Mar 25

Samuel Ramani On Deciphering Russia

The Oxford academic shares his deep expertise on Putin and Russian history.

Andrew Sullivan
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Unafraid conversations about anything

Ramani is a tutor in the Department of Political Science at Oxford and a member of the Royal United Services Institute in London. He’s been to Russia and Ukraine many times in the course of getting his DPhil — the Oxford equivalent of a PhD — in International Relations. He has studied Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Syria, and has two books in the works — one on Russia in Africa and another on the current war in Ukraine.

At just 28, Ramani is a bit of a phenom. I wanted a deep dive on the subject of Putin’s Russia, and was not disappointed. I learned a huge amount, and I think you will too.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app,” which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For two clips of my convo with Sam — on how sanctions against Putin could actually help him, and on how serious the neo-Nazi presence is in Ukraine — head to our YouTube page.

We also just transcribed another popular episode of the Dishcast — with Yossi Klein Halevi, who debated the history and nature of Zionism with me. Judea Pearl described it as “the best discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has ever been aired anywhere.”

Here’s a bit of our convo:

Meanwhile, a “long-time subscriber, first-time commenter” is really worried:

I just read your piece on Putin and the populist Right. I’m an old chippy lefty, so there is no excuse for worshipping Putin, but those people don’t scare me. Right now what scares me the most is the drumbeat for War coming from all sides in the US — Tim Kaine, Tom Cotton, and many others saying we must win this war. The propaganda and War fever coming out of the US truly frightens me. It reminds me of the US after 9/11. It was a wave you could not withstand, Andrew, and it swept many good and reasonable people along with it — to utter catastrophe.

What interests does the US have in intervening in a civil war between two corrupt oligarchs in Putin and Zelensky? Ukraine isn’t a democracy, and it’s one of the most corrupt countries on Earth. Zelensky is a trained actor — of course he gives a great speech. 

Why risk nuclear war? Why entertain fantasies that if we don’t stop the Russians here, they'll soon by marching on the Rhine? I beseech you, please don’t fall for the War Party propaganda like in Iraq. This is still early days, this will not end well for us.    

I have to say that the memory of 2003 is very much on my mind these days. And I’m a little unnerved that many others who fell, as I did, under the spell of passion and moral certainty at the time, seem to have no memory of that at all right now. They retain a constant ahistorical Munich mindset.

Another reader provides a long comprehensive dissent over my piece:

In your essay “Putin’s Challenge to the American Right,” I was a little mystified by your discussion of strength, weakness, and genius. If you’ll permit a brief digression to WW2, Hitler played his hand well during his rise to power in Germany. This is, of course, not an endorsement of the man: the world would have been far better off had Hitler died on a WW1 battlefield. But how many other people could have, at low political cost, achieved the rearmament of the German military, the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria, and the seizure of the Sudetenland?

Now, let’s imagine that it is early 1938, and Churchill goes in for an interview and says:

You know, this Hitler guy is playing us like a violin. The other day I was listening to a radio and heard him say that parts of Czechoslovakia are filled with Germans and should belong to Germany, but after that, he won’t desire any further territorial expansion. Oh, they’ll stop there all right! How brilliant is that? He’s going to gain a foothold in the country and bypass their border defenses, and we aren’t going to do a single thing about it. How wonderful. No, it’s very sad. Very sad. Let me tell you, he wouldn’t be able to get away with this if I was in charge.

This is, of course, a paraphrasing of the Trump quote you began your article with (the lines “it’s very sad, very sad” and “He wouldn’t be able to get away with this if I was in charge” came a little later in the interview on the same subject). But it is also a quote that I could easily imagine Churchill giving at the time (with a richer vocabulary, of course), and Churchill would have been correct in his analysis.

So, if Churchill would have been correct in giving this statement, why does it become problematic when Trump gives it? Your main criticism appear to be the lines about Russia “keeping peace” and about the situation being “wonderful.” But taken in context and with the audio, there doesn’t seem to be any way to interpret those lines other than as a criticism towards the Western leaders for letting Russia get away with this. After all, if Trump literally thought that this invasion was a “wonderful” development, why does he then drop this line: “[Putin] wouldn’t be able to do this if I was still in charge”?

And keep in mind, Trump said this when it looked like Putin would only be invading the two breakaway regions, and from where I was sitting, it did look like there would be few sanctions against Russia for that. It wasn’t until two days later, when Russia invaded the rest of the Ukraine and made a bee-line for Kiev, that the West started imposing their hard sanctions. All-in-all, this seems like a very uncharitable interpretation of Trump’s statement on your part.

Moving away from Trump specifically, you then attempted to make hay from the finding that 62% of Republicans think that Putin is a stronger leader than Biden. But does believing that Biden is a weak leader make someone any less patriotic than a Brit who thought that Chamberlin was being made a fool by Hitler in Munich? And keep in mind that the same poll found that 42% of independents thought Putin was the stronger leader, with only 15% thinking that Biden was the stronger leader (question 18). Even into March, most independents still thought Biden was a weak leader (question 70). Are those plurality/majority of independents who thought Putin was the stronger leader also in the sway of the far right?

