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Whose Advice Should You Trust on Ukraine?

On 7 May Russian President Putin met with the Swiss head of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and declared, “We both believe that direct dialogue between the Kiev authorities and [rebel] representatives of southeast Ukraine is the key to settling this crisis.” He also stated that “We have withdrawn our forces and they are now not on the Ukrainian border.” And he asserted that the Ukrainian government should “cease immediately all military and punitive operations in southeast Ukraine,” and that rebels should hold off holding any planned referendums on Sunday, 11 May “in order to give this dialogue the conditions it needs to have a chance.” He called the presidential election scheduled for 25 May “a step in the right direction,” but added “it will not solve anything unless all of Ukraine’s people first understand how their rights will be guaranteed once the election has taken place.”

In the days that followed, numerous sources questioned whether his words were sincere or just propaganda. The U.S. government and NATO declared they saw no evidence that Russian troops had moved back from the Ukrainian border; Ukrainian troops attacked a rebel-occupied police station in the city of Mariupol; and rebel leaders in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared their intention of going ahead with Sunday’s separatist referendums.

On a more positive note, however, the Ukrainian government announced that it had been influenced by the OSCE call for dialogue and was beginning an “initiative to hold all-Ukrainian national-unity roundtable discussions.” It added, “We are prepared to join dialogue with all the parties that pursue legitimate political goals and intend to defend them using legal means—those who have not stained their hands with blood.” This last phrase indicated there could be strong differences between the Ukrainian government and Putin regarding who should participate in any Ukrainian dialogue. Meanwhile hostile accusations continued on all sides.

All of this leaves U.S. citizens with the question “What should our government be doing regarding the ongoing Ukrainian crisis?” As with judging any foreign policy action, we citizens first need to know what’s going on. But as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “ay, there’s the rub!” How in this world of innumerable media sources, many of them biased, do we ferret out the truth? This has become a crucial task of our time—and not just in regard to international affairs.

To begin with, we must seek truth more than bias conformation. In our age of polarized politics we must be willing to go beyond just reading or listening to our favorite right-wing or left-wing sources. In one of his best speeches, in 2010, President Obama urged graduates of the University of Michigan to be tolerant and said that “the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.”

Like many HNN readers, the paper I read most regularly is the New York Times (NYT). But note what reputable journalist Robert Parry has to say about its coverage of the current Ukrainian crisis: “The Times’ prejudice over the Ukraine crisis has reached new levels of extreme as the ‘newspaper of record’ routinely carries water for the neocons and other hawks who still dominate the U.S. State Department.”

Although Parry’s statement seems exaggerated to me, he is not the only credible source to criticize the Times. Historian Stephen Cohen and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel claim that due to Ukrainian developments “the White House declared a new Cold War on Russia” and that this stance has “been supported by mainstream media that shape and reflect policy-making opinion, from the Times and The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal, from The New Republic to The Weekly Standard, from MSNBC to Fox News, from NPR to commercial radio news.” Gordon Hahn, author of Russia’s Islamic Threat, has also criticized NYT for skewed reporting.

However deficient the Times is, Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s other media outlets are even worse. In the Murdoch-owned New York Post, Fox’s “strategic analyst” Ralph Peters makes sweeping, unsubstantiated claims in his “Putin's plan to reclaim the old Russian empire,” He asserts that Putin intends “to regain all the lands that once belonged to the czars. . . . And make no mistake, Putin truly believes he's entitled to reclaim Ukraine and a great deal more. . . . He’ll take those eastern provinces when he’s ready, then expand along the Black Sea coast, building a strategic bridge to Crimea. At his leisure, perhaps over years, he’ll snag the rest of Ukraine.”

In Putin’s view, writes Peters, “independent capitals from Warsaw (yes, Warsaw) to Bishkek [capital of Kyrgyzstan] are integral and natural parts of the Russian imperium.” Peters then ticks off the areas Putin would like to take over, including not only former parts of the Soviet Union but even “Poland? Yup, Poland. The northeastern third, anyway, including Warsaw.” Peters fears that Putin may achieve considerable success because of a weak U.S. policy, or as he writes, “Obama talks, Putin kills.”

Citizens need to be wary of such rhetoric and rants. Nor should we take as gospel the words of the media critics mentioned above. Like all of us, they also haves their biases.

But who then can enlighten us? In several previous posts, I have mentioned my reliance on Johnson’s Russia List (JRL). It has provided all the material related to Ukraine that I have quoted above, plus much more from the most diverse U.S., Russian, Ukrainian, and other European sources. Two quotes at the top of each JRL issue capture well its spirit: “We don't see things as they are, but as we are,” and “Don't believe everything you think.”

The great diversity of JRL viewpoints does not, however, free us from the task of determining which of them are most reliable. To do that we must ask ourselves a series of other questions like “Who has the most expertise?” “Who seems to be the most objective?”

We can judge expertise in various ways, for example, by looking at the experiences and positions experts have held and the quality of their previous writings. In judging objectivity, we should pay attention to a writer’s tone. Is it that of a know-it-all or a truth seeker? Is it full of rants and sweeping generalizations or does it recognize the complexity of a situation? Different types of writing can alter a writer’s tone. A scholarly work should be more objective than an op-ed article, but we can seek wisdom in both types of writing.

Wisdom scholar Robert Sternberg has stated that “smart and well educated people” are often unwise because of big egos, because they overestimate their own importance and powers. In forming our judgments about the best U.S. policy regarding Ukraine and Russia, we should consider the writings of experts and, where they disagree, balance them against each other. But “experts” can sometimes be wrong. When they are, their tone often betrays them. So beware of the unwise know-it-alls.

A few experts not yet mentioned but who have appeared in JRL posts and whose opinions I value are Angela Stent, Andrew Wilson, Nicolai Petro, and Anatol Lieven.

Stent is the author of the excellent The Limits of Partnership : U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-first Century (to be reviewed on this website later this month). Her prepared statement for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing is especially helpful. She and Cohen were also recently questioned about Putin’s May 7th remarks on the PBS Newshour, which JRL posted. Wilson, author of several editions of The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, has co-written a sound analysis of the current Ukrainian political scene. Petro has authored many works on Russia and Ukraine and is currently a visiting scholar in Ukraine. JRL has posted his thoughts on various occasions; the latest is his insightful essay, “Six Mistakes the West Has Made (and Continues to Make) in Ukraine.” Lieven, author of many books dealing with international relations and parts of the former USSR, has offered valuable guidance in “Ukraine: The Only Way to Peace.”

On 8 May, a letter to the UK's Guardian appeared which was reposted on JRL. It was from Lieven and about a half dozen other prominent British scholars whose works on the USSR and/or Russia I have long admired. It stated that “all sides should drop their pugnacious rhetoric” and “do everything possible to promote international negotiations with the aim of ending the violence in Ukraine.”

Good advice!