Marvin Kalb: Putin, Ukraine and the New Cold War

Marvin Kalb: Putin, Ukraine and the New Cold War

Wednesday, November 4, 2015
Taubman 275

November 4, 2015 — Marvin Kalb, Shorenstein Center founding director and former moderator of “Meet the Press,” discussed the current relationship between Russia, Ukraine, and the U.S., placing the situation within a larger historical context.

Kalb was inspired to write his latest book, Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War, after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which he said “fit into a pattern of Russian history that I had been studying for many, many decades.”

“Vladimir Putin is a very interesting figure,” said Kalb. “He is supremely self-confident. He feels that he is in a historical line going back to the Tsars, and including people like Stalin during the Soviet period.” Putin cared little about what the rest of the world thought regarding Crimea, said Kalb. “He needed something to galvanize a nationalistic upsurge within Russia, and Crimea was the best of them all. Crimea was proclaimed to be Russian in 1783 by Catherine the Great…so he took it, and the idea of Ukraine followed.”

Kalb traced the timeline of Putin’s military actions against Ukraine, placing them within the context of his previous actions and the history of the region.

“Putin is terrified of demonstrations that he did not organize,” said Kalb, a characteristic that goes back to his days in the KGB during the East German uprisings against Communist rule in the late 1980s.

In Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, people protested in the streets against election fraud, but Putin did not send in the army, as he “decided that he would live with it, so long as he could continue to control the political process from within, which he was able to do using politicians from the eastern part of Ukraine,” who were sympathetic to Russia.

But by November 2013, there was “a buildup in Kiev…of a powerful nationalism.” Ukrainians “were speaking of themselves, really for the first time in their history, as an independent country, and they wanted to be recognized as independent.” This was unusual, said Kalb, as Ukraine had always either been formally or informally a part of Russia until 1991, and even after that, was ruled by an oligarchy, suffered from corruption, and was subject to Russian influence.

“He would not allow the idea of democracy as it was unfolding in Kiev to spill over the border into Russia,” said Kalb. Once the 2014 Sochi Olympics were over, Putin sent the army into Crimea and then into the southeastern part of Ukraine.

“Starting on September 1, Putin made up his mind that he wasn’t getting very far with this operation, but he had, within his world, won his little war in Ukraine,” said Kalb. “He never had to occupy all of it, didn’t want to…What he needed was the opportunity to stop and control the political and economic life of that country, and that is what he has effectively been able to do.” Kalb predicted that “it’s going to take another generation or two…before Ukraine can become a standup, functioning state.” Short of a Gorbachev-like figure, Kalb was not optimistic that future leaders would be sympathetic to a truly independent Ukraine.

Regarding the United States’ involvement, Kalb said “There is an unrealistic sense of what is happening in Ukraine – there is an exaggerated sense that democracy can be picked up so easily, there is a dismissal of Russia just as an evil power…it was easy for this country to fall back into a kind of Cold War mentality rather than to deal with the reality.”

Putin “is not that much of a mystery,” said Kalb. “The guy talks constantly.” If Western leaders had “read” Putin and had a better understanding of Russian history, they likely would have been less surprised about his actions in Ukraine, said Kalb. Putin had said previously that the “great tragedy” of the disintegration of the Soviet Union was that “26 million Russians suddenly found themselves in foreign countries.” Kalb also referenced a 2014 Brookings Institution memo that predicted “a Russian move” after the Sochi Olympics.

“It was there for people who had no clearance to look at secret documents. You just had to open your eyes, read, and appreciate the value of history, and try to place current leaders within their historical context.”

Kalb also spoke more about U.S. diplomacy and military actions, Russia-China relations, Putin’s advisors, and sanctions. Listen to the full audio recording above.

Article and photo by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.

Cosponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.