Tragedy or Triumph? Breaking the Cycle of Great Power Conflict


In his seminal work, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” John J. Mearsheimer posited that great power conflict was an unavoidable result of nation-states efforts to alter the distribution of world power in their favor.1 Mearsheimer argues that states must seek to expand their power, dominate their region, and prevent the emergence of rival states. Nation-states have no choice but to dominate or be dominated. The tragedy is “Great powers that have no reason to fight each other … nevertheless have little choice but to … seek to dominate other states” to ensure their survival.2

Russia has already played a leading role in this great power tragedy. Europe in 1914 was wealthier, more interconnected, and more powerful than at any point in its previous history. Yet the European great powers – Russia, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary – had spent the first fourteen years of the decade lurching from crisis to crisis and coming closer to all out war.3 Russia, in particular, psychologically recovering from its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, became more assertive in supporting Slavic independence movements in the Balkans. This directly challenged Austria-Hungary for dominance in the region. Nationalist leaders stoked anti-Austrian and anti-German sentiment in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Fran Ferdinand in the streets of Sarajevo by a Serbian radical was the spark that ignited a conflict that nearly destroyed European civilization.4

Was this bleak reality inevitable? Are great powers bound to collide by some immutable law in the same way that gravity demands an apple fall to the ground? On July 29th, at 9:20 p.m., moments before Russian Tsar Nicholas II was preparing to issue an order for general mobilization of the Russian army (the preamble to war), he received a telegram from his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II of Imperial Germany. The telegram, building off of their family relationship, implored the Tsar not to issue the mobilization order to prevent “precipitating a calamity we both wish to avoid.” The Tsar, moved by the telegram, cancelled the mobilization order, exclaiming, “I will not be responsible for a monstrous slaughter.” Unfortunately, this diplomatic moment was not seized. The fearful logic of war quickly returned and the mobilization order was issued on July 30, 1914.

The ghosts of World War I whisper that such a cynical and brutal reality is avoidable if nation states forego the paradigm of the zero-sum game. Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the world’s two greatest powers (as measured by their nuclear capacities), the United States and Russia, are pushing their countries toward rivalry and conflict, not cooperation and understanding. In order to break the cycle of recriminations, the United States and Russia must do what the European great powers at the beginning of the 20th century could not; use diplomacy to advance collective security.

Certainly, the thuggish behavior of Vladimir Putin has contributed to the current freeze in relations. Allegations that Russian intelligence operatives hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee and facilitated the leak of emails to influence domestic U.S. politics, if true, would be a serious violation of U.S. sovereignty. The annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, fostering a frozen conflict in the Donbas, and aggressive military maneuvers toward NATO forces in the Baltic region contribute to the perception that Russia is a hostile power locked in a new “Cold War” with the United States.

At the same time, U.S. conduct has contributed to increased Russian hostility and insecurity. The United States showed a serious lack of understanding regarding Russia’s concerns about the eastward expansion of NATO. Similarly, the United States did very little to convince Russia it was a partner in creating a new European security architecture rather than a victim of its Cold War defeat. Outside of Europe, primarily unilateral interventions in the Arab world have showcased U.S. offensive military capacity and heightened Russian anxiety about U.S. power.            

The United States and Russia are not implacable adversaries. Even in strained periods like today, the United States and Russia cooperate on a host of issues, including nuclear non-proliferation and counterterrorism. These areas of cooperation must be built on and expanded. The United States and Russia both benefit from a Europe that is peaceful, the destruction of radical jihadist groups such as ISIS, and an Asia-Pacific region that is not dominated by a hegemonic China.

Where U.S. and Russian interests clash, as in Ukraine, the Baltics, and Syria, the United States and Russia must work to create outcomes that are tolerable to both sides. Viewing these conflicts as zero-sum confrontations, with a winner and loser, only creates insecurity. These conflict areas provide an opportunity for the patient work of diplomacy to prove that great power conflict is not an immutable law.

Ultimately, the United States and Russia, as victors of World War II, have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that the world remains free from the type of global conflict that World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, represented. Both countries should never forget that legacy which so many of each country’s citizens died to establish. Perhaps, remembering the times when the United States and Russia sacrificed together, the countries can, in the wise words of Kayne West, “turn tragedy into triumph.”

