Kevin Rothrock of “A Good Treaty”
La Russophobe recently sat down (virtually speaking) with Russia blogger Kevin Rothrock of “A Good Treaty.” As the name of his blog suggests, Rothrock is lobbying in favor of Barack Obama’s nuclear arms treaty with Russia. As such, he’s eager to paint Putin’s Russia as a more-or-less reasonable country America can trust well enough to keep its word on such a treaty.
Just as we suspected was the case with now defunct Russia blogger Mark Adomanis, Rothrock is far from being the hardcore Russophile fanatic that many of the idiotic Russophile lurkers and scum seem to take him for being. And, just as we suspected, that doesn’t keep Rothrock from both intentionally and unintentionally undermining American values and helping (in his silly, insignificant little way) to perpetuate the worst and most abusive aspects of dictatorship in Putin’s Russia. Commiting such vile acts doesn’t seem to bother Rothrock one bit. Indeed, Rothrock seems almost reptilian in his cold-blooded attitude towards the subject, caring not one wit for the fate of the people of Russia but only for his personal intellectual amusement and his Obamanian political agenda, and not acknowledging that the rise of a neo-Soviet state in Russia has any risks for American security. Truly, with “friends” like these Russia needs no enemies. Americans, the same.
Most importantly, Rothrock is unable to give a satisfactory answer as to how America can possibly place enough faith and trust in the hopelessly corrupt Putin government so as to justify signing a one-sided nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and he refuses to acknowledge anyone as being viable opposition to Putin. He believes that the only way Putin will not have power for life in Russia is if he doesn’t want it, and he goes on the record saying Putin will not stand for reelection — or if he does, apparently, Dima Medvedev will best him at the polls. Quite a long neck stretch, no? Due credit if he is right. If not . . . guess he’ll just shrug and say “oops, my bad” when he learns lots of folks dropped their guard and let Putin sneak in a haymaker because of his prediction. Meanwhile, Rothrock totally ignores the fact that all the evidence from every source, including the Russian people, indicates that Medvedev is nothing more than Putin’s puppet, a total sham, meaning that it might actually be worse for Putin to pull the strings in secret, where his accountability is even less.
LA RUSSOPHOBE: Welcome to La Russophobe, Kevin. You recently wrote blog posts on your website “A Good Treaty” about Oleg Kashin and Alexei Navalny, posts which gave rise to our interest in interviewing you. As we see it, your purpose in writing those posts was to trash these two individuals in the eyes of Westerners, undermining their ability to challenge Vladimir Putin’s power base, and you used two classic neo-Soviet techniques in doing so. You attacked Kashin by alleging mental illness (Nashi is very fond of this technique as well), and you went after Navalny as a “nationalist” (several other Russian liberals have similarly been attacked for associating with nationalist opposition leader Eduard Limonov). But maybe we misunderstood. Did you have some other purpose that we failed to recognize?
KEVIN ROTHROCK: “Oleg Kashin’s Manic Depression” is not an accusation of mental illness. Frankly, I’m a little surprised that some readers believed I was seriously arguing that he suffers from a medical disorder. I’d hoped that the crudely photoshopped mashup of Kashin and Jimi Hendrix (a reference to the song “Manic Depression,” of course) would be enough to convey my facetiousness. Just to be entirely clear: I was simply making a joke about the fact that Kashin has changed political allegiances repeatedly over the past six years. As I wrote in the conclusion of that post, I don’t hold this against him, given the atmosphere in Russia, which I honestly believe inspires this kind of inconsistency in anyone with emotional investments in politics.
As I’ve stated repeatedly, I respect Kashin’s journalism, and believe him to be a deeply insightful observer of Russian politics. Precisely for this reason, AGT has featured two original translations of his articles, one about the Strategy 31 rallies, and another about the ouster of Georgy Boos in Kaliningrad. That said, I found his Club Tsvet Nochi lecture on “Russia for Russians” to be somewhat off-the-wall. While his speech may have included some powerful anecdotes (about his experiences in Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, and Kaliningrad), it ultimately sounded like the rambling of a man who’s in the midst of a crisis of faith. This wouldn’t be his first brush with disillusionment, and I’m confident it won’t be his last.
