Interview with Kevin Rothrock (A Good Treaty)

putmarckKicking off the Watching the Russia Watchers interview series at S/O is the promising new blogger A Good Treaty. He is a DC-based foreign policy analyst who prefers a “good treaty with Russia” to only treating with a good Russia: as a foreign policy realist, he is averse to neocon (and neoliberal / liberal interventionist) tropes alike. A Good Treaty has a graduate degree in Soviet history and has lived in Moscow several times. His blog references Russian newspapers and makes original translations, and constitutes an excellent resource for any Anglophone seriously interested in Russian politics and Russian-American relations. You can follow Putmarck on Twitter.

A Good Treaty: In His Own Words…

Before answering any questions, let me take a second to thank Anatoly Karlin of Sublime Oblivion for taking the time to draft some very challenging questions that were very fun to (try to) answer. I tried to invent responses that were equally thought-provoking, and while I may have failed in that enterprise, I do hope to explain a little bit about the way I approach this work, which occupies a startling amount of my time.

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

I’ve been studying and working on Russia for about nine years now. Russia = bizarre, alluring, etc. I figure anyone reading my blog shares my interest in the Motherland.

I don’t expect this blog to have any impact on public policy or academic debate, but I do personally benefit a great deal from having a forum through which I can better synthesize my own ideas and listen to the responses of others.

The specific angle of AGT (the whole ‘realist’ POV) was a conscious decision I made after working in Washington for about a year. Democracy promotion, I soon discovered, has really supplanted all other approaches to foreign policy. Speaking outside this framework is the easiest way to get oneself painted as un-American and pro-dictatorship. This is largely a sham, since the United States has hardly stopped cooperating with nasty foreign states, but the dialog carried out in DC makes it very difficult for anyone to acknowledge this. Basically, I set out to avoid the old, tired normative analysis.

What were your best and worst blogging experiences so far?

The most fun I’ve had so far is writing direct responses to articles that appear in the press. Doing this, I’ve managed to gain the attention of other bloggers and journalists, which has produced some stimulating private email exchanges and led InoSMI to translate a few of my posts (three, so far) into Russian.

The worst thing about blogging is an inverse of one of its best aspects: I’m regularly reminded how many talented, bright people there are out there with my exact specialty, who are regularly producing fascinating original work, and living abroad in Moscow, which I think of as a sort of bittersweet adventure.

What are the best blogs about Russia and the Eurasian space? What are the worst?

Some of my favorite Russia blogs (in no particular order): Julia Ioffe’s Moscow Diaries, Mark Adomanis’ On Russia, Sean’s Russia Blog, poemless (RIP — just kidding), this blog — Sublime Oblivion, The Russia Monitor, and Scraps of Moscow. I’ve recently started following Democratist, Dividing My Time, The Kremlin Stooge, and Neeka’s Backlog (which posts the loveliest photographs of Eastern Europe). In Russian, Maxim Kononenko at Idiot.fm and Oleg Kashin’s LiveJournal provide regular amusement. Evgeny Gontmakher, Medvedev’s “man on the outside,” has some amusing op-eds on his ‘blog’ at Ekho Moskvy. For military affairs, I regularly turn to the following three blogs: Russian Defense Policy, Russian Military Reform (Dmitry Gorenburg), and Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Pavel Podvig).

The Russia blogs with which I torture myself by reading are some of the following: the LJ blogs of Vladimir Milov, Vasily Yakemenko, and Andrey Illarionov. Catherine Fitzpatrick’s Minding Russia reliably produces some of the longest, most rambling posts you’ll find online. Oleg Kozlovsky’s blogs (WordPress for English and LJ for Russian) are both as boring as they are terrible. Since Oleg decided to integrate his Tweets with his LJ account, there has been five times as much garbage. Ilya Yashin’s LJ blog, modestly titled in Spanish “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (A People United Will Never Be Defeated), is full of the same D-list self-promotion, but he sometimes includes photography and multimedia that makes reading his PR slightly more fun. (Also, he volunteered sordid details about an alleged threesome sex scandal that never got any corroboration beyond his own ranting. So, it can be entertaining on occasion, without a doubt.) And finally, Vladimir Kara-Murza’s blog, Spotlight on Russia, is another publication I love to hate for its unwavering commitment to recycling the most vapid, useless tropes about the ills of Russia.

