Lunch with Putin

September 17, 2008 Topic: Society Region: RussiaEurasia Tags: War In AfghanistanIslamSouth Ossetia

Lunch with Putin

In a three part series, TNI senior editor Anatol Lieven reflects on his meetings with high-level Russian officials at the Valdai Club conference last week. This installment: Georgia and the American media.

There were moments during the week I spent in Russia for the Valdai Discussion Club when I felt as if the world had begun to rotate backward. Chiefly, this was the result of having spent the previous six weeks in Pakistan, half of them based in Peshawar near the frontier with Afghanistan.

During my stay the bloody mayhem in Afghanistan continued unabated, with a French unit cut to pieces near Kabul. President Musharraf of Pakistan was forced to resign and was replaced by Asif Zardari, a man widely accused of corruption on a kleptocratic scale and hated by much of the country's population. The Pakistani military began extensive campaigns against pro-Taliban insurgents to the north and west of Peshawar. Several bombs exploded in Peshawar itself, killing dozens of police, soldiers and ordinary people. And the United States began for the first time not only to launch missile attacks on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistani territory, but to conduct raids on the ground, leading to a terrifying risk of direct clashes with the Pakistani military, and of Pakistani units mutinying in order to fight on the side of the Taliban. Senior officers and officials in Washington are talking of the possibility of a full-scale U.S. invasion of the Pakistani tribal areas-something which could well lead to Islamist revolt throughout much of Pakistan.

And with this in mind, I had to listen to discussions on the questions of whether there is an existential clash of systems between Russia and the West. Whether NATO should provoke a crisis, and quite possibly a major war with Russia by extending membership to Georgia and Ukraine, and rearm Georgia so that it can make another attempt at the re-conquest of its lost territories-in the process cutting NATO communications to Afghanistan from the north just as they are endangered in the south. And whether (and in what ways) the West should punish Russia for its "aggression" against Georgia. With the West's own financial structures under frightening pressure, some Western analysts have actually welcomed the drastic fall in Moscow's stock market as a way of weakening Russia. Not that these views were supported by the vast majority of the Western participants of the Valdai Club, but they provided the context for our meeting; and it was a context which could have been drawn up by Mullah Omar himself, or possibly Ayman al-Zawahiri, since he is much more of a thinker.

But there was another way in which the world seemed to revolve backward during the Valdai, which was if anything even more disturbing. During two lunches over the course of the conference, the president and prime minister of Russia spoke with us for a total of almost seven hours, answering unscripted questions without the help of aides. The foreign minister, deputy prime minister and deputy chief of the general staff spoke with us for several more hours. The chances of this happening in George Bush's Washington, or indeed most other Western capitals, are zero.

On the other hand, I was told, several U.S. experts who had been invited refused to come because they were afraid that to be seen to talk with Russian leaders would hurt their chances of being selected for jobs in the next U.S. administration, or even their candidate's chances of being elected president. In particular, they were afraid of attending a conference including meetings with the presidents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia-even though they had the option of not attending them. The idea that it was their duty as analysts to find out what these people are thinking evidently did not occur to them.

In the course of the discussions, we heard a great deal from Russian participants about Russian national interests, and about international peace, stability and cooperation against global threats; but not one word of ideology. The tone was sometimes harsh, but entirely pragmatic. On the other hand, from the U.S. administration and presidential candidates we've heard a flood of ideological clichés from the cold war about defending democracy and spreading freedom-platitudes with absolutely no relevance to the reasons for or the circumstances surrounding the war over South Ossetia.

Of course, taken as a whole, U.S. society is much more open and democratic than Russian society; but this is no longer necessarily true of American politicians or Washington elites when it comes to key issues of foreign policy. As for most of the U.S. media, its response to the war over South Ossetia demonstrated that it can on occasion be every bit as hysterically one-sided and willfully inaccurate as the Russian one. Indeed, in this case it was parts of the U.S. media which told by far the biggest single lie-namely the outrageous suggestion, in the face of all the known facts, that it was Russia and not Georgia that started this latest war.

Over the course of our lunch in Sochi, Vladimir Putin congratulated the U.S. media ironically on this performance-they acted "as if they had been given an order." This raises the interesting question of what is in fact better: authoritarian control from above or mass hysteria from below. The way things are going, we will get plenty of opportunities to study this question in the years to come.


Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King's College London and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC. His latest book, coauthored with John Hulsman, is Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World (Vintage, 2007). He is currently researching a book on Pakistan and is a senior editor at The National Interest.