This weekend a small comment I had prepared some time ago appeared alongside many other Russia commentators as part of an online roundtable organized by the Center for International Relations entitled “Russia’s Relations with the West: A New Cold War?” It was a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate, which as you will see below is exceptionally diverse in opinion and perspective. Here are links to the other commentators, and below is my entry. Dr Dale Herspring, Kansas State University: “On the Russian side, I would place my money (if I had any) on Sergei Ivanov. Should he succeed Putin, I think he will be very much like the current President – indeed, that will be one of the major reasons for his selection. The fact that both are trying to put U.S. relations on a stable, upward path made it a success.” Andrei Piontkovsky, Hudson Institute: “So why is there so much hysteria coming out of Moscow, shrieking about an imminent attack on Russia, and threats to retarget nuclear missiles at Europe? First and foremost, it is part of an overall anti-Western propaganda campaign conducted with incredible intensity in Russia for several years now. The corrupt regime of billionaire bureaucrats in the Kremlin relies absolutely on presenting the West as a deadly foe of Russia. This is their sole means of justifying and legitimating their authoritarian regime in the eyes of Russian society.” Walter C. Clemens, Jr., Boston University: “Sick of chaos and worsening living standards in the 1990s, many Russians welcomed an Iron Fist. Fortunately for Putin, rising oil and gas prices helped him raise incomes for many Russians. As Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor observed, many people prefer bread to freedom.” Peter Rutland, Wesleyan University: “Against this backdrop, it is easy for the media or for special interests to inflate specific disagreements into major crises. In an uncertain world, it is tempting to fall back into the certainties of a bygone era, such as the idea of a “Cold War.” It is equally anachronistic to portray Russia’s actions (or for that matter the actions of the United States) as part of a master plan for “empire.”” Ognian Hishow, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik: “With respect to Putin’s talk of a new Cold War Western governments should bear in mind Moscow is more dependent on the West than vice versa. Given the long-term path of development of that country, its financial and technological potential barely will increase sufficiently.” Yuri Mamchur, Discovery Institute: “What Western governments don’t understand is that personal attacks against Mr. Putin or his successor will not win them more cooperation from Russia.” And below is my contribution:
In the past few months, tensions have rapidly accumulated between Russia and the West. Numerous inconvenient truths have become exceedingly difficult to ignore, leaving many policymakers staggering about without a coherent response. Europe and the United States were shocked by the callous response of the Russian authorities to the apparent contract killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. They looked on in amazement as foreign NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were forced to shut down operations. And they watched with horror as the state’s ultra-nationalist tilt took another step toward xenophobia with the forced deportations of Georgians and a series of other restrictions on trade and remittances to former satellite states. Then, the reaction was one of disbelief mixed with fear when Moscow threatened to target nuclear missiles at Europe in response to the threat it perceived from plans to install a European-based missile defense shield against Iran or other rogue states. Perhaps paralyzed by surprise and indignation, or possibly distracted by multi-billion dollar energy deals on the line, the West has so far failed to connect the dots linking these events with Russia’s belligerent foreign policy adventurism and its tightening grip on domestic civil and economic freedoms. While Europe and the United States dither in this unfamiliar territory, Russia is undergoing a new, organized revolution, politically morphing into a Brezhnevian Bureautocracy singularly driven by siloviki centralism – a cabal within the Kremlin made up of former intelligence and military operatives. One of the first people to recognize the rise of this siloviki centralism was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of Yukos and currently Russia’s most well-known political prisoner. Khodorkovsky is chiefly being punished for his politics – for having envisioned a new, open and democratic Russia with close links to the West and a vibrant civil society. His support of opposition parties and pro-democracy organizations was perceived as a threat by the Kremlin, and resulted in a persecution campaign which conveniently served as a cover for the seizure of his company’s energy assets. As Russia’s first “energy hostage,” the symbolic importance of Khodorkovsky cannot be overstated. He represents not only the Kremlin’s intolerance for political competition and freedom of speech, but also reveals to the world the administration’s grand strategy of seizing control over energy by any means necessary, and using gas and oil to project Russian power abroad. Although willfully overlooked by the West as a one-off aberration, the Kremlin’s infamous theft of Yukos is starting to look like a standard operating procedure, deployed time and time again with increasing assertiveness against both Russian and foreign companies. The Kremlin similarly bullies its neighbor states, with a baldly deployed mix of coercion and blackmail. Despite these discouraging developments, a surprising number of world leaders continue to pander to Russia. They are undersigning the country’s democratic backslide in exchange for preferential energy deals for their national champions. These apologists have bought into the myth that the country is a victim – a victim of Western paranoia, scare mongering, and intolerance for a strong Russia. There is nothing innocuous about the objectives and aims of the New Russian Revolution. The Kremlin has embraced a dangerously volatile economic and political nationalism driven by a core element of imperial nostalgia – the state is essentially selling its citizens the possibility of Soviet-like power and influence matched by the economic benefits of globalization. In pursuit of this new empire, Russia is quietly and rapidly building an alliance of “resource autocrats” from Iran to Algeria to Venezuela. Moscow is using the energy weapon to force a status of exceptionalism, breaking away from international rules and norms. Through the pipelines and aboard tankers the Kremlin is essentially exporting the gulag, making more and more Westerners join Khodorkovsky as energy hostages, subject to the fickle whims of Cold War-trained spooks. A strong Russia is a necessary component of global stability, and the Russians should have the right to sit at any global table as equals, bound by international law. Engagement and dialogue are critical to the East-West partnership, but must take place within a constructive framework – not the crass and weak-kneed flea market bartering that currently characterizes the Western orientation toward Russia. It’s time for the West to summon up the political will to get tough with Russia. Action is needed urgently, especially as Asian demand grows and offsets Russia’s reliance on Western markets. If we continue with the status quo, the West may soon be facing troubles on an even more serious scale, with a wealthy and hubristic post-Putin regime that is even less committed to prolonging any appearances of democracy and a market economy. The New Russian Revolution doesn’t have to pit itself against the West, but left to their own devices, its instigators may well steer this movement down the wrong path.