Washington is finding it has little leverage with Vladimir Putin’s Russia
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEDecember172007
THE BIG CHILL
Washington is finding it has little leverage with Vladimir Putin’s Russia
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
In the wake of Sunday’s Russian parliamentary elections, in which President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party scored a crushing but disputed victory with 64 per cent of the vote and a supermajority of seats, President George W. Bush called up the man he once called Pootie-Poot. It wasn’t to congratulate the former KGB agent on gaining what Putin calls a “mandate” to stay on as some sort of “national leader,” with enough seats to enable him to amend the Russian constitution in order to run for a third term. Neither was Bush on the phone to express his outrage over Putin and his supporters intimidating opposition parties, locking up political activists, and bashing America to get votes. Nor was he calling to reprimand Putin for orchestrating an actual vote that observers have declared rife with cheating and abuses.
Instead, the subject of the 40-minute phone call was Iran. Bush explained that a new U.S. intelligence estimate, confirming for the first
time that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program but had abandoned it in 2003, did not change his conviction that Iran should not be allowed to enrich uranium that could eventually be diverted to create weapons. Bush reiterated his support for Putin’s position: that Iran should be allowed to build a civilian nuclear energy program by using enriched uranium from Russia. Bush did briefly mention the vote. “I said we were sincere in our expression of concern about the elections,” he told the media on Tuesday.
He could have added disappointed, even bewildered, by how a relationship that once seemed so promising has sunk to the worst it’s been since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Things are so ugly that the Pentagon recently scaled back plans to reduce U.S. troops in Europe, citing as one of the reasons a “resurgent” Russia. And Bush could have added that, frankly, Washington feels powerless to do much about it. Russia, no longer economically prostrate, is pumped up on petrodollars and fuelled by nostalgia for its former power. Putin is doing things his own way, and at best Washington can respectfully—or as Bush put it, “sincerely”—disagree.
So meet Russia—the new China. Difficult,
strong-willed, a player to be reckoned with— and one over whom Washington has little leverage. “In some ways we have to get used to a Russia that, like China, is a big complex country with its own interests and is unwilling to bend to outside pressures, particularly to change its domestic policies,” says Mark Medish, a former Russia adviser to the Clinton White House and now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Still, the U.S. and other Western countries should not be shy about criticizing Russia for failing to meet democratic standards.”
In the days leading up to the Dec. 2 elections, the Bush administration did criticize Putin’s domestic shenanigans, but took a break to praise him for his foreign minister’s “gracious” offer at Bush’s Middle East summit to host a follow-up meeting in Moscow. U.S. officials were also balancing their democracy lectures with efforts to sweet-talk Russia into staying in a European treaty on conventional forces, under which countries alert each other of internal troop movements and promise not to build up forces on their borders. The U.S. went as far as asking the Baltic states to consider joining the agreement—because Russia wanted them to. (It didn’t work. Moscow is suspending its participation.)
It doesn’t help that anti-American rhetoric has become a staple of Russian politics. “I found some of the statements made by Mr. Putin and his party about the United States over the last few months to be unhelpful, in some cases almost shocking,” says James Collins, a former diplomat who served several tours in Moscow, including as Bill Clinton’s ambassador from 1997 to 2001. “In 2001, Mr. Putin came here and said America is not an enemy. And suddenly we’re reversing that in some statements. And I found it disturbing that he chose to attack his opponents by questioning their patriotism and saying they are working for the U.S. to destroy Russia.” Bush administration officials have been careful not to take the bait, and they’ve been correct to do so, says Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. He says the Russian rhetoric is for domestic consumption. “This is not an ideologically based global confrontation,” Aron says. “Unlike the old Soviet Union, Russia’s foreign policy does not have a messianic eschatological struggle to the bitter end with imperialism. But it will be certainly a rather bitter counter-position for years to come.” And there isn’t much to be gained from being baited into a rhetorical tit-for-tat. “There is very little we can do,” Aron says. “We should not react to provocations, because it will play
into the hands of those pursuing a more authoritarian route for Russia.”
How did we get here? Russia has a laundry list of grievances about its treatment by the U.S. since the end of the Cold War—from the expansion of NATO to include the Baltic states, to the Bush administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty and its plans to build a missile shield in Moscow’s backyard, to Washington’s strident policies regarding Iraq and Iran with
THE U.S. AND RUSSIA ARE TWO NATIONS REALIZING THEY HAVE LESS POWER THAN THEY IMAGINED
little regard for Russian views. All that has been seen as threatening and insulting to a nation that was once a superpower.
But Collins sees another and more profound force at play: two traumatized nations grappling with each other just as they realize they each have less power than they imagined. ‘Russians woke up one day and their country was gone,” he says. “The trauma of the ending of Soviet rule for the Russian people and the replacement by something yet to be defined is an ongoing story.” As for Americans, “We woke up after 9/11 realizing we are part of the vulnerable world, and that we seem to have all this power but we can’t make things happen the way we want.”
What this means in practice is that Wash-
ington will continue to lecture Putin on democracy, and he will continue to domestically exploit anti-Americanism. But unless he crosses a line, such as invading a former Soviet republic or cutting off gas to the West, he won’t face any drastic moves—such as Russia’s removal from the G8. Instead, Washington will continue to try to work together with Moscow on key security issues such as weapons non-proliferation and securing the stockpile of “loose nukes.”
There are hopeful signs, including an October U.S.-Russia meeting in Moscow on arms. The atmosphere was chilly and there were no breakthroughs, but the Russians agreed to meet again in the U.S. within six months.
Collins is encouraged. “We have been talking too much about each other and not enough to each other,” he says. But new tensions are in the air. The possibility that the U.S. could recognize an independent Kosovo if that region breaks away from Russian-backed Serbia could set off a new confrontation. And then there is the huge question mark surrounding Putin’s political future. Would Washington simply accept an attempt to rewrite Russia’s constitution?
It may not have a choice. Such moves, says Medish, “are not really ours to accept or reject. We don’t have a vote in the Russian political process, and they don’t have one in ours. This may be disappointing—but we should get used to it.” M
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