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October 04, 2005

Russia: Back on the Front Burner
Posted by Derek Chollet

Former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance used to say that one of the hardest things about managing American diplomacy was that, just when you think you are on top of things, “at any moment in the day at least two-thirds of the people around the world are awake and some of them are making mischief.”  With American foreign policy consumed by the war on terror and Iraq, as well as showdowns with North Korea and Iran, it is very difficult to respond to larger trends.  As Suzanne points out  below, policy wonks and deep thinkers are trying to get their heads around challenges like the rise of China and the greater diplomatic and economic role of India.  I predict that another issue we will be talking and worrying about a lot more in the coming months and years will be one of American foreign policy’s oldest chestnuts: Russia.

Russia has receded from the front burner of U.S. diplomacy – there are lots of reasons for this, among them 9-11, Putin’s self-professed “cooperation” in the war on terror, Russia’s oil-fueled economic rebound, Bush’s close embrace of Putin (looking into his soul and all that), and his efforts to restore “order” in the Russian state and society.

Yet in the coming years, what happens inside Russia and in the states on its periphery will impact just about every major strategic issue we face: the threat from Islamic jihadists, energy security, the future of democracy, China, Central Asia, nuclear proliferation, pandemics like HIV/AIDS, just to name a few.  And Russia's internal stability will continue to be a real concern -- especially with a 2008 leadership transition approaching, when constitutionally Putin cannot run for reelection as President but few think that he will disappear from power.

There’s a strong case to be made that things have gotten worse in Russia, not better.  A few weeks ago I was in Moscow and had the opportunity to meet with a wide range of people.  Few argued that Russia was a democracy – in fact the consensus is that Russia is a “bureaucratic authoritarian” regime.  The key difference was whether people thought that that was good or bad, or whether it was anyone’s fault (meaning, that the lack of democracy was just the way Russia is). 

On the one hand, Putin’s defenders talked about the importance of the “order” that has been established and how many of the rollbacks of democracy (such as crackdown on independent sources of power, especially in the media, as well as appointing rather than electing regional governors, etc.) should be compared with how Western countries do things, which in some cases is not all that different.  Yet on the other hand, it is clear that the lack of openness and access to television suppresses political opposition – and that the trend line in Russia in terms of democracy is heading in the wrong direction.

Visiting Moscow, and seeing the enormous economic growth that is happening there, it appears that ordinary Russian citizens do have individual freedom – there is a growing middle class consumer culture – as long as they don’t challenge the state.  Some argued that there is a growing disconnect between the Russian people at the Kremlin leadership: that ordinary Russians are ready for rule of law and democracy but that the political elites are not.

From the perspective of American interests, there’s a lot to be worried about here.  The stakes are huge.  Yet America’s policy toward Russia has been on auto-pilot – as Fred Hiatt pointed out yesterday in the Washington Post, the Administration has a “fairly coherent strategy regarding Russia's slide from democracy: Ignore it. The National Security Council apparatus in the White House believes that what happens inside Russia is irrelevant to the United States; that the United States can't do much to influence domestic events in any case; and that dwelling on Putin's authoritarianism would compromise other U.S. interests in bilateral relations.”

This head-in-the-sand approach is going to become increasingly unsustainable.  As the contradictions pile up, it will be very hard to look the other way.  Next summer, Putin will host the G-8 leaders at their annual summit in St. Petersburg. This will be the first time Russia will host the annual G-8 summit meeting as a full member, and thousands of journalists and other activists will be there.  That means that not only will Putin come under pressure to explain himself, but the seven other leaders of the world’s major democracies will have to justify why they are standing there and not criticizing their host for his rollback of basic freedoms.  Remember that when the G-8 began in 1975 – then as the G-6 – the leaders affirmed their individual responsibilities “for the government of an open, democratic society, dedicated to individual liberty and social advancement.”  But this is not the direction Russia has headed under Putin.  So it will make for an interesting photo-op.


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Indeed, Russia is sitting on one of the planet's largest remaining pools of recoverable oil with China and Japan already wrangling to get their share of it. As Peak Oil kicks in, Russia may be self-sufficient in oil while the rest of us--US, China, India, Europe, Japan--fight for the crumbs as our economies slide. Very scary. Not to mention there are still thousands of Russian hair-trigger nukes still aimed our way, not to mention the unsecured nuclear material and scientists.

I am wondering what kind of alliances might be made:China + US vs Russia? China + Russia vs. US? Europe? India? Japan? Russia is undoubtedly a key player in the New Great Game.

There was an interesting story on the front page of the WSJ today about the ongoing struggles between Putin and the oligarchs. I have to say, I am usually inclined to come down on the pro-Putin side in these battles, and to support his aim of pulling power away from the oligarchs and toward the Russian government. I don't know why it is that so many Americans seem inclined to regard the oligarchs - who might as well be named Corleone, Tattaglia and Barzini - as "our guys".

Because they seem marginally less creepy than Putin, maybe.

Note the word marginally.

Putin is a Russian autocrat. We've dealt with those, we know they're bad.

Meanwhile, it's not like the oligarchs have a nuclear arsenal. far as we know.

On second thought...

Yeah, Dan. I'm going to swallow my pride and agree with you...

Maybe we should support Putin v the oligarchs. If only to pick the lesser of two evils, namely the devil we know.

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