I spoke with The New York Times’ senior foreign correspondent John Fischer Burns today from London about Putin’s Russia and MA 370.
HH: One great international mystery, one great international crisis. The first, of course, the loss of Malaysia Air 370, the latter, what is Russia doing in the Crimea. I’m joined to talk about both of those by John Fisher Burns, chief foreign correspondent for the New York Times. It is always a pleasure to catch up with you, John Burns, and thank you for spending time with us late on a Monday afternoon there in London.
JB: Absolutely mutual.
HH: Let me begin by asking you, did you, were you ever the Moscow Bureau Chief? I know you were…
JB: I was. I was in the latter part of the Cold War.
HH: And so does this strike you as falling through the looking glass back into a different era of Russian-Western relations?
JB: Well, I think that the West since the mid-1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the wall in Berlin, has been dealing with a virtual Russia instead of the real Russia that was in front of us. Driven by optimism, by goodwill on our part, I think we’ve in a way willfully turned away from the evidence that the Russian bear really hasn’t changed that much. You know, we had President Bush, George W. Bush, saying that he’d looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw there a man he could deal with. I’m reaching back over time there now…
JB: But at the time, it struck me as being, and I’m sure it struck many, many people who only had to basically take a look at Vladimir Putin and take the most cursory look at his career to think this is a very strange way for an American president to describe one of the leaders, the leader of new Russia.
HH: At this hour, the United States is readying, as is Great Britain, as is the rest of the European Union, sanctions against a number of individual Russian, not Putin himself, but senior level people who have been facilitating the incursion into Crimea. Do you think those will have any consequence, John Burns?
JB: Well, from the news that’s just in, that Putin has tonight signed a decree recognizing Crimea as a sovereign and independent state, I think the answer would be no, I don’t think it will have any effect. And the question I would ask, the near question, would be when those sanctions were considered and then declared today by the European foreign minister, why on Earth was Putin not on the list?
HH: That’s a great question. I don’t know. Why wouldn’t they seize his assets? Perhaps not to push him into the rest of Ukraine? Do you think that might be a…
JB: Well, I think it’s like of a piece with so much else that has happened in recent weeks. Putin in the manner of a bully will sense, smell, almost, the lack of resolve in all of this, and he will take it as, you know, further sanction, in effect, for what he’s done. He had no reason to deter what he was doing in the face of his own historical concept as to what this is all about, which we might talk about. I think he would look at this and he would say they’re not serious.
HH: Well, let’s talk about that. What is driving Putin, because this is clearly a one-man band that’s running Russia?
JB: Well, I think you can see a theme running through the history of Russia going back to Catherine the Great, and that is the desire to construct, or in this case, reconstruct the great Russia. 1992 involved more than the loss of, the fall of communism. It meant the loss of land which had been in the Russian domain, in some cases, for decades or a century or more. And what Putin appears to be setting out to do is to reclaim those lands where there are significant Russian populations, Russian majority populations. And there are many of them. I think there are eight or nine territories all told that border the present reconstructed Russia. And it’s pretty ominous. If Putin takes the lesson from the Crimea that he can do this with more or less impunity, because we are not willing to confront him, and I have to say, you know, I think it’s a fair question for those who hesitate to take stronger measures what the consequences for us would be of forcing this confrontation. I think the measures available to us are very few, and it may well be that those of us are very disheartened by this will have to look further back and say the mistakes that have been compounded today had their origins 20 years or so ago, that we, when as I say, we began to construct a virtual Russia that suited us at the time instead of the real Russia that we were confronting, that we would…
HH: So this would be, this would be a bipartisan failure of realism on the part of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and all of their secretaries of State, and I would guess at least three British prime ministers and their foreign ministers.
