Feel like our minds were just assaulted for 80 minutes. Went to Cambridge University on the 9th of March to hear Vladimir Pozner speak. The lecture hall was packed with probably over 300, largely students, and mostly sympathetic Russian ones, whose ultranationalistic way of thinking came through quite clearly.
His slick talk boiled down to: Russia is encircled and threatened and Ukraine is ours.
For those who don’t know of him, he is 80 years old, and has been a major Soviet and Russian TV and journalism personality for many decades. He has long lived in the US, whee he first moved with his parents until his father was deported due to being a Soviet NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) agent. After stints in East Berlin, young Pozner went to work in the USSR as a journalist in a department of disinformation under the KGB (though he claims he didn’t know it was KGB) and spent a long time as a broadcaster for Radio Moscow World Service. He was one of those working in the 80s to get the US and USSR to understand each other, co-hosting the Spacebridge programmes with Phil Donahue (another KGB-inspired effort). More recently he has done travel shows about the US and France and has his own Larry King-style show now on Russian First Channel. But on to his presentation.
He began by trying to establish his neutral credentials, though rapidly this went out the window. First he said he would not be like RT, which is nothing but government propaganda according to him. Then he said that although he holds three citizenships—US, French, and Russian—he does not take any particular side. This would soon be shown to be a lie.
He used an alleged quote by Harry Truman to show how the West despises Russia, with the quote saying how Truman would support Russia or Nazi Germany to keep the other from becoming too strong, and so they would all kill each other. This quote is indeed easy to find on the internet, but not from any primary source, and cannot be found on the site of the Truman Presidential Library, so is most likely an internet proliferation. In any case, it was allegedly said when the US was already supplying the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease and is at odds with what Truman said later in the war when he lauded Generalissimo Stalin and the Soviet effort. But it fits in with the old Soviet line that the US and UK just wanted the Nazis and Soviets to kill each other off.
He said there is no desire in the West to understand Russia. Pozner pointed to a Time magazine cover from August 2014 which was all in red, with a small Putin in the right bottom corner, casting a large shadow of an airliner—obviously MH-17. Pozner pointed to this as a lack of wanting to understand Russia and just the US sensationalizing everything to do with Putin or Russia. During the evening this was his only oblique reference to MH-17, which was shot down by a Russian SA-11 Buk crew from the 53rd Air Defence Missile Brigade of the Russian military. It was obvious from the outset that this plane was shot down by the Russians, given the immediate claims by Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine on social media (before they realized it was an airliner instead of a Ukrainian transport plane) and the videos of an SA-11 coming to the area of the shooting and departing minus one missile later that same day. But to Pozner this was ‘bad journalism’ and a sign that the US was just looking for enemies in the Russians. Truth hurts apparently.
The Western criticism of Russia’s anti-gay legislation is unfair, because nobody is arrested or killed in Russia for homosexual propaganda, unlike countries like India where it is illegal and you can go to jail, but nobody criticizes India. The difference, which he fails to point out, is that in places like India, as bad as it is, it is a standalone issue, whereas in Russia it is a part of an integrated government control effort. He noted that the problem, apparently, is that Russian look like Westerners, so the West expects them to act the part. This is not really true though, since the West (which is generally understood to include countries like Japan and South Korea) also expects any other country to act according to commonly-accepted 21st century rules of behaviour, albeit with regional peculiarities. Also, for someone who lived so long in the US, he must have missed the fact that Americans (a land of immigrants from everywhere) don’t all look like Russians, including the current American President.
He went into a short selective history of the USSR to show how rough times were then, noting that people sacrificed in the hopes that future generations would live better. Also made a few Soviet jokes at their expense to establish his credentials.
He upfront made it clear that the US did not like the USSR or Russia, noting how US school kids practiced ducking under their desks in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack, and how the US treated them as the enemy. Of course unstated was that the Soviets did precisely the same thing at that time and even had dedicated political training.
Pozner mentioned that today the way of thinking about Russia in the UK is much like in earlier times when a certain Fletcher had written about the often bad peculiarities of Russia. He went on to say that it seemed that they today believed it to be much the same as what Fletcher wrote, as an example of how the West do not care to understand Russia. The person he was referring to was Giles Fletcher, who was the British envoy to the Russian court in 1588, and who returned having written a critical book about the Tsar, the aristocracy there, and the average Russian. In actuality many of his observations were spot on, and are still absolutely relevant today.
Importantly, he said that in 1962 the USSR and Cuba made an agreement that was fully legal under international law to install Soviet missiles in Cuba, but the US used illegal means to prevent their emplacement. He said to remember this point, since it would be important later in the talk (about Ukraine). (Actually it can be argued that Cuba was nothing more than a Soviet satellite, so not really a sovereign country in any agreement.)