I don’t even bother reading La Russophobe, which seems to just scrape the bottom of the Window on Eurasia barrel — another blog I skim but lack the stomach to honestly read. I think LR is too much opinion without enough style. Mark Adomanis (On Russia) and Mark Chapman (The Kremlin Stooge) are also very opionated and often openly insulting, but I’m able to enjoy their stuff mainly because (a) I don’t find their opinions to be so crazy (sorry, what can I say — I love to affirm my biases), and (b) their writing is immensely better.

What is your favorite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

I haven’t traveled Russia nearly enough. The farthest east I’ve been was a brief visit to Kazan’, which I thought was fascinating and beautiful. The local Kremlin there, which hosts both an Orthodox church and a mosque, has a marvelous statue out front dedicated to the world’s proletariat. Though I’m not a Marxist, the monument is awesome. Imagine Atlas breaking Ghostrider’s fire-chain in slow motion, and perhaps then you’ll understand how cool this thing is. Hell, just look at it here.

I’d love to see just about anywhere else in Russia I haven’t already been, which is most places.

If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?

I wouldn’t trouble anyone with a whole book. To understand Russia’s transitional conundrum, one should begin by reading Yuri Slezkine’s 1994 article “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism“.

Do you think the average Russian lives better today than in 1988? 1980? 2000? Are they richer, freer or happier than before?

My impressions from talking to Russians is that life is better now that it’s been before. It’s still pretty lousy for most people, though. (I don’t think Russia is alone in this.) Whatever the benefits of modern living, Soviet nostalgia (for geopolitical status, for scientific respect, for athletic greatness, etc.) is also a patently real political force. Material realities are important, but it’s public perceptions that ultimately make the world.

How would you classify Russia’s political system? Is it a liberal democracy, an authoritarian regime, or a hybrid crossroads? Which current or historical political economies does it most resemble, if any?

Every polity is at a crossroads all the time. Every society in every nation in history is also a hybrid of various trends and persuasions. Russian politicians tend to have a more statist leaning in their way of conducting affairs, but this isn’t to say Western officials aren’t entangled in comparable webs of intervention, assistance, and power brokering. I honestly find very little to be gained by pursuing any classifications like those you suggest. If we call Russia ‘authoritarian,’ there are a thousand examples of information freedom and public debate to debunk this label. On the other hand, there are countless instances of repression to suggest that the Kremlin is indeed an authoritarian menace. Take your pick, but please leave me out of this errand.

On balance, do you think Putinism was good or bad for Russia? (Try not to sit on the fence here).

First of all, I don’t like the term “Putinism.” I think it gives too much ideological credit to the Putin administration, which has never bothered much with a real intellectual architecture for either the Power Vertical or United Russia. (Sorry, Surkov, but I’m just not seeing the big picture when you tell the Nashi kids to ‘innovate’ the way to tomorrowland.) Putin consolidated power during a time of political and economic anarchy. Was that a good thing? Of course it was. Russians were deeply unhappy with Boris Yeltsin’s second term (which they were scared into granting thanks to the a spectacular PR scheme by the oligarchs), and Putin brought more than just stability to the country — he managed a period of genuine prosperity that, at the very least, benefited enough of the country’s elites that they ceased open, internecine warfare.

The new focus on modernization and innovation under Dmitri Medvedev, whom I believe to be a political ally and proponent of “Putinism,” is just the next phase of a process begun ten years ago. Perhaps it’s thanks to Putin’s flexible non-ideology, but I believe that he’s capable of adapting tactics to the needs of the moment. If his financial team is telling him that foreign investment is a must, it’s no shock that the Kremlin is now pursuing FDI with all its might.

It’s not all roses with the Putin years. In 2001, Russia was 79th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Last year it was tied for 146th. (Hint: higher is worse.) While we shouldn’t attach apocalyptic significance to the designation of a number by a single NGO, the general consensus is definitely that corruption has been on the rise. This is a serious problem — it’s the serious problem. An optimistic take might be that, as the Kremlin begins to crack down on bribes and dodgy deals, the wrongdoers are trying to exact maximum rents as long-term insurance.

