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To Russia with Realism

The White House senselessly risks a new Cold War.

By Anatol Lieven

03/28/07 "American Conservative" -- -- -As if the U.S. did not have enough on its plate, the latest strongly anti-American statements of President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials suggest the possibility of a new Cold War with Russia. And from the Russian point of view, these statements are only responding to a series of bitterly anti-Russian statements and actions by the Bush administration over the past year, including plans to bring Ukraine into NATO; the speech by Vice President Cheney in Vilnius last July attacking Russia; backing for Georgia in its conflict with Russian-backed breakaway republics; and the latest move to extend American anti-missile defenses to Eastern Europe.

At best, deep mutual hostility be-tween the U.S. and Russia represents a serious distraction from America’s infinitely more important and urgent problems elsewhere, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the rise of China, and the deterioration of U.S. influence in Latin America. At worst, this tension could lead to Russia arming Iran, joining global energy cartels to put pressure on the West, and inflicting on Washington geopolitical humiliation on the territory of the former Soviet Union. This would occur if the U.S. agreed to defend Ukraine and Georgia as part of NATO and then proved unwilling or unable to defend them when Russia attacked.

For while Russia cannot remotely match America’s global power, we should remember the key lesson of Iraq: all real power—that is, power that can be applied to a particular place and issue—is in the end, local. Russia may no longer be a global superpower, but it is certainly a great power when it comes to Ukraine, Belarus, and the Caucasus.

And in contrast to the launching of the Cold War, for the U.S. to take these risks is not remotely justified by vital American interests. In the late 1940s, the Soviet Union was the heartland of a revolutionary ideology that threatened to suppress free-market democracy, freedom, and religion across the world and, by dominating Western Europe and East Asia and fomenting revolution in Latin America, to pin the U.S. within its own borders, surround it, and eventually stifle it.

Today’s Russia is like many U.S. allies past and present: a corrupt, state-influenced market economy with a partly democratic, partly authoritarian system. Russia has no global agenda of ideological or geopolitical domination but mainly wants to exert predominant influence (but not imperial control) within the territory of the former Soviet Union and the centuries-old Russian empire. Moves by the state to dominate the oil and gas sector are unwelcome to Americans but entirely in line with world practice outside the U.S. and U.K. Russian corruption is extremely serious, but on the other hand, the fiscal restraint of the Putin administration holds lessons for the present U.S. administration, not the other way around. Like India, Turkey, and many other democratic states, Russia has used brutal means to suppress a separatist rebellion.

Like Turkey for several decades when it was a member of NATO, Russia combines an increasingly independent judiciary and respect for the rule of law with selective repression (both formal and covert) against individuals seen as threats to the state or the ruling elite. The media scene is rather like India until the 1980s—a combination of state domination of television with a free and vocal, but much less influential, print media.

Above all, when it comes to the main lines of its foreign and domestic policy, the Putin administration has the support of the vast majority of ordinary Russians, while the Russian pro-Western liberals we choose to call “democrats” are supported by a tiny minority—mostly because of their association with the disastrous “reforms” of the 1990s. Thus, far from rallying democratic support in Russia, American attacks on Putin in the name of democracy only foment the anger of ordinary Russians against the United States. It does not help when criticism of Russia’s record on democracy and freedom comes from that notorious defender of human rights Dick Cheney or when these statements are immediately followed by warm and public American embraces of even more notorious ex-Soviet democrats like President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.

Russia today is by no means a pretty picture, but to compare it in terms of repression and state control with the Soviet Union—or indeed with contemporary China—is grotesque. We should remember that as late as the summer of 1989, a Soviet leader who envisioned Russia as it now exists would have been received with incredulous joy by the West as representing a future beyond our most optimistic dreams. And at that time a Western policymaker who advocated such megalomaniacal, horribly dangerous projects as drawing Ukraine and Georgia into an anti-Russian military alliance, and taking responsibility for their security, would have been regarded as completely insane.

On two recent occasions, I have assumed that U.S. hostility to Russia, and anti-Russian U.S. geopolitical agendas, would largely evaporate. The first time was immediately after 9/11, when the extent of the murderous threat of Islamist extremism to the U.S. was fully revealed. It seemed self-evident that the American political elites would automatically reconsider their attitude toward Russia. After all, since the end of the Cold War, Russia had not been responsible for the death of a single American or threatened a single truly vital American interest and had itself suffered terribly from Islamist terrorism.

