We are entitled to investigate, debate and act on Russian interference

We are entitled to investigate, debate and act on Russian interference
© Greg Nash

American actor Morgan Freeman tossed a firecracker among Russian scholars by lending his voice to a newly formed Committee to Investigate Russia, whose purpose is to confront Russian interference in American democracy.

The response on behalf of Russian scholars was taken up by well-known Russian expatriate journalist, Leonid Bershidsky, in an article on Sept. 20 in Bloomberg entitled, “Wanted: Russia Experts. No Expertise Required.” Sean Keeley makes a similar point in The Russian Interference Racket in The American Interest.

Bershidsky’s complaint against Freeman is that the Committee to Investigate Russia (CIR) and many who write about Russia have no background in the subject. Therefore, they lack the familiarity to provide the nuance necessary to understand Russia. Consequently, their views are ill-informed and incorrect, and too often manifest as Russophobia. These persons should leave Russia to the experts. However, Bershidsky’s complaint is dead wrong.


The issue is not understanding Russia. The issue is how to deal with Russian aggression against Western institutions and values. CIR “investigates” Russia by drawing attention to Russian interference through posting background information and articles published elsewhere. Although decidedly to the right of the spectrum, CIR addresses plenty of American’s concern about Russian interference that is well-established, if not yet well-understood. This is hardly Russophobic.

Bershidsky disparages by name the competence of CIR’s advisory board members, who are highly accomplished professionals but do not meet his requisite standard for expertise in Russian affairs. That criticism is misplaced. Whatever their specific competencies, they have a stake in the issue. They are affected by Russian interference.

Following Bershidsky’s reasoning, Jimmy Kimmel, the outspoken American comedian and talk show host, has no business opining on health care reform because he is not a health-care specialist. Kimmel however has a personal stake in the healthcare issue that he has spoken about on his show, as do millions of Americans whose voices cannot be shut out because their familiarity with the issues does not rise to a certain standard. The question here is not a particular kind of competence but a personal stake in the consequences. The same goes for Russia’s behavior, climate change, or tax reform.

Morgan Freeman does say that Russia is at war with the U.S., but Russia’s interference in elections in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as its attempts to sow conflict through social media, is incontestable. There is nothing exaggerated or overblown in what Freeman says in the video. This isn’t hyperbole or jingoism.

Diminished in standing by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing chaos, Russia under Vladimir Putin has veered toward blaming the West and has chosen to retaliate by invading neighboring countries and by interfering in other countries in areas that are fundamental to those countries’ institutions and values. Russia has legitimate grievances related to its change in circumstances, fed at times by American bungling on the world stage, but it does not follow that Russia’s grievances legitimate its aggression against perceived slights and imagined threats. It doesn’t take special expertise to figure that out.

What Bershidsky decries as lacking expertise and authority is part and parcel of legitimate public debate. Russia experts may feel swamped by the growing public debate on Russia because the importance of the issue to the public has become more manifest with the growing evidence of Russian interference. Russian experts have to speak more loudly to be heard.

Bershidsky quotes Russian scholar, Samuel Greene, to the effect that Russian scholars are not being heard because they are keeping their heads down due to the rise in Russophobia. This is nonsense. The increase in public debate about Russia is a direct consequence of Russian actions against democratic institutions; and, the emergence in some corners of Russophobia does not invalidate or diminish genuine debate about Russia’s behavior. Bershidsky also references Russian affairs expert Mark Galeotti. However, Galeotti does not keep his head down. He continues to publish frequently, as should Greene.

Galeotti’s articles are excellent and should be read by anyone wishing to be well-informed on the nuances of Russian behavior. And, indeed, their voices may be needed to balance out more strident voices, such as Molly McKew, mentioned critically by both Bershidsky and Keeley, who appears on the Committee to Investigate Russia website. An example of an excellent perspective on how to deal with Russian interference is provided by Jan Jankowicz, fellow at the Kennan Institute, in The Only Way to Defend Against Russia’s Information War in the New York Times.

If the drama about Russian influence in the West — or for that matter Trump’s attack on NFL players for speaking their minds--teaches us anything, it is that public debate is the most effective weapon against the real threat of overbearing authority — from governments to extremists of the left and the right, and even the malicious, manipulative voices on social media.

We — the affected parties — are entitled to investigate, debate and act on Russian interference. We are better off if our views are based on objective fact and sound judgement. In the meantime, we need to listen to what legitimate voices across the spectrum have to say.

Dirk Mattheisen is a writer and blogger on political economy and independent consultant on institutional governance and strengthening the role of civil society in government. He is a former assistant secretary of the World Bank Group. Follow him on Twitter  @DirkMattheisen.