My profile of Aleksei Navalny’s nationalism was not intended to be an attack. I simply combed his LiveJournal blog (focusing on the years 2006-2008) and reconstructed his actions and comments on issues relating to nationalism, immigration, and ethnic tensions. I did this because it’s common practice among journalists to allude to Navalny’s nationalism, but rarely examine any specific details. What I did mean to be directly critical were the parts of the post that addressed certain mischaracterizations present in Julia Ioffe’s very excellent, but incomplete, story about Navalny. As I wrote on AGT, Ioffe’s New Yorker story was marvelous, but it didn’t offer a very full picture of Navalny’s nationalist views. You seem to consider it an attack on Navalny to reproduce his various statements about Tajik migrant workers, South Ossetian national sovereignty, or Yaroslavl migration regulations. If I’ve made errors in my translations, or inserted some unfair bias, then by all means please explain where I’m mistaken. Otherwise, your grievance is with Aleksei Navalny and not with me.
You seem to suggest that the world isn’t paying enough attention to Navalny’s nationalist bent. Is it fair criticism to say your blog isn’t paying enough attention to Navalny’s revelations about high-level corruption in Russia? Have you ever done a post focusing on one of his reports and praising his reporting skill and bravery, and calling the Kremlin to account for corruption?
Yes and no. It’s not my aim on AGT to praise or instruct anyone. I consider myself an indifferent observer of Russian political events, not an advocate of any particular group or clan in Russia. That said, I have written the following about Navalny:
“Aleksei Navalny is a uniquely brave crusader in the campaign to clean up Russian politics. I wager that anyone would be hard pressed to name another public figure who so boldly and so intelligently challenges the status quo in Russia today.”
“Navalny’s activity is relevant because he investigates the authorities’ bread and butter: the financial webs that grease the gears of power. He goes after the money, and nothing is more dangerous than that.”
In terms of “paying enough attention” to Navalny’s anti-corruption work, I have devoted a long post to his March 2011 debate with Yaroslav Kuzminov on the subject of state procurement legal reforms. Certainly, there are other important things Navalny is doing in this field (notably, there’s his RosPil project), and I’m pleased that many journalists, both Russian and Western, are actively following his progress. Navalny’s “nationalist bent,” however, is something that no Westerner had written about in any depth, and that’s why I took up the subject.
We think your response is somewhat disingenuous. In the first two links, your comments come in posts that attack Navalny in a rather vicious way. The photograph and caption in the second link is particularly brutal. And in the third you talk about Navalny’s reporting only in the context of a debate in which he’s being attacked. It’s perfectly clear to us that you are making these comments in an attempt to appear “balanced” to your Western audience when in fact you are no such thing, and we consider it a genuine insult to our intelligence for you to suggest you are indifferent. If you said you don’t care about Russia’s reputation for reliability in the West, and don’t want Russia to be seen as being as reliable as possible, we’d call you a liar, and we can’t imagine how you could expect any thinking person to take that statement seriously coming from a person who blogs as “A Good Treaty.” But to come to the point: Wouldn’t you agree that if Obama took Navalny at face value there is no way it would be rational for him to trust the Kremlin enough to book a lunch date, much less to risk America’s nuclear security?
As I’ve explained already, I don’t consider it an attack on Navalny to have examined his nationalist views. This is just my attempt to fill in the gaps of his public profile. If you think there’s anything compromising in what I’ve uncovered, then I suggest you take it up with Navalny himself.
As for my “brutal photograph captions,” I can only repeat that I like to make jokes when it comes to the images I add to my blog. For anyone who’s forgotten, AGT’s logo is an absurd, crudely photoshopped mashup of Otto von Bismarck and Vladimir Putin. I fully intend for this stuff to be silly. I’m a San Francisco native, and levity is in my blood.
I don’t really understand the latter half of this question. As far as I know, Navalny has never blogged about New START, so it’s hard for me to say what he might have advised on the subject.
The closest thing I could find about him discussing U.S.-Russian arms control was a deleted post and conversation on his LJ blog from early 2008 (still accessible via Yandex’s cache). In the comments exchange, Navalny seemed to agree with Aleksei Trankov, who complained that Obama would be no less unappeasing to Russian national interests than McCain. Trankov and Navalny argued that Obama, like Richard Lugar before him, would force Russia to agree to unfavorable terms in nuclear weapons cuts.
