Odom's Russia: A Forum

Odom's Russia: A Forum

Mini Teaser: Seven seasoned observers react to William Odom's interpretation of post-Soviet Russian reality, and Odom replies.

by Author(s): Martin MaliaJack Matlock, Jr.Jerry HoughGeoffrey HoskingAlexey PushkovRobert LegvoldHenry TrofimenkoWilliam E. Odom

WHATEVER one thinks of the accuracy of Odom's argument, however, the more serious drawback derives from its questionable utility or aptness. Russia matters to the United States not because it is a great power now but because it remains a significant factor on the world stage. To wind ourselves around our own axle over whether Russia should or should not be treated as a "great power" misses the point. Russia is not a distant tenth planet. It is located at the heart of the crucial landmass between Europe and Asia. Not only is this part of the world blessed with more natural wealth than any other it also contains the potential for some of its gravest instability. Russia's fate and its actions remain the single most decisive factor determining the impact that the post-Soviet space will have on us all.

Not that Russia's 45 percent share of the world's nuclear weapons does not also matter, and is hardly to be written off as Odom suggests, while the United States unilaterally attempts to design a new strategic nuclear regime. Not that the role that we have discovered for Russia in the new overriding struggle against global terrorism ought not also to be in the picture. But the kind of relationship that we, the Europeans, Chinese and Japanese work out with Russia for coping with the challenges (or benefiting from the opportunities) in the netherworlds between NATO-Europe and Russia, and in the Caucasus and Central Asia, will shape the peace of mind and welfare of the two arenas that do indisputably matter to the United States--Europe and East Asia. It seems unlikely to me that we will get far in building the right kind of U.S.-Russian relationship for these purposes--let alone prosper in dealing with nuclear weapons and global terrorism--if we frame the issue in terms of Russia's twisted ego or write Russia off on narrow semi-deterministic grounds, not to mention making it our goal to keep "Russia's international role to a level commensurate with its power."

Robert Legvold is professor of political science at Columbia University.

Henry Trofimenko, Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada, Moscow:

GENERAL Odom's analysis of the "Russian question" (which is of perennial interest to the United States) is undoubtedly very important for the new administration in Washington. With great sadness, I confess that many Russians would agree with his dissection of the problem.

The key to his analysis lies in the concepts of "path dependence" and the "weak state" syndrome. As he himself points out, the theory is not new; as applied to the USSR, in particular, it was developed by such American Sovietologists as Richard Pipes and Seweryn Bialer, both of whom argued that the Soviet regime was in most respects a continuation of the imperial Russian regime--indeed, one that saved the Russian empire. Similarly, there is much evidence to suggest that the post-Soviet Russian regime has not changed as much as many suppose, neither as a result of so-called perestroika or even as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The ruling class of the "new country" remains the same--the old Soviet nomen-klatura now bedecked with new titles and new fashions. During the Soviet period this class managed the resources of the state that belonged to it collectively. Now it (mis)manages the same resources that, through the mechanisms of privatization, were distributed to members of the same ruling e lite. It is too much to expect that the members of this class, who continue milking former state property for personal gain (in amounts thousands of times greater than under the ancien regime), would actively hamper the continual process of their personal enrichment. Thus too, sad to say, Odom is correct to suggest that nearly all the assistance that was provided to Russia from the outside world has been appropriated largely by the ruling thieves for personal gain. Regretfully, many foreign consultants, especially the Americans, used their influential positions in Moscow for similar purposes.

One may hope that a new generation of leaders soon to replace the present aging elite will change Russia's path, but it is unlikely. The simple reason is that in Russia today the same old method of co-opting persons to high government positions is at work: only those reliably devoted to personal enrichment have a chance to ascend the ladder. Meanwhile, the rotting education system makes it very difficult for those not of the traditional establishment to move up.

Every state in the world is a living organism of sorts--the longer it exists, the more its old values (habits, culture, institutions, attitudes) are consolidated. Americans were extremely lucky to start with a relatively clean slate, but even so, it took 75 years to ban slavery and another century to rectify its legacy. Indeed, the continuing popularity of Louis Farrakhan suggests that the full integration of blacks into American society lies still in America's future rather than in the present. The point is that cultural patterns hang heavily over new generations of citizens--if not over their leaders--and the older the state culture, the heavier the burden. To change existing ways and attitudes requires great courage and boldness from truly outstanding leaders. And even with the best of intentions and a supportive international environment, significant changes take a long time.

Odom is also correct to argue that, whatever changes might be eventually executed in Russia and in the other newly-independent states (most of which are still ruled by "popularly re-elected" oriental despots), the result will not be liberal democracy as it exists in the West. The present Russian embodiment of one of the main institutions of liberal democracy--the popularly elected parliament--came into being after the previous one, also duly elected, was crushed by the "democrat Yeltsin" tank gunfire, with the connivance of President Clinton. The new one, however, is a mockery of common sense: the members of its upper chamber are now appointed by the Russian president, and democratically-elected members of the lower house--the Duma--outdo each other in their collective frenzy to demonstrate absolute loyalty to the "higher authority", the un-elected Kremlin clique. This is the continuing heritage of ages of Russian history.

ALL THAT said, General Odom has trouble finding his ballast when discussing the particularities of contemporary Russian politics.

First, freedom of the media really does exist in Russia for the first time in hundreds of years, the insinuations of media magnates like Messrs. Berezovsky and Gusinsky notwithstanding. The regular, unhampered publication of such rabidly anti-government weeklies as Zavtra and Duel, as well as the daily rebroadcasts of the U.S. Radio Liberty on domestic Russian FM frequencies, confirms this fact. Media freedom is curtailed to a certain extent, but not because of official censorship or other restrictions. Rather, in contrast to the U.S. experience, the private ownership of most newspapers and TV stations mitigates against objectivity because the media is used in turf struggles among elite factions.

Second, the dyed-in-the-wool democrats like Sergei Kovalev and Elena Bonner now have zero influence in Russian politics. Grigorii Yavlinskii, who exists on foreign donations, is just a political chatterbox who surpasses even the superdemagogue, Mikhail Gorbachev, in his irrelevance to current events.

Third, Russia, despite its predicament, remains a great power by the fact of its still tremendous (if mismanaged) economic potential, its political influence in Eurasia and its place on the UN Security Council. Moreover, if Russia's leaders abandon their rhetorical flourishes in favor of real talks on the future of the ALBM Treaty (as Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has recently suggested), Russia's international image will certainly improve--as it has already by dint of Russia's response to the events of September 11.

Fourth, the Russian military does not shun constructive reform. But its leaders do oppose idiotic non-stop reorganizations of the kind that has almost liquidated the only really battle-ready Russian force--the airborne troops. However, it is true that the immense quantity of newlycreated generals and admirals (through protection and patronage) continues to wreak havoc in the command structure.

Fifth and most important, while weakened, Moscow has no real desire to unleash mischief in the international arena. The tragic events of September 11, which evoked a great deal of sympathy for the United States among Russians, demonstrate that there are still convincing reasons for the United States to pursue close and constructive cooperation with Russia to achieve shared and common goals. Russia's national interests are not identical to those of the United States, but that hardly makes Russia different from, say, France, as far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned. Or have some of us still not gotten over the bad habits of the Cold War?

Henry Trofimenko is a senior researcher at the Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada, Moscow.

Odom Replies:

LET ME thank all the respondents for their commentaries. To generalize about them, they agree with most of what I say about Russia's institutional development and economic performance, but they either do not like the way I reach my conclusions or do not like the conclusions themselves--occasionally both.

Essay Types: Essay