Ralph Lysyshyn and Landon Pearson have both represented Canada in Moscow; Lysyshyn from 2006 to 2010, and Pearson—as the wife of Ambassador Geoffrey Pearson—from 1980-1983. Here are their recent conversations with our editor, Metta Spencer, for Project Save the World talk shows.
Ralph Lysyshyn has served as Canada’s ambassador to NATO, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Armenia (some of those concurrently). On May 11, Metta Spencer and Ambassador Lysyshyn talked about Russia’s nationalism.
To see the whole original conversation as a video: https://tosavetheworld.ca/episode-449-memories-of-a-diplomat
METTA SPENCER: Good morning, Ralph Lysyshyn. It says that you’re a “retired diplomat.” I met you before you were “his excellency.”
RALPH LYSYSHYN: I’m not anymore.
SPENCER: I recall that your own heritage is Ukrainian. You were from Saskatchewan. Would you repeat the story about being warned what to expect when you became ambassador?
LYSYSHYN: Happily. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Clearly, in our relations with Russia, and in our attempts to manage them, we severely underestimated the degree that Russian nationalism plays in the conflict with Ukraine, but also in its relations with the West generally. And this has probably been always the case. One of my first bosses when I first joined foreign affairs and was working on Soviet affairs, told me that this wasn’t just between communism and capitalism, but then we had to always take into account Russian nationalism.
Russian nationalism was a bit of a two-edged sword through most of the communist period. Communist ideology did not accept nationalism. It was to be international; it was to be brotherhood. That was the official line. On the other hand, I think Russian leadership recognized that it was nationalism and patriotism that led to the defeat of Hitler, not love of communism.
So, nationalism was important. There is a very interesting book called Black Wind White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism, by a journalist called Charles Clover. This well-researched book came out in 2017, and traces the roots of extreme Russian nationalism from the 1920s. Through the communist period, when a lot of the strongest advocates of Russian nationalism had to be in exile, they weren’t acceptable to the to the Communists. He also pointed out that when communism ended in 1990, a lot of these people came back to teaching jobs, many of them in the military academy and in the academies of the security services. And when the Communists were making their deals with the nationalists that they knew helped defeat Hitler, they basically turned a blind eye to nationalism in the military and the security services, so it continued to be a strong force there. Then after 1990, where the rest of us were focused on economic change (we were watching the oligarchs) nationalism was growing.
Two stories from my early times in Moscow. One is what you mentioned, in which a member of the Duma said to me: You know, there are forces in Russia, in the military in the security services in particular, who will never accept an independent Ukraine. ‘This is part of the Russians’ identity.”
My reaction was: “Well, they’re a little bit late.” At that point there was already 16 years of Ukrainian independence. I said: “That’s well established, that can’t be undone.” And he said to me, “Sooner or later, they will try.”
The other story was that when the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed by Chechens for her reporting on Chechnya, I went to see her editors at Novaya Gazeta and they made the point to me (this is going back 15 years) that the real problem was not Putin. It was the people on the extreme right. People who were a threat to Putin.
Now, at that time, Putin had not shown himself as a nationalist. But after that, as he stayed in power longer and longer without legitimacy, he obviously began to worry about threats to his position. Most dictators do. And he did two sorts of things. First, he turned to his friends in the security service for protection. And second, he decided that he didn’t want to fight off the far right as he had been doing. He decided to jump in front of them and lead them.
This was his need for security. And as he became more and more isolated from the financial people, the economic side, and was worried about his position, he became more and more nationalistic. Clover in his book, written, as I said, in 2017, says that around 2010, which is about the time I left Moscow, all kinds of commentators, who had been kept off the TV airwaves, started to appear on Russian television. And over the last 12 or 13 years now, the Russian people have been fed a stronger and stronger diet of nationalist propaganda. And, of course, one of the key elements of this is the fear of the outside. It’s always easier to deal with domestic problems by saying, “Look, there’s an even bigger exterior threat.” I think that’s what has happened. So the vast percentage of the Russian population has been subjected to propaganda that says the West is about to attack us — that they are trying to undermine us.
What about Ukraine and the Russian nationalists? “We should all be united!” That is their perception; Ukrainians not wanting to be united must mean that they are some kind of enemy. It was easy to convince a lot of people that there was danger in Ukraine. It was a bit harder to convince people that there is danger in Ukrainians. One thing that struck me in my time in Moscow, especially the second time, was how close the people were.
