Russia and America Not a cold war, but a cold tiff

From The Economist print edition
February 15, 2007

Vladimir Putin’s recent diatribe against America reflects the deeply resentful attitude the former superpower has towards the remaining one

ONE way to understand Russia’s bloody history is to see it as an oscillating tussle between forces bent on emulating the West and those resolved to shun it. For much of the 20th century, the chief object of Russian admiration and revulsion has been the United States—the country that, with its combinations of fissiparous diversity and fierce patriotism, insularity and messianic sense of destiny, Russia arguably most resembles. After the rushed, giddy embrace of American ideas in the 1990s, the anti-Western impulse has again become increasingly conspicuous during the presidency of Vladimir Putin. Judging by his speech at a conference in Munich on February 10th, the ascendancy of this old reflex is now complete.

Addressing Robert Gates, America’s defence secretary, John McCain, a Republican senator, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and other bigwigs, Mr Putin gave a blunt précis of Russian grievances with America. “Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions,” he said, had “caused new human tragedies and created new centres of tension.” The world, Mr Putin added, was witnessing “an almost uncontained hyper use of force”, which was plunging it into “an abyss of permanent conflicts”. Lest anyone mistake him, he specified that “the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way,” exhibiting “a greater and greater disdain” for international law. This was fuelling an arms race and driving some countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

None of this was strictly new: Mr Putin and other Russian officials have made all these points before. But the tone, forum and concentration of his criticism distinguished this outburst. Other denunciations of America have been more periphrastic (“comrade wolf knows who to eat,” Mr Putin said obliquely last year, “and he eats without listening to others”). He probably meant to cause a stir in Munich even before Mr Gates last week listed Russia’s “uncertain path” among America’s military concerns. And he succeeded.

Two questions stand out amid the fury and incredulity that Mr Putin’s speech provoked. First, how did it come to this? After he and George Bush met for the first time, in 2001—when both were greenhorn leaders with questionable mandates—Mr Bush famously said he had looked into his counterpart’s soul, and liked what he saw. Mr Putin’s solidarity after the September 11th terrorist attacks seemed to augur a new era in Russian-American relations. Less than six years on, they seem to have reached a post-Soviet nadir. The second question is, how much deeper might they sink?

In their early enthusiasm for Mr Putin, some diplomats clearly made a classic error in Western thinking about Russian leaders: wishful thinking. What some saw as a strategic choice for partnership with America seems, for the Kremlin, to have been instead a tactical alliance. In return for what the Russians saw as concessions—tolerating America’s military presence in Central Asia; swallowing NATO’s expansion to Russia’s Baltic border—the Russians expected something back. Instead, they feel, there was mounting criticism of their domestic affairs, disdain for their views on Iraq and resistance to the international ambitions of Russian companies.

Mr Putin’s assault, from 2003, on the Yukos oil company and its boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, helped to bring these resentments to the surface. But the most important watershed came in autumn 2004. After the Beslan school massacre, something in Mr Putin seemed to snap; he denounced unnamed foreign powers that, he said, were intent on weakening Russia. Then came the Kremlin’s cack-handed efforts to intervene in Ukraine’s presidential election. The Russians saw their defeat in Ukraine as evidence of perfidious American meddling in Russia’s sphere of influence. For the Americans, the debacle showed that a truth plain in Mr Putin’s domestic policies—that he was not a real democrat—would affect his country’s foreign behaviour too.

Russia’s domestic politics explain Mr Putin’s Munich performance as much as do his foreign frustrations. As the president nears the end of his constitutional term, he is determined—says Fyodor Lukyanov of Russia in Global Affairs, a journal—to prove that on his watch “Russia has returned to the global arena.” The presidential handover in 2008 will be a risky period in the highly personalised system of government Mr Putin has created: the old foreign bogeyman may help.

But the main impact of the big domestic changes under Mr Putin—power corralled in the Kremlin, and an oil-fuelled economic revival—has been to engender a self-confidence unprecedented since Soviet times. Parliament, regional leaders, the media and once-uppity tycoons have all been domesticated (Mr Putin evidently did not see the irony of his complaint in Munich about “a world in which there is one master, one sovereign”). Much of Russia’s foreign debt has been repaid. There is now no reason—no external obligations, no internal constraint—to stop him speaking as he pleases. That was clear at last year’s G8 summit in St Petersburg, when Mr Putin mocked Mr Bush over Iraq, and Tony Blair over a corruption scandal.

