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Monday, December 31, 2007

Putin's Cold War

Writing in the Wall Street Journal the brilliant Leon Aron (pictured) of the American Enterprise Institute delivers an "Iron Curtain" address for the 21st Century:

Last Saturday Gen. Yury Baluyevsky, chief of Russia's General Staff, issued an ominous warning. Were the U.S. to launch a rocket from the missile defense system it plans to deploy in Poland to intercept Iranian rockets, it might accidentally trigger a retaliatory attack by Russian nuclear ballistic missiles.

This was only the most recent of a series of provocative and disturbing messages from Moscow. In fact, at no time since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 has the direction of Russian policy been as troubling as it is today.

What accounts for this change? And where will it lead?

Let's first discard simplistic clichés. The most common of them postulates that when the post-Soviet, proto-democratic, anti-communist, revolutionary Russia of the 1990s was poor, it was also meek and peaceable and willing to be a friend of the West. Now that the accursed "period of weakness" and "chaos" of the 1990s is behind it, the same explanation goes, Russia has "recovered," is "off its knees," and is "back." Back, that is, to spar and bicker with the West because . . . well, because this is what a prosperous and strong Russia does.

Nonsense. A country's behavior in the world, its choice of truculence or accommodation, is not decided by accountants who calculate what the country can or cannot afford. Rather it is determined by the regime's fears and hopes, and by the leaders' notions of what their countries should strive for.

As Germany and Japan recovered from the devastation of World War II and became many times richer than they were in 1945, they grew more, not less, peaceful. They also devoted puny shares of their national income to the military -- and only after intense debate. Western Europe's equally spectacular economic resurgence has not brought back squabbling, jingoism and militarism -- and neither did South Korea's, after communist aggression and decades of authoritarianism.

In the past seven years, the trajectory of Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin mirrored, and changed with, the domestic ideological and political order. It has morphed from the Gorbachev-Yeltsin search for the "path to the common European home" and integration into the world economy, to declaring that the end of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."

Soon the Kremlin's paid and unpaid propagandists were extolling "sovereign democracy" -- a still rather "soft" authoritarianism, increasingly with nationalistic and isolationist overtones. Such exegeses, an independent Russian analyst noted, "would have been labeled as fascist, chauvinistic, anti-democratic or anti-Western during Yeltsin's term. Now such texts have become mainstream."

As the Kremlin's pronouncements grew darker and more fanciful -- including warnings that foreign evildoers are plotting to break up Russia -- Moscow's foreign policy, too, evolved: first to a cynical and omnivorous pragmatism, and then an assertive and pointedly anti-Western, especially anti-American, posture.

The formerly diverse bilateral U.S.-Russian agenda -- energy security, nuclear nonproliferation, the global war on terrorism, the containment of a resurgent, authoritarian China, Russia's integration in the global economy -- has been systematically whittled down by Moscow to where it was in the Soviet days and where the Kremlin now wants it: arms control. Suddenly pulled out of mothballs and imbued with the gravest concern for Russia's safety are all manner of the Cold War detritus.

Some of Moscow's concerns (for instance, NATO deployments increasingly close to Russia's borders) are legitimate. But the alarmist and uncompromising rhetoric, and the mode of its delivery -- shrill, public and from the very top of the Russian power structure -- have been utterly disproportionate to the rather trivial and easily resolved military essence of the issues.

The evolution of Moscow's Iran policy is particularly troubling. Until about a year ago, the Moscow-Tehran quid pro quo was straightforward. Russia defended Iran in the U.N.'s Security Council, while Iran refrained from fomenting fundamentalism and terrorism in Central Asia and the Russian North Caucasus, and spent billions of dollars on Russian nuclear energy technology and military hardware, including mobile air defense missiles, fighter jets and tanks. (At the request of the U.S., Boris Yeltsin suspended arms sales to Tehran in 1995.)

Then Russia's strategy changed from money-making, influence-peddling and diplomatic arbitrage to a far riskier brinksmanship in pursuit of a potentially enormous prize. The longer Moscow resists effective sanctions against an Iran that continues to enrich uranium -- and thus to keep the bomb option open and available at the time of its choosing -- the greater the likelihood of the situation's deteriorating, through a series of very probable miscalculations by both the U.S. and Iran, toward a full-blown crisis with a likely military solution.

As Iran's patron, Moscow would be indispensable to any settlement of such a conflict, as was the Soviet Union when it sponsored Egypt in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. And through that settlement it would get its prize.

In one fell swoop, Russia could fulfill major strategic goals: to reoccupy the Soviet Union's position as a key player in the Middle East and the only viable counterbalance to the U.S in the region; to keep oil prices at today's astronomic levels for as long as possible by feeding the fears of a military strike against Iran (and see them go as far as $120-$130 a barrel and likely higher if Iran blocks the Strait of Hormuz and disrupts the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf); and to use the West to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran a few hundred miles from Russia's borders.

Especially frustrating for the White House is Russian foreign policy's intimate connection to the Kremlin's all-out effort to ensure a smooth transition of power, which, Dimitry Medvedev's appointment to the presidency notwithstanding, looks more and more like it will be from a presidency to a kind of Putin regency.

Creating a sense of a besieged fortress at a time of domestic political uncertainty or economic downturn to rally the people around the Kremlin and, more importantly, its current occupant, is part and parcel of the Soviet ideological tradition, which this regime seems increasingly to admire.

So between now and at least next spring, Russian foreign policy is likely to be almost entirely subservient to the Putin's regime's authoritarian, ambitious and dicey agenda. This will likely result in more nasty rhetoric from the Kremlin and further damage relations with the West, and the U.S. in particular.

Until the succession crisis is resolved (meaning, until Mr. Putin's effective leadership of the country is renewed and secured) no amount of importuning, begging or kowtowing -- or emergency trips by Condoleezza Rice to Moscow and heart-to-heart chats in Kennebunkport -- are likely to produce an ounce of good.

Let us, therefore, refrain from the ritual, silly hand-wringing and accusations on the subject of "losing" Russia. Russia is not (and never has been) ours to lose.

Back on "the never altered circuit of its fate," to borrow from one of Robert Graves's finest poems, Russia under Mr. Putin has been doing a fine job of losing itself on its own. Resuming the Gorbachev-Yeltsin heroic labor of dismantling this circuit, and thus altering Russia's relations with the West, could be Mr. Medvedev's job -- if he wants it and is allowed to proceed.

1 comment:

Anonymous-ONE said...

"use the West to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran a few hundred miles from Russia's borders."

Or could the Kremlin be attempting in their own twisted way, of re-creating a 'Nuclear Veitnam'? They arm Iran, like they help NV, US pops a cork, Kremlin instigates PR against US militarism, US walks, RU thinks they've won without spilling one drop of Russian blood. And if anything goes nuclear, it happens 'somewhere else', not Russia. Twisted bit of logic, but if Kremlin is still using its worn-out play book it makes sense.