IS THIS THE RETURN OF THE EVIL EMPIRE?
A faltering economy, stifled freedoms, scared neighbours, global clout and a threat to start an arms race: the new Russia is sounding a lot like the old one
In June 2001, a fresh-faced George W. Bush, newly minted President of the United States, met his counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin, looked deep into his eyes, and later declared, "I was able to get a sense of his soul." The American liked what he saw. Co-operation between Russia and the West had floundered during the nine years that the erratic Boris Yeltsin governed the country. But Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, was someone with whom, strangely, the Bush administration could do business.
Russian-American ties only got closer following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,2001. Putin pledged Russia’s full support for the U.S. war on terror. Moscow shared intelligence with Washington, armed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and okayed the United States’ use of former Soviet airbases in Central Asia. Only 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Bush declared Russia an “ally” and took the Russian president on a pickup truck tour of his ranch in Texas. It seemed as if the legacy of the Cold War was finally over.
It wasn’t. The last two years have seen a collapse in relations—not just between Russia and the United States, but between Russia and much of the Western world.
Vladimir Putin has rolled back democratic freedoms in Russia, centralized authority, muzzled independent media and stifled dissent in the public at large. Western NGOs trying to build a democratic society in Russia are restricted and accused of espionage. This deterioration of Russian democracy accelerated during Putin’s second term as president, which began in May 2004He was chosen by an overwhelming 71 per cent of the electorate, and international observers judged that most of the votes were counted accurately. But the campaign also involved the blatant promotion of Putin by stateowned and controlled media. Putin moved to consolidate his power later that year, when he cancelled the direct election of regional governors and gave himself the authority to appoint the local politicians he favoured most. The Moscow Helsinki Group, a Russian humanitarian organization, said Putin had “sacrificed” a key element in the foundation of a young democracy.
The Council on Foreign Relations, an influential American think tank, now warns that Russia is becoming steadily more authoritarian, noting that it is less open and democratic than just a few years ago. It worries that these trends “may not have run their course.” Freedom House, a democracy advocacy group that measures global political and civil freedom, has downgraded Russia’s ranking from “partly free” to “not free,” judging it to be less free than countries such as Morocco and Yemen.
Worse, rising energy prices have inflated Russia’s formerly debt-ridden, foundering economy, giving Russia, once again, increasing global clout. Russia has the largest proven natural gas reserves in the world and significant supplies of oil. The gas economy is already dominated by the state-controlled company Gazprom. (Almost one third of Russian oil is produced by state-owned companies; although LUKoil, the largest producer of Russian oil, is private, it also has close ties to the Kremlin.)
“It would be naive, in my reading, to view Gazprom as an independent agent,” says Aurel
Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto. “Gazprom works with the Russian government, and this is one way that Russia can pressure surrounding states.” Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is kept in office in part because of Russian support and economic largesse. Neighbouring countries that are not so obsequious face economic sanctions and increased prices for Russian gas.
This March, the Pentagon accused the Russian ambassador to Iraq of passing on U.S. war plans to Saddam Hussein in the early days of the American-led invasion in 2003. Then, earlier this month, at a summit of eastern European countries in Vilnius, Lithuania, U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney lambasted Russia for “unfairly and improperly restricting the rights of the people” and using oil and gas as “tools of intimidation and blackmail.” Russia dismissed Cheney’s remarks as “completely incomprehensible.”
Putin himself hit back at the U.S. during his national address last week. “Where is all this pathos about protecting human rights and democracy when it comes to the need to pursue their own interests?” he said. “Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat, it eats without listening, and it’s clearly not going to listen to anyone.” He even threatened a new arms race of sorts, pledging increased military spending and saying, “New types of weaponry will allow us to maintain what is
undoubtedly one of the most significant guarantees of world stability—namely the preservation of the strategic balance of forces.” But while it appeared that relations had reached a breaking point, in truth a new global showdown between Russia and the West had already been brewing. And like the original Cold War, it is an indirect conflict, fought by proxy. Russia’s “endgame is to provide a counterbalance to the United States,” says Braun. “But in order to be able to do this, to be able to play a significant role in areas like the Middle East or western Europe, Putin has concluded that he must secure what the Russians—at least behind closed doors—call the ‘near abroad.’ ” Moscow is once again willing to openly confront the West on the international stage. The battleground in question is a ring of states bordering Russia, from the Baltic to Central Asia. Here, the United States and its allies in Europe are competing with Russia for control, influence and friendship. The outcome may decide whether hundreds of millions of people live in independent, westward-looking democracies, or subservient client states of an increasingly autocratic Russia.
country, according to professor Braun, is as important to the projection of Russian influence than Ukraine, an industrial powerhouse of almost 50 million people and the home, at Sevastopol, of the Russian navy’s onceformidable Black Sea fleet.