You then go on to imply that the 62% figure means that those Republicans must approve of or admire Putin. But that same February poll found that 80% of Republicans (and 80% of independents) disapprove of this invasion by Putin, with only 6% agreeing with the invasion (4% of Democrats agreed with the invasion) (question 15) and 73% of Republicans had a unfavorable view of Putin (question 13). So, according to the polling data, thinking that Putin is a strong leader is not a synonym for admiring Putin.

Now, the quotes you bring up from Bannon, Cawthorn, and Zemmour are more troubling. Had you just used their quotes to make your point, I probably wouldn’t be writing this dissent. But when surrounded by all the other more problematic analysis, I find it difficult to take your concern seriously.

And this raises the question: Is Putin a smart and strong leader compared to our leaders? Matthew Schmidt appears to have thought so back in 2017 when he wrote that article you linked. Half of its focus was on Russia’s clever use of maskirovka — military deception — in Ukraine and its accomplishments in Syria, and how Western leaders had yet to figure out the correct response to those strategies. Had Schmidt’s vocabulary been greatly simplified, he would have sounded downright Trumpian.

Now, you could respond to these points by saying, “But look at the current mess in Ukraine. Putin is facing an unwinnable war, crippling sanctions, and a united West. Clearly he wasn’t that smart after all.” And this appears to be the main point of the second half of your article.

This brings us back to the WW2 analogy. By 1941, the Germans had won the war. The British had been expelled from the continent, the French had been vassalized, and the Balkans had been subjugated. And with the communist threat rising to the East, the Germans would have had a good chance of convincing the British to end the hostilities to help fight the Soviets had they just waited long enough.

But instead, the Germans decided to immediately invade Russia, and then later decided to also declare war on the United States. These two moves sealed Germany’s fate and eventually led to the liberation of the western half of Europe.

So, what happened? The Germans had fought brilliantly up to 1941, and then they made some of the most idiotic decisions of the 20th century. Did they suddenly become complete morons in the space of six months? Or did these two decisions prove that Hitler and his generals had been idiots all along? Neither answer is really satisfactory. The best guess is that their early victories were indeed clever. But they let their success go to their heads, and in their arrogance, they lost their judgement. Had they kept their head about them and not started making rash decisions, who knows what the world would look like today. (Then again, if they were capable of not making rash decisions, maybe they wouldn’t have been Nazis in the first place.)

The same dynamic plays out today with Putin’s Russia. Putin has been playing smart for a long time. There is the maskirovka in Ukraine that Schmidt discussed: Russia was able to gain influence in the Middle East through Syria on the cheap, sold missile defense to Turkey, seized parts of Georgia for no real cost, seized the Crimea for only a small cost, built a decent relationship with President Xi, allowed the hacking of US pipeline infrastructure, have influenced elections throughout the West, donated heavily to Western environmental movements to keep oil prices high and prevent the growth of nuclear power, and had used cheap natural gas to buy silence from the Germans.

Had Putin only annexed the disputed portions of Ukraine, the pushback would have likely been similarly minimal. And the fact that Putin got overconfident and (very) dumb with his last push in Ukraine doesn’t mean that we should ignore all his cleverness up until now. Likewise, the fact that the West has finally grown a backbone in the face of a total invasion of another European nation doesn’t negate the fact that their response up until this point had been fairly anemic.

You quote David Frum as saying: “Everything the [far right] wanted to perceive as decadent and weak has proven strong and brave; everything they wanted to represent as fearsome and powerful has revealed itself as brutal and stupid.” But the point was never that Russia was stronger than the West, for liberal democracies are always stronger than kleptocracies in the long run. The point was that Western leaders were choosing to not use our strength to confront Russia’s weakness, thereby making us appear weak and inviting further aggression.

Sure, dictators will always eventually push too far and invite a fierce blowback (Germany after the Lusitania, Japan after Pearl Harbor, Hitler after Barbarossa, Afghanistan after the Twin Towers), but that is hardly an argument for letting our enemies grow big enough to deserve the blowback. Imagine how many lives could have been saved had we maintained a more active military presence in the Pacific before Japan had managed to capture half of the ocean. Just because totalitarian regimes always stumble in the end doesn’t mean that we should meekly hide in the corner until they do so. Waiting always lets them grow stronger, making their downfall all the more bloody for both sides. And besides, what happens if they forget to stumble?

Wow, that was a long response. Hopefully these dissents aren’t word capped. Like I said, I usually enjoy your writing, so keep up the good work.

P.S. I didn’t know where to fit this in the main body, but I have absolutely no idea where ground truth is about the “bioweapons” propaganda. However, given Under Secretary of State Nuland’s bizarre testimony/admission and how many times Americans have been lied to over the past two decades by neocons like Nuland and your neocon friend Frum, Americans deserves a better explanation than the one that the Biden administration has provided thus far.

