Friday, May 13, 2005

The other day, Arnaud de Borchgrave wrote a perceptive column about the state of Russia being analagous to that of France after WWII. De Borchgrave went on to make the sensible point that whatever the historical accuracy of dredging up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the timing left much to be desired if closer relations between the United States and Russia were the object:

"As a proud nation celebrated the 60th anniversary of VE-Day (May 8 for Europe and the United States, May 9 for Russians), it was not prudent to remind Russia it was also part of the twin evils of the 20th century -- Nazism and communism. Nor was it wise to keep up a steady drumbeat of epithets about the lack of democracy as Russia looked back with pride at the sacrifice of 27 million men and women (more than 10 percent of its population) in the Great Patriotic War that defeated Nazi Germany. That was more blood spilled than all the other allied nations put together. The World War II casualties of the United States on all fronts were a shade less than half a million.

Russia and America need each other today on several critical fronts, from transnational terrorism to the security of Russia's 8,000 nuclear weapons and thousands of tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. A small amount of these nuclear materials would be sufficient to make a radiological ("dirty") bomb that would render Wall Street or downtown Washington around the White House uninhabitable for years.

President Bush and Secretary of State Condi Rice have ramped up their criticism of what they see as Mr. Putin's backsliding on democracy. Engaging Russia, as Mr. Bush says he wishes to do, means dropping gratuitous insults about its lack of democratic virtues. Such advice is best rendered in private. Russia is at a crossroads. One direction points to Germany after World War I, or the collapse of democracy and the totalitarian temptation. The other is Germany after World War II, the birth of a strong democracy nurtured by the United States."

Unfortunately, there is a gathering crowd in Washington working behind the scenes who do not desire good relations with Russia and essentially view Vladmir Putin's administration as a crypto-Soviet state fundamentally hostile to the United States. Dick Morris, a former adviser to a Senate majority leader, a President and lately,Viktor Yushchenko, the new president of Ukraine, writes in the influential Capitol Hill paper Roll Call of a " Czar Putin" under whom "... the old Soviet Union will be back on the road to regional domination and the old ambitions of global power will return". The otherwise sensible National Center For Public Policy Research with solidly Reaganite credentials, maintains a satellite operation called Center for the Future of Russia that is little more than a comical propaganda sheet for the Oligarchs ( which makes one wonder if any unusually large checks have floated the National Center's way of late).

Vladmir Putin is at best an illiberal democrat. He has used strongarm tactics to break the power of the Oligarchs over Russia's government and he is censoring the press through pressure, confiscation, intimidation and legal harrassment. The war in Chechnya under Putin is being carried out with the usual trademarkRussian mixture of brutality and incompetence. Putin has steadily consolidated most of the levers of power in his own hands. These are things which the United States should regard with a concerned wariness when dealing with the Russian Federation.

But if Vladmir Putin is no Thomas Jefferson, he isn't Joseph Stalin either. He has been elected democratically and enjoys wide, deep, support and dissenters are not being herded into camps behind barbed wire. Putin is not the enemy of the United States and he is a determined reformer who is by all reports, honest. Can that be said of Khordokovsky, Berezovsky, Gusinsky and the other Oligarchs who have looted Russia of hundreds of billions of dollars with the help of mafia crime lords and ex-Communist fixers ? These characters do not have clean enough hands for any respectable American conservative to imagine they represent the free market or for any American liberal to pretend that these looters are democrats. In Chicago, we have a term for " businessmen" like the Oligarchs:

" Mobbed Up"

These are ruthless men with very, very, large bank accounts and sinister motives who are trying hard to get the ear of official Washington because they would like to see the Bush administration begin to undermine Putin. That this would not be of appreciable benefit to the American people when Putin's replacement proves to be a hapless stooge and Russia goes off the rails in the direction of a failed state armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, concerns them not at all.

But it should concern you.
Wow! Now you got your game face on. Street fighter. Way to go!
You're right on the point that Putin is not Stalin. Sure. It's not the old Soviet-Union. Ok. But the oligarchs are not the mafia either. In the nineties, when they got control of former state-business (mostly oil and gaz), the situation in Russia was not comparable to the situation in a well-ordered state like the US. So you simply couldn't to both: business and be in compliance with the law.
Second point, there was an agreement that business people don't mix in the political sphere. Khodorkovsky broke this agreement, that's why he is in prison.
I guess the west should not undermine Putin. But he should on the same time be very clear about democracy and market economy. The West should always tell Putin that these are the preconditions for longtime stability. And he should be clear on human rights: that the respect for human rights is the precondition for beeing part of the civilized world.
Perhaps the president brought out the tough rhetoric to try and make up for the whole "seeing Putin's soul" comment a few years back. As you point out, though, the timing of his comments could not have been worse; a sort of punch in the gut while remembering the 27 million who died in WWII.

I am curious about your thoughts on another comment Bush made regarding Yalta and the negotiations that led to the split occupation of Germany and Europe. Hindsight is 20/20, so it is easy for the president to simply say it was an absolute mistake. At the time, though, what were other options? We were not in a position to do it ourselves since we had another preoccupation in the Pacific, western European nations were in shambles from the war, and the Soviets were a second superpower. I get annoyed with this president's oversimplification of just about everything.
It may just be that far too many in Washington haven't graduated from the Cold War mindset. Don't forget that many of the neocons are Scoop Jackson's lads.

Condi Rice, on the other hand was a Soviet specialist who participated in the reunification of Germany in 1990. But then again, maybe she hasn't internalized the changes from the USSR. And has trouble with "da" and "nyet."