SPENCER: The Ukrainians and the Russians?
LYSYSHYN: Yes. I remember, for example, going to a concert in a park on a Sunday afternoon. There was a Russian singing group. They started off singing classical pieces and by the end of the concert they were singing Queen, and “We Shall Overcome.” But in the middle of it, they played and sang a Ukrainian pop song that was popular at the time. The whole audience in Moscow knew that song and sang along. That showed how close they were.
Now, on the other hand, you have a real breakdown in communication. I stay in touch with some rather distant relatives in Ukraine. I asked them last weekend, “Are you telling your friends and relatives in Russia what is happening?”
My distant cousin wrote back to me. She said, “We try. We tell them often. They simply do not believe us.”
Of course, people do not want to believe the worst of their countrymen. They are committed to Russia and it is hard to believe that these awful things are happening. But we missed how this nationalism was emerging as Putin became more isolated because of his insecurity. He became a stronger nationalist. Then you add into this — don’t get me going on about the Russian Church and the role they are playing in basically preaching Russian nationalism! They have been all along.
I called on Patriarch Kirill when he was first appointed, and met with him. I was struck by two things. One: He came across in most conversation as a very westernized figure. The second thing was that the minute you suggested something wasn’t quite right in Russia, he became extremely defensive.
What came up in the conversation (because it was current) was that the Azerbaijanis have a big control of the goods and a lot of vegetables and fruits in Russian markets. A lot of it comes from Azerbaijan, and there were racial incidents happening. I said the church should play a role in bringing an end to these. He said, “Absolutely not!” He just launched into this attack on their business practices and everything else.
Also, when I visited the monastery where the training of Russian priests take place, we were given a tour by one of the priests. He made two comments that were extremely worrying to me. One was that he said, “Things are much better in Canada than the United States.”
I replied, “Well, we’re very proud of Canada.”
He said, “Yeah, but do you know why that is?”
I said, “No.”
He said, “Well, you don’t have those black people.”
That tainted my view of the church. So, when I was talking to Kirill, maybe I was sensitive to the racism issue, but he did nothing to dissuade me from that.
SPENCER: Not just Azerbaijanis, but a lot of Central Asians. You left in 2010, and I was there mostly a little before them. I used to go every year. For example, I was there when Putin’s re-inauguration took place. Anyway, a lot of people from Central Asia were doing jobs like cleaning streets and so on. There was tremendous hostility and racism toward them on the part of people whom we would have considered liberal progressives. Was that conspicuous to you, too?
LYSYSHYN: Oh, absolutely. Yes. And you also saw it in the church, and in the politicians as well. Putin and the nationalists have said that the greatest tragedy was the end of the Soviet Union.
Putin doesn’t give a damn about communism or even a lot of the countries on the fringe of Russia. But he does care about the Slavic peoples and he does care about Russia’s role in the world. That is what he is regretting. He certainly doesn’t want communism back or anything resembling it, but he wants a world in which Russia remains a prominent voice. Obviously, through all this, from the Cold War, the United States is the focus of it. But I could tell, even when I was there, that Russia was very worried about China.
SPENCER: A minute ago you said there was a transition from Putin’s being influenced largely by oligarchs (the people in finance and other maybe modern fields) to being influenced by the nationalists in these military institutes. I haven’t followed that. I had extraordinarily good access to people in the Gorbachev government, but no contact with people in Yeltsin’s government, and certainly none with Putin’s people. So that transition is not one that I understand. If you asked me who was a nationalist, the only name I might have come up would be Solzhenitsyn. And he’s obviously not the kind of guy you’re talking about.
LYSYSHYN: Some of his views are questionable.
SPENCER: Yes, but would you say he was militaristic?
LYSYSHYN: No, probably not.
SPENCER: I was not aware of any influential nationalists but since then I’ve heard of a guy named Dugin. I’ve never read a word the man wrote, but who are these influential nationalists in the military institutes?
LYSYSHYN: There was a wide range of people with strong nationalist views who came back in the 1990s. Some of them had been sent to Siberia by the Communists, some of them were otherwise exiled. They came back and they started to teach in these institutes, where their views were falling on fertile ground. As Putin began to worry more and more about his security, and his safety in his position, as most dictators tend to do, and when he had no legitimacy behind him (a bunch of crooked elections don’t really provide that much legitimacy) he began to turn more and more to them. We’ve taken sanctions against a lot of the oligarchs, and the oligarchs are saying, “No, we don’t have any influence on Putin now.” But they did. Fifteen years ago, they clearly did. And, in fact, they were very responsible for bringing Putin into power initially, to make sure the Communists stayed down, and that things didn’t completely fall apart after Yeltsin.