JB: Yeah, and you know, it’s been a willful failure. It’s also been, I think, understandable for those of us who lived through the Cold War, and those time when we really thought that we might be on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. There was so much relief, so much goodwill toward the new Russia, it was not surprising that that should overtake reality. Now we see things much more clearly, it’s going to be very difficult indeed to construct a policy that is effective to deter any further actions by Russia. And I have to say that we encouraged it, in my view, in another way, in that the whole issue of Kosovo, when we supported the secessionists, independentist movement in Kosovo, we were supporting the breakaway from Serbia of a territory that had been part of Serbia for a very, very long time, centuries, many centuries. And we did that because of the majority will of the Kosovar Albanian people. And we at the time, there were people who warned that we were setting a precedent that would encourage the Russians, amongst others, to take similar irredentist actions on their own borders. I’ve not seen Kosovo mentioned very much in the context of all of this, but I think that you know, there are, there are many, many mistakes in this, all this on the part of the West, and that was probably one of the principal ones.
HH: I recall that you left Russia and went to Beijing during your years as a foreign correspondent outside of London, before you became the chief foreign correspondent for the New York Times. If I’m not mistaken, China voted with the rest of the world against, or at least they abstained when the Security Council at the U.N. were condemning Russia, they’ve got their own problem if this idea of ‘you get to vote yourself into a new country’ takes hold, don’t they?
JB: They do. They do. You know, there’s a, in a way, a still unresolved dispute between Russia and China on the northeast frontier of China, the extreme far eastern border of Russia, which a competition, a rivalry over land along the Amur River which were subject of an imperial struggle between Russia and China in the 19th Century. So the Chinese will have very much in their mind here not the larger, if you will, questions of international principle and democratic intent, but what the implications for themselves are if similar movements were encouraged, particularly in the Muslim areas of China to the west. So I think you can interpret that vote by the Chinese as being entirely one in China’s self-interest and not one that arrayed China on the side of the West on the basis of, if you will, principles of international law and ethical behavior.
HH: So in the final analysis, John Burns, this is a fait accompli. Is there really anything the West can do about this, or anything you can imagine them doing about this given that the vote has been held, the Russian troops are there, they’re in fact on sandbars and pieces of land outside of Crimea proper, but very close to Crimea, and just hope that they don’t march further into Ukraine?
JB: Yeah, I think that’s a very ominous, it’s an ominous potential in this, because there has to come a point looking to the question of Eastern Ukraine and beyond that into other territories that the Russians might seek to reclaim on the basis of the will of Russian, local Russian minorities in the Baltic states, for example, that will confront NATO with a really serious question as to whether we are going to honor NATO’s charter. Now Ukraine as it happens is not a full member of NATO. There was a move towards, I think, an associate status. But I think that action of a much more serious kind, and the West, the United States and Europe has announced today, is going to have to be taken if we’re not going to have a generation of events of this kind as Russia attempts to reassert itself. And those steps that one might imagine us taking could be very dangerous indeed. I mean, we’ve already seen the edges of military action with the U.S. deploying aircraft, AWACS and other aircraft, to keep an eye on what’s happening in Ukraine. And I think this is a pretty dark passage. And I wouldn’t very much like to be in the seat occupied by Mr. Cameron, Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry tonight.
HH: There are also voices out of official Russian media talking about the capacity Russia has to turn the United States into cinders, the sort of bluster one normally associates with North Korea and other sort of renegade states. Are you surprised by this ratcheting up of rhetoric?
JB: Well, I don’t know which particular Russian publications there are, but there are of course some extreme nationalist publications in Russia. What’s disturbing is that in some publications which are thought to be government controlled or actually are, there has been a ratcheting up of nationalist rhetoric not quite that, if you will, provocative.
HH: This was by anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, who is the leading anchor on Russian state television on Sunday.
