Former U.S. ambassadors share thoughts on Putin

By EMILY MCDONALD | February 22, 2018

European Horizons and the John Quincy Adams Society, two student groups promoting discussions about foreign policy, hosted a debate alongside the International Studies department called “Dealing with Putin’s Russia: Challenges and Opportunities” on Feb. 15.

The debate featured John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan and the director of the Atlantic Council Eurasia Center, and John M. Evans, a former U.S. ambassador to Armenia and former U.S. Consul General in St. Petersburg.

Steven David, professor of international relations and director of undergraduate studies in the political science department, moderated the debate. 

Each speaker began by sharing their opinions on the current state of Russian affairs under Russian President Putin. 

Evans, who worked with Putin personally during his time in St. Petersburg, said that Putin is very different than the media depicts him.

“What I’m going to tell you is going to be very much not what you’d expect from the mainstream media,” Evans said, “We have misunderstood the man, and we have demonized him.” 

Evans argued that many of the problems that Russia faces today, such as a high crime rate, were already present under Putin’s predecessor, President Boris Yeltsin.

“We have gotten ourselves into a situation now, as the title of this event even reveals — we’re calling it ‘Putin’s Russia.’ So there’s kind of an assumption here that the problem with Russia is Putin, and if Putin would only move on... all our problems with Russia would be solved, and that is definitely not true,” he said. 

Evans cited Putin’s background in law and foreign affairs. He claimed that many common assumptions about him are misconceptions.

“He was not anti-Western, he was not a communist, he was not anti-American,” Evans said, “He was not anti-business.”

Opponents of Putin often note that he is a former member of the KGB. Evans believes that some of the negative stereotypes associated with KGB members are inaccurate in Putin’s case.

“The standard moniker that’s attached to Mr. Putin is ‘KGB thug.’ Now that’s not the impression that I had of Mr. Putin, I have to tell you,” he said, “In the last 20 years or so of the Soviet Union, the KGB was hiring some of the best and the brightest.”

Evans argued that pinning current issues in Russia on Putin allows the U.S. to exonerate themselves from blame. 

“I think the danger of seeing Russia as being poisoned, as it were, by the fact that Putin is the president, the danger is it gives us a facile explanation of what the problems are, and it relieves us of the requirement to look at our own actions and see if there’s anything we have done to cause the situation,” he said. 

Evans also believes that blaming systemic issues on Putin alone is illogical. 

“We ought not to over-personalize the problem. We have to realize that these are interstate problems and not problems with the individuals,” he said. 

Evans concluded by warning that future leadership may not necessarily solve the issues presented by Putin’s Russia. 

“We should be careful what we wish for, because when Putin leaves the scene, there is every possibility that somebody less to our liking may come to power,” he said. 

Herbst then explained that he believes Russia is a revisionist power, which is a state dissatisfied with its status in the world order. 

He said that this view is demonstrated by its interfering actions in Georgia, Crimea and the Ukraine. According to Herbst, this proves that Russia poses a threat to the U.S.

“[Russia is] a power that believes in changing in a radical way the status quo,” he said, “The world’s second largest military power is changing borders in Europe by force, they are challenging very directly the national order which is the basis of our stability, our security and our prosperity.”

Herbst noted that Putin has publicly stated that nations have the right to choose their own investigatory systems and foreign policy orientations. However, later statements by Putin seem to contradict this.

“President Putin... has said that Russia has the right to steer influence, that Russia has the right to protect not just ethnic Russians but Russian speakers, whoever they may be,” Herbst said.

Herbst called for more assertive foreign policy towards Russia. 

“If you want peace, as the Romans said, prepare for war when you’re dealing with an aggressive nation,” he said. “And sadly, under the new leadership of Mr. Putin, Russia has become an aggressive nation.”

Herbst believes that the U.S. should take stronger measures to inhibit Russia’s revisionist tendencies. According to him, the U.S.’s less assertive foreign policy is due to an unwillingness to repeat recent decisions made in the Middle East.

“We have had 18 years of dreadful foreign policy because we do not understand the limits of our power in the Middle East,” he said, “But the same folks who correctly call out our policy in the Middle East are misapplying that principle.”

Herbst concluded that the only way to maintain peace between the U.S. and Russia is stronger foreign policy.

“You want peace? Make sure that the Russians understand that aggression is on the table. Then they will be willing to talk to us in ways that are consistent with our interests,” he said. 

Sophomore Lucy Massey attended the event because she saw a recent talk by Ambassador Daniel Fried hosted by the International Studies Leadership Council, which got her interested in the subject. 

“I think anytime we get a high-ranking diplomat like that, even if they’re a former diplomat, they often have very interesting things to say,” she said.

Massey elaborated on how the different views of the speakers affected the debate.

“You know they have great expertise, and they’re often somewhat opinionated too, which makes for a good discussion, especially when you get two of them like this,” she said.

Massey believes that the topic of Putin’s Russia is especially relevant today.

“I think it’s a relevant topic currently, and certainly a good one to talk about, so I knew it would be interesting to watch,” she said.

Massey was interested in Evans’ opinions on Putin and Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine.

“I found it interesting that Ambassador Evans talked about Putin, the person, to a great extent and that he also mentioned fairly strong opinions about the Ukraine that were in opposition to Ambassador Herbst’s,” she said.

She also enjoyed hearing David’s opinions on the issue.

“Professor David venturing his opinions was somewhat surprising but definitely livened up the debate a lot,” she said.

Massey said that both Evans and Herbst’s arguments made her think more about the issues facing Russia today.

“I think that both of them said some things that... I picked out as being slightly questionable, so it’s definitely good to think more about it,” she said.

Senior Qi Fan attended the talk because she is a member of European Horizons and was interested in U.S. foreign affairs and policy. She appreciated that Evans and Herbst had very different opinions on the issue.

“I also liked the division, because the speakers have very different opinions, and I think that makes the debate really interesting,” she said.

Exchange student Pierre Wang is also a member of European Horizons and attended the talk because he wanted to hear more about the speakers’ views on Putin.

“I’m very interested in how the U.S. sees the European-Russian affairs,” he said.

Wang appreciated hearing Evans’ opinions of Putin.

“I loved to have Ambassador Evans, because he has a very different view of Putin than what we hear in the media today,” he said.

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