Veteran newsman looks at the Russia-Ukraine standoff

If there are a few things we baby boomers have in common, it’s no lack for life experiences and opinions. BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs has both in Aces with a career as a foreign correspondent for ABC News, then for HDNet television’s World Report. A news veteran, Greg has covered nearly every corner of the globe, including Russia. He shares this timely perspective about current events in that region of the world. By the way … Greg’s piece is longer than what we usually publish, but we believe that with a crisis like this, an abbreviated analysis doesn’t do it justice.

I am flattered when someone asks me for some perspective about what’s happening on another side of the world. And since Ukraine blew up, a number of people have asked again. So I decided to sit down and write down some extemporaneous opinions about what’s going on and what to do about it — they are informed opinions based on my own global experience, I’d argue, but obviously just opinions nonetheless. Please understand, I appreciate that probably most of you won’t want to read beyond this paragraph to see what I think, especially since I’m just going to ramble in a stream of consciousness, which means this is going to run a lot longer than my typical 600-word newspaper columns. But for those who do, here it is.

Greg Dobbs reporting from Moscow.

Greg Dobbs reporting from Moscow.

The fact is, I don’t quite know what to think about Ukraine (is this where I lose even more readers?!?). Sure, that sounds less than totally patriotic since our reflexive reaction should be to praise the plucky protestors who turned their nation upside down and to rebuke the Russian bear for its bare-fisted tactics to preserve its increasingly tenuous ties to an historically meaningful neighbor and perhaps, to use another analyst’s clever phrase, to hold onto a building block of “Soviet Union Lite.” Well, along with Americans of virtually all political stripes, I do cheer those insurgents on and hope they hold onto their winnings.

And because it would be better for both them and us, I have my fingers crossed that ultimately their nation not only will survive the Russian incursion without devastating warfare but will end up aligned with the West. Unlike nations in other parts of the world where we attempt to win friends and influence people who don’t necessarily want what we’re trying to sell, I spent enough time in parts of the old Soviet bloc to believe that Ukraine is culturally capable of living a Western life.

But just for the sake of argument, look at what’s happening through any other lens but ours. It might add a bit of perspective that we don’t get enough of here at home.

The first thing you’ll see is, Ukraine’s Russian-leaning leader wasn’t overthrown mainly because he was corrupt; he was overthrown mainly because he was Russian-leaning. From what I’ve seen in much of the world — make that most of the world — corruption is a way of life. Yes, the majority of citizens in a corrupt society are victims, not beneficiaries, so you wouldn’t think they’d abide corruption in their culture, but their gripe is primarily with their own exclusion from the fruits of the corruption, not with the corruption itself. That plush presidential palace that the world just saw for the first time? In rich resorts like Aspen or Vail, it wouldn’t even be the only one on the block.

Demonstrators gather during a rally in downtown Kiev, Ukraine. A protest by about 300,000 Ukrainians angered by their government’s decision to freeze integration with the West. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

But do the masses in Ukraine — or Poland, or Hungary, or Slovakia, or many of the other former Soviet vassals— relate both economically and culturally with Russia, or with the United States and its western allies? There’s no contest here, and I don’t say that with an uber-patriotic fervor for our side; it’s just a reflection of modern media, which reminds me of my very first trip to Egypt, in 1977 (stick with me here, this will come around to the Ukraine). Before I even got out of the airport in Cairo, I saw Islamic pilgrims embarking on the Haj, their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mecca. Besides a small satchel with clothes and personal belongs, many had boom boxes and every one was screaming with oratory. Not understanding a word of Arabic in those days, I had no idea what was being said (or screamed) but the one thing I figured out pretty fast was, this transistor technology was changing the world, because for the first time in their lives, people could find out what other people’s lives looked like. That didn’t turn out so well for us!

Today, there’s an even more sophisticated form of technology, through which Ukrainians, among others, can see the kind of life that people on our side can lead, which might turn out quite well for them. What they see is, even middle-class citizens can go for the brass ring, which is not the case in Russia, where opportunity now is much more abundant than it was in the Soviet days but where even today, it only presents itself to a narrow slice of society. It is here in the West that Ukrainians, especially the younger ones, see the chance to live a better life— better not just by measure of money, but liberty— so it is with us that they want to be aligned. In the old days, I spent enough time meeting citizens on the dark side of the Iron Curtain to know that this is true.

I’ll always remember an interview I did with a dissident in the then-Soviet Bloc — an interview we had to do in the middle of the night in a wet warehouse at risk of arrest by the police state if we were caught — in which this guy told me, “You Westerners always make one mistake when you characterize us and our dreams. The mistake is, we don’t want everything you have, because while a man can become richer in your world than in ours, he can be poorer too. The only thing you have that we want is freedom.”

Barricade of a main street in Kiev.

Barricade of a main street in Kiev.

