On Ukraine, lend this savvy Soviet great-grandchild an ear

04/20/2014 4:55 PM

04/20/2014 4:55 PM

The new “agreement” between Russia, the U.S. and our allies is exactly what the former KGB agent ordered.

This isn’t to say it’s not a good “prospect” for ending tensions in Ukraine, as President Barack Obama has said. But neither should it surprise anyone that Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to step back from that country — not to ease economic sanctions but to satisfy his own designs.

The handwriting was on the palm of Nina Khrushcheva’s hand, not that she needs notes.

Khrushcheva has been right about all things Putin since anyone thought to query Nikita Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter.

Earlier this year, when all wondered whether Putin would take Crimea, Khrushcheva said he would. When all worried that he might move into eastern Ukraine, she said he wouldn’t. Her reasoning was that Putin didn’t really want the hassle and expense of invading another country. Not right now.

Khrushcheva also predicted that Putin would bring things to a close when he was ready, on his terms — even if they appear to be others’ terms — with his own objectives accomplished. His overall strategy wasn’t to absorb economically stressed Ukraine (let the West pump

its

money into those dire streets) but to appear that he might invade in order to earn grace when he didn’t. The sin of annexing Crimea thus would be forgiven.

As a strategy, it seemed a circuitous route to a dubious and doubtful end, but perhaps it takes a Russian mind to understand a Russian mind. It can’t hurt either that Khrushcheva grew up listening to the former premier, who, once ousted, became persona non grata in the Soviet Union. She also bore witness to the propaganda machine that rewrote Russia’s and Nikita’s history.

For further context, though Khrushcheva was by lineage Nikita’s great-granddaughter, her mother was adopted by the former premier as his daughter and Khrushcheva was born and treated as a granddaughter. Khrushchev was especially fond of the bookish scamp who eventually left for the U.S. to attend Princeton University and today teaches international affairs at the New School in New York.

Obama is wise to reserve judgment on Putin’s sincerity — we'll know when we know — but a betting man would do well to put his money on Khrushcheva’s crystal ball. Her understanding of Putin’s psyche is several notches above the talking points that news consumers have heard repeated ad nauseam. Yes, Putin wants to restore the Russian empire to its former superpower status. But to the finer points of his massive ego, Putin is a muscled beach boy trying to build the biggest pyramid. It actually matters to him that his dog is bigger than yours.

To Putin’s mind, he has emerged from these “diplomatic negotiations” — translated in Russian to mean “I did it my way” — as a tough statesman, generous in his restraint yet just scary enough to hold the world’s attention.

Many Russians, meanwhile, may feel their wounded pride somewhat salved by having rescued their brethren in Crimea. From their perspective, Putin has put their once-great nation back in play.

Then comes Edward Snowden. The traitor/hero, take your pick, just happened to ask Putin on Russian TV whether that country spies on its citizens the way the U.S. does. Of course not, Putin assured his new best fugitive friend. One, Russia isn’t as rich as America, he said. And, two, Russia is bound by the rule of law. Such propagandist grandstanding is so comical that outrage seems farcical.

Khrushcheva, her DNA a repository of the propaganda gene, snickers.

“I just can’t get incensed about propaganda the way Americans do,” she told me. “Here (in the U.S.), there is some fake Protestant belief that we engage in truth, but of course no one does. But it’s the usual dance, American media have to react, Obama has to show resolve.”

I didn’t say Khrushcheva is a diplomat, but she probably ought at least to have a cubicle in the West Wing.

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