JB: Well, then, yeah, you know, I take your point. This is pretty worrying. On the other hand, there are cool heads. I think Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, would be among them. I thought the other day when I saw a photograph of Sergei Lavrov walking across the grounds at Winfield House with John Kerry, Winfield House being the American ambassador’s residence in London, a photograph taken from behind, and the thought that came to my mind is how much more of this is Sergei Lavrov, who is an accomplished diplomat and a modern man, going to be able to take before he finally has to exit, I was going to say exit right, but exit left in this case. I think there’s plenty of potential, and it may be the biggest hope in all of this, for domestic political developments in Russia themselves to destabilize Putin, and perhaps lead in time to another kind of Russian government. Putin is a very unpopular man, and in large areas of metropolitan Russia. And of course what he’s doing in Crimea looks on the short term to be very popular with a wide segment of the Russian population, but I think it’s far too early to judge that he will be able to rely on that. And things could turn against him.
HH: You’ve got to be careful, John Burns, because Putin put out a list of people that he imposed sanctions on today. It included Dick Durbin, because Durbin has been an outspoken critic of his. So you could end up banned from Russia, John, and I don’t want that to happen to you. This…
JB: What a terrible, terrible…and it would be. I would like to go back to Russia. But you know, I think we’re, all of us, going to have to individually, as well as collectively, steel ourselves now for something we would devoutly have wished never to see again, which is getting tough with the Russian bear, and calibrating that so that we do not get driven, God help us, towards military confrontation, but can accelerate, I think, the change that we can concentrate on, is political change in Russia. That’s, of course, a long term objective, but it seems to me to be the most likely way in which we can deter Russia from taking more steps of this kind.
HH: And on that note, I do want to have your reaction to the disappearance of Malaysian Air 370. It’s not a story to which you would have any special access beyond anyone else, but I’m curious, you’ve watched a lot of dramas over a lot of years as a foreign correspondent. Taking in all the data that you’ve been able to take in, what’s your assessment of what happened here?
JB: Well, first of all, I’m very wary of conspiracy theories almost anywhere and everywhere. And I think we need to be, in this case, it certainly looks like a result of malevolence on board that aircraft, by whom we can’t tell. It seems to me altogether more likely, the two tracks that has been described, as being that the likely course of that aircraft as it crossed to the west of the Malay Peninsula, that it’s very likely that it went to the north and not to the south.
JB: I’m saying things which anybody who can look at the map can see would be evident.
JB: …that if it went to the north, and flew for somewhere between five and eight hours, what to me is very interesting is where the terminal point would be. The terminal point would be over northwestern China and the so-called Stans, the Muslim states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. And we do know that there is a great deal of unrest in those areas, that at the extremes of that unrest, al Qaeda has been trying to gain ground, particularly in areas like the Uighur majority areas of Western China around Kashgar. And there could be many reasons for this. And I don’t think we’re ever going to see that aircraft again, and it may take years to find it. But it seems to me the fact that it was heading to that direction, carrying 153 Chinese nationals, if it were an act of terrorism, it would be, in my mind, most likely to have something to do with that cauldron that is bubbling in the northwest perimeters of China.
HH: And every government in the world has to be worried about the repurposing of that aircraft, don’t you think?
JB: I think they do. As a matter of fact, I think one of the things that we have seen in all of this is how porous is air security in certain parts of the world, and how, you know, for those of us who now wait long in long line ups to get on board aircraft in our own world, and in a way curse the necessity of it, I think this should be a reminder to us of what it is that homeland security in the case of the United States, the Home Office and the authorities in the United Kingdom and their counterparts across much of the Western world, what they are trying to achieve. It’s precisely to prevent the sort of thing that happened on that aircraft. Of course, it’s a little bit early to say that there were failures at Kuala Lumpur Airport, but that’s certainly something, and the security is something that’s going to have to be, it’s going to have to be looked at, because you have to wonder how an aircraft could be turned around like this, even if one of the air crew were involved, which I’m personally skeptical of. It’s hard to imagine that being accomplished without the use of a weapon.
HH: Agreed. John Fisher Burns, thank you for staying up late with us, chief foreign correspondent for the New York Times talking with us from London tonight, thank you. As always, a great pleasure.
End of interview.