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From Russia, No Love

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…and that’s no surprise, according to my friend D. Griboyedev, who follows Russian affairs closely. Here’s his lowdown on what’s really going on between the U.S. and Russia, some of which you haven’t seen in the Western press…

Some time at last to comment on the Russian political situation as you saw it, as you asked in reference to this post. I seriously doubt that either a substantive positive change in our policy towards Russia, or a corresponding move towards a “stable, democratic, prosperous Russia” are likely&#8212rather the opposite, because our policies are effectively designed to do just the opposite.

While the analogy of today’s Russia as Pinochet’s Chile is true up to a point, Putin is neither Pinochet nor one of the old Communist General Secretaries when it comes to control over his own government, or in the ability to ignore popular opinion. As a former KGB officer, Putin’s base of support is in the security services, and he has tried to move people from there into commanding positions in the other “power ministries” (e.g., the Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Atomic Energy, etc.) However, the security services have less physical and bureaucratic power than the coalition of the uniformed military and the other “power ministries.” They effectively put Putin into power after Yeltsin’s cave-in over Kosovo, and only support him as long as, and as far as, his position coincides with theirs. This is why Putin’s public behavior and statements always follow a pattern: when an international crisis or other question of power arises, he says nothing for a fairly lengthy period while leaders of the other power centers make statements and take action. Finally, he comes down on the side of whichever group seems to have the most power at the time, without acknowledging that he’s doing so.

A classic example of this came when Chechen guerillas under Shamil Basayev and Khattab had been driven back into Chechnya after attacking Dagestan in 1999. The U.S. was demanding that Russia take no further action. In response, Colonel-General Anatoly Kvashnin (Chief of the General Staff) and several other senior officers told Putin that they intended to pursue Basayev et al into Chechnya and destroy the rebels once and for all&#8212and that if Putin refused, they would not be responsible for what happened next, with a strong hint that he would be removed from power as Yeltsin had been. Shortly thereafter, Putin made his famous remark about how the rebels would be killed wherever they were, “in the shithouse if necessary.” Another example of this pattern came last August. After months of Russian protests to Georgia about Chechen rebels using the Pankisi Gorge (just on the Georgian side of the northern Caucasus Mountains, with ready access to mountain passes into Chechnya) as a sanctuary, repeated denials of knowledge and responsibility by Georgia, and warnings from the U.S. about Georgian sovereignty, the Russian Air Force bombed the gorge without warning. Again, Putin was silent for days, then came down with a bang on the military’s side, causing a panic in Tbilisi that hasn’t really subsided since then. The most telling indicator that Putin doesn’t have Stalin-like power in all of this is that Kvashnin is not only still alive, but still the Chief of the General Staff&#8212and is still very provocative towards the U.S. and Georgia.

On occasion Putin will “accept the unacceptable” with a seemingly friendly statement (e.g., not wishing for a U.S. defeat in Iraq, or not condemning the U.S. presence in Georgia or Central Asia), rather than blustering and then surrendering as Yeltsin always did&#8212but afterwards he plays the same game, as the power balance shifts. Tony Blair was the unwilling recipient of a Putin tirade recently, as noted in this article.

I watched the press conference, and there was no doubt about what had just happened. Beyond mocking Blair and Bush and essentially calling both of them liars on the Iraqi WMD issue, he came down on the side of the Foreign Ministry and the military in stating that Russia insisted on the primacy of the UN Security Council in what happened next. Moreover, Russia was neither seeking “forgiveness” for standing up for its own interests, nor would it stand by and let the U.S. unilaterally decide what was or was not acceptable under international law. The gauntlet has well and truly been thrown down&#8212and I for one am very concerned about the impact of Bush’s upcoming meeting with Putin, given Bush’s performance during the last one, as well as his recent triumphalism and increasing testiness with any opposing views.

We’ve talked about elite maneuverings so far, but public opinion has a bigger role in Russian politics these days than one might think. I spend quite a lot of time watching and reading the news from Russia, and what I’m seeing is very worrisome. For example, this news article sums up the general tenor very well.

The idea that the United States is going to export democracy and wipe out a threat to world peace holds no sway [in Russia]. In a poll taken at the end of March, 83 percent said they are angered and disgusted by U.S. policy. Six out of 10 said the United States is after Iraq’s oil. Five out of 10 said the United States wants to show who is “master of the world.”

Many elsewhere have reacted to the war the same way. But while bitter attacks on the U.S. mark a reversal of attitudes in some places, in Russia, resentment of America is never too far from the surface, even when President Vladimir Putin is professing to be President Bush’s friend.

What’s even more alarming is that the people cited are members of the Moscow intelligentsia&#8212typically the most pro-American segment of the population since the end of the Cold War. Reading various Russian papers from the provinces, I see that opinions voiced there are even more anti-American than those from Moscow.

