Great Cold War debates happen in the most unlikely of places.
West Java, Indonesia, March 26. Today I’m invited to a very dressy event. A Russian Ambassador to Indonesia along with a Vice Minister of Telecom and Mass Communication arrive at the university to attend a big do — a celebration of Russian language, media, and culture with about 250 students and faculty attending.
The lanky Aleksey K. Volin, a Vice Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications, show up in jeans with Ambassador Mikhail Galuzin and a coterie of Russian press people decked out in checkered pants and T-shirts. Mr. Volin gave students a remarkably charming lecture (including an introduction to Communications in perfect Indonesian) while the ambassador, dressed in a beautiful red batik, looked on happily as students danced and sang the soulful melodies of Mother Russia.
In his lecture Volin pointed to the challenges of New Media, warning students that the era of citizen journalism not only brings unprecedented freedom, but the danger of lots of opining amateurs on the internet, along with their unvetted and inaccurate information. He told us that legitimate journalists should not make mistakes. In other words: be careful about what you read in the media, much less what you write; it really may not be true.
Then the Russian ambassador, Mr. Galuzin, did a nice job in his speech claiming, as he quoted President Obama, that the West resorts to all sorts of arm twisting when it doesn’t get its way. The US doesn’t obey the UN charters or the Rule of Law; it tries to impose its will by invading lots of countries. He cited United States foreign policy as the main irritant and violator of the territorial integrity of other nations. And why, after all, was the US behind these damaging banking, equipment, and trade sanctions penalizing Russia over troubles in Eastern Europe?
An Indonesian student then got up and asked the Ambassador why Russia invaded Ukraine.
Thereafter a simple answer: “Russia didn’t invade Ukraine,” he said. Western leaders came to Kiev to incite the Ukrainian people to throw out the legitimate government of Viktor Yanukovych (he didn’t mention him by name, but we knew whom he meant). The new Ukrainian government sent armies to Eastern Ukraine to quell the patriotic Russian separatists who wanted their own Republic, and…
I waited my turn. And then I got up to speak…
“Well, since I’m the only American in the audience,” I began, “the situation you spoke of, Mr. Ambassador, is more complicated than that. ” To students I said, “There is no such thing as a single good guy or a bad guy in these international situations. No single country holds all the moral ground…be careful of listening to any pat answers.”
And I recounted the history of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, and then the US invasion, and then the US invasion of Iraq (a huge mistake for many reasons, which I acknowledged), and the fighting over Ukraine that brought down 298 people on Malaysian Flight 17, the commercial jet shot out of the sky last summer, possibly by Russian separatist volunteers who made a mistake. I also addressed the Ambassador’s attack on the US (and NATO’s) bombing of Kosovo in the 1990s, and the atrocities now being committed by ISIL in the Middle East. My message: Do your research. Don’t believe anything that a single source tells you. The world is a complicated place. (And there are times when atrocities have to be met with active resistance…)
I also explained about the Ukrainian Euromaidan movement to support Ukraine’s joining of the EU, and how Yanukovych’s gross corruption and his cronies’ sweetheart contracts with Ukraine’s Naftogaz and OAO Gazprom had brought a lot of misery to the country…..
I got a big round of applause.
We had a further debate, and the Ambassador had his say over the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 jetliner, claiming that Russia had been in the lead in sifting through evidence and it was likely, given the fact that a Ukrainian military jet had been located nearby the commercial flight before its destruction, that the Ukrainian jet was responsible rather than a rogue surface to air missile coming from Russian separatists (for a report defending the Russian position, please go to http://rt.com/news/221759-lavrov-ukraine-plane-crash/). Both the Kiev government and the pro-Russia separatists fighting in the region have continued to deny any responsibility for downing the aircraft, claiming the fault lies with the other side (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/malaysia-airlines-flight-17-crashes-in-ukraine/).
[An investigation led by the Netherlands is also under way, allegedly in violation of International Civil Aviation Organization “norms,” according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. However, the final report will not be released until the summer 2015 (http://rt.com/news/221759-lavrov-ukraine-plane-crash/.) One of the gentlemen in Ambassador Galuzin’s group got up and said the Netherlands investigation is going absolutely nowhere.]
Ambassador Galuzin was quite upset that I brought the whole subject up. And Vice Minister Volin added that it was “insane” for any commercial airliner to be flying over a war zone. I agree.
Nonetheless, the real point is that any war has a human cost. Is Russia innocent? Is the Ukrainian army? At least 4,808 people have been killed (including the 298 from flight MH-17) and 10,468 wounded in eastern Ukraine from mid-April 2014 to 6 January 2015, according to the World Health organization (WHO) (http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Sitrep%2023%20-%20Ukraine%20-%209%20January.pdf.) Does it really matter who shot down the plane? Ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine have had a miserable time of it and may in fact want to join “Mother Russia.” The fault for this war may be quite equally divided.
As Galuzin held forth on the jetliner, though, the Indonesian moderator finally told him to stop talking about Ukraine because Indonesia is neutral and students wanted to ask many other questions.
And they did. In fluent Russian. I was impressed.
There was a tense silence after we finished. However, at lunch I met with the Russian press people and even took Ambassador Galuzin’s hand. I told him it was not my intention to insult or upset him; that there were many things about Russia I admired (“What a beautiful country!”), and I am part Russian-Ukrainian myself. He just laughed and said. “That’s just diplomatic stuff. There are many things I admire about the US, too.” And I realized the debate had a productive result, making me think even more about how our respective media frame — and often distort — the multifaceted nature of international relation and events.
At lunch I also talked with some fascinating Indonesian government officials who had lived in Russia, along with Alexey Nikolov, an RT TV managing editor who had come up to me after the debate and called me a “colleague…we are journalists…and we’re not diplomats, so we don’t have to talk that talk.” He said he believes in good, carefully reported journalism, as I do. However, he added there were strange doings over the Malaysian jet downing investigation and it may not have been the Russian separatists at fault after all. He seemed to value integrity and I hope to meet him again someday.
Anyway, I’m glad I did the research on Ukrainian oil and gas while working as a writer for Canary LLC on oil and gas geopolitics. The RT managing editor engaged me in a conversation about Russian oil and gas, correcting my perception that Putin went into Crimea to grab its oil and gas assets (not much) and prevent Ukraine or Western disruption of Russia’s undersea pipelines. “That’s ridiculous, hogwash,” he said. Putin did, however, annex Crimea to keep an upper hand in the Black Sea, the editor acknowledged.
In all, a great and unexpected debate. When I met Vice Minister Aleksey Volin in the hallway to wish him goodbye, he told me a secret. “Some of my best American friends are Republicans from the Bush Administration,” he said.