Russia and the World

About this Episode

Guests
Stephen Norris, Gerry Hudson

In recent years, Russia has gained prominence on the world stage. From hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, to regional interventions, to allegations of interference in foreign elections, the country's international activities suggest that its leadership is on a mission to shape world affairs. But what exactly does Russia want? And how does this compare to its ambitions in the past? In this episode of History Talk, hosts Jessica Blissit and Brenna Miller talk to two experts—Stephen Norris and Gerry Hudson—about the Russian perspective on world affairs and the role that power, prestige, and influence play in shaping the country's foreign objectives.

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Cite this Site

Jessica Viñas-Nelson, Brenna Miller , "Russia and the World" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
June, 2017
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/russia-and-world?language_content_entity=en.
June, 2017

Transcript

Jessica Blissit 

Welcome to History Talk, the podcast that brings together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host, Jessica Blissit.

 

Brenna Miller 

And I'm your other host, Brenna Miller. In recent months, Russia, and Russian influence in particular, has dominated the news.

 

Jessica Blissit 

From regional interventions to hacking to allegations of interference in elections, Russia seems on a mission to shape world affairs. But what exactly are Russia's goals? How does Russia see its role in the world? And how does this compare to its ambitions in the past?

 

Brenna Miller 

Today on History Talk, we speak to two experts on the history of Russia's role in the world and what the country's goals are today.

 

Jessica Blissit 

With us today, we have Gerry Hudson, Ohio State University Mershon Center associate, instructor of political science at OSU, and professor emeritus of political science at Wittenberg University, specializing in Russian politics and Russian foreign policy.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Nice to be here.

 

Brenna Miller 

And also with us by phone, we have Dr. Steve Norris, Professor of History and the interim director of Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University in Ohio.

 

Stephen Norris     

Hello, thanks for having me on.

 

Brenna Miller 

Thank you for joining us today, both of you. So our first question we'd like to direct to you, Steve. Russia has a very long history, from the imperial era through the Soviet Union and today's post-Soviet society. What have Russia's goals in the world been for the past two centuries and how have they changed?

 

Stephen Norris     

That's a very good question. One I could go on and on forever about it, I suppose. But I'll start by saying it's important to avoid determinism. That is to say that the same thing has been happening in Russia and that Russia's goals have remained the same for the past two centuries. But it's still possible to trace what one historian once called "persistent factors" in Russian foreign policy and in government policy over the last two centuries. And in the former, the case of Russian foreign policy, certainly ambition and status as an imperial power matters. And in the latter, that is government policy, a strong stable state matters. And those two policies often intersect in important ways. Over the last two centuries, Russia has had three episodes of relatively brief greatness in the world. The first is Peter the Great's....actually, the last three centuries, Peter the Great's victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War, which made Russia into a European power and into a northern European power. The second, the Alexander the First's victory over Napoleon. And then the third most recent is Stalin's victory over Hitler. I should also add that, while I'm ascribing that to leaders, that, of course, Russian troops, Russians, Soviet peoples contributed these victories. What that means, though, is I think there's a misperception of the last two centuries about Russia's greatness. Those are relatively brief periods that Russia had significance. It's been Russia, something of a relatively weak, great power, but one where its leaders desire great power status and to be treated like a great power. I think that's one of the recurring themes and recurring desires of the last two centuries. The other thing I'd say in response to this question, I did preface it by saying I could go on and on, change is the one constant in history, but there has been evolution. We can talk about persistent factors, but they always morph. Two centuries ago, or even three, four centuries ago, Russia, when it emerged on the global stage when did the Orthodox Empire over the course of the nineteenth century, was much more desirous of being a pan-Slavic empire than, of course, most recently a communist empire, with global ambitions, and then presently, something of a Eurasian power.

 

Brenna Miller 

Gerry, would you like to add?

 

Gerry Hudson 

I particularly like his characterization of Russia being a weak, large power. There's been at least the perception of Russian power, and when we come down to today, has been much, much greater than it in fact is. When I served in the Pentagon for one year, I was in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for one year as the one Soviet analyst in the entire Office of the Secretary. But what was interesting was that when you sort of tapped the expertise in the building, people who were supposed to be formulating policy towards the USSR, the USSR was ten feet tall. I mean, it was this kind of looming mass ready to assault the United States and U.S. interests. And the result was, you know, obviously, the Cold War, and both sides could bring some pretty concrete evidence to bear about why the other might not wish it well. But nevertheless, I think even down until now, we have this sort of exaggeration of how strong Russia is.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Well, that's a great transition to our next question. What are Russia's current foreign policy goals in the world? How do these goals line up with Russia's long-term international agenda?