If you read my post about Navalny’s debate at the Higher School of Economics, you’ll see that he was actually advocating the Federal Anti-monopoly Service’s position. He argued that existing federal law is superior to rewriting procurement regulations, which means he (albeit reluctantly) defended the existing state infrastructure (FAS). He advises a “deal with the devil you know, not the devil you don’t” approach to tenders. The trust-building foundation of New START is the devil we know.
Is it just a coincidence that your report about Navalny appeared online at almost the same time as a massive DDOS attack on his website? Did you report on that attack (and the simultaneous attacks on Live Journal and Novaya Gazeta)?
This question appears to insinuate that I had a hand in the recent cyber-attacks on the RuNet. Alas, I didn’t. I have no idea how to initiate a DDoS attack, and I don’t know anybody who does.
Also, I wouldn’t say that my report about Navalny went online “at almost the same time” as the shutdowns of Novaya Gazeta, RosPil, or LiveJournal. Those attacks were in late March and between the 6th and 8th of April. I posted “Navalny’s Nationalism” on April 22nd, two weeks after the end of all the trouble.
I did not write anything original about the attacks on LJ, RosPil, or Novaya, but I did “tweet” a long article by the latter about the course of events and possibility that they were aimed at disrupting a shadow government online election. This was certainly a newsworthy event, but ultimately it’s something that seems to happen annually more than once. The routine is that there is a lot of fuss for a few days, the affected sites get more press that they would have (had the hackers done nothing), and eventually everything goes back to normal. It may be a unique feature of Russian ‘politics by other means,’ but I don’t see strong evidence that this threatens the fundamental independence of the RuNet. Needless to say, Novaya Gazeta, ZhZh, and RosPil are all currently up and running just fine.
What the question insinuates is that you didn’t mind the DDOS attacks at all, and maybe even approved of them. You certainly didn’t condemn them, and some in Russia could find justification for the attacks in your comments about Navalny. And in fact, that’s all the truth isn’t it? Seems to us that the cavalier manner in which you answer the question confirms this.
I did mind the attacks. I read Novaya and Navalny’s blog regularly and it was certainly inconvenient not to be able to access them when they were down. I’m sure it was annoying for the publishers, too, and I sincerely regret any disrupted work and lost ad revenue. I may not have issued a formal condemnation, but that’s not what I do as a blogger.
For the record, DDoS attacks are bad. Hackers, please don’t DDoS-attack people!
I don’t know how anyone could “find justification” for DDoS attacks in my writing about Navalny. If someone out there thinks they’ve done this, they’re wrong.
Some people might say that you would naturally fear reports about high-level Russian corruption because they make Russia seem unreliable, and therefore a bad treaty partner. They might say that since you want America to trust Russia and sign treaties, you try to undermine such reports. Anything to such notions?
Corruption is certainly something to consider when entering into any kind of agreement, be it diplomatic or corporate. Tragedies like the imprisonment and murder of Sergei Magnitsky are very likely to deter certain businesses from making risky investments in Russia. Where profits are more likely, however, the record seems to show that Westerners will invest anyway, as was demonstrated by the (albeit now faltering) BP-Rosneft deal.
When it comes to Russia’s reliability with treaties (most relevantly, arms reduction treaties), the track record is pretty good, despite Russia’s endemic corruption. The chief negotiator for the New START treaty was Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Rose Gottemoeller, who said the following in July 2010:
“Cheating implies intent to undermine a treaty. There’s no history of cheating on the central obligations of START; there’s a history of abiding by the treaty. Generally the record for the major conventions is a good one. With regard to START, the Russians have been very serious and it has been a success.”
Do you ever communicate with any Russian government officials or operatives? Do you receive any funding (including such things as free trips, meals, etc.) from any source connected in any way with the Russian state?
Never. AGT is my own personal project. I sit at home at my computer, reading the Russian press, the Russian blogs, and various primary documents from the state (official speeches, the text of zakonoproekty, and so on). It’s a lonely enterprise, and sadly it offers absolutely zero financial rewards.
