Today, much of this same corporate media is portraying Vladimir Putin as "the new Stalin," eager to re-establish the old Soviet Union and threatening the peace and stability of the post-Soviet "new world order." There is no mention in this media of the legitimate security concerns of Russian posed, notably, by the eastward expansion of NATO up to and beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. (See Stephen Cohen's "Distorting Russia").
So how might the bewildered American citizen understand the emerging conflict with Russia, now that the corporate media has discredited itself? For my part, I look to history, and then to independent and foreign sources, and I critically examine the experience and qualifications of the reporters and commentators. What are their academic backgrounds? Have they published peer-reviewed studies of Russian history, culture, and politics? Have they spent significant time in Russia? Do they read and speak the Russian language? There are many such individuals, shunned by the corporate media, who can nevertheless be found and studied. Among them, Stephen Cohen, Ambassador Jack Matlock, Ray McGovern, John Mearshimer, the late George F.Kennan. Most of these individuals agree that historical facts will not support the account of the Russo-American conflict that is presented to the American people by its politicians and journalists.
Finally, as I search for an accurate account of Russian policy and opinion, I reflect upon my personal experience in my seven trips to Russia, and my personal encounters with many Russian scholars and ordinary citizens.
As a result, I have come to conclusions significantly contrary to "the official version" here in the United States.
Blame for the current Russo-American conflict, I believe, falls on both sides. I suspect that most of my Russian friends would agree. In international conflicts, rarely is one side blameless and the other totally culpable.
However, writing as I am to friends in Russia and faced with unreliable sources of information in our media, I am reluctant to set down a bill of accusations against Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. That, my Russian friends, is your task for which you are far more qualified than I am. Russia is your country, not mine. You are there, in Russia, reading the Russian press and directly acquainted with Russian life. I can only see Russia "through a glass, darkly," from Russian and American sources that I have come to trust only tentatively. Thus, unlike too many of my compatriots, I will not be so arrogant as to pass uninformed judgment on Russia and its leaders.
That said, I have just three comments regarding President Putin and his policies. Following that, I will have much to say about American policies and attitudes which, I believe, are aggravating this unfortunate conflict and standing in the way of a just and mutually satisfactory resolution.
The Role of Foreign NGOs. I am told that Putin's government has severely restricted the activity of non-Russian non-governmental organizations. Given the shameful and ignorant behavior of many American "experts" who visited Russia in the early nineties with open mouths and closed minds, I can well understand. I sat next to one of these "free market fundamentalists" on a flight back from Moscow, and I was appalled by his recitation of what he "told" the Russians, with scarcely a word about what he had learned from the Russians.
Even so, I sincerely hope that President Putin is aware that there are many unofficial American and European scholars and organizations eager to work with counterparts in Russia, to the mutual advantage of both sides. They should not be shut out of Russia, least of all while tensions are increasing between our countries. I am, of course, thinking most urgently of environmental issues. We share the same planet, which is now imperiled by a looming global climate crisis. There is much more that unites than divides us. So I hope that the Russian government will critically examine the qualifications and motives of foreign NGOs and welcome those that offer genuine benefits to the Russian people.
About Crimea . I am told that the vast majority of Crimeans are native Russian speakers, and approve of annexation with Russia. If so, then perhaps Crimea should rejoin the Russian Federation. My concern is how this was accomplished. It strikes me that it was too sudden. These things should take time, and should involve diplomatic negotiations and some treaty compensation with Ukraine. Unfortunately, the precipitous annexation of Crimea has provided rhetorical ammunition to the American "neo-cons" eager to restart the Cold War. And that is very regrettable.
The Obama-Putin Dialogue. I read that the weekly conversations between our presidents were halted by Mr. Putin on the grounds that he "does not negotiate under threat of sanctions." This is an understandable response of a proud leader of a proud nation. Yet the break-off of personal contacts between opposing leaders can be perilous. If, as reported, Putin has ordered Russian troops away from the Ukrainian border and back to their bases, Obama should on his part remove the sanctions. Then let the conversations resume.
Progress toward a resolution of this conflict is severely complicated by the following five pervasive attitudes of many Americans and, still worse, a dominant faction of the American media and of American legislators and policy makers.
1. A failure to recognize that Russia has legitimate sovereign interests. This failure, combined with historical ignorance, accounts for the widespread inability of Americans to appreciate the Russians' desire for a secure western border.
As few ordinary Americans realize, and still more knowledgeable Americans fail to fully appreciate, twice in the past century and once again in the previous century, armies from the west marched across the plains of Poland and Ukraine to devastate the heart of Russia. The last of these invasions took the lives of twenty-five million Soviet citizens and ninety percent of the male cohort born in the early 1920s. During that war, nothing remotely like this happened to the United States, which suffered a quarter million battle casualties (one for every one hundred Soviets), and on whose soil not a single Nazi bomb or shell fell.