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Respecting Russia vs. Loving Russia

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One of the oldest tricks in the authoritarian playbook is the subtle theft of the people’s sovereignty, grafting the rights of citizens onto a regime of personal power. Cuba’s Fidel Castro was and is the grandmaster of this tactic – firmly uniting himself, his name, his family, and his Revolution, and the country.  If you go against Fidel, this means you are going against the Revolution and against the national interests.  It’s all inseparable, you see?  There’s no shortage of contemporary examples, ranging from the rhetorical artistry of Hugo Chavez to the skillful disaggregation of African opposition by Robert Mugabe.

It’s the same in Russia.  Whenever someone criticizes Vladimir Putin, the party, the siloviki, or government policy, this individual is instantly cast as a deranged “anti-Russian” whose hate and fear of the entire Russian people has led him/her to assume their opinion.  From my recent trips to Washington DC, I regret to report that the high amount of pro-Putin puffery I heard indicates that the trend is being rapidly exported across the Atlantic.  It is the realists that have latched onto this same idea, except for them all we ever hear about is “respecting Russia.”  But whom exactly, I think we should ask, are we really “respecting” when we listen to the realists?


Take for example the recent arguments of the accomplished and respected Mr. Dmitri Simes of the Nixon Center, who would probably not disagree with the realist title.  From his earliest writings on post-Yeltsin Russia right up to his most very recent articles in the Los Angeles Times and the National Interest, Simes and colleagues have centered their arguments on the need to “respect” Russia.  While few would dispute the importance of respect and consideration in diplomacy, exactly what or who we are supposed to respect is often not discussed.

Just tonight I read an opinion article in the New York Times by E. Wayne Merry of the American Foreign Policy Council (another right-leaning outfit), whose writing even contained some tones of stridency usually seen from the nationalist media outlets in Russia:  “Washington regarded Russia as a loser and treated it as such. It forgotthat Russia would not be weak forever, and would remember.”  It’s just that simple and neat.

In the eyes of both Simes and Merry, Washington sure has a lot of apologies to make toward Moscow (one of Obama’s strengths, argues Gideon Rachman).  That may be true in part, and furthermore what makes the debate over Washington’s foreign policy toward Russia so difficult is that there often numerous intelligent, insightful, and compelling arguments contained within the realist canon.  But driven by this fundamental narrative of “respecting” Russia, the whole proposal is fraught with dishonesty.

What exactly is so respectful about instrumentalizing a country and its people to achieve specific political objectives?  The falsehood is exposed when we consider that these same voices that scream “Respect Russia,” which are growing quickly in number in Washington, fall completely silent when it comes to “embracing” Russia, integrating her into the global economy and international community, and supporting the sovereignty of her people, not just the predilections of a handful of its current leaders. 

Realism has some big flaws on Russia.  For one, there is the assumption of monolithic leadership, rather than the fractured clans which tug and pull at different moments with different agendas.  What kind of respect will Simes and Merry have for the courageous and influential Igor Yurgens, a senior adviser to Dmitry Medvedev and the head of Russia’s most important think tank, who this week identified the concentration of power in the executive as the greatest risk to Russia’s future?  Add to this the comments this week of the emminently respected Mikhail Gorbarchev, who strongly denounced the state’s rollback on democracy and the sham that is sovereign democracy.  Does respecting Russia mean ignoring the reformers?

The realists also appear to be nearly blind on all the critical issues they claim Russia will help with as soon as it is given its “respect.”  With Iran, there is very little recognition of the strategic importance of confrontation and economic embargo.  The current leadership would go a very long way to ensure that Iran does not and cannot emerge as a natural gas competitor, which would instantly shatter much of Gazprom’s pipeline diplomacy leverage.  With Afghanistan, the realists rarely mention the closing of the Manas air base, or other efforts to thwart essentially any U.S. foreign policy aim – even when NATO is performing the job of protecting Russia’s national security.  The answer, they say, is that Central Asia must be ceded as a sphere of influence to Russian domination, no matter what these sovereign governments may prefer.  If Washington were to apply the same doctrine to Russian and Chinese activities in Latin America, it would be viewed as completely unacceptable.

The interest-over-values approach is in essence very disrespectful.  I would go so far as to argue that it is those of us who firmly believe in the creation of a true law-based relationship are the real pro-Russians, while the ever-respectful realists remain only focused on the transitory American interests of the moment.  This false narrative of respect is just an attempt to trick the Russian leadership into giving Washington what it wants at the cost of the people.  This operation of American foreign policy toward Russia solely on the basis of the transitory interests has been thoroughly bankrupted by the recent crisis of confidence in global capitalism, and now more than ever, it should be clear to the Administration that we have a great need for real institutional growth and development.  For the people of Russia and the people of the United States to forge a fruitful relationship in the future, an agreement on values and expectation cannot be subtracted from the equation.

While I recognize that the “respect Russia” trope is all the rage in Washington, I’ll stick with loving Russia.