But their influence has faded over time. Putin’s interest in what they brought to the country (and some of them took more than they brought, clearly) and what modernization and economic development brought to him became less important to him than his security and Russia’s role in the world.
SPENCER: Okay, that figures. But I’m not sure who these people are and why the transition occurred. He was given a lot of credit for being really competent. Because the ’90s under Yeltsin was just chaos, and the economy was in shambles. Putin did make it start growing, and it looked better organized. So, my impression was that the people who (even reluctantly) gave him credit for competence did so on those grounds for a long time. You say he didn’t have legitimacy. But he really did have a huge amount of support.
LYSYSHYN: And he still does!
SPENCER: Yeah, maybe more than he did even five years ago.
LYSYSHYN: But he took people along with him by creating this vision of an imminent threat. His speech on May 9, focusing on Ukraine’s development of nuclear weapons, or that they were planning an attack on Russia! That’s absurd, but it’s not being laughed out of the room by the Russians.
SPENCER: Why do you say he got nervous about his lack of legitimacy? Why would he have even had any fears whatever? Any American president or any Canadian prime minister with the kind of approval ratings that he had would be feeling glorious.
LYSYSHYN: Well, there’s the issue of the validity of polls in Russia, particularly now. If you get a phone call in Russia and you’re a middle level bureaucrat and somebody asks you, “What do you think of Putin’s actions in Ukraine?” nobody’s going to say they disapprove. But there was legitimate progress, no question! And some people still remember it. But now the people he turns to tend to be almost all from the security services.
SPENCER: There’s some buddy of his — they stayed isolated together at a retreat during the pandemic. I read something recently about him. He’s a historian, I guess — a physicist originally, but he’s into some nutty theory of Slavic supremacy or something.
LYSYSHYN: Yeah, that’s right. These are the people he talks to.
SPENCER: But there’s another kind of appeal. I guess you could call it nationalism, but it’s a kind of resentment by almost anybody who is “downwardly mobile” — people who’ve lost status. And no, I’m not talking about class or economic conditions now. But in any hierarchy that Max Weber would call a ‘status’ hierarchy — prestige and dignity and elitism and so on — in any hierarchy like that, there’s no objective ranking. It’s always comparative: ‘Am I higher than you are? Are you higher than he is?’ And so on. In such a hierarchy, every time somebody moves up, then somebody else logically has to be downwardly mobile, just because of the way comparison works. And people who slip in a hierarchy of status, get resentful in the way that I can see in my Russian friends who admire democracy. For example, they admire Justin Trudeau as a great leader and wish that Russia were a democracy. They both resent and envy people who belong to a society that has higher status on a democracy scale.
I’ve lost friends who got really mad at me and saw me as an ‘imperialist’ and a ‘triumphalist’! I’m a haughty person ‘looking down on Russia’! But what can you say in that kind of situation? Now, of course, they’re supporting Putin. A lot of people do so now who didn’t a year ago. I don’t know how to handle situations where somebody resents me for having gained status in some imaginary hierarchy when it means that they have comparatively lost status. How do you reassure people? Even if you try to be unassuming and egalitarian, you can be read as condescending or patronizing.
LYSYSHYN: I understand your dilemma. And I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to it. We always say you got to keep talking but people are finding that frustrating now. People from Ukraine phone their mothers in Russia and are not believed about what’s happening. A number of things happened through 2000 to 2010 that wounded Putin’s amour-propre, but that shouldn’t be a reason to launch a war. We underestimated how much he was driven by extreme nationalism. In this run-up to the war, the Americans were saying “He’s launching a war” and we were all saying, “I don’t think he’ll do that.”
This goes back to your comment that Putin was perceived as very competent. There is nothing competent or good for Russia from launching this war. Regardless of how it ends, everybody’s going to be a loser. Certainly the Ukrainians. They may get Putin out of their country and Putin will lose. But Putin will still lose even if he keeps part of Ukraine and claims a victory. It’s going to be a Pyrrhic victory, so they can’t win. The security in Europe is completely up in the air now, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. What is it going to do to the economy? People inevitably take money that could have been used for social programs and put it into the military. There are no winners in this. For those of us who thought Putin was too smart to do this, I think we underestimated the nationalism issue.
