a law that prohibits transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to other countries? It’s a pity. And when are you going to repeal that law?” Mikoyan merely said, “We will see.”

Conclusion

When, Fidel, did you offer an apology for your 1962 efforts to threaten the United States and the world with nuclear Armageddon? You are not a wizened guru of world peace.

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[1] Bright & Lang, How Castro Held the World Hostage, N.Y. Times (Oct. 25, 2012); Bright & Lang, The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Khrushchev/Castro in the Cuban MIssile Crisis (2012); Mikoyan & Savranskaya (ed.), The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles (2012); Cuban Missile Crisis’ Untold Story: Casto Almost Kept Nuclear Warheads on the Island, Huff. Post (Oct. 15, 2012). James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang are professors at the Balsillie School of International Affairs (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) and the authors of “The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Khrushchev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Many of the documents mentioned above have been donated to George Washington University’s National Security Archive by the son of Anastas Mikoyan, Sergo Mikoyan, who with the Archive’s researcher, Svetlana Savranskaya, co-authored the previously mentioned “The Soviet Cuba Missile Crisis.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[2] Invasion of Bar of Pigs, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bay_of_Pigs_Invasion

 

[3] Cuban Missile Crisis, History, http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cuban-missile-crisis

Nikita– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikita_Khrushchev