The Trollope Ploy Comes in Handy Again

It attracted relatively little attention (though it was noted here and here) when it appeared on July 12, but Russian president Vladimir Putin’s 5,000-word essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” initiated a promising development in efforts to wind down the sometimes dangerous confrontation that has bedeviled US-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War. A week later the US dropped its threat to block the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany.  The governments of Poland and Ukraine objected, as did a coalition of US Congressional Republicans and Democrats. The future of post-Soviet Eurasia seemed on the verge of a better understanding.

Economic Principals became actively interested in Russia in 1997, after the leaders of Harvard University’s economic advisory team were caught and fired by their USAID employers seeking to enter the Russian mutual fund market with a firm of their own. EP was attentive when Boris Yeltsin chose Putin as his successor. Yeltsin cited an intuition that Russian society needed some new quality of authority in the political structure of the state, “a person who was thinking, democratic, and innovative, yet steadfast in the military manner.”  EP especially perked up after Putin published a frank assessment of where Russia stood economically among nations at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We’ve followed the story with interest ever since.

After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Russia was viewed as a relative weakling as a global power, hardly richer than Portugal, having no choice but to accept the global rules the West had set. NATO expansion followed in the Nineties, over Russian objections.  NATO military interventions in the former Yugoslavia were unpopular, especially the second, which involved bombing Belgrade, in 1999.  Another seven nations joined NATO in 2004, including three former Soviet republics, and more memberships were planned.

Putin supported the US occupation of Afghanistan after 9/11, and even supplied critical logistical support. But in 2003 he vigorously opposed the American- and British-led invasion of Iraq, and travelled to Berlin and Paris in attempts to derail support for the war. Then in Munich, in March 2007, in a blistering speech, he reproached the US for “an almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations.” Russia conducted a short war with Georgia in 2008 to prevent political fracture within its former republic.

The confrontation came to a head in Ukraine, in late 2013, as Putin pressed Kviv to join his new Eurasian Economic Union, a counterpart to the European Common Market formed by Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. Demonstrators massed in Kviv to lobby for European Union and, eventually, NATO membership. At one point in February 2014,  US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) circulated among the crowd, passing out cookies.  Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin supporter, was forced to flee to Moscow.  Putin responded with a forceful speech – and a swift repossession of the Crimean peninsula, followed by a low-level war in eastern Ukraine that still smolders today. Thus was the climax of a series of events that led Putin to prefer Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton in January 2017.

Four years later, the situation is still much as Samuel Charap, of RAND Corp., and Timothy Colton, of Harvard University, described it in Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia (Routledge, 2017); the timeline and maps in the book are alone worth the price. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been plenty of maneuvering behind the scenes since last November. Events last week bring to mind the Trollope ploy, a strategy of deliberate misinterpretation employed sixty years ago to defuse a much more dangerous situation. Putin has a habit of explaining himself to the world; responding warmly to his latest plea is not a marriage proposal, but it’s a step in the right direction

President Biden counts cold-war hawks like Nuland among his advisers; he consults progressives such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as well. (Last week he announced he planned to nominate Jonathan Kanter, a prominent foe of Google and Facebook, to be Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust. Biden has strong opponents in Congress, the House in particular. But he is steering a course towards consensus, at home and abroad. How might he continue? Read this remarkable column by author Michael Wolff. Donald Trump may indeed be planning to run again in 2024, but, remember, the mid-term elections pose a prior hurdle to the ex-president’s ambitions.

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