 

Gerry Hudson 

It's really interesting to try to boil that down. Steve really encapsulated that Russia wants mutual kind of respect. It wants to be handled as an equal partner in the world, particularly equal to that of the United States. It wants non-interference in its politics inside. Those are three basic goals that Russia would like. And it's frustrated because people aren't treating it as an equal power, and appears to me, at least, to be reacting. It's a very reactive policy. Rather than sort of initiating things, it reacts. Putin appears to be a very pragmatic politician when it comes to foreign policy. And he responds to events, doesn't initiate a lot. For instance, in Syria, obviously the Obama administration wasn't going to get involved there. And so he was able to actually commit some Russian forces to that conflict. And it's not the response of a strong, huge, strong superpower, really, it's a very kind of careful, relatively risk-free approach to international relations.

 

Stephen Norris     

Yeah, I agree. I think you could see some of the major actions recently of Russia, and Putin in particular, as reactive even in Ukraine and Crimea, certainly in Syria, as Jerry alluded to. To go back to the original question and to add to what Gerry said, I really think you can't overestimate enough just how much Russian foreign policy is aims toward recognition and respect, certain status. That is Russia and its leaders want to be treated as a great power. Even if, as I think Gerry and I both agreed, it's been a relatively weak, great power over time, it's still a large one. Here's where size matters and image matters. And I think too, in terms of the goals, the current goals, and how they line up with Russia's long-term international agenda, Putin's 2007 speech in Munich, I think is still a cornerstone here. That's where he gave a speech, I can't remember exactly to the body, but all the European leaders were there. And he really criticized what he called the U.S. monopoly in the globe and the U.S. monopoly in using international force. I think he characterized it as a hyper use of force in the world. And he lamented the unipolar world that he saw as existing at that point, and really wanted to break that, make it a more multipolar world with more people participating. And at the end of that speech, it was a widely reported speech, he reminded listeners that Russia had a 1000-year history, that Russia had always had its own independent foreign policy, and he wanted to recapture that. And I think if we look back, that's ten years now, that's been the essence of Putin's foreign policy agenda.

 

Brenna Miller 

So are Russia's foreign policy goals today primarily the result of the views of President Vladimir Putin alone? Or does it seem that these are part of this longer tradition of Russian geopolitics? And then also, are these goals ever shaped by domestic issues? Or are they primarily reactions to events that are taking place on the global scale?

 

Stephen Norris     

Well, certainly Russia's foreign policies aren't the result of Putin alone, and in a couple of important ways. I mean, first of all, it's always important to remind ourselves of something we learned or thought we learned during the Cold War, Russian leaders, Soviet leaders don't act alone. They do have advisors. Putin's foreign policy advisors, ministers of Foreign Affairs have been very influential. Sergey Lavrov is, of course, extremely influential now. I also think, too, it's in the way that Putin's been depicted in recent works that are quite good ones. Here, I'm thinking particularly of Mikhail Zygar's book, All the Kremlin's Men. Putin's almost an accidental king surrounded by a Medici-like court. And it's also at the same time, this may sound contradictory, but it isn't, or at least I don't think so, Putin has managed to build a strong state where personal rule can thrive and therein lies the conundrum. Putin has a lot of power. He's the only feasible ruler in Russia. He certainly sets the agenda, but he does have advisors and listens to them. The question about whether or not Russian foreign policy is aimed at domestic, I think, absolutely. Under Putin, we've seen in Russia a rise of patriotism. Putin actually called patriotism, "The Russian Idea," the Russian national idea, certainly a rise of nationalism. And if we think about actions in Crimea and in Syria, ones that Gerry referenced, those are as much domestic oriented as international oriented. They have an international audience too. But they're meant to supplement, to build up this notion of patriotism, that is Russia's acting patriotically, Russia and Putin are acting in the tradition of a 1000 year tradition of Russian history. I just maybe point out one particular episode, those of us who follow Russia probably followed the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which was the the only aircraft carrier in the Russian fleet that was sent on this big mission through the North Sea all the way to help out in Syria. Experts, of course, all agree that it accomplished absolutely nothing in terms of its military objective. But it accomplished quite a lot in terms of its PR objectives. It was on the Russian news a lot. It was seen as Russia acting, that sailors on board were helping in Syria, and it was retired officially after its Syrian mission and greeted with all these state affairs. Everyone got medals, there was a big ceremony for the Admiral Kuznetsov.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Yeah, right. The Kuznetsov is a really interesting case study. To put it rather clearly, it's really kind of a rust bucket. It can't sail anywhere without a couple of repair tugs along with it. When it was retired, it was retired, not because it had done such a good job, as Steve mentioned quite correctly, but because it really just couldn't operate very well anymore. They had several accidents of aircraft trying to take off from it. And here's another point. We in the West, we talk about perceptions. We in the West look at this and it was talked about in our best newspapers, like the New York Times, like, "Oh, the Russians have an aircraft carrier there." And of course, when we think aircraft carrier, we think these enormous vessels that can carry 90 planes and have 6000 sailors on them. The Kuznetsov actually carries about nine and it can have about 3000 sailors on it. But it really didn't do very much and was able to operate the way it did off of Syria only because there was no countervailing force to prevent it.

