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Introduction

"I will now tell you something I have never said before."

That's how Vladimir Putin began his answer when he was asked a question about Edward Snowden last September.

Who is Vladimir Putin? Pretend for a moment that you don't know anything about Putin. Pretend that you don't have the opinion that you do, about him, whatever it is. You may hear a lot of chatter from people talking about Putin but if you wanted to know who Putin is and what he thinks, why not ask him?

You don't have to believe every word Putin says. He's a politician. But if you could ask him questions about the events of the last year, and he gave long, detailed answers, you'd have something more than you have now. You could compare what he said with what he did and with other things he said later.

With information and knowledge straight from the source I develop my own ideas and opinions about what's happening in the world. More importantly, I've come to understand that the mass media isn't delivering the information I need to make up my mind about current events. I have a degree in Journalism from NYU and it's not easy to say that the mass media underreports or ignores issues of immense importance. Too often I find that the mass media delivers a canned opinion about a topic instead of information about the topic that I could use to form my own opinion.

I no longer believe I need the mass media for information. If I want to know what Putin's position is on any given topic I can find it on the Kremlin's English language website. (Yes, such a thing exists!) By using 21st century tools, I'm more informed than I'd ever be if I relied on mass media. I'm calmer and happier too. I'm convinced that the mass media induces a constant state of low-grade anxiety that leaves people angry, fearful, exhausted, and inert. It's the formula that reduces everything to a simplistic either/or conflict which must be what attracts eyeballs. To some people. it might seem like I'm taking DIY to an absurd level, like Martha Stewart growing herbs in dirt she made herself. She made a fortune, though, promoting that.

Back to the topic at hand. Putin will speak after some Russian human rights activists talk about what's been happening lately in their country. It connects directly to what Putin says later.

What do ordinary Russians think when they see a popular uprising in the streets of Kyiv? What does it mean to them when protesters overthrow their government? Some will have to remember the mass protests that erupted in Moscow in December 2011 and the repression that followed.

A Human Rights Watch video featuring well-known Russian activists (more about that below) explains. This is crucial to understanding Russia and Ukraine today.

I want to focus on one of the legendary human rights activists from the video.  

Tanya Lokshina appears often in the Russian media as an authoritative source of information about human rights. Lokshina is a controversial and outspoken voice of anti-Putin criticism in Russia. In the photo below, taken on July 12, 2013 at Sheremetyevo Airport, during a press conference given by Edward Snowden, Lokshina, in the white blouse, is seated next to him.

While the photo may be familiar to Americans, they only see an anonymous woman next to Snowden. However, Russians would recognize Lokshina’s iconic presence, synonymous with human rights, and defiance against Vladimir Putin in this photo. While Americans see nothing of interest, Russians, especially those interested in human rights, might study it in detail for clues.  

Putin's label, “inostrannyy agent” (foreign agent), can't be pinned on Lokshina because her reputation is already established with the public in Russia. Some rightwingers there would say she's a foreign agent and a picture of her with a mysterious stranger at Sheremetyevo would be their proof. That would make Snowden an irritant to Putin, just like Lokshina.

But soon after the photo was taken Snowden was released from the airport transit area and he was given asylum in Russia. Lokshina knows Russia's laws, which strings to pull, how to use the media and attract attention to stir up public opinion by putting Russia's leaders on the spot. No one would deny her courage in a country where human rights activists have disappeared and turned up dead.

What does Putin say about all of this?

On September 4, 2013, John Daniszewski of the Associated Press conducted an interview with Vladimir Putin. It’s posted in English on the Kremlin website. It was just before the G20 Summit when the US media was in full frenzy over the use of chemical weapons in Syria. A lot of the interview focused on that topic. Daniszewski also asked about Edward Snowden and Ukraine. Putin's statements on both were remarkable.

JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Since we are talking about legal matters, the Edward Snowden case has aroused a lot of unhappiness and frustration. What do you as a former security man think about the actions of a man like Snowden who leaks secret information he was entrusted with?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: If it was really secret information and if such a person caused us some damage, then I would certainly seek his prosecution to the fullest extent permitted by Russian law.

JOHN DANISZEWSKI: In that regard, do you think the US administration is right to seek his return from Russia, to ask you to send him back?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Probably, yes. You see, the problem is completely different. We do not know if the administration is right or not. The thing is not that we protect Snowden. We do not protect him at all. The problem is that we do not have an agreement with the United States on mutual extradition of criminals. We repeatedly suggested that the United States should conclude such an agreement, but we were refused.