1 Mearsheimer, John J., The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, University of Chicago Press, New York (2001).

2 Id.

3 Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Harper Collins, New York (2012).

4 Id.

Matthew Fontana is a labor and employment attorney at Drinker Biddle and Reath. He is an avid follower of U.S.-Russian relations and a student of Russian history.

Photo Source: CA


Reflection of An American Speaking Russian in Poland


There is a classic Soviet-era Polish joke that goes something like this. For a state visit to Poland, Brezhnev wished to commission a work of art commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. He ordered the Poles to make a documentary about Lenin’s brief exile in Poland. Very little was known about this period, but the Poles dutifully promised the Communists a masterpiece all the same. The day of the premiere finally came. On arrival to Warsaw, Brezhnev and his entourage proceeded directly to the theatre in the colossal Palace of Culture and Science. The Communists offered the Poles advance praise for this great gift to the Russian people then settled into their plush, red cinema seats. Lights dimmed, and the first scene came into focus – a man and a woman…together in bed…making love.

Brezhnev was stunned.

“Whoa, who is that man?” he stammered.

“Why, that’s Trotsky.”

“And who,” Brezhnev inquired, “is that woman?”

“That is Lenin’s wife, Comrade Brezhnev.”

“But where is Lenin?”

He’s in Poland.”  

In June, my father and I made our first visit to Poland, a fact-finding mission of sorts to learn more about our Polish heritage. I am pleased to report that through incredible archival access we traced the Marszalik line back to 1786 in the small Tatra highlander village of Kasinka Mala south of Krakow. Discovering my gorale ancestors though was not my only intellectual fascination with this former Warsaw Pact country.

With time spent in Russia and Armenia for comparison, I was eager to observe firsthand the remnants of Soviet legacy amid one of the most successful post-Communist transitions in Eastern Europe. The joke above largely captures the sentiment of most Poles, a nation once under the tutelage of the Kremlin that through persistent resistance spawned the Solidarity movement onward to freedom and prosperity.

My first impressions of Poland already solidified on the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. Driving on a wide boulevard lined with tall, green trees and identical, grey apartments quickly reminded me of the outer residential areas in Moscow. The cabbie soon pointed out our first landmark: a memorial to Soviet soldiers lost in the battle to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany in World War II. Yet I would come to find that even in the spots of Communist landscape capitalist development ruled supreme. There was no starker sign than the billboard of a swimsuit model advertising affordable Italian beachwear, which appeared on every other block across Warsaw and Krakow.

Warsaw proved to be a very modern Western city with most sectors including Old Town rebuilt after the destruction of World War II and developed further to attract business and tourism following the fall of the Soviet Union. But a controversial symbol of former Soviet presence still dominates the skyline. Gifted to the Polish people by Stalin in 1952, the colossal Palace of Culture and Science, an homage to social realist architecture, still stands today in the center of Warsaw. Though it now at least serves as a platform for other causes (Stalin likely rolled in his grave when the palace was illuminated blue and yellow in solidarity with the Euromaidan protestors in Ukraine).

To my surprise and delight, my Russian came in handy on two incidents once my father and I reached Krakow, widely known as the cultural capital of Poland with structures like Wawel Castle still standing from the golden ages of the Polish Empire. In one instance, while waiting for a tram into the city, a man in his thirties rushed up to me near the platform speaking rapid Polish. I instinctively responded in Russian, explaining I could only proceed in English or Russian. Surprised by my response, he asked in broken Russian about the destination of the tram, then how long I had lived in Krakow. I answered that I didn’t know since this was my first time in Krakow. Once I revealed that I was an American, his face became particularly animated. He shook my hand with fervor and warmly welcomed me to Poland before having to rush off to catch his approaching tram.

I am always moved by such hospitable moments in foreign lands. Similar situations occurred during the earliest days of my study abroad to Ufa, Russia in 2012. On my first visit to the bank, I bonded with a young man wearing a t-shirt of my alma mater, Ohio State. Later on while waiting at a bus stop, an elderly man hugged me after discovering that I was the first American he had ever met. Remembering such positive intercultural experiences also makes me sad and frustrated with the current state of relations between America and Russia in 2016.