Or maybe Putin’s own web of rent distribution is the backbone of the ‘legal nihilism’ behind Russia’s Africa-level corruption. If that’s the case, then perhaps that way of doing business is no longer optimal. Recent overtures from Medvedev (presumably acting in agreement with Putin) suggest that the authorities are, at the very least, considering new priorities. It’s Russian politics in action.

If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing it isn’t already doing, what would it be?

Harassing the liberal opposition by denying them rally sites with fake counterprotests (for example, blood drives, and so on) seems to me to be a completely pointless exercise. It’s exactly this negative publicity that the opposition needs to survive, and the authorities continue to feed them this sustanance. Putin’s response, delivered to Shevchuk at the infamous luncheon exchange, was that these decisions aren’t up to him, but lie with local officials. Very well, Vladimir Vladimirovich, but why the hell don’t you get off your ass and exercise a little of that characteristic paternalism to steer your ship to calmer shores? I can only guess that the Kremlin is either unconcerned or desperately afraid — either of which seems like a stupid mindset for the leaders of the Russian Federation.

Additionally, I don’t see the point in squashing mayoral elections in cities across Russia. A few opposition victories by the communists or the SRs in buttfucknowhere cities is desirable! When Kondrashov won the Irkutsk spot recently, I thought ‘Wonderful!’ A few more such incidents will not even dent United Russia’s juggernaut, and it both injects some alternative voices into national politics and serves as excellent PR for Moscow to use in the faces of people who moan about attacks on democracy. And then I heard about Kondrashov switching affiliations to register with the ruling party. And then it turned out that the regional duma was seeking to abolish mayoral elections altogether in favor of an opaque ‘city manager’ appointment system. Again, the Kremlin and the authorities demonstrate an entirely unnecessary panic about the threat of opposition parties. If I had Putin’s or Medvedev’s ear, I’d scream into it that they need to display a bit more confidence — even if it’s in their own puppet political theater.

HARD Talk with A Good Treaty

ANATOLY KARLIN: As I understand, you are not the biggest fan of the Russian liberal opposition. You believe their leaders kowtow to the West and couldn’t care less about the everyday concerns of ordinary Russians. But consider the case of a patriotic Russian who detests the corruption and proizvol (arbitrariness) of state institutions and genuinely wants to improve human rights – not just those of Khodorkovsky, but of prison inmates, conscripts, minorities, etc. What can she realistically do about it, apart from ranting about the return of neo-Soviet totalitarianism in front of foreign TV cameras?

A GOOD TREATY: People “do” all kinds of things. Thirty-six parents and teachers in Ulyanovsk went on a week-long group hunger strike to successfully protest the closure of several local schools. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a group of youths in the Far East, fed up with local law enforcement and inspired by a particularly trigger-happy version of nationalism, decided to arm itself and start attacking police officers. Some people make it their profession to work in the line of danger — people like Natalia Estemirova and Sergey Magnitsky. Others lead scholarly human rights organizations like Oleg Orlov of Memorial, dedicated to unearthing a Soviet past they believe is forgotten at Russia’s peril.

All of these people are patriots in their own heads, and who am I to disagree?

I don’t begrudge the liberal opposition for ranting hyperbolisms in front of foreign TV cameras. This is half the business of being in the Russian liberal opposition, after all: (a) they need to provoke/tempt the authorities into cracking down on their rallies, otherwise nobody would ever care, and (b) they need to attract the attention of the West — for financial aid, for international connections, and for status. The liberal literati are frequent visitors to the United States — even the younger, student-“employed’ members like Ilya Yashin (who recently concluded a cross-country tour of the U.S.) and Oleg Kozlovsky (who’s been Stateside for weeks and is currently attending some kind of not-at-all-propagandistic-sounding democracy workshop at Stanford University).

These boys are more than welcome to globetrot wherever they like, but I personally can’t help but see them as a bunch of spoiled brats, partying to their own celebrity and hopelessly out of touch with the needs of ordinary Russians. (I’ve made it a point on AGT to focus on their endless infighting in order to highlight how self-centered and oblivious they really are.)