I will now tell you something I have never said before. I have dropped some hints but have never said anything like that directly. Mr Snowden first went to Hong Kong and got in touch with our diplomatic representatives. I was informed that there was such a man, agent of special services. I asked them what he wanted and was told that this man was fighting for human rights and free flow of information, against violations of related human rights and law in the United States, as well as against violations of international law. I said: "So what? If he wants to stay in this country, he is welcome, provided however that he stops any kind of activities that could damage Russian-US relations. This country is not an NGO, it has its own national interests and it does not want to sever Russian-US relations." This information was communicated to him. He said: "No, I am fighting for human rights and I urge you to join me in this fight." I answered: "No, Russia will not join him, let him fight alone." And he left, just like this.

Then he took a flight to Latin America. I learned that Mr Snowden was on the way to our country two hours before his plane landed. What happened next? Information was leaked. No offence, but I think that US special services’ agents along with diplomats should have acted with greater professionalism. After they learnt that he was on the way to our country on a transit flight, they put all possible destination countries under pressure, all countries in Latin American and Europe. But they could have allowed him to get to a country where his security could not be guaranteed or intercepted him along the way – they did the same, by the way, with the plane carrying the president of one Latin American country, which, to my opinion, was absolutely unacceptable, done in a rude fashion inappropriate for the United States or your European partners. That was humiliating. The United States could have done the same with respect to Snowden. What stopped them? Instead, they scared everyone; the man quickly decided to stay in Russia’s transit zone and got stuck in our country. What were we to do after that? Hand him over to the United States? In this case we need to sign an agreement. You do not want to? All right, hand our criminals to us instead. You do not want that either? Good. Why would you then request extradition on a unilateral basis? Why so snobbish? Both sides need to take into account each other's interests, work together and look for professional solutions.

So, we are defending specific norms governing state-to-state relations rather than Mr Snowden. I really hope that in the future, Russia and the United States will reach the relevant arrangements and formalise them as legally binding instruments.

Why bring this up now? I think people on the political left who believe that mass surveillance is illegal, and who understand the gravity of the risk we now face because of the NSA's activities, made a mistake IF Putin was credited for giving Snowden asylum.

And those who criticize Snowden by saying he never spoke up for human rights in Russia continue to make a big mistake. Snowden pictured with Lokshina is a human rights statement. From Putin's story, it doesn't sound like Snowden was shy about raising the subject of human rights at all.

I don't know why people like Stephen F Cohen, an academic who teaches Russia studies at New York University give Putin any sympathy regarding Ukraine. Cohen’s work is published by The Nation, which is edited by his spouse, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and he was recently given a platform on Democracy Now! and in the mass media.  He's supposed to be a progressive.

Does he mistakenly believe Putin deserves slack because Snowden was given asylum?
He should know better. Cohen insists that Putin has been the reasonable moderate in the Ukraine situation as it went out of control. That's a fantasy.

Putin gave a press conference on December 19 and he spoke in detail about Ukraine.

QUESTION FROM ROMAN TSYMBALYUK, UKRAINIAN INFORMATION AGENCY:
I just wanted to clarify something regarding the discount on gas. How can you explain this? You choked Ukraine with high gas prices for three years and then suddenly reduced it. Does this mean that the price was not “fraternal” before but inflated and unfair for Ukraine? You said that even now we have only a temporary arrangement and must move forward. What does that mean? Also, could you please clarify if these $15 billion are the price for Ukraine’s rejection of the EU association agreement? How much would you be willing to pay to permanently discourage Kiev from looking in Europe’s direction?

VLADIMIR PUTIN:
No one was trying to strangle anyone here. It was said from the start, including in Ukraine itself, and quite fairly too, that, “if we want to be independent, we have to pay for it, behave like an independent country and follow the norms of European and global practice.” The contract that we signed back then was based on precisely these norms.

So, why have we decided to make changes to the contract now? Why have we decided to offer Ukraine these loans? Let me say again now that today’s decisions, which you all know, were taken in response to the difficulties the Ukrainian economy currently faces. These difficulties, as I said, are due to a number of different reasons.

We are not against [EU] association, but are simply saying that we will have to protect our own economy because we have a free trade zone with Ukraine, and we will not be able to leave those doors wide open in the present situation if Ukraine opens its doors wide to the European Union. We will have no choice but to close our doors.

