November 20, 2019

Marvin Kalb discusses the U.S.-Russian game of chicken

The voice of Marvin Kalb, deeply familiar to any baby boomer, is calm, measured and authoritative.  He was one of “Murrow’s boys” — the young reporters mentored by iconic broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow — but he was dubbed “the Professor” because he had been recruited to join the CBS News team from a doctoral program in Russian history at Harvard in the 1950s. Over the next four decades, he continued to bring both wisdom and gravitas to television news.

Now, Kalb is re-entering the public conversation with a timely and wholly fascinating book about a man and a country that have seized our attention even during the wackiest moments of the presidential campaign. “Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine and the New Cold War” (Brookings Institution Press) is a book for the ages, to be sure, but it could also be a briefing book for our next president.

In “Imperial Gamble,” Kalb drills deeply into Russian history, a subject that is as timely as a news crawl at the bottom of the television screen. “Putin’s gamble in Crimea (and it was a gamble) was reckless, even dangerous,” he explains. “Why had he acted so impulsively, so Russianly?” The answer lies in the roots of Russian history, but it casts a shadow over the world in which we live now: “If there is a Putin doctrine, hidden somewhere in his rhetoric, it would be that people who consider themselves Russian, no matter where they live, cannot and will not be abandoned by Moscow.” 

The crisis in Ukraine, as Kalb sees it, marks the re-emergence of Russia as America’s strategic adversary and a decisive player in world geopolitics: “Putin is not the reckless, unorthodox, swaggering Kremlin chief usually depicted in the West, but rather one operating in the mainstream of Russian policy for the last 100 years and more… [l]ike Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Stalin, and Lenin before him.”

I was privileged to hear Kalb’s memorable voice in a conversation about his remarkable career, his new book and what it means for America’s future.

Jonathan Kirsch: Let me start with the notion that you are the last of “Murrow’s boys.” Do you look on what passes for television news nowadays with some despair?

Marvin Kalb: Yes, very much so, but I am also aware that, just as Murrow represented a significant change in the way in which the American people picked up their information about the world, today there are other journalists working with a totally different technological advantage in the way in which they accumulate information and pass it on to the American people. The danger there is that the technology not end up fashioning the message. [When] I had to do an important story on Russia from Russia, I would be shooting footage, I would then have to get the footage to New York, which would give me a day or two to think through what I wanted to say that would be the voiceover for the film. I didn’t have to be an instant analyst.  Today, everything is instantaneous, and we have to be mindful of the incredible responsibility on every reporter to be a great genius in an instant. 

JKYou write that for some Russians, including Putin, Ukraine has never really been a separate country of its own, which puts me in mind of the argument that is made about the Palestinian Arabs, not to mention Syria and Iraq. Does it really matter whether Ukraine or Palestine have ever been countries in the past, if that’s how they think of themselves now?

MK: The Jewish people in prayer have always said: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Why? Because a couple of thousand years ago, we were there. And so you want to recapture something. From the point of view of modern-day nationalism, if you have the opportunity to recapture something from the past, you seize that opportunity.  These days the Ukrainian nationalists, in order to strengthen their claim, state that the core of their country goes back to a place called Kievan Rus in the 10th or 11th centuries. That would be fine, except that the Russians, including Putin, say exactly the same thing about the starting point of Russia.

JK: You write that Putin represents an insurmountable problem for Ukraine, but that, in a larger sense, “Ukraine is Ukraine’s biggest problem.”  What is that problem and how can it be solved?

MK:  Sure, the problem can be solved, but probably not for another 50 years, and that’s taking an optimistic view. Since 1991, Ukraine has been an independent country. Fine, but then you have to act like an independent country. You have to do something about the corruption in your state, which has paralyzed the Ukrainian economy. The people who run it know exactly what has to be done, but they can’t do it because they live in the midst of Slavic sloppiness combined with communist ineffectiveness. It is a disaster.

JK: You write that Putin wants the world to see him as “a cool, modern intellectual and not just a powerful Russian leader.” How do you see him?

MK: Putin is a Russian nationalist leader without any fixed ideology except a belief in the effectiveness of raw political and military power.  Putin agrees with the expression that we hear in the Middle East about establishing facts on the ground.  Putin believes that if you establish a fact on the ground, the world will have to adjust to it.  In the face of what he regards as a direct existential threat to Russia — the rise of a Western, nationalist, democratic Ukraine — he is prepared to put boots on the ground.  His question to Obama is: “Are you?”  And the answer is clearly, “No.” So Putin says to himself, “Thanks very much, I am going to do what I want to do.”  And he is.

JK: You write that Putin “is without doubt the strongest Russian autocrat since Stalin, but oddly the most vulnerable.” What is his greatest vulnerability?

MK: The greatest problem that Putin has stumbled into is that he has made himself the leader of a Shiite group taking on the Sunni part of the Islamic world in Syria.  Russia is now a country of 142 million people. Twenty-one million are Sunni Muslims. Two million Sunnis live in Moscow. If you go down to Dagestan, south of Chechnya, on any Friday or Saturday, you will hear clerics giving sermons absolutely comparable to what you would hear in an ISIS mosque in Syria right now. There is a great danger of an explosion of Sunni wrath, disappointment and anger at the Russians.  And Russian leaders from Lenin on have always been concerned about it. In my judgment, it’s something that Putin will pay a price for. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.