Russian President Vladimir Putin’s refusal to yield to Western pressure and accept Kosovo’s independence at the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm has prompted a new round of Russia-bashing at both ends of the political spectrum. Editorial columns were filled with references to Putin’s “posturing,” “bluff,” “intimidation,” and “empty rhetoric.” His “hard line” may “reignite ethnic violence,” opined the Wall Street Journal, suggesting at the same time that this is exactly what Mr. Putin wants and warning that “now is no time to go wobbly.”
Performing on cue, President George W. Bush declared—during a visit to Albania, of all places—that his support for an independent Kosovo is “solid, firm” and ruled out “endless dialogue on a subject that we have made up our mind about.” This “firm response to Mr. Putin’s bluster” was praised by the WSJ as “a good model for how to handle the other difficult items on the Russian-U.S. agenda.”
Viewed in light of U.S.-Russian relations over the past decade and a half, those “other difficult items”—the antiballistic-missile shield, oil pipelines and drilling rights, further NATO expansion, the breakaway enclaves, Central Asia, the Ukraine, Georgia, “human-rights violations” and “backtracking on democracy,” etc.—reveal a stunning reversal of the two countries’ geopolitical roles.
The Soviet Union came into being as a revolutionary state that challenged any given status quo in principle, starting with the Comintern and ending three generations later with Afghanistan. Some of its aggressive actions and hostile impulses could be explained in light of “traditional” Russian motives, such as the need for security; at root, however, there was always an ideology unlimited in ambition and global in scope.
At first, the United States tried to appease and accommodate the Soviets (1943-46), then moved to containment in 1947, and spent the next four decades building and maintaining essentially defensive mechanisms—such as NATO—designed to prevent any major change in the global balance. By the late 70’s, the system appeared to be faltering, especially in the Third World. And, as we know from his Diaries, only three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ronald Reagan was far from certain that Moscow’s expansionist days were over.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been trying to articulate her goals and define her policies in terms of national interests: peace and prosperity at home, stable domestic institutions, secure borders, friendly neighbors. The old Soviet dual-track policy of having “normal” relations with America, on the one hand, while seeking to subvert her, on the other, gave way to naive attempts by Boris Yeltsin’s foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev to forge a “partnership” with the United States.
By contrast, the early 1990’s witnessed the beginning of America’s strident attempt to assert her status as the only global “hyperpower.” This ambition was inherently inimical to post-Soviet stabilization and kept Washington from entertaining the suggestion that Russia might, in fact, have legitimate interests in her own post-Soviet backyard. The justification for the project was as ideological, and the implications were as revolutionary, as anything concocted by Zinoviev or Trotsky in their heyday.
In essence, the United States adopted her own dual-track approach.
When Mikhail Gorbachev’s agreement was needed for German reunification, President George H.W. Bush gave a firm and public promise that NATO would not move eastward. Within years, however, Bill Clinton expanded NATO to include all the former Warsaw Pact countries of Central Europe. In The Russia Hand, Strobe Talbott chillingly summarized how Washington took advantage of Russia’s weakness. On a visit to Moscow in 1996, Clinton even wondered if he had gone too far, confiding to Talbott, “We keep telling Ol’ Boris, ‘Okay, now here’s what you’ve got to do next—here’s some more [sh-t] for your face.’”
Another round of NATO expansion came under George W. Bush, when three former Soviet Baltic republics were admitted—and the process is far from over. In April, Mr. Bush signed the NATO Freedom Consolidation Act of 2007, which extends U.S. military assistance to such aspiring NATO members as Georgia and the Ukraine. The rationale for NATO’s continued existence was found in the nebulous (and revolutionary) concept of “humanitarian intervention” used against the Serbs in 1999. Further expansion, according to Zbigniew Brzezinski, is “mandatory—historically mandatory, geopolitically desirable.”
In the wake of September 11, President Bush talked Russia into sanctioning the U.S. military’s presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but then, in the name of the “War on Terror,” tried to make that presence permanent. The following year, President Bush unilaterally abrogated the ABM Treaty. His goal was to push forward elements of the U.S. antiballistic-missile system closer to Russia’s borders. The claim that radar stations in Poland or Bohemia will help save the West from ICBMs coming from Iran is ludicrous.
The collapse of Russia’s state institutions and social infrastructure under Yeltsin, accompanied by a hyperinflation that reduced the middle class and pensioners to penury, was a trauma of incomparably greater magnitude than the Great Depression. Yet its architects—Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov—were hailed in Washington as “pro-Western reformers,” and their political factions and media outlets were duly supported by the U.S. taxpayers, by way of a network of quasi-NGOs.
The wholesale robbery of Russian resources by the Moscow oligarchs and the fire sale of drilling concessions to the oligarchs’ Western cohorts became a contentious issue in U.S.-Russian relations only a decade later, with the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Those spewing furious allegations of “Putin’s revenge” and “heavy-handedness” against the Yukos boss disregarded the fact that, quite apart from his political ambitions, Khodorkovsky was guilty of fraud and tax evasion on a massive scale.