Thus emboldened, the Kremlin is now as eager to be feared as liked. It feels it can strong-arm foreign energy companies, and object anew to things which Russia seemed to have accepted, like America’s missile-defence plans. Even while asserting that their own strategic reach will not be diminished, Mr Putin and others have denounced the possible arrival of missile-defence kit in Poland and the Czech Republic. They also feel that the power Russia has recovered has to be demonstrated to be real—and preferably demonstrated to the diminution of America’s. That partly explains Russia’s behaviour in the Middle East, which Mr Putin visited this week, and where he again talked mischievously about setting up a “gas OPEC”. In Munich he aired another telling theory, heard about the Kremlin recently: Russia did not lose the cold war but voluntarily ended it.

These atavistic urges, misunderstandings and, in some cases (such as NATO expansion) legitimately conflicting interests, have created a diplomatic climate in which, when Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent, was murdered in London last year, many people in America and elsewhere found it natural to assume that Mr Putin was the ultimate culprit (an assumption which, in turn, poisoned relations still further). The Munich conference, say some, may become the event that future historians will fix on—like Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946—as the moment when pre-existing tensions became explicit. Both Mr Putin and his defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, encouraged this epochal thinking by talking about a new, if virtual, “Berlin Wall”. Kommersant, a Russian paper, observed that Mr Putin had only lacked a shoe, like the one once banged by Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations.
AP A hard crossing: the land route (via the Bering Strait) from Russia to America

The Fulton analogy goes too far. For all its “petro-arrogance”, as Dmitri Simes of the Nixon Center in Washington, DC, puts it, Mr Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. It has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, which it can use to thwart American policy towards Iran and Kosovo (which may yet provide a pretext for even nastier Russian meddling in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, breakaway regions of Georgia). It has the biggest hydrocarbon reserves in the world, which can be used as “tools of intimidation and blackmail”, as Dick Cheney alleged in an aggressive speech in Vilnius in May 2006, to which Mr Putin’s Munich address was in part a riposte. It has lots of nuclear arms to underpin its self-esteem. But it does not have the conventional forces, nor the economic and ideological resources to compete with America globally as it did in the cold war. Rather than declaring another one, says Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, Mr Putin was staking a claim to be the leader of the global opposition—calculating that Iraq made this a propitious time to announce Russia’s candidacy.

For the Americans, all that is troubling, but less than catastrophic. There are broadly two schools of thought on how to deal with Mr Putin’s Russia, in Congress and within the administration. One wants to confront and even punish the Kremlin, for example by throwing Russia out of the G8; the other, to which Mr Bush mostly seems to belong, wants to remain congenial to enable co-operation in Iran and elsewhere. (In his most emollient Munich passage, Mr Putin recalled their early affinity by calling Mr Bush “my friend” and “a decent man”.) America’s reaction to Russia’s presidential election—set to be more a coronation than a free choice—will be the litmus test of its Russia policy. Yet the bottom line is that Russia looms much smaller in Mr Bush’s mind than vice versa.

But there are two reasons to fear that the relationship is more likely to get worse than recover. One is what is sometimes called the “values gap”. Mr Putin exposed this gap in Munich, when he aired some very Russian neuroses along with his standard critique of American power. He said the OSCE—an international body that has mildly and correctly criticised rigged elections in some ex-Soviet states—was becoming “a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign-policy interests of one or a group of countries.” He again insisted that non-governmental organisations active in Russia but funded from abroad were the tools of foreign governments. In an interview this week with al-Jazeera, Mr Putin made plain the basic conviction underlying these moans: that all American talk about Russia’s democratic failings was so much realpolitik. Critics of Russia’s human-rights record, he said, “are using this kind of demagogy as a means to pursue their own foreign-policy goals in Russia.”

The other worry is that this gap applies not only to Mr Putin and the other ex-KGB types who make up much of his entourage, but to many ordinary Russians too. General Russian attitudes to America are hardening, and suspicion of American motives spreading, even as American-style comforts and living standards become more accessible. Alexei Levinson, a Russian sociologist, says many Russians exhibit a “deep ambivalence” towards America, which has persisted after communism’s collapse.

In fact, admiration and revulsion have always co-existed, albeit in varying proportions: Stalin himself recommended “the combination of Russian revolutionary élan with American efficiency.” In a country whose media is as tamed as Russia’s, public opinion is largely formed by government propaganda. But there is evidence—on the streets, as well as in opinion polls—that the crescent nationalism of Mr Putin’s foreign policy is catering to the Russian mood as much as shaping it.