American ignorance now drives its Russia policy — Analysis

The current US Russia expertise is being distorted by politics. This distorts the fact-based analysis.

US once produced experts like Jack Matlock on Soviet and Russian affairs. We have Michael McFaul and others. It is the result of a decline in interest and intellectual laziness by the average American citizen.

On February 21, Russia’s President Vladmir Putingave what will most likely go down in history as one of the most important speeches in modern history. The speech was brutally truthful and showed how history shapes current events. What is important about this speech isn’t so much the content–that is now part of the historical record–but rather how it was absorbed and interpreted by those who watched it.

As an American imbued with more than a little first-hand insight into Russian affairs, I have been struck by the inability of the American people to comprehend the historical foundation of Putin’s speech. I am not qualified to defend or attack the Russian president’s details. However, it is my hope that citizens can engage in informed, rational and intelligent discussions about this speech given its immense geopolitical consequences.

Unfortunately, Americans are not well-equipped for such an endeavor because of their lack of both intelligence training and critical resources. Instead, they have subordinated this task to a category of public servant known as the “Russian expert.” Under normal circumstances, one might find the existence of such a class a relief; after all, Americans are willing to entrust their financial security to “financial managers.” Why not surrender the intellectual machinations required to make sense of something as complex as Russian affairs and all that topic entails to the hands of the specialists, men and women schooled in the history, economy, culture, and language of Russia?

This isn’t the first time Americans have been called upon to entrust critical Russia-related analysis and the decision-making derived therefrom to so-called “experts.” From 1945 through 1991 the US and Soviet Union were engaged in a massive geopolitical conflict known as the Cold War. My eyewitness was to the events leading to the fall of the Soviet Union and to an address that, while not as memorable as Vladimir Putin’s, it had its moments.

As a US inspector, my second week was June 28th 1988. I was dispatched to Votkinsk (roughly 700 miles) in the Ural Mountains, as part of an advanced party. Together with Soviet colleagues, our job was to organize the preparations for receiving the main group of 25 inspectors, which arrived in Kiev on July 1st 1988. That’s when portal monitoring operations began. It happened a month following the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). To ensure that the Soviets did not produce ballistic missiles, the treaty mandated task would be completed. We will begin monitoring the Votkinsk Missile Final Assembly Plant’s activities on that date. The plant is 12km from Votkinsk.

Thirty years on, I miss the ‘Evil Empire’

In the forest on the outskirts, the Dacha was a place where the advance party could be accommodated. This Dacha was designed to host Dmitry Ustinov (former Minister of Defense) and his entourage on their many visits to Votkinsk. The Dacha had a well-equipped kitchen, a pool table, as well as a lounge area where you could view Soviet television. My Soviet hosts assembled around the television screen in surprise on June 28th. Mikhail Gorbachev (General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) convened the 19th All-Union Conference of the CPSU that evening. At first blush, I gave the event no thought–just another communist party “yes” fest with officials falling over each other in fawning admiration of a totalitarian leader. To one of my hosts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I also said so.

You couldn’t be further from the truth,” he replied. “It’s a revolutionary idea!

Over the following three days, when I was not working, I joined my Soviet host as they watched the unfolding of history. Gorbachev was introducing real reform–perestroika–to the Soviet people. His deputy Yegor Ligachev from the communist party was challenging him, as well as reformers in Boris Yeltsin. It had become an ideological battlefield where, for the first-time in Soviet history, the fate of the Soviet Union was being determined live in front of its citizens.

If you had asked the average American citizen about the importance of the 19th All-Union Party Conference at the time it transpired, they wouldn’t have been able to provide an intelligent answer. Even though the Soviet Union had been elevated to the status of an “Evil Empire” with which the US was prepared to engage in all-out nuclear war to constrain, the American public at that time, much like their counterparts today, was satisfied to leave the heavy thinking in the hands of a class of civil servant, the ‘Soviet expert’ who would monitor the situation and advise the political leadership, and, as needed, the public.

Among those who constituted this ‘Soviet expert’ class were a category of military officers known as ‘Soviet Foreign Affairs Officers,’ or FAOs. Provided with advanced linguistic training and graduate-level education before attending a year-long finishing school, the US Army Russia Institute, located in Garmisch, West Germany, a Soviet FAO was a subject-matter expert whose mission was to provide critical insight to policy makers about Soviet issues and, as needed, carry out specific military tasks–such as implementing the INF treaty.

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Votkinsk was the scene of the live show that showed how different civilian and Soviet FAO were. The advance party consisted of five persons–three military officers (two FAO-qualified and me) and two civilian civil engineers. When the work was completed and the television switched on at night, the advance party consisted of five people: two civilian civil engineers reading books or playing pool, with the three military officers fixed to the set.