Although there was no evidence that Anna Politkovskaya, a little-known “pro-Western” journalist, was killed on Putin’s orders, the U.S. media immediately jumped to that conclusion when she was shot last November. By contrast, when a nationalist opposition leader was gunned down last May in NATO candidate Georgia—the fiefdom of Mr. Bush’s good friend Mikhail Saakashvili—the event was ignored here and barely mentioned in Europe.
While never missing an opportunity to hector Russia on democracy and criticize her human-rights record, the United States has been notably silent on the discriminatory treatment of large Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics. In Latvia and Estonia, the Russians are subjected to arguably the worst treatment of any minority group by a member of the European Union or (with the exception of Turkey) of NATO. The demonstrations in Estonia against the government’s provocative removal of a Russian World War II memorial from Tallinn were but a symptom of a deeper malaise. As Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation wrote recently, Latvia and Estonia “have been allowed by the West flagrantly to break promises made before independence.” He concludes that the most important lesson of the Estonian crisis
is that history does not end when countries join the European Union and NATO. Given that it is by no means certain that they will have the means or even the courage to defend the internally divided Baltic States against a really serious threat, it is insane to pretend that they would defend Ukraine. For the West to continue talking publicly about further NATO and EU enlargements that will in any case almost certainly never happen is not just foolish, it is deeply immoral.
Washington views Russia as a state with limited sovereignty even within her post-Soviet borders. Chechnya is the obvious example: The White House routinely condemns Russian “violations” while demanding “dialogue” and studiously refraining from designating the Chechen child-slayers as “terrorists”; but no other aspect of Russia’s domestic policies, from education (“ethnocentric”) and immigration (“restrictive”) to homosexual rights (“appalling”) and jurisprudence (“corrupt”), has escaped scathing criticism. On the eve of his G-8 meeting with Putin last May, Mr. Bush declared that “reforms that were once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development.”
That a “democratic” Russia must be subservient domestically and externally to U.S. demands is accepted on both sides of the U.S. duopoly. George Soros warns that “a strong central government in Russia cannot be democratic” by definition and further says that “Russia’s general public must accept the ideology of an open society.” Of course, “democracy” thus defined has more to do with one’s status in the ideological pecking order than with the expressed will of one’s electorate—which meshes nicely with the Leninist dictum that the moral value of any action is determined by its contribution to the march of history. To wit, Putin’s current approval rating of 70 percent is often cited in the United States as further evidence of his populist demagoguery.
The notion of Russia’s fundamental illegitimacy and limited sovereignty was on display last April, when Moscow rejected Great Britain’s demand for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, who was suspected by British officials of murdering his fellow ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. “The thing for Americans to understand about the case is that it takes place in the context of rising Russian disregard for the rule of law,” pontificated the New York Sun. “Time for a row with Russia,” screamed the Guardian:
Russia has to learn that it cannot act with impunity. We need to make our condemnation of Russia’s appalling human rights record clear . . . We need to complain vigorously about . . . the mayor of Moscow’s banning of this weekend’s gay pride march. . . . [W]e should not be afraid of ruffling Putin’s feathers.
A similar article appeared in most major dailies on both sides of the Atlantic. Hardly any mentioned that a conflict over extradition between Britain and Russia is not new: It is over seven years old, beginning with London’s point-blank refusal to extradite Boris Berezovsky, an arch-oligarch, and Akhmed Zakayev, who stands accused of a host of horrendous terrorist crimes in Chechnya. What is more, a British court accepted a plea by Mr. Zakayev’s lawyers that he would not get a fair trial, and could even face torture, in Russia. Accordingly, the Old Bailey judge ruled that “it would be unjust and oppressive to return Mr. Zakayev to Russia.” If Russia, on the other hand, dares hesitate to honor a Western extradition order for a Russian citizen, then it’s time for a showdown and for another paroxysm of ritualized bipartisan Russophobia.
On current form, things will remain the same, or perhaps become worse, no matter who comes to the White House in 2008. Richard Holbrooke, the Democrats’ perennially designated secretary of state, wants a firm response to “a series of Russian challenges to the stability of Europe”—such as the refusal to accept Kosovo’s independence. He descries Putin’s “increasingly authoritarian, often brutal, policies,” yet cautions that, “until President Bush weighs in strongly with Putin (as President Bill Clinton did a decade ago with Boris Yeltsin), there is a serious risk Moscow will not get the message.”
Moscow gets the message. It has countered American scheming in the Caspian region with a new gas alliance with Central Asian producers. It has successfully tested a new nuclear missile. It will veto Kosovo’s independence, and the responsibility for the inevitable fallout will be on those who had promised the Albanians that which is not theirs to give. It will develop new oil fields in the Arctic, while Americans are paying ten dollars per gallon at the pump. And, in the end, Russia will survive, says Anthony T. Salvia, a former senior official in the Reagan administration. This former Cold Warrior now sees that Russia has no choice but to stand up to America:
Sooner or later, U.S. foreign policy will collide with reality—it may already have done so in Iraq—and Washington, shorn of its ideological blinkers, will finally embrace the foreign policy imperative of the 21st century: Solidarity and strategic cooperation between the United States, Europe and Russia on the basis of their shared Christian moral, intellectual and cultural traditions. This is the way forward in the face of profound challenges from a rising China and resurgent Islam.
Or, as I’ve been saying ever since September 11, it’s time for a true Northern Alliance.