 

Stephen Norris     

I think that's the important thing. I mean, it's worth noting too, the Admiral Kuznetsov, one thing it would became infamous for, even in Russia in terms of means, was it still operates on diesel fuel, so it turned up with enormous black smoke, which made it look like it was breaking down and in fact further reinforces the idea that it is this big tub of, you know, a bucket of almost rusting screws. But it was incredibly significant as a PR exercise, as kind of proving that Russia is doing something in an area, as Gerry said, when it seemed as though no one was able to do anything.

 

Gerry Hudson 

And very much, the U.S. media and the Western media has aided and abetted. It appeared that here's Russian might. When we take a look at sort of standard measures of international power, Russia doesn't stack up very well, except for the fact, of course, that it's a nuclear power. But when we take a look at economic power, conventional military power, manpower, and put this in the context of Russia's geographical vulnerability, you've got a country that only appears to be strong, but really, at least by many measures, is objectively quite weak.

 

Jessica Blissit 

One of the more prominent recent actions of Russia was in Crimea, and its involvement in the civil war in Ukraine, these were viewed as a big change in Russia's assertiveness in the world. Why was Russia so aggressive in taking Crimea? What is the longer-term relationship between Russia and Ukraine? And was the Crimean takeover an actual shift in Russian policymaking? Gerry?

 

Gerry Hudson 

Actually, my thesis would be that the taking of Crimea was just kind of a reactive event. It was there. Putin was feeling besieged. It was easy. My goodness, it was easy, Crimea. I mean, the little green men, these are the Russian troops without insignias on them, simply walked in and took over. It was pretty easy, because the population there, I think is about 60% Russian, and there were a lot of sympathizers there. So when the little green men showed up, it was pretty much over.

 

Stephen Norris     

Just quickly to build on what Gerry said, I think if in part the Crimean annexation was reactive in the sense that it was Putin's response, whether we agree with it or not, a decisive response, at least in the way it was packaged to the Russians, to the Euromaidan Crisis in Ukraine, which is something Putin fears quite a lot. And also, even more specifically, it happened right after the Sochi Olympics. And if we think about that episode of the Admiral Kuznetsov, Putin very much wanted the Sochi Olympics to kind of be a calling card, a new announcement of Russia's might, its ability to put on a great show. Personally, he was quite offended by the way in which often the Sochi Olympics ahead of this time was mocked in the Western media, all the reports of toilets not working in the apartments, so on and so forth, the snowflake that didn't open up in the opening ceremonies. So in a sense, this was Putin acting and reacting to those perceptions. Now, the longer-term history, as Gerry alluded to, is an intense one, a very long complicated one. I'll just hit a couple points. One, there's kind of a mystic way that Crimea operates in the Russian consciousness that goes back all the way to Kievan Rus, the first civilization built in that area of the world. And even more specifically, Crimea is where supposedly Prince Vladimir, who adopted orthodoxy as the state religion in Kievan Rus, was baptized in Crimea, so there's this sense that the heart of Russian civilization, the heart of Slavic civilization, not only is in that part of the world, but even more specifically in the Crimean penninsula. More recently, to jump ahead hundreds of years, Crimea, of course, once it was annexed by Catherine the Great and became part of the Russian Empire, was home to the Imperial Russian Navy in Sevastopol. And of course, we all know, or we should know, the Crimean War, fought between 1854 and 1856, where Sevastopol was bombarded, and where again, in the Russian national consciousness, even though they lost the war in Russia afterwards, the heroic defenders of Sevastopol became widely known, widely admired, widely promoted as examples of true Russianness. And then again, during World War Two, Crimea was bombarded, Sevastopol was bombarded, so there's this multilayered history where it's about sacrifice, it's about faith, it's about intimate connections, or at least perceived intimate connections to this long thousand-year history of Russia. I will add here too, Constantine Pleshakov has written a recent book called, The Crimean Nexus, and my favorite chapter in it is where he describes Crimea almost as a fetish in the Russian imagination. And it's a fetish in multiple ways. It's a place of sacrifice, it's a place of beauty, and it appeals to virtually anyone in Russia, whether you're on the left or right of the political spectrum. And so that was, as Gerry said, it was kind of an easy decision, and easy, reactive decision for Putin to annex it. It played well at home.