Over the course of the next two years, I bore witness to two critical events transpiring in parallel–the implementation of the INF treaty, and the implementation of perestroika. Each played a significant role in the shaping of events that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. We were both Soviet-trained experts and could provide crucial insight to the perestroika phenomenon in the Soviet Union’s hinterlands. Our education in Russian history and politics from an American university, which had been trained for this purpose since the Second World War, was what enabled us to be successful.

Together with the US Intelligence Community and State Department, the Soviet FAO were beneficiaries of an education system that had experienced an increase in Russian Area Studies in the Second World War. This was when the Soviet Union could be considered an ally. However, this was only after war was over and it was no longer possible to maintain academic integrity despite ideological pressures to portray the Soviet Union as a bad actor.

Richard Pipes is one of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon. He was a well-known American academic, who studied Soviet history and advised several US presidents on Soviet policy matters. Pipes was clearly anti-Soviet and his advice was distinctly hardline. Pipes’ writings were however based on historical facts that had been properly analysed and scrutinized. His book, The formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and nationalism, 1917-1923, was mandatory reading for any student of Russian studies (indeed, it should be mandatory reading today, given the correlation between its subject matter and the content of Putin’s February 21 speech.) I have a first-edition copy of Pipe’s book in my personal library, and I have made extensive use of it over the years as I try to discern what is transpiring inside the former Soviet Union, and why.

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Every one of my Soviet ‘expert’ counterparts was a byproduct of an American system of education designed to empower those who participated with critical fact-based discernment skills, capable of separating fact from fiction and filtering out personal and institutional bias. The result was a system that produced people like Jack Matlock, the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union during its final years, and George Kolt, the CIA’s top Soviet analyst. They will be remembered for their prediction of the fall of the Soviet Union. However, experts are often held responsible by domestic politicians.

But the Cold War brought about the demise of the Soviet expert as well as the educational establishments that made them. To give an example, two classified commendations were given to me by Director, CIA for my work with the Soviet Union. But in 1992, after being invited to CIA Headquarters to interview for an analytical position, I was told by the head of the new Russia analytical unit that I was too imbued with “Cold War” thinking; the world had moved on.

Russia became a playground for a new category of ‘expert,’ the political and economic ‘exploiter’ who viewed Russia as a defeated power subject to the whim of the American victor. This class was dominated by the likes of Michael McFaul and his ilk, people who viewed Boris Yeltsin not as the by-product of Soviet and Russian history, but rather a malleable tool in their effort to transform Russia into a compliant “democracy” subservient to their new American masters.

Russian-area studies stopped being the go-to major when it came to interacting with the former Soviet Union, replaced by business and economics degrees sought by people whose purpose wasn’t to understand Russia but rather to exploit it.Interest in Russian studies dwindled, a byproduct of a decline in interest and numbers, in terms of graduate students and faculty. Moreover, the system became infected by the reality of “garbage in, garbage out”: as the old Cold War Soviet specialists were retired from their posts in academia, they were not replaced by people possessing similar academic discipline, but rather a new generation of academics governed more by political perception than fact-based reality. Michael McFaul, who was driven not by Russia’s complicated history but rather his personal vision of Russia, comes to mind.

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It is the Michael McFauls of the world who dominate the mainstream media today, people whose academic pronouncements are in keeping with government-approved dogma and, as such, sympathetic to the media corporate executives who work hand-in-glove with the government to spoon-feed what passes for “objective truth” to the American people. Jack Matlock continues to write on Russian affairs. His articles provide a refreshing, fact-based view of the current events in Russia. A public debate between he and McFaul would be most welcome by those who truly seek insight into what is happening in Russia (I consider myself a student of Ambassador Matlock, and if he is not able to throw down the gauntlet of debate, I am–consider the challenge made, Mr. Ambassador!)

Americans are not being served well by the Russian expert class, to which they have delegated intellectual analysis of Russian affairs. The average American citizen may take note of the rising gasoline prices and shrinking paychecks due to inflation. However, by then it’ll be too late. 

Vladimir Putin’s speech of February 21, just like Mikhail Gorbachev’s address at the 19th All-Union Party Conference in June 1988, should be viewed and assessed with expert eyes, trained to discern fact-based intent and relevance. In 1988 this was possible and the Soviet Union fell. We are not facing this today. In fact, we might find ourselves deep within a conflict we don’t understand or for which no solution other than war.     

Statements, opinions and views expressed in this column do not reflect those of RT.



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