P.P.S. OK, one more thing about political strength and weakness. You made some claims that A) Trump brings up “strength” as a dodge, and that B) Biden has proven himself to be strong against Russia. And while I agree that Biden has done decent for himself during this crisis (though we can’t give him too much credit — the Europeans have mostly taken the lead on this one), doesn’t Trump come out on top when we compare his Russia policy to Biden’s? After all, Trump withdrew from the INF treaty, built up good relations with Saudi Arabia, incentivized US energy production, sought to increase LNG exports to Europe, approved sanctions on the Nordstream pipeline, pushed for more military spending in NATO countries, gave lethal weapons to Ukraine, and authorized the killing of Russian combatants in Syria.

Compare that to the actions that Biden has taken, such as blocking the sale of oil and gas leases on federal land, ending sanctions for Nordstream, killing the Israeli/Greek oil pipeline to Europe, alienating the Saudis so that they now refuse to help us lower oil prices, letting the Russians run the nuclear negotiations with Iran, cozying up with Putin’s ally Venezuela, and running a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that humiliated the US on the world stage.

Trump’s actions made Russia weaker and the US stronger, while Biden’s made Russia stronger and the US weaker. And waving that all away as “just bluster” from Trump and “well Biden is at least doing well now” does a grave disservice to this conversation. Even if Russia ends up imploding on their own.

I address many of these points in my post today. I’ll offer two observations here. The first is that if every international crisis is always 1936, then we’re always going to be going to war, or provoking one. This is brain-dead. The second is that comparing Trump to Churchill is obscene. Maybe if Churchill had joined Hitler in the early 1930s to endorse occupying the Sudetenland, we’d have a parallel, or if he’d praised Nazi intelligence over MI5. And maybe if Putin’s military were able to occupy Kyiv, and he didn’t have nukes, he could be compared with the the war machine that swept through Europe in a few months in 1939 - 1940.

Another reader looks back at my earlier piece, “Ukraine Now. Taiwan Next?

Long time, first time (though Chris knows me from VFYW). I very much admire your writing, and you’ve made me rethink many of my positions over the years, but — you knew it was coming — I think you’ve gotten it somewhat wrong on Ukraine. Your latest posts and interviews have all pointed to a common theme: NATO should have known not to poke the Russian bear by expanding into Eastern Europe. You even quote Churchill to prove your point, citing his famous “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” statement about Russia — who could disagree with that?

But let’s examine the context of his speech. It was given on October 1, 1939, a month into World War II and a fortnight after the Soviet Union had launched an unprovoked invasion of Poland. As Churchill notes earlier in that same speech: “First Poland has been again overrun by two of the great Powers which held it in bondage for the last 150 years, but were unable to conquer the spirit of the Polish nation.” Over the next year, the Soviets would invade the Baltic states and Finland, all of which (like Poland) had been independent since the end of World War I.  

This context shows an inconvenient truth: Russia may have a history of foreign invasions, but it also has a history of launching its own invasions. Russia isn’t simply some long-aggrieved actor finally lashing out when pushed too far. The history of its empire is one of conquest, often ruthless, against smaller peoples on their borders, groups who often posed no “security threat” to their government or people. 

Shouldn’t we take that into account, too, in any assessment of Russian “national identity”? Is Putin really concerned about his security now, or is that just a convenient pretext to allow him to join a long list of Russian conquerors? It could certainly be a bit of both, but that underscores the need for nuance over simplicity in assigning blame in the current crisis.

I further find it problematic to dismiss the will of the Ukrainian people in all of this — or the will of the peoples of the Baltic republics, for that matter. We act as if NATO forced these countries to join, when in fact strong majorities in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia supported both NATO and EU membership in the early 2000s when they joined. Can one blame them given the history of Russian aggression towards them? 

Moreover, a major cause of both the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan protests was the popular anger at Ukrainian politicians' subservience to Russia. And recent opinion polling in Ukraine has shown strong majorities in favor of NATO membership, majorities that emerged only after Putin annexed Crimea and began backing the insurgency in the Donbas region. 

I mean, I get it.  Just because these countries wanted to join NATO didn’t mean NATO was obliged to take them. And the Ukrainian government perhaps could have played up its commitment to neutrality more convincingly. But even if we acknowledge (as we should) the West’s partial culpability, it seems that this war is, on balance, Putin's doing.

To me, it comes down to this: the idea that these smaller states are mere playthings in the hands of the Great Powers without any say of their own is deeply troubling.  Maybe 'twas ever thus, but the idea that we are consigned to that in perpetuity seems to remove the basic element of human agency and undermines the hope of popular sovereignty.  Hell, if even the Swiss can get on board against Putin now, maybe it shows NATO was right about the threat he posed all along.

Maybe it’s worth repeating that faulting the West for mistakes in the past in no way justifies Putin’s war, which is 100 percent his responsibility. And, as I insisted, it is important that he lose, and be seen to lose. I pray he does.