 

Gerry Hudson 

It sure did. Well over 80%, 85% maybe of the populace approved of taking Crimea, and that just proves Steve's point.

 

Stephen Norris     

There was part of the question that was asked about whether it marked a change and in many ways no, because Russia had done something similar, for similar reasons, in 2008, in Georgia, to reincorporate peoples that had a historic affinity, at least in the way Putin pitched it toward the Russian state over time, and to counteract Western encroachment in the form of NATO expansion, possible NATO expansion into Georgia. And that also, this five-day war with Georgia was popular, played well at home, has still kind of bequeathed an unsettled situation in Georgia. There's lots of parallels there. So actually 2014 in Ukraine and Crimea is a kind of echo of 2008.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Yeah.

 

Stephen Norris     

In Georgia, South Ossetia.

 

Brenna Miller 

Well, let's turn a little bit now to Russia's relationship to the West. One of the prominent themes in Russian history has been its relationship with the West. So Stephen, would you be able to describe that relationship and whether it's changed over time? And then how do Russians view the West today?

 

Stephen Norris     

Yeah, another big question I could talk a lot about. The short answer is that "Russia," and here, you almost have to put that into quotes, because from all the way back even to the Ivan the Fourth, that is Ivan the Terrible's Muscovy, to the present has always seen the West in one way as a measuring stick, against which to compare the state and Russia, and at the same time, something to be emulated and something to be rejected. And that's a persistent factor, I don't think that has changed in the grand scheme of things over the last two centuries. But of course, it's evolved over time. And I think today, there's almost kind of a chip-on-the-shoulder anger about Western views of Russia, that Russia is not appreciated enough, that its status isn't understood enough, that its history isn't understood well, and I guess what I'm saying is that, presently, we find ourselves in a situation where on the one hand, Russia wants to be seen as part of the West or part of the European order. On the other hand, it wants to be seen as not quite like the West. And that sentiment is a little stronger, the latter one, and part of a new Eurasian order. And the way that that second half of this dual notion of the West in Russian culture is more prominent now is because of this perceived denigration that the West seems to have for Russia. I could give a couple of examples that sprung to my mind while I was talking. One is in terms of Syria, I remember John Kerry reporting that when he got to the table in Vienna, I think it was a talk to Lavrov about Syria, the first thing he was greeted with was the long list of grievances that Russia had in terms of what they thought the West had or hadn't done in relation to Russia, as almost like a festivus, if you watch Seinfeld. I hope listeners out there watch Seinfeld. And that's something that when Rex Tillerson was preparing to go to Russia for the first time, he was he was told, "Expect a long list of grievances." That is how the West has mistreated Russia. The second thing actually sprung to mind because yesterday was D-Day. And I was reading online and other reports, all kinds of reports about D-Day, a significant battle, of course, one my grandfather fought in, but it's always narrated in the West as this decisive turning point in World War Two. I think the Russians feel justifiably aggrieved at that idea, that is it seems as though Stalingrad on the Eastern Front, which were the real turning points in the European theatre of World War Two, are not understood. And that's something that always comes to the table, always comes to the fore, when Russia tries to see itself as part of or not part of the West. The other thing I'd throw in, the current Russian state has inherited a certain view of the West constructed during the Soviet period. And that was one where very clearly, the Soviet Union saw the main enemy of the Soviet Union as the West. It was surrounded by enemies, surrounded by democracies and capitalist countries that were always threatening in the way it was presented to the Soviet public to undermine this attempt to build this utopian socialism. So I think that, again, we don't want to see too strong of a parallel, but that's an important inheritance that I think the current Russian state plays on.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Yeah. And something that just came to my mind also, as you were talking, Steve, is that "The West" from the Russian point of view can be divided into the United States and then Western Europe. And I think part of Russian policy today is to see what kind of activities it can take to sort of split off some of these countries in the Western Alliance from the United States in order to gain influence there. They have done such things as funded Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections. Didn't work out too well, did it? And they've been making overtures towards Italy. They've been working with trying to attract Bulgaria. They've done lots of other things to try to see what they can do to break up the West.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Well, speaking of grievances, Russia seems to play a large role as a villain in the minds of many Americans. Why has Russia come to play this role? Is the Russian-American relationship and antagonisms a result of the Cold War or newer post-Soviet issues?

