The “Snow Revolution” and the Attribution Problem

This passage leapt out at me last week as I read Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post- Soviet Eurasia (Routledge, 2017), by Samuel Charap and Timothy Colton, a slim and well-balanced recounting of events at the center of the present low state of US-Russia relations.

Unless Putin changes course, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the current nationalistic fever will break in Russia. When it does, it will give way to a sweaty and harsh realization of the economic costs. Then… Russia’s citizens will ask: What have we really achieved? Instead of funding schools, hospitals, science and prosperity at home in Russia, we have squandered our national wealth on adventurism, interventionism and the ambitions of a leader who cares more about empire than his own citizens.

The speaker is Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary Of State for European and Eurasian Affairs in the Obama administration. She was testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relation in May 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Crimea.

Many in the Russian elite took Nuland’s remark as “a de facto declaration of political war,” according to Sergei Karaganov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a letter to the authors. A sanctions slugfest followed the Crimean takeover, intensifying after rebel or Russian forces in eastern Ukraine brought down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet in July. “Regime change,” an objective of US foreign policy in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the Russians concluded, apparently extended to their country as well.

The Ukraine affair and its consequences seem worth remembering after a week when Putin, speaking to reporters at a meeting in St. Petersburg, allowed that private Russian hackers may well have been involved in probing US polling machinery and leaking emails during US elections last year. So might others around the world have been involved.

“Hackers are free-spirited people, like artists,” said Putin. “If artists wake up in the morning in a good mood, they paint all day. Hackers are the same. If they wake up, read about something going on in relations between nations, and have patriotic leanings, they may try to add their contribution to the fight against those who speak badly about Russia.” His government hadn’t been doing the work, Putin asserted.  He doubted that any amount of hacking could much influence the electoral outcome in another country.

Andrew Higgins, of The New York Times, wrote from Moscow,

The evolution of Russia’s position on possible meddling in the American election is similar to the way Mr. Putin repeatedly shifted his account of Russia’s role in the 2014 annexation of Crimea and in armed rebellions in eastern Ukraine.  He began by denying that Russian troops had taken part before acknowledging, months later, that the Russian military was “of course” involved.

Thus did the attribution problem finally turn into a question of military and industrial organization in Russia’s rapidly growing computer establishment, broadly defined. It seems a safe bet that many, perhaps most, of the hacks detected by US intelligence services during 2016 were of Russian origin, though that doesn’t mean that Putin directed them or even authorized them with any precision. Clearly the level of Russian antipathy towards Clinton was high.

Already in her first presidential campaign, in 2008, Clinton had scorned Putin.  George W. Bush might have claimed he had looked into Putin’s eyes and gotten “a sense of his soul,” but she knew better. “He was a KGB agent – he doesn’t have a soul,” she told a fund-raising crowd. As Secretary of State, she harshly reproached Russia for fraud and intimidation after the parliamentary elections of 2012 – on the eve of Putin’s campaign for a third presidential term.

“Putin was livid,” wrote reporter Mark Lander, White House correspondent for The New York Times, in Alter Egos:  Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American Power. (Random House, 2016). Clinton had sent “a signal” to “some actors in our country,” Putin claimed. Protesters took to the streets in Russia’s first major demonstrations since the 1990s. US cheerleaders hopefully dubbed it “the Snow Revolution.”

As it happened, Clinton’s spokesperson in those days was Nuland. Born in 1961, a 1983 graduate of Brown University, is daughter of surgeon-author Sherwin Nuland, wife of neoconservative commentator Robert Kagan. She entered government service as chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott during the Clinton administration.  She became Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, and afterwards served four years as ambassador to NATO. Nuland faced sharp questions about her role as Clinton’s press aide in the wake of the Benghazi attack, but was confirmed as an Assistant Secretary of State in September 2013 – just in time for the Ukrainian crisis.

After she turned up passing out cookies to Ukrainian demonstrators in Kiev, Nuland was the victim of the very first notable Russia hack, recorded and posted on YouTube, discussing with US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt who should serve in the Ukrainian leadership following the flight of president Viktor Yanukovych’s to Moscow. “Fuck the EU,” she famously said, referring to the suggestion that the European Union, rather than the United Nations, should serve as a mediator in Ukraine.

Nuland, and her former mentor Talbot, were high up in the plans for a Clinton administration in 2016.  Last week Albright Stonebridge Group, a strategy and commercial diplomacy firm, announced she would become a senior counsellor. The Russians, like nearly everyone else, had been preparing for President Clinton. Instead they got President Trump.

Everyone Loses is an excellent summary of the mess that ensued after massive street protests drove a pro-Russian democratically-elected president from office in February 2014.  Charap, of RAND Corp, and Colton, professor of government at Harvard and author of Yeltsin: A Life (Basic, 2008), are eager to propose a set of precondition-free talks.

The West needs to cease holding out for Russia to surrender and accept its terms. Russia must stop pining for the good old days of great-power politics, be it the big three of 1945 or the Concert of Europe 1815-1914, and accept that its neighbors will have a say in any agreement that affects them.  The neighbors should stop seeking national salvation from without, and recognize that it will be up to them, first and foremost, to bring about their countries’ security and well-being.

But then Everyone Loses was written before the US election.  In order to focus narrowly on the fate of the so-called In-Betweens (Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) and the Central Asian nations along the Russian periphery (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan), the authors left everything out of their book that didn’t “bear directly” on the lose-lose situation that grew out of the crisis in Ukraine. That includes NATO expansion, divergences over Russia’s wars in Chechnya, matters of ballistic-missile defense, the US occupation of Iraq, the civil war in Syria, and US intervention in Libya.

That is, of course, no way to understand the larger situation.  The Russians are no angels.  But it is the US that has been on a bender since 1989. A complicated rethinking of US foreign policy is in store.  The largely accidental election of Donald Trump has confused the issue.  But that leaves plenty of time for the retracing of steps before the next election.

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