Wilson Center NOW Celebrates 10 Years and 500 Episodes: Russia Then and Now
When Wilson Center NOW launched almost 10 years and more than 500 episodes ago, our topic was the Sochi Olympics and our guest was then Kennan Institute Director Matthew Rojansky. Matt, now President and CEO of the U.S. Russia Foundation and a Distinguished Fellow with Kennan, is back to mark the program’s anniversary and also help us explore how Russia’s role in the world and Vladimir Putin’s ambitions have changed during the past decade. In addition to taking a look back at that first episode focused on the 2014 Winter Olympics, Rojansky also discusses Russia’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with the West, beginning with the invasion of Crimea and continuing through its ongoing attack on Ukraine. This will be the final episode of NOW in calendar year 2023. We’ll see you in 2024 and until then wish you and yours a most happy and healthy holiday season.
Wilson Center NOW Celebrates 10 Years and 500 Episodes: Russia Then and Now
This is an unedited transcript
00:00:11:01 - 00:00:34:01
Hello, I'm John Milewski. Well, welcome to another episode of Wilson Center. Now, not just any episode, a special episode. It was about ten years ago in January of 2014 that the first episode of Wilson Center now was produced and shared with all of you. We released our 500th episode recently. Back then, we posed the question How important are the Sochi Olympics to Vladimir Putin?
00:00:34:03 - 00:00:51:15
And our guest at the time was Matt Rojansky, who was then director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. So to mark that occasion, our guest today is none other than Matt Rojansky, who is now president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Russia Foundation. Matt is also a distinguished fellow with Canada. And, Matt, we're thrilled to have you with us.
00:00:51:18 - 00:01:12:22
Welcome back to helping us mark our 10th anniversary. I'm thrilled to be back with you, John. This is yeah, it's a lot of fun to have you back. It's as always. Always enjoyed the interview. You're interviewing you. You're one of the best interviewers around, especially on this topic. So a lot has changed in ten years, obviously, from where Russia was and where the world was at that moment.
00:01:12:24 - 00:01:22:05
I thought we could share a clip with our viewers of a moment from that discussion we had back in 2014. And then you and I can come back and talk about it. So let's take a look.
00:01:22:11 - 00:01:52:13
What does hosting the Sochi Olympics mean to Vladimir Putin and to Russia? I think it means a tremendous amount for both for for Mr. Putin personally and for Russia. First of all, of course, it's the first Olympic Games that Russia has hosted since the 1980 games, which were boycotted over the Afghan invasion and Cold War politics. And so I think it's very significant for Russia to kind of market's emergence or its reemergence as a major world power to host a games in its own right.
00:01:52:15 - 00:02:08:27
And the fact that it's being held in Sochi for Vladimir Putin is particularly important because that's one of the cities that he's really designated as a personal project. He spends a lot of time there. He holds major summit meetings there, and he's invested a tremendous amount in the infrastructure there. And he wants the games to succeed.
00:02:08:27 - 00:02:21:19
Okay, Matt, other than the aging process, talk to us about what has changed since that moment in history where we're talking about Russia reemerging as a world power and trying to win favor with the world.
00:02:21:26 - 00:02:48:08
Things have taken a dark turn. Yeah, my having had considerably more hair, both on my head and on my face at the time was not the only thing that looks better about that time. That that was a moment. In retrospect, it is really interesting to think about that moment of kind of winter 20 1314, because of course, the the Maidan in Ukraine was already underway.
00:02:48:10 - 00:03:13:04
But at that moment, looking ahead to the Sochi Olympics, it kind of felt like some of the systems and institutions and rules of the world as we knew it up to that point, which was a world oriented towards integration, integration of post-Soviet Russia into the rules based international order of China. There's sort of the whole narrative that came out of the 1990.
00:03:13:08 - 00:03:44:18
It felt like it was still working and Ukrainians were standing up and really wanted to be fully embraced by Europe. And, you know, perhaps that could happen peacefully. And it was, you know, just that that winter. And then ultimately, of course, February of 20, 24 of of 2014 excuse me, when when Putin invaded seizes Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine begins and we're still living in in the world that is echoing with those consequences, which, of course, have gotten only worse.
00:03:44:20 - 00:04:15:25
And the international order that we felt existed then, you know, is very much under threat now. And I would say the potential for even an event like an Olympic Games, you know, to be a kind of inflection point is very much eroded. It's hard to imagine, you know, a Russia or a China hosting any kind of international summit that would be seen as legitimate by Western countries.
00:04:15:25 - 00:04:43:24
And that would be an occasion for leaders to meet and to talk and to try to resolve problems. The state of diplomacy is very severely eroded. And so this is this is just a very, very different and much more dangerous world, at least at least that's the way it feels from this seat right now. You know, looking back at some of the interviews I did with you over the years and some of the discussions we had offline, a lot of it was spent.