SPENCER: Well, the West did make mistakes. I thought so at the time. The expansion of NATO — I never thought that should happen. In fact, when the WTO disbanded, I thought NATO should too.
I had a conversation with Pavel Palazhchenko about that shortly before this war started. We referred to this quotation that you hear all the time about Baker reassuring Gorbachev that NATO would not move one inch to the east. I said that Gorbachev should have gotten it in writing. Palazhchenko was the interpreter for that very statement, and he said that Gorbachev did not expect that and could not have demanded that. He said it wasn’t really something that anybody could have taken as a binding commitment. I don’t know. And I don’t even know how seriously Americans felt about that promise, and even less do I have any idea whether the Canadian government also had the view that that NATO should not admit former Soviet states to membership.
LYSYSHYN: I feel strongly that there are two different issues here. One is the former countries of the Warsaw Pact in the Baltic states. These are countries that for 40 years were subjugated by Russia, by force of communism that the state forced on them. We had no right to say to them, you must live in limbo forever. I think that we did that.
SPENCER: By the way, I wouldn’t disagree with you on that.
LYSYSHYN: We took them into NATO. I think we did Ukraine a disservice when we started talking about admitting Ukraine to NATO back in 2008. Canada was one of the loudest voices on that, and Stephen Harper had a piece in the paper over the weekend in which he attacks NATO for not moving fast enough to bring Ukraine in. But at that point, polling was being done in Ukraine showing that only five percent of Ukrainians wanted to join NATO. Yushchenko was the president. He had only 15 percent of the support; we knew he was going to be defeated. And I thought that it made absolutely no sense to be inviting them into NATO when they didn’t want to come and we weren’t really going to take them in.
And now their view of joining NATO has, of course, changed. After getting rid of Yanukovych, and seeing the Russian reaction to that, and losing Crimea, Ukrainian opinion changed very radically. Ukrainians want to be in NATO. But the West has never been on the verge of taking them into NATO. And I think it’s outrageous to be preaching we’re taking them in when clearly it wasn’t going to happen. The only persons who seemed to believe that it was going to happen were some Ukrainians and Putin. You can even see that even now. People are talking about how maybe NATO is not on but we’ll take Ukraine into EU. The French president on the weekend said that’s not going to happen.
SPENCER: I was surprised because I thought it’d be a lot easier to let them into EU than NATO. You can do one but not the other.
LYSYSHYN: Well, there are issues that relate to corruption and other things that have to be dealt with. But I think we have been guilty of suggesting to Ukrainians that we would protect them and our protection has been less than it should have been. On the other hand, if you had asked me two months ago how much protection we would offer Ukraine, I would have thought it would be less than we actually have done. There’s been much more solidarity on the economic sanctions front. There’s been much more solidarity in sending weapons to Ukraine. There’s a headline in one of the papers today that asks: How long can we keep that up? That’s a good question.
SPENCER: Especially with the influx of refugees, which just seems to continue. By the way, I heard that Canada was going to take 100,000 but I haven’t heard of a single one getting here.
LYSYSHYN: Newfoundland did a very interesting thing. They sent their people into Warsaw, and recruited a plane full of Ukrainians who actually want to come and settle. The vast majority of them are temporary; they hope to go back. Those who have no interest in coming to Canada say it is too far. They’ve left family behind, so they want to go back. Those who want to immigrate completely, that number will increase. But Newfoundland did an excellent job in sending their people there and recruiting people to meet their own needs. I think other provinces should do that.
SPENCER: Well, Canada has not been a stellar performer in bringing Afghan refugees.
LYSYSHYN: That’s a different situation. The Afghan refugees are all coming permanently. Right now, when we’re saying Ukrainians can come, we’re saying, “Okay, come in, then we’ll look at this in three years. Give us time to see just who we are importing.” It’s a different situation — it’s comparing apples and oranges.
SPENCER: The Europeans have been so welcoming, but that is written up as proof of racism. They point out that they don’t take in the Syrians as they do people from those …
LYSYSHYN: That was very interesting. Ukrainian men weren’t being allowed out at all. And these Syrian guys, when many of them were told, “we will help you go home,” their answer was, “No, no, we don’t want to go home. We want to stay in Europe.” Whereas the Ukrainians are just saying. “I want to go back to my husband and family as soon as I can.”
So, you have to take into account the differences. I understand why the students in Ukraine don’t want to go back to where they came from, but they’re welcome at the border. The processes at the border will be different for them than for somebody’s who’s just coming to avoid the bullets.