Do you plan to ever do any analysis of Vladimir Putin’s nationalist bent, and his use of nationalism to garner power?
I have loosely addressed the role of nationalism in Putin’s behavior twice: once in summarizing a Liliia Shevtsova article from January 2011, and again in analyzing Putin’s public relations maneuvers during the public outrage crisis over Egor Sviridov’s murder.
Do you think it’s fair to say that a certain amount of nationalism is a prerequisite to electoral success in Russia?
Nationalism certainly has populist potential. Indeed, the Kremlin works regularly to vent and disarm its nascent power by creating and reshuffling the various ‘systemic parties.’ LDPR is probably the most successful result of this ongoing experiment, but blips along the way (like Rogozin and Rodina) are noteworthy, too.
For his part, Navalny clearly believes that nationalism offers a road to major electoral success. He’s floated a “40% of Russians are nationalists” figure consistently for several years now. DPNI has put this number at 70%.
According to a February 2011 Levada poll, only 8% of Russians said they associate positively to the word “nationalism.” However, a whopping 68% think the government should work to restrict immigration, and 56% think violent ethnic tensions could sweep the nation in the near future. So, clearly one could build a solid populist campaign on an anti-immigrant platform, but there will still be significant obstacles for any movement or politician that seeks to ride a ticket founded openly on “nationalism.”
You ask whether it’s realistic to see Navalny as Russia’s savior. Fair enough. But we think it was a gaping omission in your story about him, and in your blog generally, that you don’t suggest an alternative to Navalny who is more viable and who you support. After all, beggars can’t be choosers. Care to do so now? Who is the opposition figure in Russia most deserving of energetic, aggressive support?
I’m not here to promote any particular candidate in Russian politics. AGT is an outlet for observation, not advocacy. Russians are welcome to support whomever they like, be it Navalny, Milov, Putin, or Medvedev. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m a ‘Russia Watcher,’ not a Russia Pusher. Who deserves what is not a question that I feel I can answer. The answer would be normative and outside the scope of what I do.
If you had a vote in Russia’s next presidential election, what Russian citizen would you most like to give it to?
I wouldn’t vote at all — not as a form of protest, but simply because I take no interest in shaping events. My fascination and drive, privately and as a blogger, is in analysis and interpretation.
So you don’t care one way or the other whether America signs a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia?
I don’t think there is a moral imperative to have completed the arms reduction treaty, no. That said, I do consider New START to have been in the mutual interests of both Russia and the United States. Mutual interests, of course, are the only sustainable basis for “a good treaty.”
If a person is interested in tough criticism of Vladimir Putin’s human rights record, what do you think is the best Internet source to find it?
There are a host of international watchdog agencies that would be a good place to start. This includes Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Transparency International, The Committee to Protect Journalists, and others.
For the fullest picture of Russian politics, warts and all, I’d recommend the whole gamut of RuNet online media, from LJ blogs to all the newspapers and online journals: Novaya Gazeta, Nezavisimaia Gazeta, Gazeta.ru, Kommersant, Vedomosti, Moskovskii Komsomolets, Polit.ru, Newsru.com, APN.ru, Ezhednvednyi Zhurnal, The New Times, Ekho Moskvy, Finam.ru, Grani.ru, and others I’m probably forgetting.
Oleg Kashin recently received a brutal head trauma and nearly died as a result, in an attack many believe was made by Kremlin operatives to silence his opposition journalism. Russia also has a long history of misusing psychiatric hospitals for political purposes. In light of that, do you think your attack on Kashin might have been inappropriate, or at least in bad taste?
I don’t think it was inappropriate. The “manic depression” gag was only hyperbole, complemented by a silly photoshop. I actually sent the piece directly to Kashin via Facebook, shortly after posting it, to ask him if I’d properly understood his April 6th lecture. He responded the next day, seemingly amused, and told me that, yes, I’d understood him correctly. Maybe he was only being polite. I don’t know, but he didn’t seem to have any hurt feelings. He’s a former sailor, after all, and I doubt very much that I could ever write anything to really offend him. The man is tough.
As I’ve said before, I think Oleg Kashin is a top notch journalist, though I do note a certain tendency to rapidly and repeatedly shift allegiances. He clearly cares a lot about his country, and that’s super.
