Colby College history professor Paul Josephson was disturbed by what he saw and heard during a visit to Moscow three weeks ago.
An expert on the region who speaks fluent Russian, Josephson met people there heady with the country’s recent success in the Sochi Olympics. There was a glow and happiness that Russia had done so well, as if the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin had been affirmed. And Josephson found Putin’s attitude to be smug, “as if medals in Olympics that cost $52 billion and were marked by corruption were evidence of the justice of one’s rule.”
Even though Russian troops were still a week away from taking over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Josephson said, his friends and acquaintances in Russia were speaking righteously about corruption within the Ukrainian government.
“It was as if they were prepared emotionally, if not intellectually, for the next step,” he said.
Russian troops seized control of Crimea two weeks ago. Large amounts of Russian troops also are massed near the border with Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, which has sharp political differences with the country’s new government in Kiev.
On Monday, one day after the Crimean peninsula’s residents reportedly voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. had frozen the assets of seven Russian officials in the most comprehensive sanctions against Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Josephson supports the sanctions but said the action should have come sooner.
“I am disappointed that the Obama administration waited so long to impose the first of what I anticipate will be a series of sanctions against individuals and against the Russian government,” he said Monday. “Hitting these people where they can earn money and to begin to isolate them economically is a good step. I’m just disappointed that it took too long.”
Josephson said one of the obstacles to faster, tougher sanctions has been an overriding desire to act in a concerted fashion — getting the leaders of 28 European countries to agree as part of the European Union. The existing sanctions, and others that are likely to follow, will put pressure on Putin by targeting a group of individuals who have power in the country — its wealthiest citizens.
“Many of the wealthiest Russians are connected with the government, directly and indirectly,” Josephson said. “Many travel abroad for vacation and have assets abroad. The first step in the sanctions is to punish those individuals as much as possible who do have resources abroad and who like to think of themselves as international.”
Even if the sanctions are effective, Josephson said, Russia’s wealthy citizens don’t decide the country’s military actions.
Russian culture and history have set the stage for the current conflict, said Josephson, who has visited the country multiple times each year since the mid-1980s.
Ever since the Cold War, the Russian government has been effective at short-circuiting early efforts that could lead to more democratic participation, he said. For example, he said, nongovernmental agencies, or NGOs, are classified as “foreign agents,” which gives them an aura of acting in the interests of foreign powers.
Josephson also said the culture of Russia has been slow to fully embrace the idea of widespread public participation in civic matters, which has led to more acceptance of heavy-handed government tactics. Putin also has gained legitimacy, Josephson said, because he came to power when the Russian economy was at its worst, so many citizens have seen their fortunes improve while he has been president. Under Putin, the government also has worked to control the media, censor opposition Internet sites and assert control over industry while passing repressive laws, including anti-gay laws.
The showdown in Crimea involves high stakes not just for Ukraine’s 46 million citizens, but also for Russia, the United States and their allies, Josephson said. The underlying question is whether, at the end of the conflict, Russia will have more power and influence in the region, Josephson said.
On Monday, citing Sunday’s referendum, the Crimean legislature declared independence from Ukraine, a precursor to being annexed by Russia. Josephson said Transnistria, a region of Moldova, as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, also have been the sites of territorial disputes that have left Russia with at least a partial claim to ownership. In each case, Russia claimed to be protecting Russian citizens — which Josephson considers somewhere between an exaggeration and an outright lie.
“It plays on local discontent,” he said. “Russia issued passports to local people as Russians and claims that local people are being mistreated and it goes in to help them. It’s hard to tell to what extent people expressing discontent in Crimea are actually Russian undercover people. Russia has kind of surreptitiously invaded Crimea.”
Europe and Russia both have much to lose in a scenario of protracted economic sanctions. Europe would be risking the steady supply of Russian oil and gas that have helped support it over the decades. Putin, he said, risks a boomerang effect, in which his own aggression could have a serious long-term effect on Russia’s economy.
Since he has left the country, Josephson has heard reports that police quickly shut down protests against Russian involvement before they can gain momentum, while pro-involvement demonstrations are left unchallenged.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel alert for Americans traveling to Russia. Josephson said he plans to visit the country again in late May but will decide then whether the trip might be too dangerous.
“If I felt it was too risky, I wouldn’t go,” he said. “I don’t want to get beaten up.”