An Interview with Jiri Valenta

Ukraine’s Orange Blues
Alexander J. Motyl
World Affairs Journal | 29 July 2014

Below is an interview I conducted recently with Jiri Valenta, a distinguished scholar of Soviet and post-Soviet studies.

MOTYL: Jiri, you’re one of the world’s most experienced and knowledgeable observers of Russia. How would you characterize the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 and the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine?

VALENTA: The ongoing war in Ukraine has involved a covert military intervention by Russia that is slowly becoming overt. The downing of the Malaysian plane is a game-changer. Thus, as bodies arrive in the Netherlands, two more Ukrainian planes have been downed and a new deployment of Russian hardware is pouring into Ukraine. The Russian Duma has held an unexpected session. There is again the possibility of a large Russian invasion.

At the same time, MH17 has been catastrophic for Putin. Up until now, he has been very successful with the bloodless annexation of the Crimea, deft handling of the Middle East, a gas deal with China, and a productive visit to Latin America. But these successes have been torpedoed by the missile that downed MH17. As with the 1983 downing of KL007, Cold War tensions are rising to fever pitch.

MOTYL: Unsurprisingly, Russian President Putin and the pro-Russian terrorists deny all responsibility for the airline tragedy. Is Putin acting wisely? Isn’t the evidence ultimately going to make him look very bad? Isn’t he maneuvering himself into a dead end?

VALENTA: The plane’s downing has galvanized Europe. In 1983, there were questions about a US espionage plane following KL007. Not so now. The US intelligence interpretation has been confirmed even by some Russian commanders. Western Europe is finally turning against Putin. Great Britain just reopened the polonium poisoning death of Putin’s severe critic, Alexander Litvinenko. Because of MH17’s preponderance of Dutch victims, Holland might become the leader in imposing tough new EU sanctions. The compromised crime scene—the bodies robbed and left in the sun for days—have created an anti-Russian atmosphere in Europe, North America, and Australia. Feeling cornered, Putin is in attack mode. Yet should he proceed, this will not be the kind of low-cost battle he likes.

The French projected delivery of two helicopter aircraft carriers to Russia must be halted. As in the Polish crisis of 1981–82, France is again sabotaging joint sanctions against Russia. In fact, the debate within the Western alliance on sanctions is much reminiscent of the one that occurred after the imposition of Polish martial law. The US should even consider buying these carriers from France. This would prevent Russian dominance of the Black Sea and smother Russian interventionism in Ukraine and Georgia.

[See “NATO Should Buy French-built Warships.”]

MOTYL: There have been some influential voices in the West who have completely adopted Putin’s line. How would you assess Professor Stephen F. Cohen’s unrelenting Putinophilia? It seems that the more outrageous Putin’s behavior gets, the more arrogant Cohen’s apologias become.

VALENTA: Years ago Steve wrote a powerful, well-researched biography of Nikolai Bukharin that was influential in shaping some of Gorbachev’s ideas. He seems to have since engaged primarily in sophisticated but, above all, not well researched polemics. He is not a Ukrainian expert. Unfortunately, his exaggerated claims about the influence of Ukrainian right-wingers, called “fascists” by Putin, in Ukraine’s revolutionary process, only upholds Russian propaganda.

Sadly too, Cohen is poisoning the image of Ukrainian democrats. Now he is claiming the MH17 downing was the result of the Kyiv government’s offensive in the Eastern regions. He completely disregards Russia’s illegal occupation, through its terrorist proxies, of a sovereign state.

MOTYL: How do you explain Cohen’s extraordinary moral blindness?

VALENTA: Rarely in Steve’s post-Bukharin work do I find the kind of deep analysis of Russian conduct that I find, for example, in Richard Pipes’s memoir, Vixi. There seems, instead, to be a focus on a contrarian view at any cost.

MOTYL: How do you explain the remarkable fact that the extreme left and the extreme right in both the USA and Europe support Putin?

VALENTA: Skilled at image-making, and being a formidable politician, Putin has indeed found prominent supporters on both sides of the Western political spectrum, e.g., former German Chancellor Schröder in Germany, a social democrat, and Berlusconi, the conservative, former center-right leader of Italy. In both cases, financial dealings trump all other considerations.

MOTYL: How should democracies and the world media respond to the prevarications of people like Professor Cohen?

VALENTA: Cohen and I were both asked to contribute to a memorial publication for Richard Pipes’s 90th birthday. Steve wrote that he and Pipes, as “political adversaries,” were hired by NBC in 1984 “to argue about Russia on the Today Show.” Some formidable Russian specialist should be dialoguing with Steve now. There are genuine Ukrainian experts like you. There are also those who study Russian interventionism and global policies like Dimitri Simes and Angela Stent.

Cohen-like views are arising as President Obama has not responded adequately to the Ukrainian crisis. Putin’s intervention in Ukraine is partly a function of what Fritz Kraemer would call “provocative weakness.” As the world is engaged in several world crises, the commander-in-fundraising must finally become the commander-in-chief. In Vienna, Khrushchev similarly measured Kennedy as a paper tiger in 1961. His perceptions helped to precipitate the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later.

My wife, Leni, and I proposed in the 4/21/14 Kyiv Post that only lethal arms, coupled with powerful energy sector sanctions, are likely to deter Putin’s ambitions. The US should also provide Kyiv with strategic intelligence and sophisticated communications equipment. Notice that, while Russia gifts heavy military hardware to the terrorists, we are primarily providing meals to the Ukrainian army. After Holland’s day of mourning, let us hope the Dutch prime minister leads the effort to come up with a tough response by the EU. In any case, the fate of Eastern Ukraine will be primarily decided on both the battlefield and through negotiations.

The chief lesson of MH17 is the need to stand up to Vladimir Putin and aid Kyiv in defeating the pro-Russian terrorists. Yet as former Foreign Minister Ivanov blogged at the Russian International Affairs Council [RIAC] site, “The US and Russia Need Each Other Now More than Ever.”

Indeed, in on our own RIAC blog, our website, and in the National Interest, Leni and I have advocated partnership with Russia against Islamist, Nazi-like terrorism. Yet as we put it in our RIAC response to Ivanov, “First we must conduct ourselves like civilized nations!”

MOTYL: Jiri, thank you for your insights.


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