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Take Note: Donna Bahry on how the history of Cold War and post-Soviet politics influence the war in Ukraine

Donna Bahry
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Donna Bahry

On this Take Note, Donna Bahry discusses how Cold War and post-Soviet politics have shaped the current conflict in Ukraine. Bahry is Penn State professor emerita of political science and an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet politics and democratization. Bahry has extensive field experience studying and teaching about Russia and the former Soviet Union.

This interview is from the Democracy Works podcast and originally came out on March 14.

Democracy Works is a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute's Michael Berkman interviewed Bahry.

Here's the conversation:

Michael Berkman 
Donna, thank you for joining us on Democracy Works.

Donna Bahry 
My pleasure, Michael.

Michael Berkman 
Donna, you've been studying and teaching about Russia, you studied there when it was still the Soviet Union. How many times would you say you visited Russia?

Donna Bahry 
You know, I lost count. I went pretty much every year from the late Gorbachev era up until I think 2018. And so had a lot of field experience.

Michael Berkman 
So I think it would be most valuable for us to focus on Russia and Putin, rather than the specifics of what's going on in Ukraine right now. I thought I'd start with something that's been in the news quite a bit about this. And so John Mearsheimer who is a well-known IR scholar in the realist camp, has argued that this was pretty much set in motion years ago, when the Cold War ended, and the West allowed some of the old Soviet Bloc countries into NATO. This isn't so much Putin as war, as it is Russia's. That it's an inevitable consequence of big power politics and their assessment of their national self-interest. How inevitable do you think this war was?

Donna Bahry 
I don't think it was inevitable. For one thing, Russia in the 1990s was far more democratic than it is now. The Russian government who did have objections to NATO in the 1990s but was not nearly...was obviously not ready to go to war, to go to conflict over it. So to say that this was inevitable strikes me as just it's an overstatement. That's one. And the second is even for countries that have not pushed to get into NATO, as in Moldova, the Russian government under Vladimir Putin has still put enormous pressure on the Moldovans, especially when there's an administration that leans toward the EU. So NATO is obviously an issue for President Putin and the Russian administration. But even without NATO, the Russian government has been pressuring other countries in the post-Soviet world.

Michael Berkman 
So if not NATO, how do you look at it. Is this idea that Putin talks about sometimes that well, they're all Russians, and so they should be with Russia? And it's kind of big Russia idea, or how do you see that?

Donna Bahry 
I think for President Putin and for much of his administration, the issue is sort of restoring Russia as a y7great power, basically. Russia has had trouble developing its economy, and its losing population. There have been more deaths than live births in Russia.

Michael Berkman 
Yeah, it's getting quite old, isn't it?

Donna Bahry 
Yeah, exactly. Almost every year since independence. And so for somebody whose mindset focuses on classical geopolitics, more land, more territory, and more population really counts for a lot. So Ukraine at the start had 44 million people, who knows how many people are going to be left.

Michael Berkman 
So John Bolton, the other day made the argument that Donald Trump was going to pull the United States out of NATO in his second term. And then, in Bolton's view, Bolton being the former national security adviser for Donald Trump, that Russia was waiting for the second Trump term. When they didn't get the second Trump term, they decided the time to go in was now. What do you think they went in now as opposed to say, five years ago or three years ago?

Donna Bahry 
Well, until recently, Russian government had been using a combination of peaceful and coercive means to maintain influence in post-Soviet countries. Peaceful meaning, involvement in elections, as in Ukraine. Peaceful meaning subsidies, big subsidies on oil and gas and other products to post-Soviet, some post-Soviet countries, the friendly ones. Peaceful meaning support for political pro-Russian political parties. Support for Russian language, media, and Russian language instruction. Coercive, we know right, a military war with Georgia in 2008. Seizure of Ukraine. So those have happened, and the Russian government has managed to keep Georgia and Ukraine out of NATO, for example, and out of the EU, with those limited military activities. Problem why now and Ukraine, well, the peaceful mechanisms that the Russian government had been you using have been dismantled or are being dismantled in the Zelensky era. In particular, in the last year especially the Ukrainian government closed down three Russian television stations, Russian language television stations. Arrested the head of the largest pro-Russian party and actually seized his assets, an oligarch. Has become more serious about addressing corruption. A new language law came into effect in Ukraine. In fact, this year, giving preference, raising the status of the Ukrainian language over Russian. You put all those together, it means the peaceful mechanisms that the Russian government had to influence high politics in Ukraine have been dismantled. So the alternative is coercion. And there's one other part to this too, there's been a water war between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea. After the seizure of Crimea in 2014, the Ukrainian side dammed up the biggest source of freshwater to Crimea. And Crimea, it has had a drought. So no water, bad for agriculture, bad for the tourist trade. The Russian government had been shipping in bottled water, obviously not enough to help with agriculture. And if you look at where Russian troops have gone in, along the southern border of Ukraine, they created a land bridge from Russian territory to Crimea, and they just blew up that dam. So they now get water to Crimea.