If we could ask U.S. President Barack Obama just one question, it would be the following. Since we can’t, we’d like to ask you to answer on his behalf (seems fair, as you aggressively defend his nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, virtually as his spokesman): Recent weeks have seen two disturbing developments in Russia. First, former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov published a report revealing massive corruption at the highest levels of the Russian government, with Russia’s top leaders on the take to the tune of billions. Then, Freedom House documented a significant decline in Internet freedom and all three major Russian Internet portals of political dissent – Novaya Gazeta, Live Journal and Alexander Navalny –were knocked offline in DDOS attacks that leading Russia Internet figures have directly blamed on the Kremlin. Were you (we mean Obama, not you Kevin) aware of these two reports before today, and what if anything is your administration doing to address state corruption and political freedom in Russia?
In good faith, I can’t respond in the voice of the Obama Administration. I do not represent the U.S. government, and I don’t particularly want to.
From the perspective of the sidelines (my niche), I’d respond that it’s not Washington’s job to address state corruption or political freedom in Russia. Aside from whatever moral imperatives one might dream up, the record shows that this sort of internal meddling is counterproductive. Consider the seemingly benign, justly inspired Cardin List, which seeks to deny visas to sixty senior Russian state officials involved in Magnitsky’s death. The response was hardly a triumph of democracy promotion: the week before the anniversary of Magnitsky’s death, Aleksei Anichin (no. 1 on Cardin’s list) handed out commendation awards to all the top MVD officials involved in Magnitsky’s case.
Specifically concerning Magnitsky and Hermitage Capital, I’m not entirely certain what the U.S. government’s legal standing is. It’s my understanding that William Browder is a British citizen, having expatriated from the United States many years ago.
I am aware of Nemtsov’s most recent doklad, though I haven’t read it, and I’ve read Freedom House’s most recent report on RuNet freedom. As is the case with Russian politics broadly, the most pressing concerns seem to lie in Russia’s regions, where police corruption and intimidation is marginally easier, largely because of less public scrutiny. Technically speaking, however, the worst Internet freedom abuses seem to occur in the areas of weakest Web penetration (the North Caucasus and Siberia). These regions of Russia have bigger problems than anything electronic. Also, the DDoS attacks don’t strike me as an existential crisis for the affected sites. Ultimately, this kind of press only boosts the publicity of the targeted websites.
Obama’s nuclear treaty with Russia cuts a large number of American warheads, while Russia does not have to cut any. Tell us why you think a treaty like that is in America’s best interests.
First, New START doesn’t mandate the destruction of warheads — it simply limits the number of deployed weapons. It’s quite possible that, without New START, Russia might well have reinvested in maintaining a larger number of deployed delivery vehicles. It’s an untested assumption that “Russia didn’t have to cut anything” or that its number of deployed bombers and missiles would have dropped dramatically without the treaty.
Second, while Russia did have fewer delivery vehicles than the treaty’s maximum limit, Defense Secretary Gates reported that Russia actually *deployed* warheads in excess of treaty limits. According to open source estimates, New START required Russia to reduce more warheads from its deployed force than it did America.
Third, whether or not Russia cut more or less of its nukes, it’s a vital U.S. interest that monitoring and verification procedures be in place to restrict and observe Russia’s still huge nuclear arsenal. Without the New START treaty, there would have been nothing.
Do think Obama has been a strong defender of democracy and human rights where Russia is concerned?
No, and I don’t think this has been a major priority for any U.S. president. And I can’t imagine why on earth it ever would be.
Guess you’ve never heard of a guy called Ronald Reagan, you ought to read a book or two about him he’s a rather interesting historical figure. Well, to answer your question, maybe Obama would speak up because he cared about the fate of the people of Russia and the fate of the people of the United States, as well as about basic concepts of morality. President Obama, for instance, has used U.S. military force in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya for such reasons. But apparently he just could care less about Russia even though it bristles with nuclear fangs and anti-American hatred. Or maybe it’s just that he’s decided to use Russia for his own propaganda purposes in seeking reelection. Speaking of which, Who do you think will be “elected” president of Russia in 2012: Putin, Medvedev or somebody else?