My second opportunity to speak Russian proved to be of much more utility. In our tiny, blue stick-shift vehicle, my father and I ventured into the Tatra Mountains to find the village of our ancestors: Kasinka Mala. On arrival, we endeavored to find a local priest to access the parish archives. It was a truer test of my linguistic abilities to explain to the Russian-speaking groundskeeper why two Americans were not in fact trying to break into the locked church but instead hoping to meet the pastor for some research assistance. As mentioned above, we were unexpectedly successful in our efforts.

I am often asked, especially when abroad, why I decided to study Russian and Russia in the first place. It is true like many Russian learners before me that I read Dostoevsky in my youth and became enamored with the concept of the Russian soul. I also became interested in the geopolitics of the post-Soviet era during a number of international affairs classes. But probably the strongest motivator is my Americanized family heritage growing up, a combination of pierogi at Thanksgiving and polka music after church on Sundays that connected me to the Slavic world. It is difficult and complicated to imagine Slavic solidarity when talks of NATO reassurance and hybrid warfare presently dominate the discussion between Poland and Russia. But at least from this American’s perspective, I am thankful that my early relationship with Polonia led me to the study of Russia and Eurasia.

Peter J. Marzalik  

Photo Credit: Peter J. Marzalik (Warsaw, Poland / May 2016)

Deterrence Through Integration? Why The West Should Form A Baltic Russian Working Group


It’s no fun being chastised by a babushka. On a recent research trip to Moscow, I found myself at a boutique private medical center, waiting in reception with a colleague who had unfortunately fallen ill. We conversed in a mix of English and Russian quite lackadaisically after a long week of interviews. Suddenly, an elderly Russian woman sitting nearby commented on us in Russian to the whole room. To paraphrase, she wondered aloud: if Russians have to speak English when in Europe, shouldn’t Americans have to speak Russian when in Russia? A prolonged silence followed her outburst. The young receptionists of the ‘international’ center – proudly advertising in their brochures the foreign language fluency of the staff – glanced nervously at us and stayed quiet. We said nothing. When the woman left, we got free calendars.

Being publicly shamed for speaking my native tongue was a new, unsettling experience for me, a privileged, white American studying Russian and Eurasian affairs. It captured a microcosm of the increasing polarization between Russians and Westerners since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Alarmingly, a ‘reset’ in U.S.-Russian relations just a few years ago has now been replaced by talk of World War III. One of the most contentious issues in this current standoff is the ‘Russian threat’ to the Baltics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. As NATO members with sizeable Russian-speaking minorities – some harboring legitimate grievances over language laws and economic inequality, these three ‘vulnerable’ countries have sent hawkish politicians, defense planners, and Russia ‘experts’ into a tizzy of calls for rearmament in Eastern Europe.

In the run up to the NATO summit in Warsaw next month, a plethora of commentators have sparred over how the West should respond (militarily) to Russia’s (re)assertiveness in the post-Soviet space. One of the best debates has played out at the realist publication War on the Rocks (see herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), with many taking shots at the RAND study “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics,” which called for a permanent troop presence to deter a Russian military force that could seize Tallinn or Riga in less than three days. Indeed, NATO cannot currently defend the Baltics against a Russian invasion.

The wickedness of the problem stems from trying to assess capabilities and intentions. Are the four multinational rotating battalions recently announced for the Baltics and Poland enough to deter Russia? Will Russia escalate with its own conventional arms buildup, punishing the West for purportedly violating the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act? What is the NATO red line for invoking collective defense under Article V in an irregular i.e. ‘hybrid’ i.e. ‘little green men’ i.e. ‘little green fans’ warfare scenario? Would Baltic Russians mobilize for such a fight? Why would Russia ever invade the Baltics? What does Putin think? Does his latest love affair make him more likely to start a war? And down the rabbit hole of endless assumptions we go.

My recent research proposes yet another policy approach to the problem, but one that has received less coverage in the media: deterrence through integration. Let’s integrate the Baltic Russians: not only because it fulfills the best of Western values but also since it will help deter a Russian invasion of the Baltics. More specifically, the West should act on the link between security and development and form a transnational working group on Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics.

Informed readers can immediately point out that the Baltics have already made notable efforts to integrate their Russian minority populations. Investigative journalists (see here and here) and academic researchers (see here) have even shown that Baltic Russians are not likely to be susceptible to ‘hybrid’ operations, despite Russia’s influence in the Baltic Russian information space and community concern over such issues as non-Russian language proficiency for legal citizenship and economic advancement. But this is not necessarily a counterargument.