ANATOLY KARLIN: You noted that Oleg Kozlovsky’s rush to disassociate Solidarnost’ from the gay rights movement, or “radical LGBT activists” as he calls them, is remarkably similar to the Kremlin’s own arguments for dismissing the Russian liberal movement: neither minority enjoys much approval from ordinary Russians (see On “Minor & Non-Critical” Issues: Oleg Kozlovsky vs. Gay Rights). This is an inconsistency at best; a less charitable explanation is that many Russian liberals are themselves hypocrites and homophobes.

But consider this from another perspective – though claiming to be “a fan of free societies”, you insist the current Russian liberal movement is morally bankrupt and should moderate its anti-Kremlin rhetoric to be accepted by ordinary Russians. But if compromise is the key to political breakout, why should Russian liberals embrace the LGBT movement, an act that is sure to “alienate the vast majority of the population”, as Kozlovsky says, but improve neither rights of assembly nor LGBT rights? Are you not guilty of the same double standards as both Kozlovsky and the Kremlin?

A GOOD TREATY: The leaders of the liberal opposition may be a band of egotistical creeps, but I don’t think the principles of the movement itself are necessarily bankrupt. Like with the communists, there’s an unhealthy degree of backward-looking thinking, in their case consumed primarily with nostalgia for and white-washing of the ‘troubled 1990s.’

I don’t think the opposition needs to “moderate its anti-Kremlin rhetoric.” Plenty of Russians are more than responsive to criticisms aimed at the authorities, and liberals from Eduard Limonov to Liudmila Alexeeva could remain prolific dissidents without abandoning their principles. Remember that even at 70% approval ratings, almost one-third of all Russians still disapproves of the political status quo.

What liberals would benefit from is a reappraisal of their goals. Over the last few years, they’ve moved from one fad to another. ‘Other Russia’ to ‘Solidarity.’ ‘Marchy nesoglasnikh’ to ‘Days of Rage.’ The newest campaign, ‘Strategy-31,’ is catchy, but it likely maxed out its publicity potential with the blowup at the end of May. (We’ll see if the next one in three days proves me wrong.) As Vladimir Milov pointed out in a radio debate with Ilya Yashin, Solidarity and its various rally projects have peaked. More people just aren’t coming anymore (in fact, many seem to be leaving, he claims).

This, I think, has more to do with the focus (or lack thereof) of the professional liberal protesters. Everywhere they look for concrete platform ideas, they’re terrified of casting the net too narrowly. Hence, they mustn’t support the gays for fear of alienating the masses. Certain environmental causes are taken up (such as the movement to protect Lake Baikal), but it’s usually in response to local initiatives elsewhere, and it’s after the real hubbub has ended. What Moscow’s protesting “elites” typically trumpet is an unattractive medley of ad hominem attacks on national figures. So it’s “Putin v ostavku” or “Luzhkov v tiur’mu” — the Russian equivalent of Bush-era peacenik demonstrators demanding the president’s impeachment or today’s Tea Party comparing Obama’s healthcare plan to National Socialism.

For the individuals involved in this movement, I’ve no doubt that they think they’re speaking ‘truth to power.’ On a superficial level, it’s certainly a pretty daring person who delights in taunting Russian OMON troops, essentially begging them for a beating and an arrest. But it’s that photogenic rush that seems to fool these folks into believing that they’re soldiers on the 21st century front against totalitarianism. When I met Oleg Kozlovsky earlier this year, he was asked if people feared for their jobs when attending rallies. His answer? Nope. Nobody gets fired for coming to these circuses. Come one, come all, to the political pageant.

If people like Yashin and Kozlovsky (and Milov and, I’m sure, nearly all the high profile lib leadership) want to ignore the gay rights movement for fear of endangering their popular appeal, I wonder why they can’t apply that same political sense to the rest of their activism. Either they are purists proudly pontificating from the periphery, or they’re cutthroat and calculating, and presumably seeking a way to speak to the interests and tastes of society at large. Right now, they seem to be occupying a sort of idiot’s limbo, where just about everyone has a reason to dislike them. And — what a shock — most Russians do.

