Former Russian insider visits campus, shares political insight

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By Hunter Johnson

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Will Russia ever embrace the rule of law? The answer from one Russia expert was blunt: “No.”

Dr. Steven Rosefielde of the University of North Carolina visited the University of Dallas on Friday afternoon to deliver a talk on the potential for Russia to adopt a more Western style of law.

Although he joked that he did not need to, Rosefielde went beyond his one-word response to the lecture’s topic and talked for over an hour about Russia’s political background and the rule of law. Rosefielde’s credentials make him an authority on Russian politics. During the Soviet era, he served as an advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Defense and was personally familiar with the governing circles of Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union, and Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation.

According to Rosefielde, the rule of law in economic theory refers to the idea that laws result from human reason and the claim that every individual has the capacity to behave rationally.

The antithesis to rule of law, Rosefielde said, is the rule of man. He described this opposing idea of law as the rule of choice for autocrats.

“There is an autocrat or some authority that compels you to do things without explanation,” Rosefielde said. “You’re just commanded to be obedient and if you disobey, you’re punished.”

Rosefielde argued that, despite evidence that the Russian standard of living is far below that of the West because of the rule of man, the Russian autocracy prefers it because of the wealth and power it grants them.

Dr. Steven Rosefielde elaborates on Russia’s political order. -Photo by Michelle Berthet
Dr. Steven Rosefielde elaborates on Russia’s political order.
-Photo by Michelle Berthet

This modern autocracy includes what he refers to as the Russian “power services,” which consist of the uniformed military and the secret police. Rosefielde went on to say these power services owe their resurgence in Russian government to their most prominent member, Russian President Vladimir Putin. He described Putin’s rise to power as “meteoric.”

“In a remarkably brief period of time, [Putin] rose from a lieutenant colonel…to the head of the Russia defense council, head of the secret police, first deputy premier of Russia,” Rosefielde said. “Then he’s premier designate of Russia…then Yeltsin appoints him to be his favorite son, heir designate as president of Russia.”

He also said that Putin’s rise to power went relatively unnoticed by the CIA, drawing on his own familiarity with the organization as an occasional consultant for the group in the past.

What Putin wants is something Rosefielde referred to as “the empire strikes back”: the restoration of a status similar to the post-1945 status quo between Russia and the West. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the boundaries of Russia and its geographic influence were drastically reduced. He said Putin wants to restore that influence, especially in the Balkans and Ukraine.

“It is not my purpose to frighten you or tell you some scary thing, but to give you some sense that what’s unfolding before your eyes in Crimea isn’t a bolt from the blue,” Rosefielde said. “It’s all part of a pattern.”

Rosefielde emphasized that today’s Russia has recovered dramatically from the collapse of the Soviet Union, saying that military spending in the last four years has skyrocketed and is now equal to or greater than that of the United States.

“Russia today is not the Russia of 1992 under Yeltsin,” Rosefielde said. “[It is] extremely military, extremely powerful, extremely powerful in its own sphere of influence.”

Senior Danielle Pajak said she left the lecture impressed with what Rosefielde had to say.

“He had a great deal of knowledge and firsthand experience on many of the things he spoke about,” Pajak said. “By explaining Russia’s history, its tendencies and past influences, it helped me to understand the driving forces behind Russia’s ideology and perspective on the world.”

Pajak said she was also interested in what Rosefielde had to say about the West’s approach to Russia today. He argued that the West had hoped that post-Soviet Russia would embrace democratic ideals and become a global partner. Not only did he say that the West was wrong on this point, but also that Russia will never embrace free enterprise or democratic ideals.

“I worked very closely in the circle with Gorbachev. I worked very closely in the circle with Yeltsin,” Rosefielde stated. “I can categorically say that neither Yeltsin nor Gorbachev were ever sincere in embracing democratic freedom and progress.”

For the West to counter Putin’s plans, he said it would have to employ very sophisticated maneuvers and plays. However, he predicts that the Obama administration will not accomplish this because of the mindset of the president’s advisors.

“They don’t understand the situation and they don’t want to understand the situation,” Rosefielde said. “They come from a world in which they really believe that … Russia will be a partner and embrace the rule of law.”

Dr. Charles Sullivan, chair of the history department, which co-sponsored the lecture, said he was very pleased with the student turnout and that he was impressed with Rosefielde’s lecture.

“[Rosefielde is] a man of just impressive accomplishments at every possible level. It does give me a lot of pause about the model [of Russia] that I have been trained in, but that’s what scholarship is,” Sullivan said. “You have your assumptions, you have the way that you’re accustomed [to] looking at the world, and if someone’s done a good job, as Dr. Rosefielde did, they should make you pause and make you reconsider, and he did that.”

The event was made possible by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.

“The Koch foundation has provided a grant for the [Contemporary Russia] course,” Sullivan said, adding that his role was to decide how to use the grant efficiently.

“I think Dr. Rosefielde was just that person [to do that],” Sullivan said.

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