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Dear Lawrence O'Donnell, Don't Mansplain to Me About Russia

Tonight, I went on Lawrence O'Donnell's show, and Lawrence O'Donnell yelled at me. Or, rather, he O'Reilly'd at me. That O'Donnell interrupted and harangued and mansplained and was generally an angry grandpa at me is not what I take issue with, however. What bothers me is that, look: your producers take the time to find experts to come on the show, answer your questions, and, hopefully, clarify the issue at hand. 

I was invited on the show to talk about Obama's (very wise) decision to cancel his Moscow summit with Putin, about which I wrote here. I am an expert on Russia. In fact, it is how you introduced me: "Previously, she was a Moscow-based correspondent for Foreign Policy and The New Yorker." I'm not going to toot my own horn here, but I was there for three years, I'm a fluent, native speaker of Russian, and, god damn it, I know my shit. 

READ: Obama Bails on His Inevitably Awkward Date With Putin

Which is why I wish you'd let me finish answering your bullshit question, which went like this:

"Julia, to start [the White House statement canceling the summit] with the Snowden factor, for the Russian statement to say, 'this is a situation which we did not create,' is of course a lie. They were in complete control of the outcome of what would happen to Snowden from the second he arrived at that airport. But administration, are you surprised that the administration included it in their official statement about the decision?" 

Okay, no I was not surprised about their decision to include it in the official statement because Snowden was the catalyst for this decision, and it was a good decision because Russia and America have not been getting along and have not been getting anything done for a while now. Like, for a good year and a half. 

But I decided to contest O'Donnell's premise that Russia had this thing planned and under control from the beginning, and that they did, in fact, create the situation. We then squabbled over whether Putin personally controls everything in Russia: what TV anchors say, everything that happens at Sheremetyevo, even every breath that Snowden takes. "Julia, Julia, Julia. You aren't seriously suggesting that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government did not have complete, total, absolute control over the outcome of Edward Snowden entering that airport in Moscow?" ("That airport in Moscow" is called, say it with me now, SHEH-REH-MEH-T-YE-VO! See, helps to have a Russia expert around!)

Because O'Donnell didn't let me get a word in edgewise after that, let me explain.

Yes. I am seriously suggesting that. I am also seriously suggesting the following things:

  • Vladimir Putin is not omnipotent. He does not control everything that happens in the Russian Federation, a vast and often inhospitable landmass that spans 10 time zones. 
  • Similarly, Barack Obama does not have total control over the minutiae of the United States of America.
  • Putin does not orchestrate, he reacts. Putin is no chess player. He is a knee-jerk, short-sighted little tyrant. Don't give him credit where credit isn't due.
  • Americans, especially Americans who have never been to Russia, overestimate the abilities of both Putin and the Russians. Because, I mean, come on. Tank!
  • The Russians did not create the Snowden situation; Julian Assange and the U.S. government did. Assange insinuated himself into the situation and sent Snowden to Ecuador (the country granting him asylum) through Russia (his great friend). 
  • The Obama administration trapped Snowden in Russia. The U.S. unsealed the charges before it had Snowden in custody, revoked his passport, then downed the plane of the president of a sovereign state over other sovereign states because it thought Snowden was on board. The only place, by design, where Snowden could go was back to the U.S. Where he was charged with espionage, for which the maximum punishent is death.
  • Russia is a brutal place where whistleblowers are harassed and killed, but Russia, unlike the U.S., has no death penalty. And it is only because the Russians made a stink about it, that Eric Holder was forced to come out and assure the Russians that Edward Snowden won't be put to death. This happened over a month after Snowden's arrival in Moscow, and after the charges of espionage were unsealed.
  • If a Russian Edward Snowden ended up in JFK Airport, there is no way in hell we'd turn him over to the Russians. Not in a hundred years, and not ever.
  • You can't back Putin into a corner and leave him no options. If you are a world leader worth your salt, and have a good diplomatic team working for you, you would know that. You would also know that when dealing with thugs like Putin, you know that things like this are better handled quietly. Here's the thing: Putin responds to shows of strength, but only if he has room to maneuver. You can't publicly shame him into doing something, it's not going to get a good response. Just like it would not get a good response out of Obama.
  • The Obama administration totally fucked this up. I mean, totally. Soup to nuts. Remember the spy exchange in the summer of 2010? Ten Russian sleeper agents—which is not what Snowden is—were uncovered by the FBI in the U.S. Instead of kicking up a massive, public stink over it, the Kremlin and the White House arranged for their silent transfer to Russia in exchange for four people accused in Russia of spying for the U.S. Two planes landed on the tarmac in Vienna, ten people went one way, four people went the other way, the planes flew off, and that was it. That's how this should have been done if the U.S. really wanted Snowden back.
  • However, the decision to blow off the Moscow summit was a good one. See yesterday's post.
  • I am not a Putin apologist. I think he and his people do bad things, like kill people and fleece the country for its wealth. But neither do I think he's oppressing the Russian masses. He is their most extreme and natural, their most post-Soviet manifestation.


My main beef with O'Donnell is not that he wouldn't let me make these 11 points—because, let's face it, that's not what the TV is for—but that he did exactly the same shit Russians did to me when I was in Russia. They assumed that the U.S. and its government was one sleek, well-functioning monolith, that Obama was omnipotent, and that everyone in the world, including other important (and nuclear!) world leaders, act and must act as Russia demands it should, using Russian foreign policy calculus, and with only Russian interests in mind.

Sound ridiculous? Believe me, it sounds just as insane in reverse. The problem is that this was not in the ranting comments section, but was coming from the host of a prime time, national television show. And if you don't have the good sense and education or, hell, the reporting experience to know better, then just let the guests you invited on speak.

Otherwise, don't waste my fucking evening.

Julia Ioffe is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @juliaioffe on Twitter here.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Lawrence O'Donnell's first name.