If Ukraine adopts EU commercial standards, they won’t be able to sell to us anything at all. Do you see? So, Ukraine will immediately become – and this is just by definition, you don’t need to think about it too hard, just read the documents – an agricultural appendage to the EU.

QUESTION FROM ANTON ZHELNOV, DOZHD TV CHANNEL:
A question about Ukraine. If the protests similar to Maidan events – unsanctioned and lasting many weeks – were to occur on Cathedral Square in the Kremlin or on Red Square, how would you react? What political decision would you make?

VLADIMIR PUTIN:
I would not make any political decisions; I would act in accordance with the Russian Federation laws. Every citizen, political party, or association has the right to express their opinion on any decision made in our country, including through mass street actions, but any such protest must remain within the framework of the law. If anybody goes beyond that framework, the government has – I want to stress this, it is not some sort of political will, but the responsibility of the authorities – to bring about order, because otherwise, this turn of events can lead to chaos, which will negatively affect the economy, society, and the political state of the entire nation.

ANTON ZHELNOV:
And another clarification. You have spoken many times about the brotherly people of Ukraine. But if we go to Kiev right now, you will hear many negative words and a lack of love toward our nation, especially from the young people who are gathering at Maidan. How do you react to the emotional side of what is happening there?

VLADIMIR PUTIN:
I think this is a question of being informed. I suspect we also have nationalist-minded people, who could speak out loud about their position regarding Ukraine, and if we start counting them one by one, we would feel there are many of them. But the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens have a positive attitude toward Ukraine. This is 100% certain; there’s no need to ask a fortune-teller about it.
I think the same is true in Ukraine. Within a nation of 45 million, you can always find people who initially have negative attitudes toward us. It is their right.
But I think this is largely due to insufficient information, in part concerning the European integration process in Ukraine.
Some people are saying that the Ukrainian people have been robbed of their “European dream.” First of all, we have nothing to do with this. It is the choice of the Ukrainian people themselves and their legitimate authorities, whether or not to enter into any kind of union or to sign any documents, as I have already said many times.
But look at what is happening here. After all, we are not dragging Ukraine anywhere; we have a free trade zone with Ukraine. We are not saying we will discriminate against Ukrainian goods. On the contrary, we are saying that if Ukraine signs this document, will we be forced to cancel all preferences. We cannot maintain them, that will undermine our own economy.
And another question occurs to me. You said that some people have negative attitudes toward Russia. But here is what we need to consider. After all, the people who actively promote the idea of signing EU integration documents are mainly those who were in power just recently. Mr Yatsenyuk, I believe, was Foreign Minister, Verkhovna Rada speaker. Tymoshenko was Prime Minister. Yushchenko also held the same views and was President. Why didn’t they sign documents on joining the European Union when they were in power? Why didn’t they do it then? They were in power, nobody was in their way, they could have signed all the papers, and there would not be any questions today. Why didn’t they do it? I have a reasonable suspicion that this affair is not related to joining the EU. This is a domestic political battle, in which the signing of this document with the EU is used as a pretext to aggravate the situation, but it’s only a pretext.
We proceed from the fact that whoever wins this battle and however the situation unfolds in the future, we will still work with Ukraine and cooperate with it in such a way and such format that is the most interesting and acceptable for the Ukrainian people.

Cutting through a bit of double-talk, Putin spelled out pretty clearly in the sections I bolded that he gave Ukraine a choice that was no choice. What doors was Putin threatening to close? It could only be the natural gas pipeline that Russia shut down in 2009. It's interesting that Putin wasn't concerned about the far right nationalists two months ago and he even said Russia would still work with Ukraine "whoever wins this battle." He questions why Ukraine's prior leadership didn't sign EU documents but it turns out they did sign. Even Yanukovych signed as recently as December 2011. Those documents are found at the EU website. So Putin is disingenuous on that point. Ukraine cancelled its EU Association Agreement after Putin explained to Yanukovych that he didn't intend to share Ukraine with Europe. He forced Yanukovych to choose, Europe or Russia and Yanukovych chose Russia, because Ukraine can't survive without a supply of natural gas.

No matter what anyone tries to paste over the ugly situation to hide it or disguise it, it will always come down to this one essential fact. Ukraine can't survive without a supply of natural gas. Shell and Exxon Mobil may begin fracking in the parts of Ukraine where shale gas was discovered but energy independence for Ukraine is a long way off. The potential for escalating confrontations would only increase in the near future.

The wisest policy choice for the US is to steer clear of this cluster. But the US doesn't have a good record on making the wisest choices.

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