But, can we really assert that what’s happened in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, is the will of the majority? I’m sorry, but the answer is, we really don’t know for sure. Without doubt it looks that way, but is it inconceivable that the 75,000 or 100,000 or 250,000 activists who prompted the reboot of Ukraine’s destiny don’t actually speak for the majority? As some of you will remember, Richard Nixon’s disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew (before Nixon himself was disgraced) coined a term about “the silent majority,” and after reporting from trouble-spots as far afield as South Africa and Lebanon and Poland and Northern Ireland, I know it has some merit; I know that sometimes, huge chunks of the citizenry sit silently, while just one hunk makes all the noise.

I’ve covered revolutions where I had no doubt that the majority of citizens were behind them, most notably, Iran. In the course of roughly two years of revolution and turmoil during which I went in and out of Iran, I met hardly anyone who didn’t have a relative, or a friend, or a neighbor, or a workmate, who hadn’t lost either a job, or an limb, or a life, to the Shah’s sadistic security police. Revolution served a popular purpose for them.

What’s more, most of the Iranians I met, particularly when we left the urbane borders of Tehran and went to more backward parts of the country, condemned the Shah’s program of Westernization for his nation. To us, of course, it seemed the best thing to bring them into the (then-) 20th Century. But to them, it reeked of decadence and depravity. So I felt pretty sure that my instincts were accurate, namely, that the Iranian revolution was a popular revolution. But I never said so on the air, because if a journalist hasn’t interviewed darned near every last citizen in a city or even a neighborhood, let alone an entire nation, he cannot say with certainty how the majority truly feels.

In Iran though, while the Shah was a bad man, he was our bad man. The alternative to his leadership was the Islamic extremists who took charge when he fled — which, although not the only reason, helps explain why Jimmy Carter stuck with the Shah for too long (the other reason is, our diplomats in Tehran had their heads in the sand by staying safely holed up and kept reporting to Washington that the Shah’s support was widespread, even though those of us who were reporting from out on the streets said otherwise). Of course, unlike his hateful inheritors, the Shah of Iran would not have launched an Islamic revolution beyond Iran’s borders that to this very day has changed our world for the worse. I knew plenty of Iranians who supported the revolution but didn’t want an Islamic regime in the stead of the Shah. But the mullahs were the only horse they could ride in on, and then these relative moderates (yes, they do exist there, which is why we need to give Iran’s present leadership a chance to show their good faith) lost a place in their own movement.

Anyway, it certainly has looked like a popular revolution in the Ukraine. But the appearance of Russia’s supporters in the Crimea — not just actual Russian troops but Ukrainian citizens of Russian heritage — is a reminder of something I think I understand pretty well from my own career: if the media congregate in the capital, there’s no telling how different things might look out in the boondocks.

Greg Dobbs, veteran television network correspondent and co-founder of BoomerCafé.com.

Greg Dobbs, veteran television network correspondent and co-founder of BoomerCafé.com.

Furthermore, again just for the sake of argument — for the sake of perspective — what do you think we would do if, in the hypothetical, militant anti-American forces were to wrest power in Ottawa, toss out the pro-American premier and unilaterally install an antagonist in his place? Is it plausible to project some kind of American rationale to “protect” the security of American interests there and move our forces into Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto? It’s not as if there’s no precedent for us to use our military might to protect our position; those old enough will remember, we came close to war in 1962 when the Soviets installed missiles 90 miles from Key West. Believe me, I’m not defending Putin here, I’m just saying, put the shoe on the other foot and you can better understand how the other side thinks (which the makers of American foreign policy, no matter who’s been in charge, have too often failed to do, which has led to too many failures for America).

Just last night, I had dinner with some friends. And when Ukraine came up in conversation, several showed a knee-jerk tendency to blame President Putin’s aggression on President Obama’s vacillation. I too am disappointed with much of Obama’s performance on the foreign front— if you read my column about Syria just a few weeks ago, you know that’s true (although on the other side of the coin, we might truly have traction taming the Iranian nuclear program, we have reinforced our presence in the South China Sea against the Chinese assertion of manifest destiny there, and at least the Israelis and the Palestinians haven’t yet walked out on our newest manifestation of the peace process. And, oh yes, we did catch, and kill, Osama bin Laden).

But while disappointed, I challenged my friends to tell me what Obama had done wrong in connection with the current crisis and, for that matter, what he ought to be doing differently. Something with the military? Almost no one — and certainly none of these friends — is calling for that. So what else? To punish Putin with the best tools we’ve got, short of troops and tanks? That’s exactly what the President is doing. With the threat of sanctions and frozen assets, the Russian stock market just yesterday lost 10% of its value, as did the ruble. And for a Russian leader who craves prestige on the world stage — Exhibit A: the Olympics in Sochi — the loss of the G-8 summit, scheduled for June (also in Sochi) at which Putin would strut proudly, would itch like a coarse woolen Russian uniform. Let alone Russia’s expulsion from the G-8 itself.

