To Russia with Love

The current problems between Russia and the West are rooted in the latter’s wholesale misinterpretation of the former’s domestic and international priorities.

The reasons for Russia's apparent belligerence have divided Western analysts. Some argue the problem is rooted in the country's bureaucratic functionaries-President Putin chief among them-who have weakened the authority of regional governors, cracked down on press freedom and maintained a barely existent opposition. Tony Blair publicly warned the Kremlin of a European economic backlash if it remained indifferent to democratic reform.1 Analysts and politicians continue to believe that the Russian everyman wants a British- or American-style system but is thwarted by Cold War-era political throwbacks who flirt with rapprochement while deepening the divide with the United States and Europe.

The need for lasting strategic rapprochement with the West and an end to Russian double-diplomacy in the Middle and Far East is clear, but labeling the Russian public a naive mass is neither accurate nor prudent. The current problems between Russia and the West are rooted in the latter's wholesale misinterpretation of the former's domestic and international priorities. Henry Kissinger, in an April piece for the Khaleej Times, provides a good analysis of the ideological gulf in U.S.-Russian relations.2 Russians, for whom national aspirations supersede the individual's importance, seek global significance. They recount the rise of the Russian Empire under Peter the Great, its expansion under Catherine and the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany. Unlike many Americans, the Russian majority saw the immediate post-Soviet period not merely as a time of economic chaos and political corruption, but national humiliation. Russia's military budget was halved, her army embroiled in the disaster of the first Chechen war, and her role on the international stage marginalized.

While there are disaffected and vocal elements in Russia, if the country maintains political stability, economic leverage and diplomatic influence, limits on Western democracy is a price the majority is willing to pay. The existence of "Putinism", even if the namesake leaves next spring, means genuine cooperation will remain elusive. The best hope is a strategic understanding yielding a Russia less eager to undercut America's flagging position in Central Asia and parts of the Pacific Rim.

The United States, seeking to cash in its peace dividend and reshape the geopolitical landscape, made a difficult situation even worse. Washington's support for NATO expansion into the Baltic states and Central Europe annoyed a shaken Russian public. Recently, the State Department opted to extend $42 million of assistance to NATO aspirants Ukraine, Albania and Georgia, making their entry into the alliance a near-term policy objective. If successful, Russia may find itself compromised in the Caucasus and with a further eroded influence in the Balkans, making rapprochement less likely.

NATO's intervention in Kosovo proved an even bigger mistake. Under the NATO flag, the American-led 78-day bombing campaign in the spring of 1999 forced a Serbian withdrawal and made the province a UN ward. Setting aside the arrogance involved in choosing sides in an ethno-religious conflict lasting over seven centuries, America gained neither strategically nor economically from its intervention. On the contrary, the move destabilized the Balkans by legitimizing the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a force directly financed and trained by Al-Qaeda and salafist elements in Saudi Arabia. Washington's support of full independence versus partition for Kosovo renders the destruction of its remaining Serb-Christians, who control a mere 15 percent of the territory, a certainty. Kosovo's Serbs are already reeling from Albanian reprisals for the events of the 1990s. With Serbia undermined and Kosovo about to become an Islamist gate into Central Europe, the blunder of intervention cannot be overstated. Russian antagonism was increased and more emotional.

The decision to introduce ten missile interceptors and a radar station into Poland and the Czech Republic, ostensibly against an Iranian and North Korean nuclear barrage, is the latest American misstep. Putin's clear record of rebuffing the United States on everything from democratic reform to bases in Central Asia makes it very unlikely that Bush, genuinely intended this to be a defensive measure to placate European elites. The argument of Asia Times columnist M K Bhadrakumar-that Bush sought a showdown with Russia to consolidate his position in Europe and restart the engine of American dominance-seems more plausible.3 While Bush may have scored points with Blair and several Baltic states, Putin has won a major propaganda victory. The Chinese, initially ambivalent about the entire incident, have since come out strongly behind Russia. Americans need to decide whether protecting the Czech Republic and winning support in Estonia are worth the entrenchment of Russia's elites and extra maneuverability for China.

America's policy towards Russia has been among the least successful of its post-Cold War initiatives. NATO expansion, the mysterious decision to build a missile shield in Central Europe and support for Kosovo's independence have only given fuel to Russia's antagonistic elites against rapprochement with the West. Russia is fighting for survival demographically and territorially while playing both sides in the Middle East and maintaining tenuous relations with China. With China posing a looming threat to America's position in the Pacific Rim, the decoupling of Russia from China must be a central U.S. objective. America needs Russia to shore up its wavering position in Central Asia and should not leave the Balkan gate open for Islamist expansion. Unless America's policy shifts quickly and fundamentally, the future looks increasingly grim for her long-term interests.

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