ANATOLY KARLIN: When the Feds rolled up the “extremely undangerous” Russian spy ring, you argued that they managed to “jeopardize” an important relationship with the world’s second nuclear superpower. But STRATFOR would argue that you missed the point (see Russian Spies and Strategic Intelligence). Though Boris and Natasha failed to steal anything important, that wasn’t their goal to begin with! The traditional modus operandi of Russia’s intelligence services is to recruit young, promising Americans with potential careers in organizations like Lockheed Martin or the CIA (think Robert Hanssen or Aldrich Ames). Unless you want foreign moles infiltrating the Homeland’s national security agencies and military-industrial complex, why would you criticize the FBI for doing its job?

anna_chapman_facebook13.jpgA GOOD TREATY: It’s funny that you mention Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames as examples of people at risk of being ‘turned’ but Russian secret agents, as both these men initiated their work as spies by themselves. Hanssen and Ames each lived beyond their means, and apparently approached Russian embassy personnel to sell U.S. state secrets in order to cover their debts and subsidize the high life. No unregistered foreign employees were required to flip these Americans, whose volunteered treachery led in turn to the deaths of Soviet and Russian traitors working for us. If Anna Chapman or anyone from her team of ‘Illegals’ was in a position to ‘flip’ an important American source, it would have marked a departure from the history of U.S. sellouts, who typically defect of their own accord to registered Russian officials.

ANATOLY KARLIN: You describe yourself as a foreign policy realist and admire Otto von Bismarck for his political acumen. But what if American geopolitical imperatives and “a good treaty with Russia” are incompatible? Let me expound. The foundations of geopolitics are Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History. According to this view of the world, the Russian Empire seeks hegemony over the Eurasian Heartland; in direct opposition, the United States tries to prevent its emergence through geopolitical balancing, economic constriction and amphibious interventions (in what Aleksandr Dugin calls the “Anaconda Strategy”). These geopolitical dynamics colored the Cold War and are once again coming into play: even as Russia reasserts its influence over the post-Soviet world, the US is preparing to withdraw from Iraq and is building forward bases in the Balkans and expanding defense ties with Poland.

Two questions follow from the above. First, one of America’s great strengths is the abiding attraction of its purported democratic model. Why then isn’t then the US export its “freedom” to check Russian expansionism, and if possible undermine the Kremlin itself? (After all, if guys like Kasparov or Khodorkovsky come to power, they can be expected to participate in the “international community” / serve Western interests). Second, as a realist, why would you disagree with Mearsheimer’s argument for a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent?

A GOOD TREATY: The U.S. is withdrawing from Iraq … and doubling-down in Afghanistan. Being overstretched and unable to seriously deliver on open-ended defense pacts with Eastern European states, the White House’s rhetoric about missile defense and security investments along Russia’s western periphery is worrying, to say the least. The decision to militarize what could have functioned as a peaceful buffer zone between Russia and Europe seems to me to have been an extremely unwise decision by U.S. decision-makers. Even at the height of the Cold War, American buildup in Western Europe was met by (or in response to) Soviet maneuvers within the Warsaw Pact. It was certainly competition, but spheres of influence were generally agreed upon, and — even during the various uprisings that led to Soviet troops being deployed in 1953, 1956, and 1968 — the U.S. never threatened intervention, and any direct confrontation remained a nonfactor. In the 2008 Ossetian war, however, George W. Bush’s advisers apparently lobbied for an attack on the Roki Tunnel — an act of war that would have engaged American soldiers directly against Russian troops. That the U.S. has reached a stage where it even contemplates initiating military strikes against the Russian army indicates the frightening recklessness behind any worldview built upon a foundation of “America’s great strengths.”

Any conversation about realism is incompatible with a question that opens, “If guys like Kasparov or Khodorkovsky come to power.” That being said, Vladimir Milov compares Kasparov to the early Bolsheviks, indicating that he might not be the friendliest candidate for a job in America’s global utopia. As for Khodorkovsky, installing him in the Kremlin would theoretically only put in his hands yet more power to buy or bump off his enemies and competitors. Even in this scenario, there’s reason to assume the U.S. would not find its ideal Slavic partner.

