Few academics have a more intuitive and thorough understanding of history unfolding between Russia and the US than Nina L. Khrushcheva, author, commentator and professor of international affairs at The New School in New York City. The granddaughter of the Soviet leader of the 1950s and 1960s Nikita Khrushchev has observed the unfolding crisis in Ukraine very closely and shares her thoughts with Kathimerini.
What’s going to happen in Ukraine? The leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, said on Friday that Ukrainians plan to attack his region. Does it seem like a pretext for Moscow to invade?
Americans have been telling us for three months that the Russian invasion will start any day. So, if America says, “Moscow is ready to invade Ukraine,” then why wouldn’t the people of Donetsk and Luhansk say too that “Ukraine is ready to invade”? The US is a country that is declaring a war between the other two countries. And it is not even on the same continent. I’ve been afraid that, as both sides are raising the stakes all the time, it might just get out of control.
In one of your recent articles you suggest that the West has ignored Russia’s security concerns. Do you really think that Russia’s big fear is that perhaps in 10 years time, Western NATO forces might establish military camps only a few hundred kilometers from Moscow?
Well, yes, I mean the West ignored Russia as a legitimate player after the Cold War. America says that NATO is a defensive alliance. But in Putin’s view, if NATO is close to the Russian borders this creates the potential for manipulation in Russian affairs. Also, Putin is thinking that if Ukraine is firmly in that NATO embrace in five years from now and they decide – and I think they already have decided – that he is the Saddam Hussein of Europe, then why not take him out? So Putin thinks that he doesn’t want to have this fate. Apart from that, Putin is basically saying, “Why are you denying me things that you do?” Finally, even if he dies in the Kremlin, after many years, he doesn’t want to be the one who, for example, didn’t prevent Ukraine retaking Crimea by force and the Russian naval force from being replaced by a US naval force. I think all these are very complicated thoughts that he has and that’s what I think drives his current actions.
You have explained that Russia seeks to establish a sphere of influence. But what about the sovereignty of nations and their freedom to choose alliances?
Ukraine should have the right to choose an alliance. But my teacher, my mentor was George Kennan [the US diplomat who was the advocate of the doctrine of containment of Russia during the Cold War]. Yes, all the countries have equal rights but geopolitics suggests that ultimately the smaller countries, the less powerful countries end up choosing what’s the least harmful way for their existence. Look at Finland. I’m not disagreeing with your suggestion but let’s be reasonable here. I’ve been a critic of Putin since December 31, 1999 when he became president. But certainly the United States is not the source of goodness. Why is the West screaming about Putin so much and not screaming enough about [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan? It’s just because the US needs a giant enemy. And, equally, Putin wants to push away a big power. Two countries that consider themselves important and messianic are arguing over who is better, more important and more messianic…
Yes, but one could argue that there are some practical matters here. If Ukraine falls and accepts Russian demands, then NATO will crack and Europe will enter a new Cold War era. China might be more emboldened toward Taiwan. And Russia will then ask for more influence over the rest of Eastern Europe.
It is possible that all of that could happen. The Chinese are already emboldened and looking at this with great glee. And, yes, Putin might ask then, “What about the Baltics?” What Putin demands is what many Russian leaders would demand because Russian leaders think that they have a great country. But the West says, no, you are big but you’re basically just a gas station with a pump for us or something. And so you’re going to sit at the children’s table next to the toilet.
What would George Kennan suggest as a solution to this impasse?
George Kennan was very much against the expansion of NATO eastward in Europe and so he would say, “Consider their issues, discuss their problems.” But, you know, I teach propaganda in the university and I see how politics is being done. You always need to create an enemy and you always need to create history to show you are right.
Would your grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, support President Putin in his goals regarding Ukraine?
When Putin annexed Crimea, my uncle thought that Khrushchev would agree with that. My mother said instead that he would be appalled by that. Khruschev was certainly a Soviet patriot. He would have been traumatized even at the thought that American naval ships could go into Crimea. As you know, during his premiership, in 1956, tanks were sent into Budapest. In 1968, while he was retired, the Soviets sent tanks to Czechoslovakia. He was incredibly upset, and he was saying, “It’s been 12 years, and we haven’t learned a better way than sending tanks.” So today, I’m sure he would say, “It has been 60 years and still we haven’t learned a better way.”