 

Gerry Hudson 

Well, first of all, Russia seems bad to us. And probably because many people in the United States are still thinking in Cold War terms. And this includes decision makers in Washington, most of whom were brought up during the Cold War. And so they still think of this "Us vs. Them" idea. And so that's one thing, so there's a strong bias there. I'll bet many Americans still think that Russia is a communist country. I know that's shocking.

 

Stephen Norris     

Oh, yeah no, the reference to communism or the Soviets still happens all the time.

 

Gerry Hudson 

I know it, but it's true. I mean, for another reason, there's also been the interference, or attempted interference in the U.S. elections in 2016, as an example of what some people call hybrid warfare, or you can call it nonlinear warfare. I don't like the term warfare because there's no kind of kinetic forces being used anywhere. But Russian cyber power has been brought to bear on the United States. And, as probably our listeners know, there's been a recent leak from a National Security Agency employee that says that Russia actually tried to influence voting machines in the United States, though unsuccessfully, I understand. But I mean, these attempts don't generate very good publicity in the United States. One and two, you've got possible collusion, although I'm not so sure that there's a there yet, but possible collusion between some members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. Again, this may prove to be nothing, we'll just have to wait and see. But all of this generates pretty bad image. And so these are real, real incidences. And I've read the entire report that was put together by the CIA and the FBI and a number of other intelligence agencies. And I'm convinced the Russians tried. But no one should be shocked. What's shocking is that so far, given the evidence that they did try, there has been no national policy coming out to help protect U.S. computers at the federal, state, and local levels.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Steve?

 

Stephen Norris     

Right, so Gerry provided some of the contemporary points. For History Talk listeners, I'll add a little more in terms of the historical context about the way that Russia plays a large role as villain in the minds of many Americans. It's kind of a mix in my mind, just like the Soviets, and even prior to the Soviets, Russian officials, Russian cultural figures built an image of the West as something a little bit different from Russia, but something to be both emulated and feared. It's also true for centuries now the West has built an image of Russia. Once Ivan the Terrible's country opened up and foreign travelers began to go to Russia, they began writing reports that changed very little across time as Russia as this Oriental, despotic Asian country. And those have always been terms saddled on Russia and the Russian state, that it's not really the West, it's not like us. And they always tend to offend many Russians, especially Russian state officials. And then you throw in, as Gerry referenced to, during the Cold War, the way in which the "commies" became the main villain, and that Russia and the Soviet Union were almost synonymous, and that that previous mental historical baggage was brought to bear on the Soviet Union. You have a perfect storm of villainous. And it's also worth noting that in the cultural Cold War, that was incredibly asymmetrical of the geopolitical Cold War, was not always asymmetrical the cultural Cold War was. There were many, many, many more movies, many more books, many more TV series in America that depicted Russians and Soviets as villains than in Russia and the Soviet Union. You know, Rocky IV, Red Dawn, all those sorts of things.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Red Dawn, that was a classic.

 

Stephen Norris     

Yeah, there weren't Soviet parallels to those movies. So you know, we all grew up as the Russians as an enemy or as the Soviets as an enemy. And that sort of built on the previous centuries of baggage about Russia as this Asian, Oriental, exotic, despotic place. And I think it more or less means that today, at least culturally speaking, but also in terms of the way some of the political aspects that Gerry was just talking about, Russia is a safe villain in the eyes of Americans.