Michael Berkman 
So when was the last time you were in Russia?

Donna Bahry 
2018.

Michael Berkman 
Three or four years ago, you were there?

Donna Bahry 
Yeah.

Michael Berkman 
And so I'm curious, I thought it might be useful for our listeners to just know a bit more about what Russia is like, and about what their governance and like and what their politics is like? And did you detect an active civil society, journalist, activists, artists, entrepreneurs, these all active and thriving, when you were last there? Were they more active and thriving 10 years earlier, when you were there?

Donna Bahry 
in 2018, there were civil society groups, but then we have to make a distinction. There are groups that are allowed and supported by the government, the ones that you know, help with child welfare, or other social services, let's say, or youth groups, but very often they're sponsored by the government. So in that sense, active, yes, but not necessarily independent, the way we think about independent civil society. Of the independent groups, they have been pretty much penned in and reduced over time. The ones that were critical, shall we say, or that it didn't follow that particular line that the government wanted to follow. So the Russian government has, for example, over time, introduced increasingly stringent registration requirements for civil society groups that aren't government sponsored. Registration, re-registration, filling out more forms, giving lists of members and their addresses and contact information. So independent civil society, pretty limited, may be the most effective was, let's say, Alexi Navalny's efforts to, you know, organize voters in elections. But we know what happened to Navalny.

Michael Berkman 
Right. So just to be clear for everyone, he ended up in a hospital, he was poisoned with nuclear materials. And so why did Putin crack down the way that he did? Was there a sense that there was too much political opposition to him develop, is it something else going on?

Donna Bahry 
So Putin came to power at the end of the 1990s. He was appointed right as an interim president by the outgoing Boris Yeltsin in 1999. And Putin has made clear pretty much since the earliest days in office that he thought the 90s were a disaster. He thought Gorbachev was a disaster. Gorbachev's efforts, experiments, at democracy in the Soviet Union led to economic collapse and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. And in for Putin, that's obviously a negative. Boris Yeltsin's efforts at democracy in the 1990s led to further economic collapse and almost to the breakup of Russia. The several provinces in Russia declared sovereignty, one declared independence, that was Chechnya. And Russia went to two wars, to recapture Chechnya. So for Putin, Western liberal democracy really does equate to disaster. And almost since the earliest point of his entry into office, he set out to reassert control over the media, over the legislature, over political parties, over business. And so what we've seen over time is gradual, but nevertheless, persistent tightening of restrictions and controls.

Michael Berkman 
And I'm curious about how you think of how absolute Putin's power is in Russia? Are their sources of power that counter and can check him? Are there institutional checks on his power?

Donna Bahry 
Not really. He's been extremely adept, shall we say, neutralizing those. Elections are manipulated, and Putin's party wins the majorities in the legislature. The courts are politicized. And basically under the control of the executive. The so the key counterweight, the such as they might be, would be the wealthiest businesses, the oligarchs so to speak, and the security services. And the oligarchs have been tamed, shall we say, ever since, again, the early days of Putin's administration. So they depend on him. That leaves the security services, the police, various police agencies, the military, and so on. And that would be his, that's the most central constituency. But whether they can act as a counter force, maybe only if this war goes so badly, and the sanctions bite so badly, that being able to pay them and support them, and being able to claim victory turns out to be a problem.

Michael Berkman 
And how far can this dissent that we're seeing in Russia go? I think many observers seem to be surprised by how large the protests are, and right how brave the protesters are. And I mean, I guess I'm curious, of a couple of things. Yeah. Like, how far can it go? Can it make a difference? And is this a generational kind of thing in Russia as well? That the protesters are from a younger generation and the older generation? Or am I imposing, you know, a framework that doesn't make sense there?

