American civil society – hostage to the sanctions policy

Today’s task is to move from Alexander Herzen’s ‘Who is Guilty,’ meaning to end the acrimonious finger pointing over who started the New Cold War, and to take up Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s challenge of ‘What is to be Done?’  Read on…




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American civil society – hostage to the sanctions policy

     by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Media coverage of the U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia as punishment for its annexation of Crimea and alleged designs on the Southeastern Ukraine focuses on the impact on business. What started out as pin pricks directed at Kremlin insiders has evolved into prohibitions affecting key economic sectors that promise to do serious damage. The initial retaliation from Russia dealt a heavy blow to European farmers, for whom Russia represents 10% of their exports. Meanwhile American companies operating in Russia have been selectively exposed to the wrath of the Kremlin. And Moscow has announced possible further responses such as overflight bans that will deal tangible pain to American and other Western companies. Years of investment in people and plant are now at jeopardy on all sides, justifying the media attention.


However, there has also been serious fall-out of the worsening state to state relations at the level of civil society outside business and this goes largely unnoticed. Let us recall that the punish Russia movement preceded the Ukrainian crisis by more than two years. The passage of America’s Magnitsky Act in December 2012 drew an asymmetrical response from the Russians. It did not come at once. It was reached as state to state relations dipped to new lows in the summer of 2013 over the granting of asylum status to Snowden. And it came in the form of the Dima Yakovlev Law of September 2013 which ended more than two decades of large scale adoptions of Russian children by Americans. The arrival of more than 60,000 Russian orphans in the USA was an activity that occurred in hundreds of communities across the country and affected the consciousness of many times the numbers of actual  adoptive parents.

The recent World US-Russia Forum held in Moscow on September 8-9 had lead speakers from among American and Russian universities; journalists; politicians, with Sergei Mironov, president of the Just Russia party, being the most notable; and business leaders, including president of AmCham Russia,  Alexis Rodzianko. But it also had a substantial admixture of representatives of American civil society who came to lick their wounds, commiserate and deliberate on the way forward.

Not surprisingly, the cause of US adoptions was represented at the highest level, by Jan Wondra, National Chair of a key American NGO which has long facilitated the adoption process through its support to future and existing  adoptive parents, counselling them on such delicate issues as maintaining the children’s Russian identity even as they integrate into American society. But then there were also a goodly number of salt of the earth Americans who have tirelessly worked to build bridges with Russia for decades. Here was Sharon Tennison, director of a citizens’ initiative that brought more than 6,000 Russian students to internships across Middle America living with private entrepreneurs; and several alumni of the program also came to delivery thankful testimonials. 

Still other key officers from American NGOs attending the Forum have been involved in people-to-people exchanges that brought many thousands of ordinary Russians to America and ordinary Americans to Russia to meet with their counterparts in the same walks of life.

All of these dedicated and idealistic people have their eyes open and know the weaknesses of Russian society; none is a dupe of Putin.  What they now have in common is a very adverse climate back home for their activities. Not only has administrative support from US agencies been withdrawn but the information war has poisoned the atmosphere in which they operate.

And lastly there were a few representatives of what remains of the US peace movement. This is the only contingent likely to experience real growth in the New Cold War as it slowly dawns on folks that the original Cold War meant permanent existential fear of nuclear war. Nothing has happened since 1989 to justify the complacency of our leaders that Mutually Assured Destruction is just an empty notion from a century on which we turned the page fourteen years ago.

The slogan of the Forum was to set up ‘a constructive agenda’ for future US-Russian relations. In the spirit of Russian intellectual tradition, the idea was to move from Alexander Herzen’s ‘Who is Guilty,’ meaning to end the acrimonious finger pointing over who started the New Cold War, and to take up Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s challenge of ‘What is to be Done?’  The Forum ended its deliberations with a unanimous vote in support of re-creating the premiere platform for détente from the period 1974-92, the American Committee on East West Accord. The added value of that body will be to help extinguish the information war by challenging lies coming from all parties. It will arrange neutral platforms for genuine debate of the key issues determining state to state relations, most immediately the sanctions policy and the expansion of NATO to Ukraine and Georgia. Such public debates by responsible and authoritative spokesmen for the respective sides have been sorely missing from the start of the present crisis though they are a precondition for informed and high-quality policy making.  The Committee will also serve as an umbrella organization to the grass roots movements of civil society, giving them moral support and encouragement in what has become very dreary days for each component operating in isolation.




  © Gilbert Doctorow, 2014




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G. Doctorow is the founder of the European chapter, Committee on East West Accord ,  He is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide.