“Russia on the Brink?”: A Panel Discussion

“Russia on the Brink?”: A Panel Discussion

by Zachary Murphy King


On 5 October 2015 the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies kicked off the 2015-2016 academic year with a panel discussion “Russia on the Brink? (Europe on Alert)” at the Neubauer Collegium, an institute for interdisciplinary research in the humanities and social sciences at the University of Chicago. Four brief presentations focused on the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, the role of the US, Russian state corruption, and the social roots of Russia’s recent crisis. The four panelists comprised three professors from the University of Chicago—John Mearsheimer, Monika Nalepa and Konstantin Sonin—and sociologist Svitlana Khutka of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

Opening the panel, Robert Bird (SlavicLanguages and Literatures) expressed his alarm over political and cultural events in Russia over the last 18 months. Although in retrospect a tidal change was already evident in the 2012 prosecution of Pussy Riot and the 2013 law against homosexual propaganda, numerous more recent developments in culture and politics—the repression of political and cultural opposition, rising xenophobia and homophobia, the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, the murder of Boris Nemtsov and now Russian involvement in Syria—threaten grave consequences for Russia and its neighbors for many years to come. He highlighted the recent destruction of the relief of Mephistopheles in St. Petersburg as symbolic of the force—violent and triumphantly ignorant—that is in danger of flaring up in Russia.

John Mearsheimer (Political Science) questioned the conventional wisdom on the Ukrainian crisis, arguing that the US bears responsibility for provoking the current conflict in Ukraine. He rejected the claim that Putin is an expansionist war-monger, intent on reconstituting a “Greater Russia,” and also rejected the claim that US interest in Ukraine is merely one of promoting democracy. He contested instead that the Russian annexation of Crimea and involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine have been predictable reactions to encroaching Western influence. He noted that the recent conflicts in the region have followed steps toward integrating former Soviet Republics into the sphere of Western (American and especially NATO) influence. Mearsheimer drew a parallel to the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, which followed closely on the announcement that Georgia and Ukraine would join NATO, something which Russia had consistently, and, he says, understandably opposed. Reframing the conflict as a hypothetical US confrontation with an ascendant China, he asked whether the US would accept a military alliance between China, Canada and Mexico that would station Chinese armed forces in North America. Furthermore, he reminded the audience of the results of US democracy-building in general, particularly in the Middle East, and warned against continued US meddling in Ukraine. Democracy promotion, he argued, has never been only about democracy: the US has frequently used it as a tool against adversarial regimes. What will be the consequences of current American policy in Ukraine? “We are leading the Ukrainian people down the primrose path, because their country is going to be destroyed.”

Monika Nalepa (Political Science) drew attention to Russia’s unresolved KGB past. In this Russia stands in stark contrast to Germany and Poland, where domestic spying programs were dismantled, their agents variously prosecuted or barred from serving in positions of power, and files were made available to those who had been spied upon. Nothing of the kind has been undertaken in Russia. Putin, himself a former KGB agent, illustrates the lack of any national coming-to-terms with the sinister aspects of the Soviet legacy. For years Nalepa has been studying Putin and his methods of maintaining shoring up his domestic support in the face of foreign sanctions and increasing isolation, building legitimacy by tapping into the narrative of the Great Patriotic War and by appearing to defend Russia from external and internal enemies. Sleek public campaigns make deft use of popular culture (including Hollywood movies), a far cry from the Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union. In contrast to Mearsheimer, Nalepa stressed that democracy promotion cannot be dismissed as a top-down movement controlled from outside. The activists involved, she continued, come from various Eastern European states and are understandably invested in the democratic governance of both their own and also neighboring states.

Konstantin Sonin (the Harris School of Public Policy) argued that Putin was not responsible for the boom of the 2000s, as the economy, “had nowhere to go but up,” and that the economic situation since 2012 has been increasingly dire. Sonin astutely observed that, despite constant talk of privatization, Putin has been quietly nationalizing many segments of the economy throughout his tenure, a process that has been accompanied, he said, by rampant corruption. Putin’s “power vertical” more and more frequently bypasses parliament and even the Security Council, imposing or canceling reforms and laws without debate or announcement. In closing he offered his answer to the central question of the event: If Russia is on the brink of something, it is not strong economic performance.

Svitlana Khutka used polling data to highlight differences between Ukrainian and Russian societies, claiming that Russians more consistently favor things defined as “irrational” and “religious” in contrast to a more often “rational” and “secular” Ukrainian populace. She cited polling data showing that support for Ukraine joining NATO increased with proximity to the border with Russia and the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and other data purporting to show that a higher percentage of Russians harbor negative attitudes to Ukrainians than Ukrainians do towards Russians. She closed her talk with a slide showing four ancient Orthodox buildings in Kiev and their dates of construction, contrasted with four photos of a forest labeled “Moscow” with the same dates. Whether meant in jest or not, this provided a small dose of comic relief to a sometimes tense discussion.

Mearsheimer’s statements were the focus of most of the discussion and the object of at least one indignant “Jesus Christ!” growled quietly from the audience.  Central to the ensuing discussion, and perhaps central to the confrontation generally, was whether Mearsheimer’s geopolitical thinking was a valuable analytical perspective or merely an outdated relic of the cold war. Panelists and audience discussed Russian and US involvement in the Syrian civil war, the wisdom of using disparate polling data to make broad generalizations about Ukrainians and Russians, and the question of Putin’s eventual successor. Sonin quipped a conclusion: “There is some research that suggests that the abrupt death of a dictator leads to economic growth.”

Attendees left better apprised of the range of current perspectives on the land behind the Cyrillic curtain. However, consensus on the present situation and where it may lead proved elusive. It is clear that we will still be guessing for some time what exactly Russia is on the brink of.


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