Donna Bahry 
No, these are good questions. And undoubtedly, younger people are more disposed to turn out to protest. I guess the question is how far the government is willing to go to quell these protests. And often in the past, the government has arrested people, mistreated them somewhat, but then release them or given them suspended sentences. So to the extent that that happens, that's kind of a slap on the wrist. If the government steps up its detention and mistreatment on then the protests, I think would diminish somewhat. The other part of this is the ability of protesters to connect across cities across regions. And to a mass national movement. With that issue, the Russian government has actually been very successful, very lucky in preventing that kind of national organization of a protest movement, as we've seen in some of the other post-Soviet countries.

Michael Berkman 
Is that a strategy of shutting down social media as a tool of collective action? Is that mostly how they go about that?

Donna Bahry 
Yes, partly that. Partly, again, picking up people releasing them with some mistreatment to persuade them not to be involved. Government's gone further, in some cases where parents have young children, their parents have been threatened with the state taking their children if they continue to protest. Collective punishment figures into this too, as in you only won't get punished for protesting, but your family members might also run into problems too.

Michael Berkman 
Oh, really?

Donna Bahry 
That's, that's an old Soviet strategy.

Michael Berkman 
Soviets are masters at misinformation, disinformation. So what is the propaganda story that's being told to Russians by Russia?

Donna Bahry 
That the Ukrainian government has been victimizing the Russian speakers, what few ethnic Russians there are still in Ukraine, victimizing ethnic Russians and Ukrainians whose predominant language is Russian. That the Ukrainian government is the favorite term is "fascist...Nazi" whatever. So the Russian government is going into de-Nazify and take down this, you know, obviously, fascist government.

Michael Berkman 
Where does that come from? So is Nazi simply just a really nasty slur if you're in Russia? I mean, which is understandable. Or is there something more to this accusation that the Ukrainians are Nazis? Where's it come from?

Donna Bahry 
Well, remember that the Soviet Union had the most casualties of any country...

Michael Berkman 
...And it was in Ukraine, wasn't it? Where a large number of those casualties...

Donna Bahry 
A lot, definitely. And so the Soviets replayed...well, there were movies about the war and about Soviet heroism. And indeed, there were heroes fighting against the Germans. But President Putin, that emphasis on showing, you know, war movies and talking about the war, that kind of went away in the 1990s, under Boris Yeltsin. But it’s come back in the Putin administration. So a World War II revival of World War II and both the victimization and also, the Soviet triumph really figures pretty prominently in the media and in the government's messaging. And so fascism and Nazi they're made salient by the government sponsored media. Where does it come from? From the other side? How relevant is it in Ukraine? Well, there are some sort of extreme right groups, some of whom organized and fought against the secessionist In the east eastern provinces in Ukraine, but Zelensky as Nazi...

Michael Berkman 
Right!

Donna Bahry 
Nah.

Emily Reddy 
If you're just joining us, you're listening to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Emily Reddy. Today's guest is Donna Bahry Professor emerita of political science and an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet politics at Penn State. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. Interviewer Michael Berkman talked to Bahry about the history of Russian and Soviet politics, and how it influences the war in Ukraine.

Michael Berkman 
How do you think of Ukraine as a democracy? Was it really moving well towards consolidating as a democracy? It's young and had a lot of corruption. How would you assess where it was?

Donna Bahry 
Yeah, somewhere in the middle of the road between Soviet Union and Soviet politics. So the political system, and what we might think of as a consolidated democracy. Definitely not consolidated for a number of reasons. Corruption being one of the biggest ones, and repeated episodes of corruption. But having said that, the governments in the last few years seem to have made more efforts to provide more effective public administration to address corruption. And the government in the last two to three years has made more progress also in reducing the levers of influence that the Kremlin, the Russian government had in Ukrainian high politics. Ukraine has made halting progress, but you wouldn't call it consolidated democracy at this point.

Michael Berkman  
What do you think its main problems are going to be in terms of moving closer and closer to being a western style democracy?