I anticipate that Dmitri Medvedev will be reelected. Based on my own tea-leaf reading of Russia’s byzantine politics, I am and have for some time been of the opinion that Putin, like Yeltsin before him, seeks a peaceful transition of power, albeit with the guarantee that his own illegitimate wealth (and the fortunes of his many allies) remains protected and undisputed.
Putin, however, is not a free actor in this situation, and there are powerful members of the elite that do not want to see him leave politics. Medvedev is currently speaking around Putin, attempting to reach the undecided figures within the vlast’, whose support he’ll need to convince the ‘ruling class’ that he is a strong enough individual to command the state.
For those who doubt the ongoing struggle between the Kremlin clans, I ask them to name another time in the last 11 years when Vladimir Putin suffered as many public relations difficulties. The piano scandal, the palace scandal, Kushchevskaya, Manezh — all incidents that undermine the mighty Power Vertical and put Putin on the defensive. Has there ever been a time that his press secretary has had to answer so many embarrassing questions?
There’s a struggle under way, and Putin, far from being the omnipotent arbiter, is caught in the crossfire.
Might Medvedev lose the competition, and Putin return for a third term? Yes, this is certainly a possibility, but I don’t think it’s optimal for Russia or for Putin himself.
Do you think the election will be “free and fair” by European standards?
No, of course not.
Do you think it would benefit the Russian nation if Putin debated former first deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov on national TV in connection with the 2012 elections? If the debate happened, who do you think would win and why?
The more debating: the better, I suppose. The idea is so unrealistic, though, that it’s a little hard to consider seriously. I am tickled that you say “on national TV,” as if the authorities might instead consider airing the theoretical debate “on local TV.”
I have no idea who would win such a debate. By sheer familiarity and name recognition, odds are that Putin would come away the perceived victor, assuming all things equal. In a February 2011 Levada poll, only 4% of Russians were substantially familiar with the findings of Nemtsov’s (and Milov’s) Putin doklad. Of those who had heard of the paper at all (26% of all respondents), 55% agreed with its conclusions. In other words, about 14% of Russians agreed with Nemtsov. Clearly, more Russians would approve of Nemtsov’s work, if they knew of it — but how many more, exactly? Odds are that those who know of the paper already are somehow active or interested in the opposition. Would the same 55% approval rating apply to the general public, if the doklad was mass-distributed? Probably not, but just what the figure would be, I don’t know. You’re asking for speculation that I can’t endorse.
If Putin returns to the presidency in 2012, do you think he’ll ever leave power except in a coffin, the way all the old Soviet rulers used to go out? If so, how do you forsee that happening? If not, what will Russia’s future be like with a “president for life”?
As I stated above, I don’t think ‘presidency for life’ is Putin’s plan. It is possible that instability in the elite will draw him back to the Kremlin, but this would be because enough members of his circle believe the gains and acquisitions of his tenure face fundamental threats from an independent Medvedev presidency.
Of course, it’s possible that Medvedev will return to the Kremlin, and Putin will stay on as PM, with nothing significant changing for years. This could perhaps facilitate the gradual, gentler transition that Putin and his friends require.
Remember that Putin is responsible for promoting Dmitri Medvedev. Like Yeltsin before him, this was a choice. While 2012 is a question that will be decided by a wide variety of intra-elite wrangling, we shouldn’t forget Putin’s decision in 2008.
If you were president of Russia, would you pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky? Why or why not?
I can’t answer that question personally, but I do think it will be in Medvedev’s interests to consider a pardon for Khodorkovsky next year, either before or after the presidential election. Forgetting the purely legal aspects of a pardon, which very likely argue in favor of amnesty (or maybe a repudiation of the second verdict on appeal), releasing MBK from prison would be a loud and clear way for Medvedev to signal his own independence from Putin in a deeply symbolic way.
I recall that oddball Zhirinovsky making this exact prediction in the immediate aftermath of the second trial’s verdict and sentencing. I think the move could be very useful for Medvedev, and — as long as Rosneft’s acquisition of Yukos assets remains unchallenged — it seems that he could issue the pardon without endangering the material wealth of the siloviki and causing a panic among the elite.
Thanks for the interview, Kevin, and best of luck with your blogging!