The second time was in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as the extent of the debacle there, and of America’s military overstretch, became fully apparent. Once again, it seemed that U.S. policymakers would instinctively wish to reduce their military commitments accordingly or at the very least not seek to undertake any new ones—especially given the rise of Chinese military power, and the threat to Taiwan, in the Far East.

As we know, things have not turned out that way. Instead, hostility to Russia in the Bush administration, both parties in Congress, and the American media has only grown. So too have American ambitions vis--vis Russia. Last year, the administration, with the full support of the Democrats, was pushing an offer of a NATO membership action plan for Ukraine at NATO’s summit in Riga, in the face of private Russian threats of drastic retaliation including a massive program of arming Iran against the U.S.

The case of Ukraine and NATO is worth considering as a prime example of the deep irrationality affecting U.S. policy in the former Soviet Union. For it is not just a question of Ukrainian NATO membership infuriating Russia, real though that threat is—and understandable. After all, the Russians have lost far more men fighting in Ukraine in various wars than have died in all of America’s wars put together, and the Russian flag was flying over the naval port of Sevastopol before the United States was even created. Even more important are two more facts almost never mentioned in the American debate on this subject—if one can call it a debate. The first is that according to every reliable opinion poll, the great majority of Ukrainians do not even want NATO membership. They are convinced that far from bringing Ukraine greater security, inclusion in the alliance would lead to fierce internal divisions and potentially even split up their country, as well as vastly increase the threat from Russia.

Leaving aside the deep historical and cultural ties between much of Ukraine and Russia, Ukrainians are well aware of how economically dependent their country is on Russia and how little by comparison the West has done to help them. Until it was reduced at the start of 2006, Russia’s annual gas subsidy to Ukraine was worth more than four times as much (between $3 and $5 billion dollars) as the whole of U.S. aid to Ukraine in the five years since 2000 (less than $800 million). Millions of Ukrainians work legally in Russia and send their families remittances, which contribute immensely to the Ukrainian economy. By contrast, only a handful of Ukrainians receive work visas for the U.S. and the European Union.

The second fact is that if Ukraine does become a member of NATO, the U.S. cannot defend it. Given American commitments in the Middle East, where is Washington to find another army with which to defend Ukraine? Would any American administration be prepared to re-introduce the draft in order to defend Ukraine? If it did, would any Congress agree? And even if one can imagine this happening in some parallel geopolitical universe, is there any chance that American troops would be used to shoot demonstrators in eastern and southern Ukraine calling for their regions to break away from Ukraine in order to remain allied with Russia?

This entire plan for Ukrainian NATO membership violates one of the most fundamental rules of strategy: never make an important, visible commitment that you already know you will not be able to keep in a crisis but from which you cannot withdraw without terrible humiliation. Above all, don’t do this if your move is actually going to increase the threat of crisis. To make false promises of this kind is not only deeply reckless, it is also deeply unethical.

The Bush administration knew that if it had offered to suspend the extension of NATO membership, Russia would in return have become much more helpful in stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Yet it was not opposition in Washington that led to the Ukrainian “Membership Action Plan” being shelved last year, for there was almost none. Only the collapse of the pro-Western “Orange” coalition that took power in Ukraine in 2004, and the return to the premiership of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, led to this project being suspended. As a result, the U.S. has infuriated Russia while gaining precisely nothing from the whole business.

All this was well known to experts on the former Soviet Union and to many American officials, and many of them were willing to admit as much in private. Why then did they not speak out against it? Why was there almost no public opposition to further NATO expansion in Washington?

The behavior of America’s political and media elites with regard to Russia shows some of the same mixture of fanaticism and cowardice that afflicts the U.S. “debate” on the Middle East. Powerful elements are obsessed with particular loyalties and hatreds. Others, with no particular axes to grind but passionately concerned with their own careers, are cowed into silence by the prevailing atmosphere.