In Kiev, on the eve of parliamentary elections in March, flags and banners were everywhere, making Independence Square look like the marshalling ground of a medieval army. In 2004, millions of Ukrainians flooded this square to protest rigged presidential elections that handed victory to the pro-Russian incumbent Viktor Yanukovich. The demonstrations, known as the Orange Revolution, forced another vote, which brought the pro-Western modernizer Viktor Yushchenko to power. Putin, who had openly backed Yanukovich and congratulated him on his victory while votes were still being counted, was humiliated.
This March, the impending vote was being viewed by virtually everyone in Ukraine as a rematch of 2004A baffling array of blocs and parties were contesting the election, but it all came down to one simple question: Orange or Blue? The Orange were for the West; the Blue were for Russia. “We’ve chosen our path. Clearly Ukraine’s position is in Europe,” said Roman Zvarych, a close adviser to Yushchenko and a leading member of the Orange bloc “Our Ukraine.”
Zvarych admitted that convincing Ukrainians to move even closer to the West by joining NATO will be more difficult, given decades of Soviet propaganda depicting NATO as Ukraine’s arch-enemy. “There’s a scar on Ukraine’s collective psyche,” he said, a few days before the March 26 vote. “That has to be removed. And the only way to do that is giving the Ukrainian people a chance to objectively, in a free atmosphere, understand for themselves what NATO is all about.”
The alternative, Zvarych said, “would mean to have Ukraine recognize Russia’s neo-colonial importance in this area, recognizing its dominance in this particular sphere of influence. I find that choice to be unacceptable.”
Not all Ukrainians do, however.
Victor Silenko is co-editor ofDosvitni vogni, a newspaper affiliated with the fringe Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine. Silenko laments the fall of the Soviet Union and believes that NATO is an “aggressive military bloc” that the West will use to dominate Ukraine and Russia. He thinks Ukraine should model itself after Belarus—a country with close ties to Russia but one that doesn’t have to send its troops to fight Russia’s war in Chechnya. “Those wanting to be closer to the West don’t really want to live in Ukraine,” he said. “They’d rather move to the West and work in gas stations, or as nannies and prostitutes.” Such views are not widespread in Kiev, the birthplace of the Orange Revolution and a city that threw much of its support behind Yushchenko’s ally-turned-rival, the beautiful Yulia Tymoshenko, whose campaign posters depicted her leaning against a motorcycle, wearing black leather pants and wielding a sword. But 600 km to the east, in the industrial and mining heartland of Ukraine, things are very different. Donetsk is a bleak city dominated by belching smokestacks and the pervasive smell of burning coal. This is the power base of Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed loser of the 2004 Orange Revolution, who sought revenge in the parliamentary elections through his Party of Regions.
Support for Yanukovich, and for closer ties between Ukraine and Russia, appeared to be almost universal in Donetsk. Many residents said they feared Russia would punish Ukraine by raising natural gas prices if they voted for pro-Western parties. Russia’s decision to increase gas prices for Ukraine this winter was widely seen as a thinly veiled warning. Others in Donetsk were ethnic Russians themselves, or had close family ties with Russians across the border. Several said that pro-Western political parties in Ukraine were simply pawns of NATO or the United States. “We have no gas and no oil of our own. That’s why we must have friendship with Russia,” said student Seva Kvetkin, 19. “We have the same Slavic cultural roots. I don’t even want to speak about the United States and NATO. They just want control of our resources.”
In Donetsk’s Lenin Square, a motley group had gathered on lawn chairs and in tents to drink beer and wave Russian flags. One man, Shahid, said the Orange parties were full of the descendants of Ukrainians who fought with the Nazis during the Second World War. Sergei Zhentchus, a coal miner wearing a black handkerchief around his throat and a military-style cap, said Ukraine should join an economic union with Belarus and Russia. “We are Slavs. If you look at history, when invaders tried to conquer us, when Slavs stood together, we were strong.”