What matters most is how Russians in Russia perceive this situation. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his popular rule on protecting ethnic Russians and Russian speakers around the world. The regime perpetuates a narrative of the country as a ‘besieged fortress,’ specifically the West is holding Russia and Russians back from a return to greatness, whether it be NATO enlargement, economic sanctions, ‘CIA-backed’ color revolutions, U.S. support of ‘terrorists,’ or the alleged rape of a Russian girl in Germany.

It is likely that Putin would only meddle in the Baltics if he first knew how to justify intervention, whether conventional or ‘hybrid,’ to the Russian public at home. Exploiting the ‘discrimination’ of Baltic Russian-speaking minorities is one of the best cards that could be played. Enough issues still exist to mix truth with myth into convincing propaganda. This is why deterrence through integration should be another line of effort discussed at the Warsaw Summit this July.

Deciding who should spearhead such a working group would be a complicated political dance. Baltic leaders will be skeptical of the initiative, claiming the minority integration issue as an internal matter and tangential to the conventional threat from Russia. This questioning is why emphasis should be placed on the link between security and development. Deterrence through integration can still go hand and hand with sensible reassurance measures, including a rotational troop presence, prepositioning of military equipment, and more training exercises. On the flip side, Germany is now publicly calling for a more balanced stance toward Russia, particularly following Foreign Minister Frank Walter-Steinmeier’s comment on NATO ‘saber-rattling.’  

Determining how to develop and execute recommendations of the working group is also tricky. In this case, minority integration is a potential security problem best approached with a combination of military and civilian means at the transnational level. Perhaps an EU-led program with NATO subject matter experts would be best to couple the tact of diplomatic and development professionals with military expertise. The European Regional Development Fund could be one organizing mechanism, with an additional mandate to boost Russian-dominated, economically disadvantaged areas, like Narva in Estonia. Despite tensions, the northwest districts of Russia are even slated to join an affiliated project called Interreg Baltic Sea Region.

In sum, a more committed and coordinated push to integrate Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics would address a key vulnerability in the face of a more assertive Russia across the post-Soviet space and beyond. It could even initiate a rare channel of positive dialogue amid the heated rhetoric between both sides. The West should seize this opportunity now.

Image Source: Stars and Stripes    
Peter J. Marzalik recently graduated with a master’s degree in Security Policy Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs. His capstone research, supported by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, examined the reformulation of Western policy toward the post-Soviet space.

The Golden Days of U.S.-Russian Relations?

Cropped_Barack_Obama_and_Vladmir_Putin_shake_hands_at_G8_summit,_2013In October of 2014, the Carnegie Council put out an article titled Needs Work: A Troubled US-Russian Relationship in which they stated that “if there is one point of agreement between pundits in Moscow and Washington these days, it is that U.S.-Russia relations are at a post-Cold War nadir.” Fast forward nine months and that nadir looks to have been lowered even more by unproductive discussions on Moscow’s continuing attempts to stockpile missiles near Eastern Europe, continuing Russian involvement in Syria and Ukraine, and U.S. sanctions on Russian energy and tech firms.

When I lived abroad in Russia during the summer of 2011, U.S.-Russian relations were at a different, almost anticipatory interlude to the current breakdown in diplomacy and strategy between our two countries. President Dmitry Medvedev had one year left before the end of his first term, which was seen both inside and outside of Russia as a place-holder term for Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister of Russia at the time. I was curious and asked some of the Muscovites I met what their opinion of their current political situation was. The unanimous answer from several Russians was, as one person described it, “Putin’s Batman to Medvedev’s Robin.” The citizens of Russia, accustomed to their history of long-standing czars, prime ministers, and now presidents, already accepted the 2012 power swap for Putin and Medvedev.

Now, in the past four years since I studied abroad, there has been a stronger push in Russia’s main cities against the political killings, lack of fair political representation, and even the anti-gay laws that have defined Putin’s presidencies since 1999. With social media playing a key role in exposing other cultural movements going on across the world, it seems that Russia and her citizens are becoming more open to change than the modified one they accepted with their leadership in 2012. Whether this will encourage more aggressive government regulations on individual Russian liberties is yet to be seen, but it is my expectation that we will see more forceful social actions take place within the next three years against increasingly archaic governmental control internally.