This combination was seen in last year’s Council on Foreign Relations report on Russia, several of whose signatories would almost certainly not have put their names on this arrogant and insulting document if they had not felt intimidated by their superiors and the general Beltway mood. In the case of the non-debate on NATO membership of Ukraine, once the leaders of both the Republicans and Democrats had committed themselves to this, no Washington expert who hoped for a job in the next administration—i.e. most of them —was going to raise his or her voice in protest. This is the way that most of the Washington think-tank world works.

This leads to the question of why the general U.S. mood toward Russia is so bad, especially when contrasted with attitudes toward China, a much more authoritarian state and a much more threatening future rival. Part of the reason is obviously the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union—not Russia, but too many people in the West never made the distinction—was the principal enemy. Out of the Cold War came the particular influence in Washington of Polish, Baltic, and West Ukrainian lobbies, with ethnic hatreds of Russia that long predate their countries’ subjection to Soviet Communism. And unlike the case of China, the influence of these lobbies is not balanced by a powerful business and financial lobby with massive investments in Russia and therefore a major stake in good relations between Russia and the U.S.

Finally, there seems to be a particular hatred of Russia on the part of many members of the Washington elite because long before the Iraq disaster, Russia “betrayed the magic,” the set of beliefs forming the ideological basis of America’s global empire since the end of the Cold War and used to justify the costs of that empire to the U.S. public. Put starkly, “the magic” is a completely irrational set of assumptions, at the center of which is the idea that America represents and leads the spread of Freedom and Democracy around the world and that nascent democracies will automatically follow its lead both politically and economically, if necessary sacrificing their own national interests in the process. It only seemed for a while to have some empirical basis because this mixture did work in former Communist Eastern Europe. But that of course was only because nationalism in these countries was utterly committed to escaping the hated domination of Moscow and because the European Union did the heavy lifting in terms of economic aid and institutional transformation. This mixture does not work anywhere else—not in Latin America, not in the Muslim world, and most probably not in China.

In all these places, growing democracy is associated with growing nationalism (or, in Muslim countries, a mixture of this with religious radicalism) and therefore with hostility to the United States. In the case of Russia, it was always quite crazy to think that the Russian public would willingly accept the replacement of Russia by the U.S. as the predominant power in the former Soviet Union, any more than the American public would ever accept the loss of predominant influence in Central America and the Caribbean.

The reaction of Russian society against this American ambition was all the more fierce because radical free-market economic change in the 1990s proved utterly disastrous for ordinary Russians, plunging tens of millions into deep poverty and driving millions to an early death. Ordinary Russians’ association of these changes with Western influence was not wholly fair, as the most rapacious and ruthless aspects of the process were the work of the new Russian elites themselves. Nonetheless, the elites justified their actions in the name of “westernization,” and the proceeds of Russia’s 1990s kleptocracy were to a great extent transferred to Western bank accounts, Western real estate, and Western luxury goods. So the hostile reaction of ordinary Russians is also quite understandable.

In fact, we should be very glad that the Putin administration is as pragmatic as it is in its international policy and as relatively law-abiding at home. During the 1990s, given what was happening to both Russian living standards and Russian national power and prestige, I and many other Western observers in Russia feared an eruption of outright fascism, with catastrophic results for Russia and the world.

This is one reason that present U.S. attacks on the Putin administration are so over the top. The other is that the post-Cold war era should have begun with a presumption of Russia’s innocence on the part of the West. After all, two years before it collapsed the Soviet Union had already withdrawn peacefully from Eastern Europe on the informal promise that these countries would not be incorporated into NATO. This withdrawal removed the original casus belli of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, which began not because of anything that the Soviet state was doing within its own borders but because of its domination of European states beyond its borders in ways that were clearly menacing to Western Europe and vital American interests there.

Moreover, all the repressions and conflicts that accompanied and followed the fall of the Soviet Union put together pale next to those that attended the end of the French and British empires, both of them ruled at the time by Western democracies. One forgotten French campaign in Madagascar alone was estimated by the French military to have cost 89,000 dead, the vast majority civilians. The British suppression of a minor rebellion in Kenya may have cost up to 100,000 lives according to two recent British studies.

