Jacob Heilbrunn

Carnegie's Saturnine Russia Meeting

 The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a conference today showcasing Lilia Shetsova's new book about Russia, The Lonely Power, but loneliness was hardly the issue at the meeting itself as a sizable room filled up with Washington's professional Russia-watchers, who constitute a sizable coterie, despite the disappearance of the Soviet empire some two decades ago. Shetsova presented the intriguing sight of a crisp, no-nonsense, almost authoritarian figure demanding liberalization. Flanked by her panelists, who included former ambassador James F. Collins, Robert Kagan, Andrew Weiss, and Steve Sestanovich, she presented a not wholly unfamiliar indictment of Putin and Medvedev's Russia, dismissing the president as so much "window-dressing."

As Shetsova apparently sees it, Russia has embarked on its third modernization program, the first being Peter the Great's, the second Stalin's. Neither ended well. This one, she suggested, won't either. She was only exceeded in her saturnine view by David J. Kramer of the German Marshall Fund. This eloquent hardliner, who served in the Bush II administration, exempted George W. for any blame for bad relations between American and Russia. "It pains me," he said, "to see continued reticence" about confronting Russia on the part of the Obama administration. Obama is falling into the "trap" of playing to the Russia agenda. And so on. This coldest of cold warriors is so far to the right on Russia that he almost makes John Bolton sound conciliatory.

But has Obama really bungled matters? Weiss argued that Obama has got it "exactly right" in focusing on the issues where American actually can influence Russia such as Iran. Anyway, it's not exactly clear how America and Europe, both of whom championed the shock therapy of the 1990s that boomeranged resulted in the Putin ascendancy, are supposed to intervene in Russian political affairs. One might think that the previous record of failure would induce some circumspection.

Some of the steam was taken out of the naysayers by EDventure Holdings' formidable Ether Dyson who popped up from the audience to state that entrepreneurs are changing Russia from the ground up. Indeed, Dyson suggested that much of what was being said at the meeting about corruption and political scheming in Russia was somewhat irrelevant. The real problems in Russia are more prosaic--a lack of capable managers. A final, gentle swipe at the doom and gloom contingent was landed by Collins who ended the session by acutely observing that it's a mistake to become a "prisoner of the past." Russia is not a vast concentration camp, as it was during the Stalin years. It's not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. In other words, Russia isn't isolated. Or even lonely.