With respect to the U.S.-Russian “Reset” button back in 2009, it is my opinion that relations between the two countries have hit the nadir mentioned by the Carnegie Council due to an inability within the U.S. government to firmly understand and appeal to a Russian superpower. Putin knows this and has adeptly managed Russian strategy in Syria, a central Russian ally in Mediterranean trade and military affairs, and the Ukraine, a former Soviet Union state, even with the inclusion of U.S. sanctions of which Putin described as leading the two countries into a “dead-end.” Obviously, it is not expected that concessions will be made on the behalf of either country, but the lack of understanding between these major powers is costing the world a lot of money and human life at this point in time.

Having lived in Russia as a student for a relatively small period of time, the only major recommendation for U.S.-Russian policy I could offer would be for both countries to promote more education and similarly related exchange programs between its citizens. We may not see a peaceful zenith between our countries for decades, if not centuries, to come but cultural understanding can only grow from actual experience between citizens of different cultures, which can certainly be fostered between our governments right now. However, if nothing changes and we continue to see an escalation between both sides with sanctions, troop movements, and diplomatic breakdowns abound, then we may one day look back on this Obama-Putin nadir as the ‘Golden Days.’

Alex Polivka is a graduate of the Ohio State University with studies in Security & Intelligence, Russian, and Economics and previously wrote on Russian/North Caucasus affairs with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington DC. He currently works within the financial industry as an Operations Account Principal in Columbus, Ohio.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Reflection of An American Speaking Russian in Israel


In June, I enjoyed an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study abroad in Israel for two weeks through a special academic program at George Washington University. With my academic and professional background firmly focused on Russia and Eurasia, I felt compelled to diversify my knowledge of international issues through a trip to the Middle East. Indeed, how my expectations did certainly defy me. For my understanding of post-Soviet affairs grew just as much as my nascent understanding of Middle Eastern security.

On arrival, I stumbled off my long 11-hour El Al flight, gathered my luggage at Ben Gurion Airport, then hailed a taxi to head to my beachside hotel. The language barrier immediately hit me as the cabbie spoke rapid Hebrew dotted with hand gestures and broken English in a failed attempt to ascertain my intended destination. Luckily, I had planned and hoped for this exact scenario en route and excitedly asked: Вы говорите по-русски? And so my first interaction with an Israeli proceeded in Russian.

After clarifying my intended destination, the cabbie launched into a tale about his son who studies film in America. Naturally, the conversation inevitably drifted over to politics. I admitted that this trip was my first time in the country and the cabbie repeatedly assured me that Tel Aviv and Israel overall is очень спокойно. I gave him an incredulous look, wondering how he could classify this embattled though prosperous land as very peaceful. My glance then prompted the cabbie to qualify his statement a bit. Well, besides the ракеты, he explained, it is очень спокойной. I made it to my hotel without incident, already pondersome about the feelings of comfort and insecurity from entering a Russian-speaking peaceful foreign land frequently under attack by rockets.

To my surprise, I generally faced little to no culture shock during my time abroad in Israel. Of course, it took a moment to overcome my sheer confusion from having the option to buy a coke and fries at a remote Druze village on the Golan Heights. Globalization surely does pervade the globe. More relevantly, my knowledgeable tour guide explained that close to 1 in 7 Israelis speak Russian and most Israelis even know simple phrases in Russian, such as: принесите мне арбуз! A good phrase to know if attempting to buy watermelon at the marketplace, many of which were also filled with ornate, матрёшка dolls. Bartering down the taxi price with cabbies in Russian and sampling блинички с сладким сыром at breakfast with the Russian-speaking hotel staff made me feel right at home in Israel.

My academic studies revealed the strong Russian imprint on the modern Jewish state. In the early 16th century, Circassians from the Russia-controlled North Caucasus settled in the Arab town of Abu Ghosh located west of Jerusalem. In 1906, a Russian-born Jew named Akiva Aryeh Weiss established the Ahuzat Bayit Society, which enlisted 66 families to found the city of Tel Aviv in 1909. Several waves of mass migration flowed from Russian-speaking countries, with an Israeli intelligence unit called Nativ tasked with clandestinely emigrating Jewish communities from the Soviet Union. The precepts of socialism and communism even entered Israeli society as communal farms, known as kibbutzim, became popular systems for agriculture.

