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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Vladimir Putin, Crybaby

Writing in the Moscow Times Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow, says that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is a classic crybaby. Just as in Soviet times, Russia is being governed by a barbaric hoard of little boys who cannot engage in civilized argument but can only lash out with crude violence whenever anyone dares question them. In other words, an army of little Stalins.

A person who constantly takes offense at others often shows his own immaturity. Similarly, children, teenagers and emotionally unstable people are most often the ones who are easily offended.

In politics, the habit of taking offense is out of place, as is the display of emotion generally. This simple truth has been known since the time of Machiavelli.

Nevertheless, many statements by Russian leaders -- starting with former President Vladimir Putin's famous Munich speech in February last year -- leave the impression that the Kremlin is deeply offended by the United States. This is not only displeasure with certain decisions and statements made by the White House, but it is a feeling of being offended on a highly emotional level.

The most recent example was a statement made last week at a news briefing by a senior Foreign Ministry official. "In the long run, we can afford not having any relations with some of our partners," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. To some extent, statements such as "Don't try to tell us whom we can sleep with," which the official also said at the briefing, can be written off as a recent idiosyncracy of the nation's leaders, who think that the brashness and street jargon in official statements, made popular by Putin, is now fashionable. More important, however, is the larger, underlying message -- that Moscow is eagerly waiting for the time when it is free to go its own way without having to deal with the United States.

In Russia's case, susceptibility to offense seems to go hand in hand with the tendency to take pleasure in others' misfortunes. Russia makes no effort to hide its glee over the problems that the United States is currently facing, and it likes to make ominous predictions about how the "full-blown crisis" in the United States represents a threat to its continued existence. Curiously, these declarations coincided with the appointment of former Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak as the new ambassador to the United States. These two events could be interpreted as a kind of mandate to curtail cooperation in those fields where it still existed.

I do not intend to defend the foreign policy of U.S. President George W. Bush. His eight years of leadership were marked by many tragic mistakes that added new problems to the old ones and that greatly diminished worldwide trust in the United States, while creating a deep split within that country over basic questions of foreign policy strategy.

The current Bush administration bears a significant part of the responsibility for the deterioration of relations with Russia. The U.S. leadership can be compared to a patient who is temperamental, grumbles, doesn't want to take his bitter medicine, and at the same time insists that he is perfectly healthy.

Is it worth it to get offended by a sick person? Is it wise to incorporate that offense into official government policy? And should we express joy over the patient's worsening condition? Such childish emotions are especially out of place if Russia has any desire to become a responsible leader in global relations.

First, taking offense is not constructive. It is unclear at whom the Foreign Ministry's grievances were directed. At Bush? If so, then this is strange as Bush has truly become a lame duck.

Were the statements directed at Senators Barack Obama and John McCain? That would be premature at the very least and ineffective at most, since it is impossible to paint such different politicians with the same brush.

Did the Foreign Ministry target the U.S. public at large? Anybody who pays attention to the political life of the United States knows that Russia is not currently a major concern for the average citizen there.

Second, taking offense is not always logical. Russia's current position suffers from inconsistencies. On one hand, Moscow claims that the United States is in the midst of deep economic, financial, political and moral crises and that the government itself is practically on the verge of collapse. On the other hand, the United States is portrayed as some kind of demonic power, intent on imposing its own order on the rest of the world and undermining Russia's strategic interests. This is all very reminiscent of self-contradictory Soviet propaganda during the Cold War.

Third, the weakness for being offended can lead to rash behavior. The desire to strike back at the offending party, to settle accounts for the perceived humiliation or insult often overshadows one's long-term interests. For example, Russia's glee over U.S. economic and financial woes is absurd considering the Russia's direct interest in U.S. economic success. For example, a significant part of the country's stabilization fund is invested in the United States; and global oil prices rise or fall in large part as a result of the health of the U.S. economy.

In addition, Russia has a direct interest in seeing that certain U.S. foreign policy goals are successful. For example, Russia's position in Central Asia and the Middle East would be weakened if the United States withdrew its troops quickly from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Last, if Russia's dream ever came true -- the collapse of the U.S. political and economic system -- it would be difficult to underestimate the amount of damage that everyone on the planet would suffer.

The art of foreign policy should not be defined as slamming the door in the face of an irritating or inconvenient partner, but in the ability to further one's interests even under difficult conditions. Refusing to negotiate with the United States would be our collective defeat and a recognition of our powerlessness and irresponsible attitude in the face of urgent global problems.

A serious discussion is now gathering steam in the United States about that country's future foreign policy, Washington's role and weight in international affairs and the new world order after the global balance of power has shifted.

The coming months and years will determine a lot -- perhaps even the course for decades to come. Many U.S. neoconservatives who are still stuck in Cold War mentality have a habit of dividing the world into good and evil, of viewing it through the prism of the standoff between Moscow and Washington and of refusing to give way on any of their positions. By provoking the United States with inflammatory statements, do we really want to give these anti-Russia hawks a big career boost?

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