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Jewish World Review
Dec. 14, 2007
/ 4 Teves 5768
Has Russia left the West?
The Russian bear is back. Given his resentment of America, how scared should we be? Are we slipping back to the tensions of the Cold War? These are natural anxieties, given the triumph of Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, which provides Putin with the popular mandate to dictate Russia's future in an election stacked in its favor by authoritarian pressures, notably by media manipulation and the banning or harassment of opposition parties.
The first thing to appreciate is that despite these deficiencies, Putin would have won anyway. He can do no wrong in Russia. He exercised muscles he did not need to exercise because his popularity is solidly based on giving his people what they longed for after the nonstop catastrophes of the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin was the president. Chaos prevailed and took many forms: an inflation of over 2,000 percent that wiped out the value of long-accumulated savings of average Russians; overwhelming corruption in both government and business, and from top to bottom; delays of weeks and months in the payments of salaries and pensions; Chechnya being allowed to become a terrorist center and then reduced to ruins. The descent into chaos ended only with the premature resignation of Yeltsin and the assumption of the presidency by Putin, a former head of the KGB, now the FSBjust the organization that Yeltsin had described as needing the most reform from the old Soviet days.
Order first. But Putin showed unusual abilities to stabilize chaotic post-Soviet society. He did it in the old-fashioned Russian way of the benevolent czar by restoring central control over the bureaucracy, the economy, the government, and the media. Most critical, his regime was sustained by a burgeoning economy. Standards of living rose: Wages quadrupled, and pensions and welfare payments increasedand were paid on time. What's more, a middle class emerged, along with stability and tranquillity that the Russians sought and do not believe could have been achieved without Putin's consolidation of power. Of course, the economic improvement and the increase in Russia's currency reserves came on a tidal wave of higher energy prices. But it was all managed in a sober and energetic style.
Putin brought into power a tiny group of men who make all the important decisionsthe siloviki, a Russian word meaning roughly "power guys." They were from the KGB and the other security services, and many had served Putin in the KGB and came from his hometown of St. Petersburg. Putin and the silovikigave the Russians what they have traditionally found appealing in their rulers: toughness, authority, and even a degree of mystery as they took control of government and the security forces and regained most of Russia's natural resources grabbed under Yeltsin by the so-called oligarchs. The siloviki also helped Putin neutralize alternative forces of influence: regional governments, parliament, huge state-owned companies, nongovernmental organizations, and the mediathe three major TV networks are under direct or indirect government control. The public accepted Putin's view that Russia must find its own way to democracy. After the chaos that resulted from the 1990s plunge into a free-market economy, they were willing to accept a strong ruler. The whole movement tied into the passion to re-create Russia into as mighty a state as the Soviet Union once was and so overcome the humiliating experience of the Soviet collapse.
This nationalist passion, deeply felt by ordinary Russians, has had follow-on effects on Putin's foreign policy that we have not handled with much skill. His second term has been characterized by an escalating opposition to America and his commitment to a revival of Russian influence as a counterweight. Putin accuses the United States of hypocrisy, arrogance, and military adventurism. His rhetoric has gotten more inflammatory, including a recent speech in which he seemed to compare the United States to the Third Reich. His hostility derives from the feeling that even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the West still has designs on Mother Russia. It began with NATO's moves eastward and the establishment of military bases, including the latest plan by the United States to site in eastern Europe part of its planned missile defenses against Iran, with radars that the Russians suspect will monitor everything they do in half their country.
The Russians' perspective is based on the following: They closed military bases in Vietnam and Cuba; they accepted America's unilateral exit from the antiballistic missile treaty; they cooperated in the war on terrorism; they acquiesced in NATO expansion into the Baltic States, as well as the use of military bases in Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan, and Tajikistan. And what did they get? Certainly not an understanding of Russia's special role in the post-Soviet territories, where some 25 million ethnic Russians live outside Russia. Instead, they had to cope with abrupt acceptance into NATO of the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and our recent support for admission of Ukraine and Georgia. As they see it, "democracy" is being used to expand American interests, to embarrass and isolate Putin and undermine Russia's influence through the counterrevolutions described as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia. Ukraine is a specific hot spot since it is a neighboring state that joined the Russian Empire in the 17th century and has a large Russian population. These challenges to Russia in an area so central to its national identity were barely discussed in the West.