Pack in Kiev, two days before the elec tion, Vasyl Fiipchuk, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was full of mirth. The previous night, Russia had sent an aid convoy through Ukraine, bound for Trans-Dniester, a breakaway region of Moldova largely populated by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. The move was a blatant attempt by Russia to influence the Ukrainian election by trying to show that Ukraine allows Russians and even ethnic Ukrainians to starve on its southern border.
‘RUSSIA’S IDEA OF SECURITY IS TO HAVE THEIR NEIGHBOURS DOWN ON THEIR KNEES, TO CONTROL THEM,’ SAID ONE GEORGIAN
But according to Filipchuk, the move backfired. The convoy, which was accompanied by Russian politicians and members of the Ukrainian Party of Regions, broke down in the middle of Ukraine. The politicians allegedly deserted the convoy and headed for Kiev’s five-star hotels to rest and recover. The drivers hauling the trucks were left on the side of the road. “The end of the story is that Ukraine is now giving humanitarian assistance to the Russian humanitarian mission,” Filipchuk said, his mouth pressed in a tight grin. “If it was not reality, it would be a funny story. But unfortunately, it is one of the real aspects of our relationship with Russia.”
Like most pro-Western Ukrainian politicians, Filipchuk insisted that Ukraine must maintain friendly relations with Russia. But when asked what would happen to Ukraine’s relations with the West if Yanukovich’s Party of Regions were to form the government, he recalled another epic confrontation between
East and West. “You know this Greek legend, when the Persians came with hundreds of thousands of soldiers to Sparta in ancient Greece, they sent a very long letter that said: ‘If we come to your city, we will destroy it. If we come to your city, we will kill all of you; we will rape all your women; we will kill your children; we will destroy your land.’ This was a very long letter. And they received in response only one word: Tf.’ ”
Two days later the Persians were at the gates of Kiev. Yanukovich’s party finished first in the election, and unless Yushchenko and Tymoshenko can put aside their differences and reunite the Orange forces in Ukraine, Yanukovich will dominate the Ukrainian parliament. At his headquarters on election night, Yanukovich said that Ukraine must become a partner of both Russia and the European Union. Outside in the rain, a small group of his supporters held an impromptu celebration, waving flags and cheering. “I don’t want the United States on Ukrainian soil with rockets pointed at Russia,” Tamara Voznesenskaya, a middle-aged woman, told Maclean’s. “Russia protected us during the Second World War, and we’ll protect Russia now.” It must be said that much of the Orange forces’ misfortunes in this election could be attributed to their lack of unity. Votes for the parties of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, if added together, exceeded those cast for Yanukovich. The spirit of the Orange Revolution remains strong. More importantly, regardless of the results, the 2006 elections were free and fair.
But the election revealed sharp divisions between those who look West and those who look East. Ukraine, the linchpin in the struggle between Russia, the United States and Europe, is leaning westward. But it is still contested ground—and greatly influenced by the kind of pressure Moscow can bring to bear.
Farther east, across the Black Sea still patrolled by the Russian navy, a sim ilar contest is raging, and the stakes are just as high. Georgia is a tiny country in the south Caucasus, east ofTurkey and almost on the borders of Iran. Yet it is clear from the moment a visitor arrives at Tbilisi’s international airport that this is a place that considers itself an outpost of the West, a European nation stranded on the far side of the old Iron Curtain. Citizens of Canada, the
U.S. and most European countries are waved through passport control with barely a glance. It is the Russians, who once ruled Georgia, who must now struggle with the necessary paperwork and purchase visas before they can enter the country.
The highway leading from the airport is named after George W. Bush, and a large billboard photograph of the beaming President commemorates his 2005 visit. Tbilisi is full of shops, restaurants, churches and bars— some of them favourite watering holes for U.S. military personnel stationed here. “Career opportunities in armed anthropology,” reads a memento on the wall of one bar. It’s an unofficial recruiting poster displaying a candid photograph of a group of U.S. soldiers with their arms draped around Afghan President Hamid Karzai: “The U.S. army is seeking intelligent, creative, athletic men of character who are looking for interesting careers fighting evil, promoting civilization and liberating the oppressed.”
