Don't Make an Enemy of Russia

October 31, 2006 Topic: DemocracySociety Region: RussiaEurasia Tags: BeslanDiplomacyHeads Of State

Don't Make an Enemy of Russia

Anders Aslund’s error-riddled essay on Russia in The Weekly Standard advocates a potentially disastrous direction for U.S. foreign policy.

MOSCOW, Russia.

You can have your own views, but you cannot have your own facts. In his October 23 essay in The Weekly Standard, "Putin Gets Away with Murder. It's time to confront the Russian leader", the distinguished Russia expert Anders Aslund has yielded to the temptation of playing hard and fast with evidence. I'm not going to argue that Aslund's perspective on today's Russia is completely mistaken, nor do I want to justify President Putin's vision for Russia. My goal is rectify the half-truths in the essay.

"On Vladimir Putin's 54th birthday, one of his fiercest domestic critics, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was shot to death in her apartment building in central Moscow. She worked for the weekly Novaya Gazeta, Russia's last independent newspaper", Dr. Aslund writes. This complimentary assessment would be certainly welcomed by Novaya Gazeta, but things are hardly so bad in Russia. While in Moscow during the last leg of her Asian tour, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (a Russia specialist herself) said that the future of a free Russian press and electronic media "is a major concern", but she drew a clear line between print press and television. "There is still an independent print press", she stated. "Unfortunately, there is not much left of independent television in Russia."

Nobody is able to say for sure if Politkovskaya "had been tailed by the FSB for years", as Aslund claims. But it seems doubtful, since she managed to protect the sources that provided her with sensitive information. Indeed, given Aslund's claim about the FSB and his obscure comment that that the journalist's murderer seems to have been "captured on film", one would naturally surmise the macabre production was filmed by FSB agents. But the police discovered that at least three persons were involved in the killing through the surveillance cameras of a nearby store. The police is said to have a picture of the killer, but has not leaked it to the media so as not to scare the suspected criminal away.

Putin's first comment with regard to the killing of Politkovskaya came two days after it took place but much earlier than Aslund's piece was published. Still, Aslund said, "The Kremlin has made no comment" on the matter. Putin aired his opinion on October 10 while in Germany: "It's a loathsome, brutal crime. Those who committed it must be punished . . . The killing of this person-a woman and a mother-targets not only our country but the authorities, too." He added that the death of Politkovskaya had caused greater damage to Russian and Chechen authorities than did her reporting. Putin later addressed the issue a number of times, for example during the informal EU summit in Finland and in Moscow while directly addressing the nation.

Aslund's most serious distortion is his claim about Russian arms sold to Iran: "In the last year, President Putin has exported ground-to-air missiles to Iran that can shoot down American F-16s." While Tehran and Moscow signed a deal worth $700 million (according to U.S. estimations) to supply the Islamic republic with Tor-M1systems, the CEO of the company tapped to supply the weaponry suggested earlier this month that there had been no deliveries to Iran so far. Last April, Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Ivanov said that the deal with Iran would be have been honored but for force majeure. He didn't elaborate.

Indeed, Aslund's article suggests the imminence of a military solution in dealing with Iran, but few analysts here believe that American F-16s will soon bomb the Iranian territory. Even fewer Russian experts and politicians would support such air strikes, since a new military operation in the region could have a negative effect on Russian security.  

 Last week, it turned out that Russia surpassed the United States as the leader in weapons deals with the developing world in 2005, according to an annual study by the Congressional Research Service. Russia's arms agreements with the developing world totaled $7 billion, while the U.S. was third (after France), at $6.2 billion. These figures show the nature of the highly competitive international arms bazaar. Moscow could hardly be expect to accept that it cannot cooperate with Iran while the U.S. sells its weapons to Tbilisi and trains Georgian soldiers. Importantly, earlier this year, Georgia's minister of defense promised that his troops would celebrate New Year's in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia-the only way the Georgian minister could make good on his word would be to deploy Georgian tanks and troops to the region.

Aslund also maintained: "With no justification whatsoever, Putin personally has accused Georgia of state terrorism. He likened the arrest of four senior Russian military spies in Georgia to the acts of Stalin's henchman Lavrenty Beria." Clearly, the presumption of innocence for the so-called spies is inconceivable for Aslund. The individuals were not proven guilty in Georgia and were in fact set free after a makeshift court hearing, in which they were denied the defense of a Russian lawyer.

Another of Aslund's presumptions is even more disputable. "It is a logical next step [for Putin] to illegally prolong [his] rule by starting a war against Georgia", he maintains. But Putin enjoys 52 percent job approval rating. And his most active supporters favor the holding of a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would allow him reelection for a third term-a prospect the president himself has ruled out.

Then there is Aslund's own version of history. "Yeltsin was a democrat, as Leon Aron shows in his excellent biography", he claims. Of course the biography he refers to, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, came out in 2000, when the real impact of the privatization carried out under Yeltsin was not entirely clear to many. As Marshall Goldman, director of Harvard University's Russian studies program, rightly put it in Foreign Affairs back in 2004, the basic reforms and privatization of the 1990s were flawed and unfair. Virtually all the wealth of the Russian oligarchs came from the seizure of Russia's raw material assets, which until 1992 had been owned and managed by the state. An oligarch's success almost always depended on his connections to the government officials in charge of privatizing the country's rich energy and mineral deposits, as well as on his ability to outmaneuver or intimidate rivals, Goldman said.

This is not to justify the rather clumsy Russian approach to "re-nationalization" under Putin. But by now, experts could be on the level with the American public in accurately describing the messy period of 1990s in Russia. In the end, Mr. Yeltsin was a "democrat" who sent Russian tanks and conscripts to war in Chechnya.

Aslund suggests that "It's time to confront the Russian leader." I doubt that would be a good idea. Putin has presidential charisma and broad support inside Russia. His more assertive international stance is based on his country's soaring oil revenues, which has helped Moscow wean itself from financial dependence on the West. Moreover, Washington needs Moscow's assistance to resolve the hottest international issues of today: the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. Confrontation with Russia will put it on the defensive and render it less willing to cooperate.

So, please, don't make Russia an enemy.

Andrey Terekhov is Moscow-based staff writer of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an independent daily.