The unexpected dismissal this past Tuesday of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov by President Vladimir Putin led to a near-universal shocked reaction in Moscow and caused a new splash among bewildered observers charting the course of relations between Russia and the West.
At this time, when America is engaged in its quadrennial struggle between two national "clans" and two "versions" of democracy, Russia slowly but surely is returning to a half-monarchial form of government. Putin limited himself to a 100-second announcement of this step on state television.
This surprising decision by Putin will only further illustrate a new tendency in Western publications to view Russia with a critical eye. Consult some of the headlines over the past week: "America Risks Trying to Tame the Russian Bear" (Times of London), or "The Riddle of Russia" (New York Post), or "Russia: Hooligan with a Broken Club" (The Globe and Mail). In these headlines, the sense of caution and uncertainty speaks of growing concerns about Russia and calls for keeping one's distance. This opinion has been growing in the West, ever since the "YUKOS affair", the managed elections in Chechnya and now throughout all of Russia and with the radius of freedom steadily shrinking. The freedom of the press is now down to one channel with some limited programming and a dozen or so really independent newspapers with perhaps a million subscribers in toto.
Now both presidents face re-election this year. The elections, separated by more than half a year, are different in their internal characteristics and in the influence that the results will have on the globe. And of course, Putin will undoubtedly win re-election, with between 85 and 90 percent of the vote, whereas Bush basically needs to struggle for every vote against the likely Democratic candidate John Kerry. But both presidents have some similarities--especially weaknesses. Both presidents need to establish the democratic legitimacy of their administrations (Bush in the eyes of the whole country, Putin in the eyes of the Russian elite). Both are worried about the sustained growth of the economy (Bush about the fundamentals of the U.S. economy, Putin about continued high oil prices). Both find themselves hostage to "quagmires" (Bush in Iraq, Putin in Chechnya).
And in foreign affairs, both Russia and the United States have increasingly chilly relations with the other major players on the world scene. Both are concerned about the complexity of their relationship with a unified Europe. Both are attempting to find a common language--each in their own way--with China and the Islamic world. Both face weak and unstable "backyards" (their respective southern peripheries). And both states are trying to increase the loyalty of their allies by utilizing both economic and military levers as primary sources of influence.
And, interestingly enough, both presidents have taken pains to demonstrate their support of the military and to underline their own roles as commanders-in-chief, to send the message to their respective electorates that each one is the only one at this critical time capable of protecting and safeguarding the country. (Putin, for example, took two commanding steps; one was to dismiss the government and to rid himself of a politically independent prime minister, the other was to order a strategic missile training exercise). It's not important whether U.S. servicemen or Moscow subway commuters are subject to terrorist attack, that the American vision for postwar Iraq is up in the clouds, or that two out of the three missile tests this past week were complete fiascoes. No, both men are seeking to persuade their respective national audiences that, in the end, the terrorists will be defeated and "we will be victorious."
How military issues can form part of a pre-election PR campaign was demonstrated this past Saturday on Alexei Pushkov's Postscriptum program. Pushkov sang Putin's praises; once again, the Kremlin is paying attention to strengthening Russia's nuclear shield. In his words, Putin balanced the missile test failures with his announcement at the Plesetsk testing facility that Russia will soon possess a weapons system capable of defeating an American missile-defense shield. So having failed to capture terrorists or prevent attacks in Moscow, Putin acted in his usual way, in the spirit of the old joke, "Beat your own, so that strangers will fear you."
This much is clear, in response to America, "Russia's strategic partner," exiting from the ABM Treaty two years ago, Moscow, as it promised, will find the means to ensure that the "threat of imminent response won't be an empty doctrine." Former defense minister Andrei Kokoshin, speaking on this program, raised the issue that Putin has, only for the second time in his presidency, discussed the need for Russia to develop a new strategic weapons system, committing the country to renovating its military-industrial complex so that Russia could produce a new generation of strategic missiles better able to reach targets at higher speeds with greater precision. Putin himself has stressed that the next generation of strategic weaponry is not designed to be a weapon to threaten America. But, as the specialists on this program explained, Russia, having developed a system capable of thwarting an American anti-ballistic missile defense--having clearly stated it would seek to do this in advance of America's withdrawal from the ABM Treaty--has now shown that America's umbrella would be useless in warding off "mosquitoes."
So, the consensus on Postscriptum was that Putin's announcement was a successful pre-election gambit not only for Russia, but with implications for America as well. After all, the Democrats strongly criticized Bush for burying the ABM Treaty. President Bush promised to create a reliable anti-missile shield against "rogue states", but this premise has basically been politically defeated as Moscow predicted. In other words, Russia has made America's missile shield useless before it has even been created.
Moreover, the relationship between the two nuclear superpowers is balanced once again.
Furthermore, there is another issue for the U.S. to consider. It may be a very unlikely event that Russia would share its anti-NMD technology with China--the state the U.S. considers its likely strategic competitor in the 21st century--but to prevent that from happening, the U.S. would be better off seeking cooperation rather than competition with Russia.
In other words, the United States should seek mutual understanding with Russia. And simple cooperation on a variety of unrelated issues is possible, rather than an overall strategic partnership. Cooperation is feasible to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to combat terrorism and to stabilize global energy markets.
American democracy, in principle, cannot be a friend to an authoritarian regime which does not share the basic values of the Western world. But a tactical partnership is quite possible. And in pursuing the latter, no one in the United States, at least no one in the current administration, is anxious to press the questions of Russian democracy.
Even if Putin receives 99 percent of the vote and it is obvious to everyone in the West the depth of the farce of "managed democracy" in Russia, the Bush Administration is limited to "recalibrating" its official rhetoric. Bush needs to show results, that on the "Russian front" things are normal, that partnership with Russia is successful in achieving vital American interests. In other words, President Bush held "hostage" to his engagement with the current boss in the Kremlin. In order to have some visible successes of his partnership with Russia--in the struggle with terrorism or combating proliferation, for example, getting Russia to join the Proliferation Security Initiative, the White House has to give ground to the Russians in accommodating their own priorities.
In short, relations between Moscow and Washington remain ambivalent. This ambivalence is increasing as the presidential elections in both countries approach. Neither Bush nor Putin are eager to admit to the general public in their countries that they made a mistake when the "looked each other in the eye" for the first time.
Yevgeny Verlin is the assistant international editor for Nezavisimaya Gazeta (http://www.ng.ru). He is also a contributing editor to In the National Interest.