SPENCER: Okay. Let’s go back to the olden days — the end of the Soviet Union, and what could have happened instead. I adore Gorbachev. He made a lot of mistakes, but he was really doing the right things in general. I had many Ukrainian visitors who came and stayed with me, even two years in one case, and he brought some friends and relatives and girlfriend and everybody. Later I visited his family in Ukraine. So, for a while I had more contacts with Ukrainians than with Russians. They were always talking about whether or not to favor independence for Ukraine. They were in favor of it and I was not.
In fact, looking back on that period, the West is blamed by Russians for the breakup of the Soviet Union. However, most people in the West, including the Bush administration, said they would have done anything to help Gorbachev hold it together if they could have. But they couldn’t because the people wanted to break it up. My feeling at the time was, if Gorbachev had been able to get his New Union Treaty — and they had the seats all set up for the meeting, which we’re going to happen a day or two later to sign the thing — and if that had been put through instead of blocked by the coup, it would have been a fine regime. It would have been more federal; it would have given more local autonomy to republics, but it would have been a Soviet conglomerate and we’d be “home free” now.
The democratization that was going on in that period was much more promising than anything that followed, even though Yeltsin was seen as much more democratic than Gorbachev himself. So at the time I was saying, “Look, you guys should be paying more attention to improving the quality of your governance than to separating as an independent country.” But everybody abandoned Gorbachev. Progressive people who had been in favor of democracy within a very short time period of time all went over to wanting something more radical. They supported Yeltsin. Okay, I’ve given you my pitch, so what was your point of view at that time?
LYSYSHYN: Well, it wasn’t really ours to decide. The Russians made their decisions. Yeltsin had his ambitions; he was supported by the Belorussians and the Ukrainians, and the Soviet Union disappeared and Russia became prominent.
Maybe if Gorbachev had had his Union meeting — but who says it would not have been undermined further down the road? And then you already had the situation where a bunch of the old hardliners in the military tried a coup against Gorbachev as well. It was far from a secure operation.
SPENCER: But you had a point of view at the time.
LYSYSHYN: Well, as for the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the independence of the other countries, I was very much in favor of it, including independence for Ukraine. I was at NATO at the time.
One thing I organized was having representatives from the various Warsaw Pact countries come and spend a week with the Canadian delegation to NATO, to see how NATO worked and operated. We did this in groups of three. NATO is a more democratic organization than a lot of outside people give it credit for. So, I was very much in favor of the independence for Ukraine and certainly the breakup of the Warsaw Pact. Canada contributed to it in a direct way with the Open Skies initiative.
The European delegations (particularly led by Hungary but also, Poland) were for the first time able to go to an international conference. They did so here in Ottawa and said, “No, that is the Russian position. That’s not our position.”
And, of course, that was welcomed very much by the rest of the people at that same conference. On the margins the Germans were able to set up an arrangement for the reunification of Germany. So, we played our role in it. And later there was a debate within the Canadian government: Do we really take these countries into NATO? There are people in the Canadian government who were opposed. But there was no question in Prime Minister Chretien’s mind that it was the right thing to do.
SPENCER: We were talking about it as if Putin’s decision to go to war is totally crazy. And I think it is 99 percent delusory. But I do think that there are things that could have been done that would have made things a lot better. The West made some mistakes. For example, when Gorbachev went to ask for help, he wanted financial aid but he got turned down. That would have made a difference. Probably things wouldn’t have fallen apart if he had gotten the aid. And again, I think the expansion of NATO has been generally a mistake. Not the Baltic countries; I think they have a case. If Ukraine had committed to neutrality from the get-go, it would have been a lot better.
LYSYSHYN: They didn’t want that.
SPENCER: I know they did not want that.
LYSYSHYN: You can say “what if,” but none of it threatened Russia in the way that Putin claims.
SPENCER: Okay, I agree. Though NATO has the weapons to attack, they haven’t expressed any intention of doing so. It’s mostly delusory on his side. But there are plenty of people — especially peace activists (maybe more than the former diplomats and government officials that you hang out with). Many peace activists are saying, ‘It’s really the US’s fault’— the expansion of NATO and not working on further disarmament treaties. Those peace activists have a few points, but not enough points to explain — least of all justify — the kind of aggression that the Russians have undertaken.
LYSYSHYN: There are occasions for which I agree Putin could feel justifiably offended. But those aren’t causes of war.