EMU Expert: U.S. needs far better understanding of Russia during crisis

U.S. seen by Russia as destabilizing the world

by Pamela Young, Published March 18, 2014

YPSILANTI – One of the biggest challenges facing reporters and experts closely watching the crisis in Ukraine is the fluidity of information and lack of understanding of the Russian position, says Judith Kullberg, Eastern Michigan University political science professor who specializes in Russian politics.

“The Russian perspective is totally at odds with that of the United States and Europe,” said Kullberg, who is fluent in Russian. “The two sides are talking past each other. In order for negotiations to succeed, they need to find a common language. Washington must be willing to consider, or at least understand, Russia’s views.

“Russia sees the U.S. as a destabilizing force in the world. Part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s critique of the U.S. is that we were behind the Arab Spring, supporting opposition movements and helping to overthrow governments in Egypt, Libya and Syria. And indeed, the Syrian opposition is supported by the U.S.”

Russia argues that the U.S. is moving around the world, interfering in the domestic affairs of other states. Russia also perceives the overflow of Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine as part of that pattern of Western interference and destabilization.

Kullberg says the U.S. government and citizens need to look at the bigger picture. Among her other observations:

  • Putin and his government justify the use of Russian military force in Crimea on the grounds of a need to protect the rights of Russian citizens as well as Russia’s interests in the region.
  • The crisis is contributing to divisions between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Sen. John McCain, who has criticized the administration for not using more military force in Syria, is now calling for the U.S. to provide weapons to the Ukrainian government.
  • There is a connection between Russia’s foreign policy and its domestic politics. There is an opposition movement in Russia to Putin. He sees the movement as connected to the West and as an effort to overthrow him and weaken Russia. He looks back to the 1990s and believes Russia has to have high centralization.
  • There is evidence that the West has supported the Ukrainian opposition movement.
  • The U.S. media is like an echo chamber. Last week, journalists were calling Putin insane, and he’s often depicted as a brutal dictator. Such rhetoric is inaccurate and not useful. Putin is not crazy and he is not like Stalin. However, he is a tough guy who came up through the security service.
  • Putin believes that a strong state is necessary for Russia. Without a strong state, Russia would collapse. It is important to acknowledge that Putin identifies himself as a Christian, and believes in universal values of human dignity and human rights.
  • Despite these beliefs, Putin believes there is a need for a centralized government. He uses external threats for internal control and to stifle his domestic opponents.
  • Russia has a legitimate complaint, adds Kullberg, in how the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown. The Ukrainian constitution says there are only three ways to dispose of its president: death, resignation or impeachment. The impeachment process is similar to that of the U.S. and involves a formal trial. Yet in Yanukovych’s overthrow, there was no formal impeachment hearing or trial. He fled the country under duress in fear of being arrested. Thus, the seizure of power was illegal, according to Russia, and not democratic.

Kullberg has spoken about revolutionary legacies and resistance in Russia and Cuba, and presented, “Russia without Putin: The Re-Emergence of Russian Civil Society,” at the annual meeting of the Michigan Political Science Association.

Kullberg’s research also includes the development of Russian civil society. Begun in 2007, her work was supported by a Fulbright grant to conduct research in Samara, Russia. Kullberg says she is trying to assess the way in which various factors, such as the state, international organizations and access to resources, affect the character and performance of non-governmental organizations in Russia.

Kullberg graduated from the University of Michigan with her Ph.D. in 1992 and from the Russian Language Program at Leningrad State University in 1986. She received her bachelor’s degree from Saginaw Valley State College (now University) in 1981.

Kullberg is available as an expert source and can be reached at 734-487-3113.

Pamela Young

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