 

Brenna Miller 

So we want to make sure that we talk about what I think most of our listeners will probably be wondering about, which is the elections. And so recently, Russia has been accused of meddling in the democratic politics of other countries, most notably the United States and France. So one of the questions that we're curious about is, is there a longer tradition of these types of interventions in foreign politics? Is this just kind of what Russia does? Or is this different or unique? And then what interest does Russia take in foreign elections? And Steve will direct this question to you first.

 

Stephen Norris     

Yeah, I mean, I wrote a piece that will be on Origins, which is kind of your sister website of History Talk. There's shameless self-promotion.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Thank you.

 

Stephen Norris     

About the view of the West constructed in the Soviet period, especially in Soviet political cartoons. And one of the things I discovered in writing that piece, that is the direct answer to your question, is the work of a political scientist at UCLA named Dov Levin, I think his name is Levin. And he actually studied and posited that between 1946 and 2000, the United States and the Soviet Union and Russia interfered in one out of every nine competitive international executive elections, 117 times total. So in other words, it was a part and parcel of the Cold War. And this sort of interference has a wide range, according to Levin. He talks about the way the Soviets gave money to candidates they preferred, one of the typical American ways to interfere was to threaten to withhold aid if a certain person was elected. So that's sort of soft interferences. But it was a fairly typical practice. What's new now is the way that the hacking cyber warfare part of it. And that seems to be more threatening, I think. As far as why it happened, it's just simple foreign policy objectives in democratic elections. If you're Russia or the United States, oftentimes, there are candidates that you would prefer. And in the case of the American election in 2016, meddling or not aside, there's no doubt Russian leaders preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, that's a no-brainer, really, just like they prefer La Pen to Macron in France, because Le Pen and Trump in their pronouncements overlap a lot more with Russian foreign policy objectives. And that's more or less the way it operated during the Cold War too, you certainly saw people that you'd rather have in power, and then if you could do something to influence or interfere in that to bring about that result, that would only help your own foreign policy objectives.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Yes, Steve, it's the breadth and depth of what has just happened, I think that makes it kind of remarkable.

 

Stephen Norris     

It cuts the other way too, that is those 117 interferences. Everyone said, "Wow!" This is Levin's report, because they weren't widely reported. Now we know about these things, or think we know about these things, certainly know about part of these things almost instantly, because of the way things are reported, the 24-hour news cycle, and it produces a greater fear, I think it seems like a greater threat. And it might be, I don't want to suggest that it isn't, that we shouldn't be afraid or shouldn't be worried about Russian interference in elections.

 

Gerry Hudson 

No, nobody should be surprised. But what bothers me, we're repeating what I said before, is that there has been really no effort from the U.S. government to try to stop this stuff from happening. I think what's needed, and I'm going to put a plug in for my own idea here, if you wouldn't mind, is that we need something equivalent to what President Eisenhower did with the interstate highway system, which is kind of a national defense Highway Act, but for the internet. "National Defense Internet Act" from Washington, DC to put significant money towards protecting computer systems in this country. I mean, there is something we can do about this. This is the one way that this relatively weak power, Russia has been able to exert influence and cause consternation, obviously. But there are defenses against this. It's not like we just sit here and have to take it.

 

Stephen Norris     

Right. And reading the reports too, it's amazing to me, in 2016, 2017, that so many of the breaches that is the hacking took place because someone opened an email attachment. Haven't we learned not to open email attachments from an email you don't know who was the sender. And then the other thing, too, of course, is the fake news that Russia engages in and it produces. I don't know if we could have a national act that would require us to think a little more critically about where news is coming from and how we should understand it. But gosh, that would be quite helpful.

 

Gerry Hudson 

I'm really glad that Steve brought up the subject of fake news. Some of my colleagues at the Mershon Center have collected data on this very topic and also conducted surveys in France, and are, I think, onto conducting surveys in Germany and in England for their elections to look at the impact of fake news. But what they've been able to report so far, from their survey research here in the U.S., in taking a look at voters who voted twice for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and then switch their vote to somebody other than Hillary Clinton, there is a strong correlation of .47 of people who read fake news and switch their vote like this. That is a much stronger correlation between the belief in fake news and their party preference, their religion, their gender, anything.