On the streets, well-dressed couples walk hand-in-hand along broad sidewalks or through the city’s numerous parks. Unlike many former Soviet cities, there are no drunks in public, and most people are friendly toward foreigners, rather than sullen or hostile.
This rugged and pious nation, the legendary home of Jason’s Golden Fleece, has become a key batdeground in the confrontation between Russia and the West. It sits on a transit route linking Caspian Sea oilfields to the rest of the world. It also borders Russian republics in the Caucasus, which Moscow fears might fall away and lead to the breakup of the Russian Federation. And Moscow still resents the 2003 Rose Revolution, which replaced a pro-Russian autocrat as president with the westward-looking Mikheil Saakashvili.
Unlike those east Europeans who are Slavs, Georgians share little in common culturally with Russians, and were not easy clients of the Soviet Union. Anti-Soviet protesters in Tbilisi were massacred by Soviet troops and tanks on April 9,1989. Since then, Russia has been willing to use the sort of bullying methods that it would never dare to employ in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe.
In the 1990s, when the attention of the West was focused on the Balkans, Russianbacked separatists launched rebellions in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that resulted in more than 10,000 deaths and the cleansing of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians. The two regions are now
`I DON'T WANT THE U.S. ON UKRAINIAN SOIL, ROCKETS POINTED AT RUSSIA. RUSSIA PROTECTED US, AND WE'LL PROTECT THEM.'
de facto republics of Russia. Relative peace has resumed, but Moscow keeps both conflicts simmering as a way to punish Georgia, and as bargaining chips against the West. “If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?” Putin asked earlier this year.
Such words are painful to hear for women like Marina Jijelava and Manana Pruidze, who were driven from their homes in Abkhazia more than 10 years ago. They now live on the hills above Tbilisi in an apartment building full of other displaced Georgians. Large families are crammed into tiny flats, with makeshift kitchen stoves in the hallways, but the Georgians here are as welcoming as their wealthier countrymen.
“Even today I can’t understand how we became enemies,” said Jijelava, 37, sitting on a stool in a tiny shop in the building that sells cigarettes, soap and candy. “We used to live together. I can’t understand it.” Jijelava fled Abkhazia over snow-covered mountains. “So many of us had small children, and some of them died of starvation,” she said. “We walked for a week. It was winter. Sometimes, in small villages, people gave us food. But most of the time, nothing.”
Manana Pruidze’s elderly parents refused to leave their homes and were murdered. Her sister-in-law lost two children when they were swept away and drowned in a mountain river. But Pruidze, like Jejelava, dreams every day of returning. “Of course I want to go. My house is burnt down, but I would still rather live in a burnt house,” she said. “Notwithstanding that the Russians caused all our suffering, if we can go back to our homes, we’ll forgive them.”
Other Russian tactics are purely economic. In March, citing dubious sanitation concerns, Russia banned the import of Georgian and Moldovan wine, a move that will have devastating effects in both countries, which together provided at least one third of all wine sold in Russia. Moscow also decided earlier this month to ban the import of a popular Georgian mineral water. This followed earlier moves to sharply increase the price Georgia and Moldova pay for Russian gas imports, 71 and 37 per cent respectively, and a series of unexplained gas-line explosions that left many Georgians without heat for more than a week during the coldest winter in decades.
“It’s not because they have anything against us,” said Sergi Kapanadze, an assistant professor of international relations at Tbilisi State University. “It’s their policy toward all their neighbours. Those that are leaning toward the European Union and NATO, they have antipathy toward them. The Russian perception of security is to have [their neighbours] down on their knees. They think it’s better to control them. The American way is to have them as functional democracies with liberal market values.” Kapanadze claims that Russia’s strategy is not working and is simply breeding resentment. And it is difficult to find Georgians who feel an emotional attachment to Russia and believe that their country should seek closer ties with Moscow.
But they do exist. Two nurses in Tbilisi who think this way refused to speak on the record, claiming they feared the consequences should others find out. And a short drive from the capital, in Gori, people are not so shy. The town is the home of Georgia’s most infamous son, Iosif Dzhugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist for three decades and was responsible for the deaths of some 20 million people. His hometown boasts what surely must be one of the last statues of Stalin still standing, and a museum where visitors can gawk at the preserved small wooden hut where he was born. “I was six years old when Stalin died,” said Tamar Mindiashuili, an official at the museum. “I remember that everyone was crying. I started to cry too, even though I didn’t know why.”