Donna Bahry 
Well, for one thing, it had an economic elite, we typically call them oligarchs who had amassed massive wealth and who played an outsized role in politics, to the point of being able to neutralize political reforms that we would consider necessary for consolidating democracy. Particularly anti-corruption and the rule of law. Controlling a big business or several big businesses, industrial factories, media, controlling whole regions, meant that oligarchs could also control who would get elected to the legislature and also could weigh in on appointments into the executive branch and even the judicial branch. So containing the oligarchs, the power of the oligarchs, has turned out to be a big issue. And governments since 2014, have made some progress on that. There have been a couple whose assets have been frozen, and whose political power has been, has been limited. So definitely rule of law, anti-corruption. And the other part is finding and neutralizing the Russian levers of influence.

Michael Berkman 
Influence within Ukraine.

Donna Bahry 
Yes.

Michael Berkman 
So we've heard a lot about Kyiv as a cosmopolitan Western sort of city. And the fact that Ukraine was moving closer and closer to the west, at least cultural. Was that part of the problem for Putin? Or I know before you were saying, really, he just wanted the land, he wanted the people. And do you include in that, that well, he also just didn't like having such a western style government? Or a country that he saw as becoming ever more Western, right on his border?

Donna Bahry 
Yes. And in fact, so Ukraine's economic ties, its trade has shifted from oriented east to more oriented to the west. So there's an economic component for Putin to consider. It's not just culturally more Western. It's definitely more connected to the EU and more western style democracy. President Putin and the administration equate democracy with disaster. That applies to neighboring post-Soviet countries as well as to Russia. For example, President Putin was very active in supporting a pro-Russian presidential candidate in Ukraine in 2004. Candidate ultimately lost. That was Yanukovych. But the point was that Ukraine at that point, had a pro-democracy uprising, where people took to the streets against the rigging of an election. For Putin that was a disaster. Putin, in many cases, has advised the leaders who are more pro-Russian and more authoritarian just to use force to put down protests. A democratically oriented Ukraine, not welcome for Russia with it’s with a porous border. And people who speak Russian who could go back and forth.

Michael Berkman 
Ukraine, they've been vocal about this, or were about getting closer to the EU maybe joining EU and is Putin offering an alternative?

Donna Bahry 
Yes.

Michael Berkman 
What is the alternative? I've heard this but I can't remember the name of...

Donna Bahry 
Eurasian Economic Union. Um, it's an economic union. Putin has touted it as sort of parallel to the EU. It's an economic union that's supposed to integrate post-Soviet countries based on shared historical ties and shared culture. So the plan is that they will, they're going to have obviously, you know, tariff free, barrier free trade. Eventually, so the argument goes, they should all be using the same currency, and there should be a lot tighter economic integration. The problem with it is twofold. One is only four other countries have actually signed on as full members, and they account for about 28 million people. So it's not a very big market. Well, Russia, like the Soviet Union has had difficulty developing products that are competitive in global markets. Trouble diversifying its economy away from exporting oil, gas, diamonds, wheat, agriculture. So the economic union, Eurasian Economic Union offers basically a captive market. And Ukraine with 44 million people would be a huge asset, but Ukraine has never, has not indicated any interest in joining.

Michael Berkman 
Right. And if they did join the EU, of course, that would then put pressure on the Ukrainian government to evermore Westernize because you have to have certain kinds of policies to be within the EU and...

Donna Bahry 
35 chapters of rigid regulations...yeah, EU.

Michael Berkman 
They are nothing if if not heavy on bureaucrats, in the EU too. And we've also heard, kind of the counter to the realist School of hyperrationality is that Putin is irrational, and maybe somewhat insane, or that COVID isolation has really gotten to him. And one of our colleagues had a column in the Washington Post today talking about how yeah, not a whole lot of leaders really are crazy like that. But you never know. And what are your thoughts? Is Putin acting like Putin always did to you? Are you seeing something different that would concern you and intelligence professionals?

Donna Bahry 
I have colleagues who've advised President Putin on social policy, domestic social policy in Russia. Russian academics who have advised on various kinds of social issues and their assessments again and again, are that President Putin is very astute, quick to get to the point. Their meetings are very well organized. He's well prepared when he has the meetings. So that's the domestic side. On the foreign policy side, going back some years, there have been a lot of President Putin speeches and his writings that focus a lot more on victimization, on mistreatment on discrimination, that seem more emotional. So you know, for the foreign policy side seems to bring out this rhetoric. But rhetoric is one thing and rationality is something different.