Conscientious and principled criticisms can be made of Russia. For example, the Balt-bashing and claims of free elections inviting the Soviets into the Baltic states in 1944 were absurdly recycled Soviet propaganda. It's the gratuitous poking in the eye that Bush and Co. can't seem to resist that is so damaging. Perhaps John Bolton is advising on this subject too.

But the Riga speech also threw Putin a bone in the form of criticism of Latvia's treatment of its ethnic Russian minority. US media have largely missed this, since they are unaware of the issue. Latvia has largely cleaned up its act in this area--had to in order to join the EU--but Russia loves it as a way to manipulate world opinion. Human rights, you know.

Re Ulrich Speck's comments: "the oligarchs are not the mafia either" and "there was an agreement that business people don't mix in the political sphere. Khodorkovsky broke this agreement, that's why he is in prison."

Oligarch ties with Russian mobs are well established. As for the agreement--it was broken repeatedly by all the oligarchs; they simply used front people. And the control that oligarchs had over critical resources (e.g., oil and gas) meant that they wielded enormous power in Russian politics. The story that Khordokovsky was arrested because he was going into politics is just that--a story, the one he gave to incredibly naive American supporters, in the attempt to drum up more sympathy. It is well established in the public record that Mr Khordokovsky was arrested on the virtual eve of selling his controlling share in Yukos to Western and namely US oil companies. If that deal would have gone through, it would have given the US government enoromous sway in Russian politics. But that's not why he was arrested. He was arrested because his selling-out of Yukos was a cynical attempt to avoid paying back taxes. He figured the Russian government would back off about the taxes if Yukos was controlled by foreign companies.
Great comments people !:

Hi Ulrich,

You're correct that there's some moral variation amongst the Oligarchs - Khodorkovsky is not a mafia boss though some of the others come close. And you are right, he broke the unwritten agreement demarcating involvement in politics. Moreover, his Yukos sale to foreign owners was perceived as a threat to Russian national security - Pundita is correct here - no serious country will tolerate that, including the U.S..

Clamping down on the Oligarchs in the illegal way he did has been costly for Putin. As H. H. Gaffney wrote yesterday on H-Diplo

"And because of the Yukos case, (a) they experienced a
doubling of capital flight last year and have proved hostile to foreign direct investment (FDI), in part because they are still unsure of what property is and whether it should be protected..."

On the other hand, the Oligarchs were basically above the law, one reason the average Russian hates them.

Hey CKR,

I'm not sure who, if anyone has the final say in Russian policy ( other than Bush) for the administration. If I were to speculate, the very hard line view on Putin may be finding favor with Cheney who held the most skeptical views of Gorbachev during Bush I.

Rice is not going to get herself out there in the papers as a " softliner" like Powell did regardless of what advice she may give in private to the President.

Hey Von,

Yalta is another post for me, too long for a comment section remark. It's in the works - CKR's blog has at least two up on the Bush speech and I'll probably be linking to them when I ( eventually) get mine posted.

Hey Pundita,

Somehow I thought you'd approve ;o)
I am not sure but I believe we used modern warfare on Russia. If we did then genocide was used. The one connection here is alcohol. Used both on Lakota and the Russian people and to a lesser extent on the American people.

My Russian daughter was beaten, when she was a baby, by her drunken Russian father. I have seen pictures of her as a baby and while the pictures still shows her independent nature, her fathers implicit rule-set must have been gone from the vodka he drank to have beaten her as her scars show.

This genocide wipes out the implicit laws of a society. I believe this is what’s going on in Russia today. The implicit laws are trying to come back. This should be countered with a network centric warfare, which does not use genocide.

Of course, as Dennis Miller would say, that is just my opinion, I could be wrong. Like usual I may add.
Well, unhappily, I'm beginning to think that Condi is a hard-liner too. She's said a few too many things that sound like she hasn't updated her coursework since 1991.

And the "da" and "nyet" thing is really strange. I have never studied Russian, but when I'm working with Russian speakers, I fall easily into "da, da, da" (like "ja, ja" in Estonian or German or Swedish) and "nyet, nyet." And I get them right. Maybe Condi's catching Dubya's speech problems.

And WhirledView has three recent articles on the Riga speech, with some earlier Victory Day commentary, when Rüütel and Adamkus said they weren't going, March, I think.

I thought much the same thing, and even defended Putin's planned consolidation of power after Beslan. I have no special love for the oligarchs either.

What bothers me most about him is that he has recently tried to aggressively export his consolidation of power to his near abroad--trying to coerce and threaten neighbors to crawl under his heel. There's a credible case that the state needs to be stronger in Russia to make the country a better place, but when Putin starts taking on all challengers in and out of Russia, there's nothing to applaud.

I also think it's important not to fall into the "don't make an enemy of Russia" trap. Russia can just as well not make an enemy of us. Sure, we have a lot to cooperate on, but we shouldn't bend over backwards to purchase that cooperation. If Russia wants to run with the great powers of the west, it can act like one.

As an aside, I'm skeptical of anything coming from a site Gleb Pavlovsky has a hand in. He's no fool. Not by a longshot. But everything I've ever seen him do is with the express interest of making Russia stronger even if it comes at the expense of others.
Hey Nathan,

I agree with your caveats -bending over backward would also be a mistake or to ignore Russian blustering or meddling in the CIS region. I'm not advocating that.

We suffer from a lack of not only " good" guys to root for in Russia but also " competent" guys. Too often pro-Western, liberal, effective and honest do not come in the same package.
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