 

Stephen Norris     

And it's worth noting, many of those fake news items that change votes, at least as far as I know, there's no evidence that those are Russian-created phenomenon. Those are InfoWars and Alex Jones of InfoWars, anyway, creating these ideas, and nor was the whole birther controversy, which is a conspiracy theory about President Obama that Donald Trump helped to foster and certainly popularized. That's not a Russian invention.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Right, right.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Right.

 

Stephen Norris     

So if anything, we ought to see Russian interference and elections in a wider context as a kind of media landscape or fake news or these kinds of reports and conspiracy theories proliferate in America, on Facebook and online, and where Russia interference is part of that, it's part of this noise created, but not the only and oftentimes not the primary influential noise. And that's not to say that we shouldn't understand that Russian hackers are quite sophisticated. There seems very little doubt that oftentimes hacker groups work with the Russian government or work at their behest. It's just a matter of how we interpret that vis-à-vis its impact in any particular country, including here. What matters at the end is maybe the pizza parlor story more than fake news created out of Russia or hacking out of Russia.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Well, Russia often seems to back countries or regimes that are considered pariahs by other people in the world. Why is that? And who are Russia's main allies in the world today? And has it always been this way?

 

Gerry Hudson 

Well, yeah, Russia backs pariahs. I suppose this is a measure of Russian weakness because they don't have a strong alliance system like, well, compared to the United States. There really is no Russian version of NATO, although they have tried to make one called the CSTO. For one reason, the -

 

Stephen Norris     

The Eurasian Union between Byelorussia and Kazakhstan hasn't really amounted to much either. There was a lot of hoopla about that being something.

 

Gerry Hudson 

No, every time Russia seems to want to do this, to create an international organization that it can dominate, it comes up short. Syria has been a focus of attention, first for Soviet policy and now for Russian policy. Syria was the only ally in the Arab world that that would come to terms with Russia. Egypt kicked out the Soviet Union in 1956. All that was left was Syria, and it was a weak country then and it's a weak country now, if it's a country at all. Steve, maybe you could fill in some more?

 

Stephen Norris     

Yeah no there's a logic to that, and particularly the Russian affinity towards Syria that goes back 50 years plus and that to the Cold War. So whether you agree with it or not, that's why there's economic ties between Syria and the Soviet Union, now Russia, cultural, even familial. I mean, there was an article in The New York Times, maybe not three years ago about the number of Soviet women, later Russian women who married Syrian men and remained in Syria. And that Putin made a big deal in Russian media about his desire to protect these kinds of relationships. In terms of the answer to your question, and I think it, to maybe echo what I said initially, it goes back to Putin's desire to be taken seriously, even if it's by forcing others to accept him at a diplomatic table. That is, if he does something in Syria and asserts himself in Syria, he's going to be at least put around a table to discuss world affairs in ways that get at his primary desire to play a major role and have Russia play a major role in world affairs. That's true in North Korea too. You've probably heard that Russia wants to engage in diplomacy with North Korea. This is a way of acting against that unipolar world that Putin railed against in 2007 in Munich. It breaks up, in effect, the Syrian intervention, that is the Russian intervention into Syria, broke what had been an American monopoly of the use of international force. So this this all gets at the big picture, that is Russia's desire to be taken seriously, to act seriously. Even if from the perspective of many Americans, it's Russia cozying up to pariah nations or to dictators.

 

Brenna Miller 

So what, for example, is Russia's relationship to post-Soviet countries and other post-communist and still communist countries? For example, those in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, or China.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Well, China's interesting. Of course, they border on Russia, and they're also a nuclear power. They're the second largest economy in the world. And basically, Russia can't exert much influence on China at all. China's the dominant country in that partnership, for sure, and a lot of Russians recognize this, even though they don't like it. And Chinese power enters strongly into Russia's relations with central Eurasian nations, like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and so on, because those countries are beginning to establish their own relationships with China, often selling the Chinese gas or oil. And this is upsetting to Russia, because here the Chinese are meddling in Russia's own back yard.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Steve?

