Interview with Ira Straus on Ukraine, Russia, and the West

By Nicholas Hager, Transatlantic Community Analyst 

Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He was a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations.This interview was conducted on April 8, 2014.


Q: After vetoing a draft UN Security Council resolution that would have declared the recent referendum in Crimea illegal, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, was quoted as saying that Russia intended to “respect the will of the Crimean people [and support their] right of self-determination.” Do you think this stance will undermine Moscow’s positions on separatist movements within Russia and external challenges such as the Syrian civil war? 


A: Russia would do better to claim, and to some extent did claim, that Crimea is sui generis. Yet at the same time, and more importantly, Russia has declared a doctrine of, and claimed a right to, protect and send troops to help ethnic Russians anywhere they may be, which everyone understands to mean in the surrounding neighborhood, but in principle could mean anywhere in the world. This is not the same as a matter of giving consular support, like any country will, to their people in trouble or they will intervene when there’s a genuine, independently generated pretext in a country in chaos, or where there’s a genuine threat to their nationals. It’s a matter that when they whip up what they claim to be discrimination or hostility to Russian-speakers, or any dissatisfaction on the part of ethnic Russians, they claim a right to intervene militarily, to overthrow the government in the area, using a referendum if they wish to legitimize it. As such, they have undermined their claim that it is sui generis and that it is a matter of respecting the will of the Crimean people. My guess is that a majority of Crimeans would vote for Russia in a free referendum, but this was not an honest or free referendum. They were doing it for theatrical legitimacy, not for democratic legitimacy.


While it does set a precedent for separatist movements within Russia, I don’t think this precedent will be used unless foreign countries make an effort to use it. There are certainly some people, particularly, within the West, some Poles and Ukrainians, who urge using it to get back at Russia. I would imagine some Muslim groups urging it because the main groups in Russia that could be used for separatism in Russia would be Islamic groups. However, this would be dangerous for the West, we would be playing with fire, and I doubt we will try to do it. The one case that would really be analogous would be if people on the Japanese islands were to agitate for union with Japan because it would make them wealthier. However, it is ethnic Russians who are on the Japanese islands that are in dispute, so that’s not likely to happen either. My guess is that this will not be a very effective precedent for areas inside Russia, unless our relations deteriorate to such an extent with Russia that we will take the risk of stirring up Islamic groups against Russia. This is what Putin has always accused us of doing, and what Russian nationalists have always accused us of doing, ever since the war in Kosovo. They have falsely accused us of doing it; it is true that our mass media supported the Chechen rebels, but our government never did. If our relations deteriorate in an extreme way, then that may, someday, happen. It would be very sad for Russia, if Russia brought us to that point, but Russia is doing many sad and dangerous things.


That’s the intra-Russia answer to your question. As to external cases such as the Syrian civil war, there is an ideological aspect here that makes it less likely to matter. The ideology of the Putin regime, which is similar to the ideology of the Communist and Nazi regimes, but boiled down to its bare essence, is resentment over the fact that the West broadcasts universal norms but also exercises discrete political judgments on the complexity of implementing them, the ambiguity of applying these norms in concrete situations, and deals with multiple factors in reaching its judgments. That is to say, the West attempts to make good, sincere judgment in specific situations. And Russia, like Hitler, like the Fascists, like many of our own resentful intellectuals who cannot get over their resentment of the powers that be, call this double standards and hypocrisy, and complain and complain and complain about it. If you read the Russian media, you will find that this is practically the entire ideology of the Russian regime, to complain about our double standards and to claim that Russia should therefore be able to get away with doing the same thing. But what it means by “doing the same thing” is, in its case, to do whatever it wants without any attempt to reach honest judgment between conflicting considerations, among them the international norms which we talk about. Where we do try to reach honest judgment, skewed like everyone by our own biases and limitations, Russia dismisses that as cynicism and thereby gives self-license for unlimited cynicism. It’s the same thing the Nazis did, with devastating consequences in the international crimes they committed. And the same thing the Communists did with their complaints about bourgeoismorality, with devastating consequences in the domestic crimes they committed.


Nietzsche analyzed it in advance as resentment, or Ressentiment, in his works. It’s in front of us. That is, in reality, the kind of precedent Russia is working on. Will it rebound against it? Yes, but only to a small extent. The audience to which Russia is appealing shares this sense of resentment against the powers that be in the world. And, as such, Russia continues to have an ideological appeal to those who resent the world order, the powers that be, the great father figure. Which is not Russia. It’s the United States and the West. Russia will create its precedent against the West, for use against the West, and complain about the double standards of the West. Others will join in with it in this. People will mostly not use the same precedent against Russia, because they will sense that its literal wording – the complaining about hypocrisy – is not what it is really about anyway.


Q: If Russia is setting a precedent, as it claims was the case with Kosovo, is it likely to use this to officially justify future actions, both internally and externally?


Yes, it may do so, and probably will at times. However, since most of the world rejects the action in Crimea, and (rightly) rejects the analogy to Kosovo, use of it as precedent will be a negative PR move, the opposite of a legitimizing move, in the eyes of most of the world.

Its use will be guided by the same informal ideological criterion as at present: whatever serves for expanding Russian power and at the same time expressing resentment of Western global domination. Most people will reject this as shameless hypocrisy. However, it will retain the support of the same crowd that identifies with its present use for venting resentment against the West.


To access the rest of the interview, click here

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