Millions more died in Indochina, Algeria, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent as a result of colonial wars or post-colonial civil wars and ethnic cleansing. And with the exception of Algeria, the British and French wars to preserve their empires, like the U.S. wars in the Muslim world today, took place thousands of miles from the shores of Britain and France. The Chechen wars have taken place on Russia’s own sovereign territory. The valid parallel is not Iraq but past U.S. campaigns against the Native Americans in North America itself.

Before the Soviet Union collapsed, most Western observers confidently predicted that the Soviet establishment and the Russian people would fight to the death rather than allow Ukraine and other areas to become independent. Nothing of the sort occurred. In Kazakhstan, more than 10 million Russians were incorporated in the independent state of Kazakhstan without a single act of violent protest or armed intervention by Moscow.

But instead of this leading to Russia beginning the post-Cold War period with a presumption of innocence in the West, from the day that the Soviet Union collapsed—and while Soviet troops were still withdrawing from eastern Europe and the Baltic states—prominent voices in the West simply continued previous rhetorical lines about how both the former Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia embodied permanent Russian drives toward empire and aggression.

Thus George Will declared in 1996, “Expansionism is in the Russians’ DNA,” and Peter Rodman stated in 1994, “The only potential great-power security problem in Central Europe is the lengthening shadow of Russian strength, and NATO has the job of counter-balancing it. Russia is a force of nature; all this is inevitable.” This was despite the fact that since the end of the Soviet Union no leading Russian figure, with the exception of the clownish Zhirinovsky, had expressed the slightest desire to dominate Central Europeans. On the contrary, the overwhelming sentiment in Russia was that past attempts to do so had been a dreadful mistake.

As Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest, has acutely pointed out, a critical problem in relations between Russia and the U.S. since the fall of the Soviet Union has been that Americans have interpreted that collapse, and the Russian withdrawal from empire, as a straight Russian defeat and U.S. victory akin to the American victory over Germany and Japan in 1945. Russians, on the other hand, have always seen it as a deal in which they gave up enormous territories and influence in return for promises of Western partnership and massive economic assistance, neither of which was forthcoming.

In the eyes of Russians, their withdrawal from anti-American strategies in Central America, Africa, and elsewhere was predicated on an assumption that the U.S. and its allies would not seek to destroy their interests in the former Soviet Union. As a former Soviet officer once put it to me, “If we had known what you had in store for us, do you really think that we would have let the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc fall to pieces in the way that they did? We would have fought to the death to hold on to them, and you would have had another world war on your hands.” Present U.S.-Russian hostility won’t result in a world war, but the consequences could still be bad enough, especially when it comes to American interests—and American lives—in the Middle East.

The U.S. political establishment therefore needs to do two things when it comes to formulating policy toward Russia. The first is to remove emotional attitudes deriving from the Cold War and instead approach Russia in the same spirit of pragmatism that the U.S. addresses China. The second is to think hard and clearly about what are truly America’s most important interests with regard to Russia and what are secondary or minor interests.

A truly objective analysis along these lines would lead to an identification of the following four vital American interests vis--vis Russia, the ones to which the U.S. would devote real effort.

First, to keep Russian weapons and materials of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists and to persuade Russia to prevent potentially dangerous countries like Iran from acquiring such weapons. This means, among other things, much stronger support and funding for the Nunn-Lugar program, designed to enhance the security of Russian nuclear, chemical, and biological sites.

Second, together with Russia, to help prevent Islamist revolution and the creation of safe havens for Islamist terrorists in the Muslim regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Third, to preserve reasonably open international access to the energy reserves of Central Asia and the Caucasus. This requires not just new pipelines but also improved relations with both Russia and Iran.

Fourth, to prevent any outbreak of major new conflict within or between states in the region, with all the suffering that this would involve for the peoples concerned and all the disruptive effects this would have on the world economy and on international stability. This means the U.S. strongly opposing any Russian military intervention in Ukraine and Georgia but also refraining from trying to draw them into an anti-Russian military bloc, as both these moves are likely to lead to regional conflict.

In other words, the U.S. needs to develop a strategy toward Russia tailored to real American interests and real American strength. Surely the country that produced George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Dwight Eisenhower must still be capable, somewhere in its being, of this kind of strategic wisdom?  

Anatol Lieven is co-author, with John Hulsman, of Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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