There are Duma elections at the end of 2003, and Presidential elections a few months after that. The perception that Putin suffers from the “Yeltsin syndrome” (i.e., constantly giving in to the U.S. and getting nothing commensurate in return) is growing and being fostered by the Communists and the other usual suspects. Despite the higher degree of control over the media that Putin has compared to what Yeltsin had, the fact that people like Leonid Ivashov (ex-Army Colonel-General and extreme anti-U.S. hard-liner) are getting plenty of air time on Russian TV is a bad sign. Finally, the head Mufti of the government-sponsored union of Russian and CIS Moslems called for a jihad against the U.S.&#8212last declared against the Nazis in WW2&#8212and had to be restrained by Putin.

The effects of Russia’s anti-American backlash are being felt in economic terms as well&#8212U.S. firms in Russia may find themselves being boycotted before too long, and in some cases already are. While the amount of money involved is still relatively small by U.S. megacorp standards, it foreshadows the closing of a potentially lucrative market&#8212and, given other boycotts starting in the rest of the world, puts a big chunk of the U.S. economy at risk.

I said that our policies toward Russia were designed to exacerbate the crisis, rather than resolve it. A good example of this is the tension between Russia and Georgia, which is very high for a number of reasons&#8212most of which have U.S. policies at their root. The major ones are the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline (designed and explicitly promoted as taking oil and gas exports from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea completely out of Russian hands), which was pushed by the Clinton Administration and is still pushed by the Bush Administration as a key foreign policy goal. Another is Georgian President Shevardnadze’s sub rosa support for the Chechen rebels while hiding behind America’s skirts, despite our professed partnership in the anti-terror coalition. A third is U.S. use of the Shevardnadze-inspired GUUAM organization as a catspaw to pull parts of the former Soviet Union out of the Russian orbit.*

Georgia signed a Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S. a month or so ago, which made it explicit that the U.S. presence there was not going to be the limited, short-term anti-terrorist training mission we had proclaimed.

Furthermore, we began U-2 flights over Georgia, ostensibly to look for al-Qaida terrorists known to be associated with the Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge, over Russian objections that the real reason was to observe Russian operations in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. When the news broke, the Georgians typically denied that any U.S. military flights over Georgia were happening at all, and then lied that the planes weren’t U-2s, until forced to admit the truth by detailed information made public by the Russian Air Force. In response, the Russian Duma voted 354 – 4 that U.S. activities in Georgia were a threat to Russia’s national security, while General Kvashnin personally supervised major military exercises just across the border in the North Caucasus Military District. A really ominous sign came when Colonel-General Mikhailov, the chief of the Russian Air Force, stated in several public interviews widely circulated in Russia that the U-2s were being tracked with radar, missiles and fighters, and that if one violated the Russian border “by so much as one kilometer” he would order it to be shot down immediately. This kind of rhetoric hasn’t been heard for years; no one in the Russian government has repudiated this statement, and as noted above neither the Russian Air Force nor the Russian Army have hesitated to act on their own regarding Georgia and Chechnya. I have yet to see this mentioned anywhere in the Western press&#8212and as a result, I doubt most people know or understand just how critical the situation is becoming.

Events in Azerbaijan have also heightened concerns about a crisis that could affect the game of pipeline politics. Haydar Aliyev, who headed Azerbaijan’s Soviet government until 1982 and retook control in 1993 after Azerbaijan’s defeats by Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, collapsed twice during a televised address in late April and is now hospitalized in Turkey. Aliyev has backed the BTC pipeline project and previous Western oil ventures in Azerbaijan, although unsurprisingly little of the wealth generated has found its way to the common people. He has been grooming his son Ilham for the Presidency, but the situation resembles that in Syria before the elder Assad died&#8212what happens when an iron-fisted father tries to hand his power to an untried son, especially when the father’s polices have alienated the country’s most powerful neighbor (in this case Russia) and when the senior leaders of the country aren’t willing to follow the putative heir? Most of those leaders are pro-Russian for a variety of reasons, while the common people would follow anyone who could bring back the relative “prosperity” of Soviet days&#8212a situation very similar to that in Georgia, caused by the same sort of corruption and the bigger issue of breaking up the unified Soviet economic system. In this case, a pro-Russian government in Baku would completely undercut the basis of our energy policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Rhetorical question: How are the “neocons” and oilmen who make policy in the Bush Administration likely to react to this possibility? Again, there has been almost no attention to this in the Western press&#8212and given the crisis next door in Georgia, I doubt most people realize what is at stake, or the potential for disastrous consequences.

