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Putin Hurts a Think Tank by Not Banning It

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin is nothing if not cunning when it comes to dealing with his adversaries. When he signed a law allowing the government to ban any nongovernmental organization deemed "undesirable," it was clear some foreign NGOs would suffer. What was less obvious -- though, in hindsight, inevitable -- is that organizations would start getting flak in the West for not having the law applied to them. 

The Cool War

The Daily Beast published an article Monday by James Kirchick titled "How a U.S. Think-Tank Fell for Putin." Its target was Moscow Carnegie Center, a subsidiary of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a 105-year-old think tank headquartered in Washington. Its Moscow office is tiny with just 10 senior researchers, but it's influential; Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the time of the ill-fated "reset" of the U.S.-Russian relationship, once worked there.

Now, Kirchick cites a former U.S. government official he doesn't identify as saying the think tank is accused of becoming a "Trojan horse" for Russian influence. Kirchick questions the role of Carnegie Endowment's vice president for studies, Andrew Weiss, and his Moscow subordinates in organizing a conference in Finland where Russian and American policy wonks -- and no Ukrainian ones -- worked out a plan for peace in Ukraine. Back in August 2014, the measures it suggested were remarkably similar to the terms of February's Minsk cease-fire, which is still in effect despite numerous violations by all sides.

Kirchick goes on to suggest that researchers critical of Putin, such as Lilia Shevtsova, who now works with the Brookings Institution, were fired by the Carnegie Center. Shevtsova herself complained to the journalist of "a squeezing out of different points of view." 

Here's what Kirchick wrote:

As the Russian government ratchets up a xenophobic campaign targeting Western nongovernmental organizations, accusing them of espionage and attempting to foment a coup, Carnegie’s presence in Moscow continues to be tolerated. Its name is conspicuously missing from the latest list of “undesirable organizations” compiled by the Russian government.

One of the law's drafters, Vitaly Zolochevsky, did suggest that the prosecutor general's office should investigate Carnegie Moscow Center. Nothing has come of that yet, though. The list Kirchick referred to -- the so-called Patriotic Stop List compiled by the Russian parliament -- features 12 organizations, such as the MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House. The MacArthur Foundation, which funded some Carnegie Center programs, last week announced that it was leaving Russia because it felt "unwelcome." On Monday, the first organization -- the National Endowment for Democracy, which has funded human rights groups and research programs in Russia -- was banned under the "undesirables" law.

Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, a fierce anti-Putin commentator, asserted in Kirchick's piece that the Carnegie office is a channel Kremlin insiders "use at a time when they need to communicate their messages to the West not from official structures but from something that is viewed as independent and even American." And there may be something to that, since Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center's director, has long held what are, by U.S. standards, rather hawkish views on Russia's interests on the global stage.

That, however, doesn't make the office a Putin puppet. No one who follows Carnegie's Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert, on Twitter or reads his writings about the Ukraine conflict would suspect him of a pro-Kremlin agenda; he watches the Russian operation closely enough not to allow it to be subverted. If the center does indeed serve as a channel of unofficial communication between Russia and the U.S., that's a legitimate function that helps forge useful, sometimes lifesaving, deals, such as the Minsk one. A think tank is not designed to fight unsavory regimes; its job is to make them more understandable and transparent by filtering out the noise and distilling the substance. 

The Kirchick piece offended the staff at Moscow Carnegie Center. "The world of American Kirchick, like the world of a bad Russian TV presenter, is divided into those who work for the State Department and those who work for Putin," Carnegie.ru editor Alexander Baunov, a polyglot ex-diplomat (also my former colleague at two Moscow publications, and assuredly no fan of Putin), posted on Facebook. "His piece is written as a complaint to the U.S. authorities: Pay attention, these guys are deviating from the party line. There's only one excuse for the author: Americans have never lived in a totalitarian state and they haven't developed an immunity to the urge to write such complaints."

The emotion is familiar to me. I have written many times that while Putin's policies, both domestic and foreign, are not just illiberal and backward but also criminal, that doesn't make compromise for the sake of peace impossible. Here I agree with Carnegie's Trenin, who notes that such compromises were repeatedly made with much nastier Soviet rulers, which in the long run helped topple the Communist regime as Russians realized that the rest of the world didn't seek to isolate them, only their own leaders did. The debate about how to handle Putin's Russia, however, is defined by radicals on both sides, and to them I -- like Baunov and his colleagues -- am either Putin's stooge at a Western media outlet or an anti-Russian Washington drone.

That falsehood benefits Putin more than anyone. He hates all foreign NGOs as State Department outposts and hotbeds of potential insurgency. A month ago he accused "so-called foreign foundations and network organizations" of "vacuuming Russian schools -- they pick up high school graduates, get them hooked on grants and take them away." Now, armed with the "undesirables" law, he can bar them from Russia -- but it's much more fun to tarnish them by withholding reprisals and watching legitimate groups squirm from the scorn poured on them. 

At the same time Carnegie employees must be wondering when they might end up on the "stop list." The think tank, unlike the MacArthur Foundation, doesn't fund any activities but its own -- it's a recipient of funds, not a donor -- so it may be perceived as less dangerous to the Kremlin. That, though, would be a weak source of immunity.  

Kirchick's piece, and others that will almost certainly be written on the same theme, does Putin's dirty work by undermining trust in the output of Western groups left off the "undesirable" list, and devaluing their comments when they do criticize the Russian government -- which may just be why the law was enacted in the first place.

(Corrects third paragraph of article published July 28 to show that Mr. Kirchick was representing the view of an unidentified U.S. official when referring to the Carnegie unit as a "Trojan horse.")

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net