Mindiashuili said she laments the loss of “discipline” that prevailed during the Soviet era, and thinks Georgia should have friendlier relations with Russia today. “Maybe Western people are better to have as guests, but Russians are better to have as neighbours. I want to be an independent country, but personally, if we need to be someone’s slave, I would prefer it to be Russia.”
This nostalgia for a Soviet tyrant is not the image of Georgia its government wants to portray to the world. The Georgian Foreign Ministry, located in a red brick building with air conditioners jutting out of upper-floor windows, exudes Western-looking optimism. There are Georgian and European Union flags above the entrance. Inside, the carpets are worn and thin. The security guards are smoking and don’t bother searching a visitor when metal-detecting alarms go off. But the desks are new, the secretaries are young and beautiful, and most speak flawless English.
George Manjgaladze, Georgia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, has the daunting task of steering his country’s international relations closer to the West. He admits that Georgia would benefit from civil relations with Russia as well, but he has little hope of this happening. “It is always good to have some common projects and good relations with your neighbours, especially one that is so big and influential,” he said. “Unfortunately, for the moment we can say that we do not have these sorts of projects, this sort of relationship and this co-operation. It is very restricted, if it even exists.”
Manjgaladze said Russia is punishing Georgia for its new westward perspective. “That mentality in Russia, let me call it an imperial mentality, which envisages Georgia and other former Soviet republics as a backyard of Russia, still exists and is quite strong in Russian government circles. Unfortunately, there is evidence that this might be one of the engines of their policy toward Georgia, the negative reaction of Russia toward our very clear and very straightforward aspirations and policy to come back to Europe, to come back to our European roots, and become politically and economically part of the EuroAtlantic area.”
Realistically, Georgia is years away from joining NATO, and decades away from membership in the European Union. Surrounded by potentially hostile states and with unstable borders, its very territorial integrity is precarious. But for now Georgia has picked sides, turning its back on Russia and betting its future on joining the West. “The globe is endless,” Manjgaladze said, when asked how Georgia can be part of a Euro-Atlantic world when it is geographically located on the edge of Asia. “This matter of East and West, I don’t believe it. It’s a matter of democracy.”
In the unfolding conflict between Russia and the democratic world, this is one battle that Russia is losing; Georgia is slipping beyond its control.
The ultimate showdown between Russia and the West may come else where, however-in Europe. It is here that Russia suffered its biggest loss of face following the collapse of the Soviet Union. One after the other, the former Warsaw Pact countries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria pulled out of the alliance and turned their backs on Russia, later joining its hated rival NATO. Even more galling to Russian pride was the loss of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered in public in a series of demonstrations to sing national songs and anthems that were banned by the Soviets. The next year, citizens of the three nations, then still part of the U.S.S.R., joined hands to form a 600-km human chain across their countries in a show of solidarity and implicit defiance of the Soviet Union.
The Baltic states all achieved their independence in 1991. They too would eventually join NATO and the European Union. Moscow now looks west and sees former allies that have turned against it. Worse, from a Russian perspective, many of its former Eastern bloc clients are now resolutely pro-American. It is no coincidence that the so-called “coalition of the willing” that offered support for the American-led invasion of Iraq included Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.
Russia has not hesitated to confront its neighbours in the Baltic, often citing concerns about the rights of ethnic Russians there. Last fall, an armed Russian jet that had veered off course crashed in Lithuania, provoking uproar among Lithuanians. But Russia’s most effective weapon remains its gas supplies. Late last year, Russia and Germany struck a multi-billion-dollar deal to build a gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea—bypassing the pro-Western countries of Poland and Ukraine.
At one time, the formerly Soviet countries of eastern Europe might have expected to receive support from western Europe. But the old alliance in Europe has fractured, and help is not forthcoming.
During the Cold War, western European nations didn’t have the luxury of picking sides. Warsaw Pact countries had thousands of tanks lined up and ready to roll into the West, and they wouldn’t be coming with lucrative gas deals and a common petulance about the American hyperpower. This has changed. Western Europe no longer faces a strong military threat from Russia. It does, however, face an energy crisis.