His first major lie was the typical Russian one used again and again. He noted that when Gorbachev agreed to reunification of Germany after the Berlin Wall fell, that the US agreed that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO. He said that after 1991 the West rationalized the expansion (which didn’t start till 1997) by saying the agreement was with the USSR, which no longer existed. This is patently false. Numerous participants of the talks note that the only agreement was that NATO would not post any non-NATO troops in the former East Germany. I was privy to some of the negotiation information at the time and that is indeed true. In fact, given that the Warsaw Pact still existed then as well as the USSR, nobody could have envisioned a case where NATO would advance to the east, which was all still under Soviet control. Gorbachev himself said in an October 2014 Russian interview, when asked about this alleged agreement, that ‘The topic of “NATO expansion” was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a singe Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either. Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces from the alliance would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement, mentioned in your question, was made in that context.’ So the only agreement was to not station non-German troops in the former GDR. Nothing about not expanding NATO, which in any case was done at the behest of the countries that had been under the Soviets for decades, and did not want to be in that position again. The US and NATO for years tried to hold them at arms’ length and offer things like the Partnership for Peace Programme instead, though they clammored for the real deal. But in any case, this disingenuous Russian disinformation invention is still getting mileage today.
He notes Russia is fearful of NATO expansion. As for installing missiles in eastern Europe, who is NATO trying to protect from—North Korea, or Iran, or Kosovo? (Actually the interceptors in question are anti-missile missiles—not offensive—and have only a range of a few hundred miles so cannot remotely come close to Russian ICBMs launched on a polar trajectory.)
He noted that Russia will not allow NATO into Ukraine (or Ukraine to be in NATO), even if Ukraine wants that. Therefore, Pozner was openly saying that Russia does not care what a sovereign country wants. It is not allowed to decide what it wants. (But in any case, there has been no serious talk of Ukraine being in NATO—at least not in the next decades.)
He said Russia had mentioned in the 1990s that there should be a new security organization to replace NATO but that the US refused the offer. I never heard of this, though in the 90s NATO did mention a few times maybe that Russia should think about joining NATO, but Moscow always refused. In this context, he said it was odd that NATO rejected Russian membership, and then in a sarcastic voice said that NATO did accept countries like Poland, Romania, and a host of other eastern European countries he named, which got hearty laughter from the mainly nationalistic young Russian audience, showing their true colours of thinking that these former eastern European satellite states are some kind of pathetic trash. Untermenschen. Very telling, and disturbing, giving that they are supposed to be getting an education at one of the top universities in the world known for free thought (vice blind nationalism and belittling ‘inferior’ nations).
He continued that Russia believes it is a great power with a mission, but was treated as a third-rate country after the fall of the USSR, while the US went about doing things unilaterally, such as bombing Serbia and carving out Kosovo, which he contends is no different thant Crimea or Abkhazia. These are blatant lies, as in the 90s the US and West were looking for a partner in Russia, and more recently with Obama’s ‘reset’, which Moscow took to be a sign of weakness so worthy of despising). The actions in the former Yugoslavia were taken with UNSC resolutions which largely (but not totally) covered the actions, which were not vetoed by Russia, which easily could have. They are also totally different than the cases of Crimea and Abkhazia, as the Serbs, backed by Russia, had an establiehed track record of being the worst in an area of bad actors, who had committed mass murders in Croatia and Bosnia, and were moving on to Kosovo. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Crimea were not under threat from anyone, and Russia’s actions there were fully unilateral, and rammed through at world-record speed.
He continued from the fall of the USSR and the dismal 1990s to the rise of Putin, who created the power vertical, got the oligarchs under control (except for Khodorkovsky, who he claimed refused to get out of politics—not quite, since his ‘crime’ was actually calling out some shady Rosneft takeover deals he did not realise Putin was involved in), and rebuilt the country. This led to Putin’s (in)famous Munich conference speech in 2007 when he proclaimed Russia’s greatness and set up the break from the West.
On this point, Pozner noted that Russians do not need things like democracy, liberal thought, or concepts like freedom of speech and even foreign travel—all they need is the greatness and stability and protection Putin provides. His inference is that Russians are not as shallow as Westerners who need these comforts and vague concepts. He claimed that there was no grassroots anti-US/anti-Western feeling in the Soviet Union, but there is a lot of it now in Russia (and of course it is the West’s fault).
Moving to current times, he wondered what the use of sanctions was, since they do not hurt Putin and the top people—only regular Russians, who see them as unjust (though he later contradicted himself saying sanctions are not effective). He claimed they only make Putin stronger and increase his support. He said sanctions are an ‘ill-advised policy that will lead to the opposite’ (like what? Russia invading Ukraine or hating the US? It already has and does).