In living memory, it seems Washington has really only been happy when it’s been free to call all the shots — i.e., under the administration of Boris Yeltsin. If that’s really true, American spooks should look not to the liberal elite (who likely would only use more power to fight amongst themselves), but to institutional fissures in the Russian state. Yeltsin was in large part such a swell pal because he was all too happy to sell off the kitchen sink, as long as it meant the Soviet cooking space was left without running water. “Take all the sovereignty you can swallow” he commanded initially. It was only later, after he consolidated his own authority and raked the USSR’s ashes into the garbage chute, that national determination transformed into an all-out war for territorial integrity.

A weak Russian state will be less assertive on the international level, but destabilizing Russia itself can and would pose devastating risks to the human beings actually living there or nearby. (Luckily for Uncle Sam, I guess, his primary constituents are well across the pond.)

Regarding a nuclear Ukraine: great idea, but they surrendered the last of their bombs in 1996. Moreover: not a great, but a lousy idea. Russia would never have bought the concept that an unaligned Ukrainian state could exist with or without atomic weapons. Aside from the crippled era of Boris Yeltsin, the Kremlin has never been comfortable with the premise that Ukraine exists outside its “privileged sphere.” The attraction of a buffer zone does not apply to Ukraine. If Washington had insisted on maintaining a nuclear Kiev, Moscow would have interpreted it as a direct existential threat. In other words, it would have been extremely destabilizing in an already topsy-turvy decade.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where they mouth is. Though I’m sure you’re not the type, feel free to confirm it by making a few falsifiable predictions about Russia’s future. After a few years, we’ll see if you were worth listening to.

Medvedev will be reelected in 2012. Putin will continue on as Prime Minister. There will be some staff reshuffling, but nothing will really change. By 2012, the Russian economy should be doing much better. (I expect the same to be true in the U.S., where Obama will likely ride an ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ mantra to a second term.)

The 2014 Sochi Olympic Games will not produce any major international embarrassments for Russia. Investigative reporters will have no trouble turning up horror stories about the waste that went into the project and the poverty it ignored alleviating in the surrounding areas, but I don’t expect any Dagestani terrorist attacks or roof collapses to indict the Kremlin for lousy management. As for Russia’s medal count: better than it was in Canada, but still low enough to trigger another slew of articles about the collapse of Soviet sports training.

Sooner or later, Alexei Kudrin will be ousted from his position in the Ministry of Finance. This guy’s name is attached to too many revenue-saving, unpopular budgetary measures for him not become a political liability eventually. I don’t expect him to go the route of Andrei Illarionov, however. He’ll be honorably discharged and put to use in some less public capacity.

The Solidarity Movement will fizzle out within the next few years, to be replaced by the next ‘it’ conglomeration of the very same individuals. Maybe they’ll call it the ‘March of the Raging 31 Dissidents.”

What are you plans for A Good Treaty?

I intend to simply keep posting 1-2 pieces every week on topics of my choosing. I like to alternate between big-headlines-grabbers (like the Russian spy ring) and stuff that requires me to be a bit more inventive and take time to research (like previous posts on Russian defamation law, the recent FSB law, the ‘Clean Water’ program, and so on). Unfortunately, based on the WordPress statistics to which I have access, it’s these latter posts that generate substantially fewer readers. I can’t blame the interwebs for sending me less traffic when I’m not writing about hot topics, but it is a little disappointing to know that some of the stuff that takes to most work to write is also the least popular.

The biggest thing I’ve started doing in connection with the blog recently is actively using Twitter. I include a snapshot stream of my tweets in the lefthand column on the blog, but I hope users will actually subscribe to my feed on Twitter itself, as this allows me to better track my followers, and allows for opportunities to interact with readers/users — which is something I love about the service.

There is a possible Russia blogging collaboration project in the works with Mark Adomanis, but I really can’t say anymore because I don’t know anything more than that. He contacted me recently about the idea, and we tentatively agreed to make something happen. As I said above, Mark is a very talented writer, and I’m pretty excited about the idea of mooching shamelessly off his celebrity. Thanks, Marco!

And thank you, A Good Treaty, for an excellent interview!

If you wish me to interview you or another Russia watcher, feel free to contact me.

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