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Lipman: Russia Capitalizing on Divisions

masha_lipman012108.jpgMasha Lipman, ever the interesting voice on Russia affairs, has a new column running in the Washington Post about the British Council affair: “Putin’s foreign policy may be aimed at capitalizing on divisions among Western countries. Thus many interpreted his belligerent speech in Munich last February as an attempt to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States. But it appears that there’s more cohesion today among the Western countries vis-a-vis Russia. After the recent attacks, the European Union presidency said that “the E.U. deeply regrets . . . the harassment of British Council staff, as well as the administrative and other measures announced by the Russian authorities.” France offered its own backing. Taking on Britain may have serious consequences for Russia, certainly more serious than does bullying Georgia. Consider also the domestic perspective on this row. Angry assertions of Russia’s global standing dovetail with Soviet-style isolationism, which breeds suspicion about Western values and influence. The Kremlin is increasingly wary of autonomous groups, especially those that receive Western financial backing. After Putin’s notorious 2004 reference to such organizations — “they don’t bite the hand that feeds them” — nongovernmental and human rights organizations receiving foreign grants have been consistently discredited. Harassment of such groups is growing. In Soviet times, anti-Western propaganda was an element of the totalitarian state, with its sealed borders and rigid ideology aimed at defeating capitalism. In today’s Russia, a nation with free trade and free travel, where cable television and Internet access are unrestricted, such policies appear irrational and anachronistic.