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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Masha Lipman on the "Russian Revival"

The Carnegie Center's Masha Lipman offers the following analysis of the so-called "Russian Revival" under "President" Vladimir Putin. All sham and illusion rather than substance (eerily like the way Maria Sharapova plays tennis), Russia's "revival" is far more harmful than a depression since it hides reform and delays its onset until it can do no good. As is unfortunately too often the case, Carnegie lacks the courage to carry its basic truths fully through, so LR endeavors to pick up the slack with running commentary. From time to time, Masha sounds discomfitingly like a mommy talking to her wayward little boy. Wake up and smell the full-grown dictator, Mashenka!

Russia’s national revival and new assertiveness under President Vladimir Putin is not really homemade but reflects highly auspicious international conditions. Oil and gas prices are sky high, the United States is overwhelmed by serious problems in Iraq and the Middle East, and the West is divided about how it should deal with Russia.

Putin’s administration has been keen to take advantage of this favourable environment. Yet, although some of the Kremlin’s moves seem clear and reasonable, others can scarcely be described as rational or forward-looking.

For example, Russia’s desire to take ownership stakes in Europe’s gas distribution markets makes perfect sense and is fully legitimate given Russia’s energy assets and pipeline capacity. Likewise, Russia’s effort to expand its influence in the energy-rich countries of Central Asia is aimed at consolidating Russia’s stature as a major energy supplier. Asserting itself as a major power outside the Western realm, Russia has boosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes China and most Central Asian countries. Indeed, Russia is increasingly attaching ever greater significance to its relations with China, something of a strategic shift in foreign policy, even if it is not yet clear how close Russia wants to get to China.

But bullying Georgia and Moldova, demonstrating support for Hamas, or indulging North Korea do not seem to be guided by any strategic sense of Russia’s far-reaching interests. They seem guided by pure and simple spite. Russia’s heavy-handed pressure on Georgia and its support of secessionist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two unrecognised republics within Georgia, inflames passions and risks destabilising the already tense Northern Caucasus. Should instability ignite into open warfare, Russia will find it impossible to avoid the consequences.

Of course, Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili may at times be thoughtless and arrogant. But if Russia’s policy toward him lets events in Georgia get out of control, Russia will be held accountable. Because Russia claims the status of a world power, it is expected to show restraint and responsibility.

But the urge to project strength for the mere sake of doing so now seems overwhelming for the Kremlin. This urge stems from a desire to make up for the years of Russia’s humiliation after the USSR collapsed, years when the West contemptuously disregarded Russia’s views and interests.

This lingering resentment may explain Putin’s somewhat uncivil behaviour and dubious jokes when dealing with his Western counterparts. It may also have been behind Russia’s irrational decision to renege on its promise to give Poland the files that document the massacre of thousands of Polish officers on Stalin’s orders in the forest at Katyn at the outbreak of WWII. What possible benefits can Russia gain by breaking this pledge? The motive seems to be brutally simple: “Precisely because you want it, we won’t deliver. We can do what we like because we’re strong again.” LR: Here's the benefit. Russia can keep from opening old wounds it can't face, and Putin can avoid undermining his effort to rehabilitate Stalin and create a Neo-Soviet Union. Katyn is one of the lowest moments in human history, and if publicized there is nothing even the greatest Soviet propagandists could do to rationalize it.

But this renewed vigour is too fresh for Russia to feel truly confident. Putin’s irresistible urge to remind everyone that Russia has recovered its strength suggests underlying insecurity. In an episode recently reported by The New York Times, at one of Putin’s informal meetings with Bush, Putin showed the US president his Labrador and said, “Bigger, tougher, stronger, faster, meaner than Barney” (Bush’s dog). LR: Remember my dog joke from back in May? LR, always ahead of the curve! Though Putin barely implied that the dog’s superiority indicates Russia’s domination over the US, his remark appears to be in line with his general message: don’t you ever dare to doubt our high status.

Russia is by no means seeking to isolate itself. Russia needs America and the West in order to realise its ambitious initiative to establish international centres of uranium enrichment, and it needs Western markets, which are the largest consumers of Russia’s gas and oil. Moreover, it is in the West that the rich and powerful Russian elite likes to travel, go shopping, and send their kids to school. LR: If that's true, why is Russia giving aid to arch American foes like Venezuela, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah? Why did it pass U.S. military secrets to Iran in wartime? Isn't minimizing Western influence key to Putin's dictatorship? The Carnegie Center is too often guilty of wishful thinking. Maybe it's not in Russia's interest to alienate the West, but that has never stopped Russia from undertaking self-destructive behavior before. After all, if Russia really wanted to be friends, would it have elected a proud KGB spy president?

But Russia’s muscle-flexing behaviour leaves Western leaders perplexed and wary, which seems a dubious way for the Kremlin to secure Russia’s new stature. Contentious foreign policy makes contacts uneasy and agreements difficult to reach. It damages the trust needed for stronger trade relations. As Russia’s conflict with Ukraine in early January over gas prices demonstrated, when Russia plays rough, the West grows apprehensive and suspicious rather than more amenable. LR: Actually, alienating the West is only a problem for Russia if the result is a concerted effort to undermine Putin's power. To the extent, meanwhile, that it terrifies domestic opposition, including foreign NGOs, it allows Putin to draw down the Iron Curtain. Clearly, it's not in Russia's best interests as a nation, but who says Putin (or any Russian leader) ever has those interests in mind?

What will happen should crude strength and hard language prove inadequate to the task of insuring Russian national interests? No one can say, but Russia’s history in this regard is not a source of hope. LR: Actually, La Russophobe can quite easily say. What will happen is that Russia will deteriorate into "Zaire with permafrost" and soon Russia as we know it will cease to exist.

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