On the subject of Ukraine, he claimed Ukraine is part of Russia and has been since the 1600s (off and on parts were, but this was territorial land-grabbing, and Ukraine was part of Poland for centuries previously and parts were historically under Greek control longer than any other), and that the Ukrainian language is nearly the same as Russian (which it is not, since Ukrainian has as much in common with Polish as it does with Russian, and most Russians have a hard time deciphering a lot of Ukrainian text).
He then used a bizarre example to show what Russia is feeling. Imagine, he said, if there was a revolution in Mexico, and afterwards it was feeling worried about the US, so let troops from a foreign country take up positions on the Mexican-US border. This ridiculous example has nothing to do with reality. The Maidan revolution got rid of a murderous kleptocrat and his government, who happened to be in Russia’s pocket. There was no talk of Ukraine joining NATO, or foreign troops being permanently based in Ukraine. In fact, the Yanukovych opposition had long contended that his 2010 agreement with Russia on extending the Black Sea Fleet’s basing in Crimea for decades was a violation of the Ukrainian Constitution, which forbids permanent basing of foreign troops in Ukraine.
He claimed we all get our ideas from TV and media, which is largely true, especially in a place like Russia where there is no real non-state version of ‘reality’ in the media.
During his actual talk, he did not touch at all on the Russian annexation of Crimea, invasion of Ukraine, or even the fact that this was the basis of the current sanctions. He just left most things in a vacuum, with no context, which is the regular Russian disinformation method. When question time came, he just got some benign queries from mostly Russian students wanting to know things like whether it was worth going back to Russia after graduation (to which he said of course it should be considered, since no matter how well you speak English you will not be accepted as British).
During one question on patriotism, he compared the Russian variant (which he admitted was based on negatives, such as everyone is ganging up on poor Russia) with that in the US. He mentioned how over the years he noticed that at all professional sports events in the US, they are preceded by the singing of the national anthem with everyone standing and ‘putting their hand over where their heart is supposed to be.’ This again drew big nationalistic laughter from the room (the heartless Americans apparently). This was so cheap and Soviet in a way, but normal for Putin’s Russia. But it was right in a way, since the US version of patriotism is shallow, because we just don’t do the aggressive nationalism thing the way the Russians do.
On the Nemtsov murder, he called it a tragedy (as does everyone), but the question is ‘why’. He said that Putin had nothing to gain since Nemtsov had a tiny following like the rest of the opposition, so it would make no sense. He said Putin is calculating, so why would he decide to kill him. But he suggested a nebulous ‘party of war’ might want to, whoever that might be. This was straight from the Kremlin playbook and could have been said word for word by Putin’s spokesman Peskov. It also ignores the fact that Putin is vindictive and seemingly does things merely to get back at his enemies, big and small. After all, he had people like Litvinenko and Politkovskaya (and many others—mainly journalists) murdered, even though they were just minor irritants, and invaded Ukraine leading to the devastation of the Russian economy. So yes, the question is ‘why’, but there is no good answer when dealing with a fascist sociopath like Putin.
One question was on whether Russia should fear NATO or economic collapse more. Naturally, per Pozner, Russians will put up with any economic woes, the US is responsible for inflation in Russia, people don’t care about imported goods (since most he said are not privileged and hence do not buy all these imported things), and ‘Russia says go to Hell’. It will never give Ukraine or Crimea back, so he said, and NATO is the worse threat. He noted that NATO is already on the borders with Russia in Estonia and Lithuania, ignoring the fact that for the entire Cold War the US, in the form of Alaska, Norway, and Turkey were on the USSR’s borders, and also apparently forgetting that Poland—another of his despised former satellite shit countries—also borders Kaliningrad.
He claimed things are better in Russia now under Putin and that citizens do not care about criticizing the government. They don’t care about such rights or freedom of speech.
In sum, for a guy who said he would not represent any viewpoint in particular, he represented Putin’s entirely, though far smoother than someone like chief Kremlin TV propagandist Kiselev who is a blatant liar and does not pretend to build any credentials to show how ‘neutral’ he is. Though Pozner noted at the start that he had three citizenships (US, French, and Russian), he represented only one and constantly referred to ‘we’ and ‘us’, as in threats to ‘us’. It was clear where he stood and for whom.
His talk in a few sentences: Russia is being encircled, NATO is on its borders with its missiles and whatnot, and Russians will sacrifice what they have to in order to keep this enemy at bay. This mentality is so 19th century, but so Russian. It has to have an enemy on its doorstep, because for some odd reason it seems that everyone wants Russia. Oh, and Ukraine is Russia and must do what Russia tells it to do.