Lectures at The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) on the campus of Tel Aviv University broadened my understanding of the diverse relations between Russia and Israel. In fact, during my classes, a Russian delegation met with other senior fellows of this eminent Israeli think tank in an adjoining conference room. Dr. Ephraim Kam outlined the important position of Moscow in the Iranian nuclear negotiations, asserting that Russia prefers Iran not to have atomic weapons but would never use force to deny such capabilities. During my visit, INSS also graciously offered me two memorandum booklets assessing Russian and Israeli outlooks on current developments in the Middle East.

Ultimately, my brief study abroad program to Israel proved to be a most fruitful experience, diversifying my knowledge of international issues and expanding my understanding of post-Soviet affairs around the world.

Photo Credit: HTKA 

Peter J. Marzalik

Putin’s Pride: A Driver of Russian Foreign Policy


Photo Credit: Bohan Shen

I was walking through a Russian park during the summer of 2011 with my Muscovite friend Katia, whom I had met through my intensive language study abroad program, when the conversation drifted towards US-Russian relations, specifically the space race. I was warned during my pre-departure orientation to steer clear of controversial topics between our two countries, so the idea of discussing the space race with my limited Russian language abilities made me nervous. Katia bluntly asked who I thought won the space race and without much consideration I exclaimed “America of course!” to which she half smiled and asked “yes, but who actually made it to space first?”

This was one of the first times in my life when I experienced a significant paradigm shift in perspectives. Katia, so sure that Russia had made it to space first and had therefore won the title of victor that came with it, and myself who had been taught about the race to the moon as the real challenge and thought of the US claim of victory as nothing short of fact. However, in reality, each claim was based on a different perspective. When we look below the surface of the claim from each country, we can conclude that the claims of victory are not solely contingent upon who won and who lost, but are based on a much deeper and motivating emotion: pride.

Russian pride, particularly of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been clearly on display in recent years, such as when Putin infamously claimed that the break up of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century, when Russia invaded Georgia, when Russia joined BRICS, when it created a trade union with former Soviet satellite countries, and when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine. Putin yearns for the days where the only world powers were the United States and the Soviet Union. Putin craves the status of a superpower and cannot stand being treated as a second-class nation. Like a child who breaks things to get attention, Putin haphazardly creates scenarios that draw the eyes of the world.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the arguable leader of Western Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, immediately called Putin to find a diplomatic solution to the situation. French President Francois Hollande was at Merkel’s side to press Putin to stop his transgressions. The United States and Great Britain both called for a withdrawal of troops and imposed arguably effective sanctions. Whether this attention was good or bad was never the point; Russia and therefore Putin was getting the attention it so desperately wanted from the rest of the world. When receiving this attention, Putin is able to turn it into propaganda to curry support at home. As of February 2015, Putin’s approval rating was at 86% despite Western sanctions and falling oil prices. According to Freedom House, Russia is ranked 176 out of 196 in global freedom press rankings and therefore has the ability to sway public opinion favorably towards the Kremlin and Russian intervention in Ukraine. However, this hardly seems difficult to do when 94% of Russians receive their news from domestic television networks and 44% of Russians consider foreign media outlets to be biased. With all of these factors put together, it can be easy to see why there has been a gradual uptick in Russian nationalism, especially when it looks like the whole world is against you.

In the 2005 speech naming the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest geo-political disasters in the 20th century, Putin says so in part because it left “tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots…outside Russian territory.” Thus, the annexation of the Crimea peninsula is part of that mission to re-assimilate those native Russians back into Russia. Putin considers himself a protector of Russian people as the president, so when his media claims that his annexation of Crimea is legitimate it is not difficult to see why native Russians may sympathize with his decision. In the eyes of the average Russian citizen, the whole world is against them. When sanctions cause inflation and a scarcity of goods at the supermarket, it is not Putin they blame, but the Western nations who do not understand why their leader is doing what he is doing, which gives them a greater reason to rally behind him.