Michael Berkman 
But it also seems like a bit of a miscalculation about the Ukrainians who were who had been known to be pretty good fighters in their time. These are seasoned military people. Didn't they know this?

Donna Bahry 
Well think back to 2014. How easy it was. They seized Crimea, well, virtually no violence. And, you know, started the secessionist movement insurgency war in eastern Ukraine. And you know, the central government in Kyiv was not in any position to really offer much substantial resistance. So based on that experience, it really does look like miscalculation. You're right.

Michael Berkman 
Did they underestimate Zelensky? Did they not realize who they were?

Donna Bahry 
Yeah.

Michael Berkman 
Why do you think that is? Did they not take him seriously enough? Because of his background? Or I mean...

Donna Bahry 
Here again, this is speculation. But partly Zelensky early on promised that he wouldn't negotiate. And he did. He met with President Putin a couple of times. They agreed on prisoner swaps, prisoner exchanges. And it may be that the impression got created in the Kremlin that Zelensky could be either maneuvered or just lacked sufficient support, whatever the whatever the calculation, obviously Zelensky has turned out to be much tougher than they anticipated.

Michael Berkman 
So when you look, look into the future, but not to next week, but just looking forward. I'm just what do you what do you see? I mean, it seems to me like Russia could be there for 15 years trying to get out of this situation now. Is that kind of your sense of what we're looking at?

Donna Bahry 
Again, hard to tell. The previous experience with this level of force in Chechnya, for example, and in Syria is ruthlessness. Willingness to really destroy as much as possible in order just to, you know, raise the flag over, over rubble, essentially. In the Chechen case, at least, you know, the Russian side flattened the capital city Grozny, but then provided funds to rebuild it. And so, you know, one possible line direction for this might be flattening much of Ukraine and then rebuilding. But that requires the massive amounts of revenue that the Russian government had been pulling in from its oil and gas sales and its natural resources. And that looks pretty chancy right now. There's another possibility, and that is that Russia takes most of central and eastern and southern Ukraine and leaves the West.

Michael Berkman 
President Biden, the other day, referred to the conflict in Ukraine as battle between democracy and authoritarianism. Zelensky has made some of the same argument. do they see it that way within Russia?

Donna Bahry 
I think they do. Again, to go back to the loss of the Soviet Union, the loss of near loss of territory of Russia. And to go back to the fact that pro-democracy, protests, and demonstrations, so called color revolutions pretty much have ended toppled, leaders who were friendlier to Russia. In Ukraine in 2004, Ukraine in 2014. So democracy for President Putin and the Russian administration is, first of all chaos. And second, it's turned out to be anti-Russian. Add to that, when these protests have broken out, President Putin's response, in several cases, has been to encourage the leaders, incumbent leaders just to use force. So peaceful protest, or no peaceful process doesn't matter. Use force to put the to put these people down. That's not democracy.

Michael Berkman 
You and I both remember when the Soviet Union fell, and people that were scholars of the Soviet Union had to reboot in the post-cold war era. Scholars coming up behind you studying Russia, are they gonna have to reboot too. I mean, is this going to lead to any kind of change? How people think about Russia? How they think about studying Russia?

Donna Bahry 
Yeah, unfortunately, I think I think that's true. For one thing, you know, the sanctions and counter sanctions mean that what limited access Western scholars had to data information, collaboration. All that's diminishing pretty, pretty dramatically, pretty rapidly. And so just access to find out what's going on, you know, people will be able to rely on maybe content analysis of official media, but that's pretty limited. And so it's going to be harder for the upcoming generations to really get a handle on the internal politics and in society.

Michael Berkman 
So Donna, thank you very much.

Donna Bahry 
Thank you.

Emily Reddy 
Donna Bahry is a professor emerita of political science at Penn State. She's an expert on Soviet and post-Soviet politics and democratization and has been studying and teaching about Russia for more than 30 years. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, and originally came out on March 14. Democracy Works is a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute's Michael Berkman interviewed Bahry. You can hear more Take Note and Democracy Works interviews at wpsu.org/radio. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.