WESTERN EUROPE FACES AN ENERGY CRISIS, AND GAS IS ONE WAY RUSSIA CAN HAVE STRATEGIC LEVERAGE OVER THE EU
Western Europe already gets about 25 per cent of its gas from Russia. “Russia still has strategic leverage over the Europeans,” says Hall Gardner, a professor of international politics at the American University of Paris. And according to Robert Johnson, a professor of Russian history at the University of Toronto, this leverage is becoming more powerful. “The oil economy, particularly an oil economy with the instability of the Middle East looming large, is making a lot of European countries be more conciliatory to the Russians and want to establish great stability in their dealings with them.”
There are also geo-strategic issues at play, particularly with France, which has long sought an alternative to American global dominance. Braun describes France as a country undergoing an identity crisis: “Things have not panned out the way the French imagined, that in Europe there would be this duopoly, that they and the Germans would basically run the EU and this would be their ticket to world grandeur.”
Instead, the EU itself is in crisis. France’s own voters rejected the proposed EU constitution, and new EU member states in the east are unwilling to be dictated to by France. French President Jacques Chirac has therefore looked to Russia. “Chirac has this idea that France can reshape its identity, can regain the confidence of an identity, by playing a larger role,” Braun says. “There were two myths: the myth of French grandeur, and the myth of Russian power. And they thought that if they could combine these two myths, they could create a political reality.” Countries such as France and Germany have therefore been willing to reconsider their alliances. This was most evident during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the three most vocal opponents to U.S. military intervention were Russia, France and Germany. Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s deputy prime minister, has since revealed that until the very last moment, Saddam did not expect the United States to attack because of the faith he had in French and Russian pressure at the UN Security Council. (Germany, under the new leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, is seeking to repair relations with the United States, and is no longer so cozy with Russia.)
Western Europe’s friendship with the United States may soon be tested again, in the continuing confrontation with Iran over that country’s nuclear ambitions. An attempt by Britain, France and Germany to negotiate with the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has failed. The three now must consider imposing economic sanctions. But a military confrontation is also a growing possibility—Washington has said that all options to keep Iran from getting the bomb are on the table.
But Russia, which holds a veto on the UN Security Council, continues to sell Iran weapons and refuses to end its support for Iran’s supposedly civilian nuclear program. According to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Russia has also assured Iran it will oppose both sanctions and war. With Washington and Moscow staking out different and opposing positions regarding Iran, the countries of western Europe may soon be forced to choose sides.
It would be a mistake, however, to view Russia's newfound belligerence as a sign of strength. Russia's economic clout is dependent on high oil prices. The rest of its economy, according to Braun, is “miserable” and “utterly uncompetitive.” In spite of a crackdown by Putin on a handful of men who, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, managed to create powerful economic empires for themselves, the country is still largely controlled by oligarchs—albeit those who toe Moscow’s line. It is also plagued by widespread corruption and organized crime, which drives away domestic and foreign investors. The economic development that does exist is concentrated around Moscow and St. Petersburg. Outside of these population centres, local economies are depressed, and living standards are poor.
More seriously, Russia’s very territorial integrity is far from secure. Its population is in rapid decline—in his address to the nation last week, Putin called the situation “critical.” Much of Russia’s vast land mass is unsettled, and it borders countries that covet its space. Putin once said that the collapse of the Soviet Union benefited only the elites and nationalists in the various Soviet republics; ethnic nationalism is now resurgent among Russia’s minorities, particularly in the Caucasus and southern Russia, where some separatist movements have taken on overtones of Islamist extremism.
It is for these reasons that the West cannot afford to give up on Russia, even as it confronts it. For now, because of its pricey gas reserves, Russia has the ability to project power abroad and interfere in surrounding states. But beneath the surface, Russia’s decline is underway, and the ramifications will reach far beyond the country’s present borders. “Russia is in such bad shape, despite all the oil money and the stats that show that it is growing, that it’s really not in a condition to be a true competitor,” Braun says. “There is a drift that is dangerous in terms of worsening relations. But ultimately, I think it is more dangerous for Russia. They have the most to lose.”
Russia’s breakup or collapse could be disastrous for the West as well, and would put the U.S. and its allies in a difficult position. They are battling an opponent against whom they must prevail, if democracy is to succeed in Europe and Central Asia. But they cannot leave Russia broken and defeated by the contest. Ultimately, democracy must prevail in Russia as well. It is this revolution that will be the most difficult, and the most important.
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