Putin has elbowed his way into the limelight of the world by forcing the narrative in the direction he wants. Putin is a very proactive tactician, and can therefore control the movement of his own people and much more easily predict the reactions of other world leaders. What is the downside to the invasion of a sovereign nation when sanctions can be used to garner domestic support? While it is understandable that Putin will not be invited to the G7 conference, and the build up of NATO forces unsurprising, we can also not be surprised when Russia increases its military patrols in foreign water and airspace or continues to build military force along the Russian-Ukrainian border. Putin has amassed many casualties in this conflict – Ukrainian civilians, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Ukrainian separatists, and Russian troops – he has shown he is not too proud to sacrifice more.

Evan Sieradzki is a recent graduate from Ohio State University with degrees in Russian and International Studies. He has spent time studying at Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow and currently lives in Washington, D.C.

Beating the Censors? Bilateral Polarization in Russian and Western Media

imageMost Eurasia watchers are keenly aware of the stifling media censorship instituted and reinstituted under the Putin regime in 21st century Russia. The state-owned publication Pravda, which unfittingly means “truth” in Russian, still remains my favorite publication in Russian media exhibiting the most absurd pro-government politicized bias. For instance, Pravda consistently and shamelessly blames the Central Intelligence Agency for nearly any anti-Russian geopolitical activity in the Eurasian region e.g., the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine was in fact a CIA-orchestrated coup and U.S. intelligence officials fomented the color revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova. With my ingrained American conception of free speech, it is sometimes difficult for me to understand how the majority of Russian people possibly believe such stories.

But I suppose in a country with severely limited alternative sources of information, an ordinary Russian, particularly one thankful for the improved economic livelihood before sanctions and seeming stability in Chechnya provided by the Putin regime over the last decade, would naturally trust the message of the authorities. With passions high over the Ukraine conflict, Putin’s exploitation of nationalist sentiment in Russia society likely further engenders loyalty to government media sources, even when the few remaining independent outlets provide compelling evidence of Russian soldiers fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine. My mental dilemma still persists to comprehend the reasons behind this lack of skepticism.

The internal debate boils over as I cringe at the thought of potentially contributing to the disinformation campaigns waged by Russian and also Western media. Over the last year, I have discovered my natural talent for freelance writing, publishing at various news outlets, including The Moscow Times, Russia Direct, and Eurasianet. Often I wonder the following. Do my original words indeed become tainted with affiliation? Do my ideas fall flat under the weight of an ideological anvil? It animates me to think that my thoughts on the state of U.S.-Russian relations are possibly being read by both Americans and Russians around the world. But do the majority of individuals’ preconceptions about the “Other” frequently propagated through the media leave my work of objective analysis and constructive criticism tarnished and ignored?

I believe a personal anecdote best captures my underdeveloped answer to these questions on media manipulation and bilateral polarization in Russian and Western press. After my publication at The Moscow Times, I decided to notify my significant others of my most recent accomplishment. Their response was quite interesting. Many expressed interrogative concern about my name in a “Russian” news outlet making me a potential “target.” I was initially surprised, then I calmly allayed their fears, explaining that my little op-ed in a liberal English-language Russian newspaper was unlikely to draw such ire from Russian elites capable of carrying out political assassinations. Their unease still left me pondersome.

With some informed but inadequate opinions on Russia, my significant others revealed to me how likely most average Americans view Russia in these tense times. The demonization of big bad Putin in Western media coupled with thex recent tragic, mysterious death of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov likely further fuel a sentiment of suspicion already predisposed in an American public still colored by the Cold War mentality. On the other side of the globe, Russians feel similarly threatened as state-controlled media tells them that Western spies are in fact fomenting periodic instability across the former Soviet Union.

The Elicitor is a project that spawned from genuine concern over the bilateral polarization resulting from media manipulation in Russia and the West. This forum aspires to boost mutual understanding in this phase of tanking U.S.-Russian relations, so an American graduate student need not fear becoming a “target” of the Putin regime and the Russian people do not accept the excuse of CIA meddling to divert attention away from serious structural problems inherent in the corrupt institutions of 21st century Russia.

(Photo Credit: Central European University)

Peter J. Marzalik

The Victory Day Commemoration: Afterwords

                                         Victory Day in Russia

                                                                                     (Photo Credit: Victoria Vasilieva via Flickr)

Initially, I planned to entitle these reflections, “The Preface to the Celebration,” but now, as May 9 is ending, I realize that the most important thing that we can learn from this great day is not what preceded it, but exactly what it will be followed by.