00:04:43:28 - 00:05:08:07
I was asking questions, trying to get inside Vladimir Putin's head. Right. It was almost a parlor game. What is Putin want? What is he thinking? What signs is you giving us about what he's going to do? When you look back to the pre invasion of Ukraine moment, did we miss anything or should we have seen it coming? What do you think about that with hindsight, with the benefit of hindsight?
00:05:08:10 - 00:05:59:06
I think, look, I can only speak for myself. I think I underestimated the revenge of geopolitics. I think in the wake of the cold, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Soviet communism, the emergence of, you know, imperfect but nonetheless, democratic systems across much of the former Eastern Bloc and the desire of many other developing and transitioning states around the world to kind of join what we saw as a kind of win win, you know, global trading and international relations system that I presumed too much, that issues could be solved in domestic political contexts, that if Ukrainians were standing up and demanding that a corrupt regime, which is what it was, the Yanukovych
00:05:59:06 - 00:06:23:08
government that had held power from 2010 to 2014, you know, be removed and that corruption and and that Ukraine had the opportunity to live a kind of modern European lifestyle. I think, you know, I did not think enough about that in geopolitical terms. And there were many who argue that it was nothing but geopolitics. And I pushed back hard against that and said, no, not everything is a great game.
00:06:23:09 - 00:06:47:16
Not everything is, you know, Russia playing chess with the United States. And that is also still true. You know what happens within societies matters and you have to pay close attention to those developments. But I think we now live in a world that feels increasingly like that world of great power politics, where there are lots of kind of bigger forces at work driving events.
00:06:47:16 - 00:07:17:25
And in turn, you know, good outcomes. For example, the success and survival of Ukraine today depends on the actions of major powers outside, like what is pending now in Congress, you know, whether there will be a multi-billion dollar aid package to help Ukraine get through this this very difficult winter. Speaking of that, you know, when we when we look at those parallels, you know, Vietnam, the North Vietnam, the moon is where North Vietnamese outlasted us, essentially.
00:07:17:28 - 00:07:48:15
Right. And everybody thought or at least the Russians thought, that this was going to be a quick strike in Ukraine and over quickly. And here we are now well into multiple years. What is your assessment of where we stand right now and what the prospects are for a resolution any time soon? We are on the back end of what has been a very difficult and I think to a lot of us, a disappointing nine months or even a year.
00:07:48:17 - 00:08:13:07
It began with a mood of tremendous optimism that this effort by Putin and by Moscow to effectively destroy Ukraine had clearly failed. It had crashed against the rocks of Ukrainian resistance, which many of us fully anticipated. And some of us, by the way, said that that would be a reason for Putin not to do this in the first place if he's a rational actor, knowing that it would fail.
00:08:13:10 - 00:08:40:24
But he did it nonetheless. And, you know, sort of 6 to 9 months in, it looked like the Ukrainians had really turned the tide, retaking significant territory, having, you know, significant support internationally, maybe not as much as some would have wanted, but a lot. And now it is it is looking after, you know, another nearly year in the rearview, like Putin's idea of turning this conflict into a war of attrition.
00:08:40:24 - 00:09:28:01
Once his initial invasion failed to achieve its maximalist objectives. There might might have been a wise idea because then he throws it into the arena of Western politics in the United States. Of course, as we see what's happening in Congress and heading into an election year, but also in Europe, where, you know, the idea of a consensus of 30 countries about, you know, what should happen with respect to Ukraine and NATO's or Ukraine in the EU, you know, it's still an open question, but the gamble that the Kremlin seems to have made geopolitically on the West's disarray and inability to maintain a united front for years and years and years, that gamble looks better now
00:09:28:01 - 00:09:45:08
than it did nine months ago. And that's a very scary moment. Yeah, we are. I'm going to step back from the heat of the moment and ask you about your work at the US-Russia Russia Foundation and its mission. And promoting democracy at a time like this is a heavy lift. But tell us about it, Matt, please, if you will.
00:09:45:09 - 00:10:16:09
Yeah. So, you know, the slogan of the U.S. Russia Foundation is free enterprise, supporting democracy. And and that has a lot baked into it, including a theory that, you know, was enormously compelling 30 years ago in the wake of the Soviet collapse, which was basically, if you didn't have private ownership, if you didn't have stakeholder ship in private property, it would be difficult to establish and maintain democracy, rule of law, you know, basic norms in post-communist countries.
00:10:16:09 - 00:10:50:12
So the US government created investment funds in order to ensure that that happened relatively quickly after the Soviet collapse. And these existed all throughout the former Soviet empire in former communist Eastern Europe as well as in the former Soviet republics and the Russian fund did some some really important stuff. The first mortgage lending, the first credit card servicing by banks, reality television, maybe that, you know, not an unadulterated good, but certainly a market success and then some other investments that were not successful, but it was by mutual agreement.