Russia also resented NATO when it went to war against Serbia over Russian objections and without the approval of the United Nations Security Council. And when Russia proposed joining NATO, it was rejected. That was not all. Instead of helping Russia's integration into the world economy, the United States turned out to be a major roadblock to Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization. And we have allowed our own laws to be violated in a manner insulting to Russia. The Jackson-Vanik amendment was passed to penalize and constrain trade with countries that restrict emigration. Russia responded positively by removing all restrictions. It was found to be in formal compliance with the immigration provisions of Jackson-Vanik. But it made no difference. The old resolution is still applied because of senatorial pressure, indeed because of a single senator.
NATO hostility. In a word, Russians see NATO treating post-Soviet Russia as a defeated enemy and not as a strategic partner. The Russians don't feel they were defeated since, in their view, it was Mikhail Gorbachev who ended the Soviet Union. In any event, they now believe their state has recovered, and they think their country deserves renewed respect, which they crave after the humiliation they experienced when the 1990s ended their role as a superpower. They want the world to know that the Russian bear is back. Hence, they throw their weight around in a Europe increasingly dependent on Russia's energy resources, an approach recommended in his thesis by one Ph.D. candidate named Putin.
They don't wish to be a junior partner but an equal partner and want to carve out an indispensable role in conflict resolution, particularly as a mediator between the East and the West. That is the way they rationalize the actions we deplore, like the sale of air defenses to Syria, their welcome of Hamas leaders in Moscow, their Security Council veto on such issues as Kosovo and Iran, their resumed arms sales to Iran (suspended by Yeltsin in the summer of 1995), and their reluctance to go beyond two inadequate U.N. sanctions resolutions against Iran's nuclear activities. They will feel vindicated by the latest intelligence estimate, which, for all its skepticism, ought not to convince us that all is well. We need that cooperation on Iran, but the prospects are dim, given the festering perceptions and the way popular nationalism is stoked by Russian TV. Russians have programs arguing that the United States is surrounding Russia with military bases, fomenting pro-American revolutions in countries neighboring Russia, and attempting to control Russia's natural resources. Such broadcasts provide fuel and support for more hawkish policies. Does all this mean that Russians seek a general confrontation with the United States? No. Their military expenditures are only about 5 percent of ours. What they seek is respect, a recognition that as a proud sovereign state they are no longer willing to adjust their behavior to fit our preferences.
We do not have to let things drift into more acrimony. We have the ability to extend a more equitable treatment of Russia. Its desire for our esteem is a key American resource, for the Russians see us as an essential yardstick of their own place in the world. Countering America enhances their self-esteem. They enjoy sticking their thumb in our eye for now, but receiving approval and appreciation from America has always been a key factor in legitimizing domestic political factions and enhancing respect for the leadership.
We have much to lose if Russia leaves the West. Russia is crucial to the global war on terrorism; to nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran; to the security of world energy; and to the containment of a resurgent, authoritarian China. Its veto on the Security Council might also mean that we could not provide U.N. legitimacy for U.S. military actions, not to speak of imposing U.N. sanctions on a rogue state. So the last thing we need is a new Cold War with Russia.
At the same time, we have to make it clear that Iran, global terrorism, and nonproliferation will be defining issues. We cannot accept a situation in which Russia provides cover for rogue nations such as Iran to confront Washington with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Putin is pivotal. He has been increasingly hostile to the West. He has just angered the West by signing a law suspending Russia's participation in the landmark post-Cold War defense agreement to limit conventional weapons deployed and stored between the Atlantic and Russia's Ural Mountains.
But this means we are going to have to be much more alert to Russians' fears that the West desires to subjugate them, much more sensitive to Russian interests. Accommodation, not confrontation, is the name of the game. The key here, of course, is Putin. From several meetings with him, I'd say he is somebody who is extremely intelligent and very thoughtful; he also has a redeeming sense of humor. He can be dealt with constructively if dealt with as an equal. That will be the challenge and opportunity for the next administration.
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