Indeed, we live in a time when the most pure, the most sacred and inviolable core of our tradition and worldview is under a direct attack. And unfortunately, currently, the poisonous caustic criticism of our narrative of the War from abroad is no longer a major threat. On the contrary, we see the attempt of a substitution of the very essence of our cultural codes, when the sacred and almost mystical feeling assembled from hundreds of shades of hope, valor, honor and pain, that we feel when we envision the nine characters 1941-1945 is attempted to be substituted by something flashy, vulgar and belligerent. It is an attempt to steal the Victory from us by creating a dummy instead of a character filled with meaning. It is an attempt to dishonor the memory by allowing corrupted thieves to rob veterans and then wear frontline medal ribbons on the lapel, to send the veterans expired products as “gifts” and to bind petty political gambles to the memories and respect to the War.

However, we shouldn’t be misled by those who use the vulgarization of the Victory as a ground to erase the memory of the War from our narrative, by blaming the Parade, the ribbons, the celebration and the commemoration. The War and the Victory are deep in our hearts, and neither actual nor moral corruptors are able to take it away from us. The current situation should not be the reason for fear or anger, on the contrary, what is happening is an ultimate incentive to realize that we can no longer rely on external forces to shape our personal communion with the greatness of the War. The current vulgarization and denial of the War is nothing more but a cause to understand that the memory and respect for the War must cease to be a context or a foundation of identity and become a moral act of volition.

When I see a large, fancy piece of candy with the Order of the Red Banner and the St. George’s ribbon on it, I must willfully suppress the initial hostile reaction of rejection. And I feel sincere joy, because now I can give this candy to my nephew so the narrative about honor, self-sacrifice and heroism would for him be connected with the pure bright and joyous emotions of childhood. This is more important than any aesthetic disputes.

When I occasionally immerse into the political hysteria of discussion about those who will come and those who will not participate in the Parade on May 9, I have to willfully suppress the initial reaction of indignation by those who did not come, and those who are using this refusal as a propaganda tool. And behind this veil of hatred, I see the perpetual power of the War commemoration, as today, on the Parade, people who were trained to kill each other – the soldiers of Armenia and Azerbaijan – were marching with arms in the same ranks, shoulder to shoulder. And in this act there is more recognition than any delegations or their absence could provide.

When the anti-Putin media are giving humiliating labels to deep and sincere expressions of respect and honor, when 7 million columns of my fellow citizens and I are lined up all across the country to honor the sacrifices of our veterans, I have to willfully suppress the feeling of disharmony and conflict. And only then do I see that in my country, agitated by human blood shed on our western borders, this single day passes without hatred, hysteria and accusations between hundreds and hundreds of centers of different identities, and it is more important than any speeches about unity and national reconciliation from the governmental thieves.

Tomorrow is a new day in which the War could once again become just an identity context, a breeding ground for speculation and accusations between governmental and anti-governmental fanatics, trying to catch us in their destructive gamble. But if today we remember this act of volition to protect the memory we will be able to transcend it to the future. By focusing not only on the offended aesthetic and political feeling, but also on the essential values of peace, unity, reconciliation and self-sacrifice, which saturate the War memory, we will be able to transform this memory toward the path of volitional emancipation from hatred towards the “Other,” from weakness and passivity, from the political gamble with our narrative and its corrosive humiliating context. And thus we will be able to transform our country.

I stand in the crowd and watch the Solemn Victory Salute. I hear children crying “Hurrah!” after each firework volley, and I feel how the blinding darkness of nothingness would have come for all of us if not for the heroism of our veterans 70 years ago.

Glory to the Victors!

Elisey I. Boguslavsky

The First Elicitor Reflection: Inaugural Piece Reflects On Victory Day

Dear Readers,

The inaugural reflection at The Elicitor will be by Elisey who will share his impressions on 9 May Victory Day celebrated this past weekend in Russia. Enjoy the two videos at our Media page that showcase the V-E Day flyover in Washington as well as the massive military parade in Moscow. The Elicitor passes along a special thanks to all Allied veterans who served in World War II/The Great Patriotic War to defend the United States, Russia, and other nations from the Axis powers. Happy V-E Day and Victory Day!


Elisey and Peter