 

Stephen Norris     

Quite certainly China's the big player here now. And I will say, though, that if America retreats into isolationism and kind of goes the American first, like getting out of the Paris Accord, that's going to only further embolden China to take a bigger role in the world. And that might change the Russian-Chinese relationship even more, bring them at times closer together, maybe at times further apart. In terms of the other part of your question that I think it's fairly easy to answer, Russia's relation to post-Soviet countries, especially those in Eastern Europe. Well, it's not great. I mean, there's a reason why most of the Eastern European countries rushed to join NATO. And many have rushed to join the EU. And they see that as a defense against a potential Russian threat. It is worth saying, however, that Putin has kind of styled himself as a defender of traditional values and a true conservative and that that attracts people, certain peoples across Europe. And in terms of the former, the countries in the former Soviet bloc, he and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have forged a kind of friendly relationship around this idea of traditional historic values and conservative values.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Russia is trying to use that lever of kind of nationalism, traditional values, Russian orthodoxy, all of this, it's trying to use these soft power tools to exert political influence in Eastern Europe, but as far as I can tell, anyway, it doesn't seem to be leading anywhere, because these countries -

 

Stephen Norris     

It's why he has his status. Putin has his fans in America too, especially on the Right and among Trump and many of Trump's people that they see him as a masculine manly man who's defending traditional values.

 

Gerry Hudson 

Yeah, that's right. And so this is this is an element of soft power. But it appeals to the right wing, and well, Hungary is a great example of that. Viktor Orbán and those people are not sort of the nicest folks that you'd want to run up against.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Well, as kind of closing thoughts, what are some of the most important factors to keep in mind when dealing with Russia? Is there anything specific that you think is important for today's foreign policy experts to take into account when working with Russia? Gerry?

 

Gerry Hudson 

Yeah, well, I'll go back to what I said before, my internet highway act. I think that's what we need to keep in mind. But we also need to understand that we do have things that we can do of a constructive nature, I would say maybe we must do with Russia to cooperate. There are elements of cooperation, or at least issues in which we can cooperate, such as nuclear non-proliferation. It's in the strong interest of both countries that nuclear weapons don't proliferate terrorism. Both countries have a strong interest in that. I keep hoping that they'll find a common interest in reregulating intermediate nuclear weapons, we have an agreement with them. But I'm concerned that both the U.S. and Russia seem to be moving towards stationing these weapons back in Europe. Again, I really hope that doesn't happen. And so maybe we can come to an agreement there. But certainly the first two wishes, so things that we can work on right away.

 

Jessica Blissit 

Steve?

 

Stephen Norris     

Yeah, I agree. I was going to say that. I mean, Gerry's actually hit the two things in terms of ways that the United States and Russia cooperate more than nuclear proliferation or non-proliferation and terrorism. So I'll maybe say two other things, then. One is, in terms of understanding Russia, it's always worth noting that back to the size and size mattering, it is a big country, it is still a very diverse country. And I think we in the West, we still fall back on the kind of Cold War era tendency to view Russia solely through the prism of the Kremlin and the inhabitants of the Kremlin. And that's far from the truth, that is to understand that Russia's complex, complicated, big, diverse. There's actually a wonderful comic artist in Russia named Victoria Lomasko, who just had a collection of her comics published in America called, The Other Russias. And that's a good metaphor, there are other Russias, there's other peoples. What's not reported well in the U.S., I think, or at least in mainstream media in the U.S., is the ongoing strikes among Russian truckers who are quite angry at the Putin state for lack of payments, for the lack of building of infrastructures, for political grievances, as well. So these are stories that we ought to listen to. And then the second thing goes back to deep history that I began with. And that's again, you don't have to agree with it or apologize for it, but one of the things that drives Russian foreign policy today and has for a long time is the grievance factor, that is that Russians feel like they're not understood well by the West and that their history isn't understood well by the West. So we're on History Talk here. Here's a call to understand their history well. To understand that there is, even if you don't agree with the way it's pitched in Russia today, there's a deep thousand-year history in Russia and at least a 500-year history of empire building and nation building, and one that, to a certain degree, should be understood, should be studied, and should be brought to bear when you think about Russia today. That is the Russian state today, it's not just the communists still or the Soviets, it's Russia, who sees themselves and Putin and his officials see themselves as the inheritors of this very long, deep history. If we don't at least accept that or try to understand it, I think we're always going to get off on a bad foot.

 

Brenna Miller 

Thank you to our two panelists, Dr. Gerry Hudson, an Associate at the Mershon Center, and Stephen Norris at Miami University. This episode of History Talk podcast was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center and the history department at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steve Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer, and our audio producers and hosts are Brenna Miller and Jessica Blissit. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more on our website, origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter and Facebook.

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