Look, as I told my friends, life is not a fairy tale, and neither are geo-politics. Sometimes a story doesn’t have a happy ending. All we can do is, well, what we can do. There’s a popular notion about the carrot and the stick, but frankly, I don’t think either is going to do us much good. Unless we want to go to war, for which there is absolutely no will in this country right now, our stick isn’t very sharp. And if Putin is willing to suffer brick bats for his belligerence, there’s not much we can do with our carrots. We’re not likely to get much help in the garden from our allies in Europe, who don’t (and sometimes can’t) always speak with a single voice and who seem to be torn anyway between their sympathy with democratic goals in Ukraine and their warmth from Russian natural gas at home.

The fact is, he has more at stake than we do. Not just with his nationalistic goal of “Soviet Union Lite,” but with his hard need for more than just regional power (which you might have read about in my column about Putin’s Russia about a month ago). That port that Russia maintains in the Crimea is on the Black Sea, which makes it no small issue. In the parlance of naval experts, it’s a warm-water port, the only one Russia has. Losing it would mean losing the ability to sail at moment’s notice, 12 months a year, into the Mediterranean and, even bigger, the Atlantic. When you consider the cost oflosing an asset like that, you might understand why, given Putin’s plans, it’s easier instead to absorb the cost of losing money and prestige.

What that means is, this crisis is no fairy tale for him, either. But someone’s got to win, someone’s got to lose. At best it’s an even playing field. At worst, it’s advantage Putin.

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  1. Superb analysis. I couldn’t agree more. In particular I note “We’re not likely to get much help in the garden from our allies in Europe, who don’t (and sometimes can’t) always speak with a single voice and who seem to be torn anyway between their sympathy with democratic goals in Ukraine and their warmth from Russian natural gas at home.” There’s no question that the US won’t get much help from Europe and that Europe will take time to move, in spite of all the good words.

    Yes, Putin is playing in his own backyard (geo-politically speaking) and there’s nothing anyone can (or should) do about it. In the end, it becomes a “face-saving” game where the solution to the crisis had better be sought at the United Nations than in letting one country (in this case the US) strutting forward alone, trying to shame Russia. The battle with Russia is inevitably going to be David against Goliath , where Goliath in this case will win because of the geo-political aspect (i.e. Russia is playing in its own backyard and will NEVER give up that port in Crimea, its natural door to the South).

    In short, moving the problem to the United Nations would mean coming up with a solution that would slow down and water everything down, allowing both Putin and Obama to save face…That’s my two cents to the debate!

  2. We might think the cold war is over, but someone needs to tell Putin. Apparently he is more interested in rebuilding the empire than building a new world order envisioned by many in the west.
    Thank you for your thoughtful and reasoned analysis, it helps clear away the fog.

  3. Thanks for the the article! Very insightful.

    I always questioned the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially in the light of the referendum about its further existence, in which 75 per cent of the population voted for it, including my parents. I never understood why to relive ourselves of communism we needed to break the country? Mr.Yeltsin and his drink buddies wanted presidency. They could not achieve one in the entire Soviet Union, they knew Yeltsin had no respect in the Soviet Union, after his main ideologue Mr. Solzhenitsyn declared the need to rid Russia of the “heavy Central Asian belly” in his article “How to rebuild Russia”. Gorbatchev gave us freedom, local leaders Turkmenbashi, Karimov etc. with the support of Zbignev Brzezhinski and George Bush, Bill Clinton took it back. If the U.S. is so tough on ousting Yanukovich, why not remove Karimov or Berdimuhammedov, whose regimes are equally corrupt and blood-thirsty. Yeltsin was once asked if he could allow the break-up of the Soviet Union should he have been the president of the one. He replied: No. I personally understand the grievances of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. Unfortunately, many members of my family saw what local ethnic elites can do to the “aliens”. And the fears of the ethnic Ukrainians pushing Russians out of Ukraine are very high. We saw it in Central Asia, which are becoming overwhelmingly homogeneous because the local elites at the dawn of the independence were allowed and encouraged to pursue their policies of silent ethnic cleansing. In my country – part of the old Soviet bloc – we ended up filling up the ancestry forms, like Hitler in Germany, so the government could distinguish between pure and impure residents.

    I totally disapprove the use of the military force in any form. But the grievances of the Russian-speaking folks in the former Soviet republics are not exaggerated.

  4. Thanks for sharing your broad historical perspective Greg. Most of us here in the U.S. truly have no idea how to consider these types of issues, handicapped by our very limited mainstream media perspective. I generally read the BBC to learn how the rest of the world is seeing things.

  5. Thanks, Greg. Insightful, plain-spoken and articulate, and–despite your disclaimer–succinct. A much needed perspective, which I hope is widely shared.

  6. I appreciate your experiences and perspectives. Thank you for this insight into the Ukraine situation. Probably won’t see this kind of balanced or thoughtful commentary on today’s media.

    One line caught my attention: “The only thing you have that we want is freedom.”

  7. My first reaction felt frightened by the similarity to pre-WW2 appeasement scenarios. Since then
    I have found myself unsure of my early reaction. The proof will be if Putin marches his troops towards Latvia and another warm-water port after first somehow managing to find thousands of people to protest in his favour in Belarus. Only time will tell.

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