00:10:50:12 - 00:11:12:01
But of the two governments that the investment fund became a private foundation based in Moscow with the mission of supporting kind of the ecosystem around a healthy and thriving private sector. That was in 2008. And then in 2015, the Russian government kicked the foundation out and it was one of the first to actually third on the list of undesirable foreign organizations of which I'm sad to see.
00:11:12:01 - 00:11:48:06
The Kennan Institute is now one. You know, so as I say, I mean, in the rear view, the last ten years has not been kind to us. Russia, diplomacy, engagement, democracy promotion, etc.. And so now our agenda is very different sitting here in the United States doing everything we can to work with the more than a million Russians who have left Russia in the wake of Putin's illegal invasion of Ukraine, you know, trying as much as possible to support expertise on Russia in the United States, including work being done by the Kennan Institute and others, and generally speaking, being in a posture of readiness.
00:11:48:06 - 00:12:18:13
Because, you know, at any time, I think many of us recognize history moves quickly and in fits and starts. And so there may be another window of opportunity like there was 30 years ago for Russians and Americans to reengage in a significant and productive way. As we know, the wheels of government move fairly slowly. So one of the geniuses I think of the US government having created something like the Investment Fund and then supported its transition to a private grant making foundation, is that we can move quickly.
00:12:18:15 - 00:12:42:12
And so our hope is that when there is an opportunity, for example, to restart the kind of exchanges that we had between Russian and American lawyers and judges, between educators and scholars, you know, between people who taught entrepreneurs, you know, how do you start a business right? You know, how do you how do you think about engaging the market economy?
00:12:42:17 - 00:13:00:03
These are things, frankly, that that Russians are going to have to relearn in a lot of ways. And we can preserve some of that knowledge that exists now in exile. But as Putin more and more creates a kind of state capitalist system in Russia, again, the need for this type of re-engagement when the window reopens, I think will be more and more compelling.
00:13:00:03 - 00:13:19:20
So that's kind of the long term vision of where the foundation is heading. All of all of the type of work you describe was always a longer term investment, right? There wasn't some notion that it was just going to change on a dime, but now it becomes even a longer term vision of when this might begin to turn in a direction that is more favorable to democracy.
00:13:19:23 - 00:13:54:22
What's your most optimistic scenario? I hate to get into speculation, but when you look at the current state of affairs, is there a glimmer of hope in your in your vision? Yeah, look, there's always hope. I think there are a couple of different ways of thinking about it. One would be to to hope for a miraculous victorious outcome for Ukraine in the war that sets, you know, Putin's illegitimate an aggressive agenda back so much that the regime essentially has to totally reinvent itself or crumbles entirely.
00:13:54:24 - 00:14:20:13
There are a lot of uncertainties and risks and dangers that come with that as well. We have to be prepared for those. That's that's one possible hope. It doesn't feel especially likely right now, but it's not a hope that we should abandon. Another possibility is that the regime itself will change. One obvious reason is that Putin is a mortal human being.
00:14:20:17 - 00:14:54:22
Whatever else he may be, he will not live forever. And even if a post Putin transition happens essentially within the framework of this regime, you could certainly imagine a post Putin leader who feels less personally committed to this misadventure or of, you know, destroying relations with the entire Western world by invading a sovereign neighboring country and somehow or other is open to walking that back is open to kind of rebuilding some kind of productive relations, some kind of, you know, stable European security order.
00:14:54:24 - 00:15:17:09
And in that bigger context, the room to reengage with Russia and the Russian people on democracy, rule of law, you know, private enterprise in all the ways we think about these things, I think would be reopened. And we'd want to be able to to actually put resources behind that re-engagement. So I'm not utterly without hope, but I recognize that those are our hopes.
00:15:17:09 - 00:15:34:26
Those are things that we imagine might happen eventually. We certainly can't know when. And it's very hard to identify the path right now. Well, Matt, thanks for keeping at it and thanks for sharing your insights today. It's always a pleasure to speak with you and really appreciate you helping us mark this anniversary for Wilson Center now.
00:15:34:26 - 00:15:36:28
Well, let me just say thank you very much, John.
00:15:36:28 - 00:15:56:29
It's always a pleasure. And congratulation on congratulations on 500 episodes. A true accomplishment and all the fantastic work that you and my colleagues at the Wilson Center continue to do. Terrific. Our guest is Matt Rojansky. We thank him once again. And we thank you for watching. We hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon.
00:15:57:00 - 00:16:07:23
Until then, we want to wish all of you a happy and healthy holiday, you and your families. This will be our last episode of the calendar year 2023. We'll see you again in 2024. Thanks for your time and interest.
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more