A similar situation exists in both Central Asia and Western Europe in the post-Iraq world. A few weeks ago, Putin met with the leaders of Belarus, Armenia and all the former Soviet Central Asian states excepting Uzbekistan’s Karimov and Turkmenistan’s Niyazov. The purpose of this meeting was to invigorate the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization&#8212specifically, by creating a new Russian-dominated Combined General Staff, standing up the Russian-dominated Rapid Reaction Force, and deploying Russian aircraft to Kant, Kyrgyzstan (only a few miles from the U.S.-occupied airbase at Manas, which supports operations in Afghanistan). The motive, underlined by Belarus’ President Lukashenko, was to create a counterbalance to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and would have been unthinkable as recently as a year ago. Niyazov, after years of isolation and neutrality, independently moved to tighten Turkmenistan’s bonds with Russia, partially driven by fears of a Saddam-like overthrow and lingering paranoia that the U.S. supported dissidents who tried to assassinate him last year. Uzbekistan still remains relatively friendly to the U.S., but a glance at the map shows that it is effectively encircled, and has already been strong-armed out of GUUAM, the anti-Russian group that Shevardnadze helped create and effectively leads.** As I noted before, the “Stans” have only as much freedom of maneuver as Russia allows&#8212and the sudden change in Russia’s willingness to tolerate the same is linked to perceived U.S. aggressiveness.

Unfortunately for the U.S., moves to “punish France, ignore Germany, and forgive Russia” have done something which the USSR was never able to do&#8212create an actual fracture in NATO, in the form of the new military planning structure being set up by Germany and France, which Russia is being invited to join. While this adds no new forces to the European armies, it makes explicit that the heart of “Old Europe” is preparing to go its own way militarily&#8212and despite sneers from pundits, removing the forces and territory of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg from NATO control and access will effectively destroy most of the alliance’s utility to America. Moreover, if the Euro-Russian military alignment turns into an economic one as well, it can have some very unhappy consequences for us. Russia has everything France and Germany need (cheap energy, cheap raw materials, strategically-deployable military forces, world-class military R&D facilities, etc.) while they have what Russia needs (money, the potential to switch to a Euro-based reserve currency, and more critically strong economic influence over Rumsfeld’s “New Europe”).

An example of this last is the reaction to Poland’s intention to send occupation troops at its own expense to Iraq to seek favor with America. At the recent EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Greece, Poland was none-too-subtly reminded that since it could find money to send troops to Iraq in direct defiance of the EU, it obviously didn’t need largely-German EU subsidies that are keeping its economy afloat, and might find itself deprived of them. German Defense Minster Struck made that point explicit a few days ago when he refused to send German troops to Iraq with the Poles. It also bears remembering that the vast bulk of Poland’s energy comes from Russia, that they are deeply in debt to Russia for it, and that this can be used as a political weapon or a means by which Russia takes control of vital industries as a debt-for-equity deal, which has been done in many of the former Communist Bloc countries. Unless we’re prepared to make up for such economic losses, the Polish government’s cooperation may very well be overridden by its hostile populace&#8212some 70% of which opposed and still oppose U.S. policy on Iraq. This is the ugly secret of the “Coalition of the Willing”&#8212in every case, only the governments of these nations supported us, and now they expect tangible rewards for their “help” to stave off their angry electorates.

To conclude my comments on Russia: The Ralph Peters essay you once linked to used the analogy that we should behave towards Russia like a parent towards a sulky child***, and Condi Rice’s statement about “forgiving” Russia for standing up for its own interests is in the same vein&#8212profoundly arrogant and insulting, and worse yet counterproductive. We’ve applied this method to virtually every other nation in the world since the “War on Terrorism” started, and it’s no wonder that our support has dried up with such speed. If the U.S. were serious about having Russia become a stable, democratic, prosperous ally, it would not be trying to choke it economically (e.g., the BTC pipeline and related schemes), break it up via fomenting ethnic tensions (e.g., our prior support for the Chechens, the reluctance to do more than make pro forma condemnations of the most obvious terrorists among them in recent months, and our continued encouragement of separatism among other radical North Caucasian Muslims), encircle it with military bases on what was recently its own soil (e.g., Georgia, Central Asia, and probably soon in the Baltic States and other “New European” countries), and, by doing all of the above, encourage the most reactionary, anti-democratic and anti-American elements in the government and society.

The Bush Administration doesn’t want, understand or value allies&#8212what they want are satellites (which Blair’s England has willingly become), and it should not come as a surprise that many nations, including Russia, refuse to play this role. The blow-up we had with Turkey was probably the worst example in the recent past, and was to a large extent driven by just that sort of arrogant, insulting behavior (Newt Gingrich to the contrary), but ultimately this is nowhere near as important as what we’re doing with France and Russia.

* Here’s an early Putin-era assessment of what the group is all about by a reasonably unbiased source.

** Some views of what has happened since with GUUAM, after Uzbekistan’s withdrawal.

*** “We must display the enlightened firmness of a parent dealing with an unruly child: Russia must never be allowed to throw a tantrum and have its way.”

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About Dave Trowbridge

  • Nell Lancaster

    Very helpful, if depressing. Thanks, Dave, for passing this along, and thanks to Mr. Griboyedev for pulling it together.