04.07.2006 | Andrei Piontkovsky

At the window to Europe


The West and Russia are yet again losing one another. This dance of attraction – repulsion has been going on for many centuries, and one could react philosophically to the latest phase of repulsion Historians can count out more than 25 of such cycles beginning in the reign of Ivan III.

In its post-Soviet form Russia has already experienced two such turns. From Kozyryev to Primakov under Yeltsin, and from Putin of 11 September with his immediate reaction of “Americans, we are with you”, to Putin today, asserting that Islamic terrorists in the Caucuses are “simply an instrument in the hands of more experienced, more powerful traditional enemies of Russia hoping to weaken and dismember it”, every couple of months threatening America with special rockets developed by Russian scientists (feeling no qualms at the same time about taking money from that same country to maintaining the safety of the Russian nuclear complex), assiduously squeezing American bases out of Central Asia despite the fact that defeat of NATO in Afghanistan will leave the way here for Islamic terrorists to Russia via Central Asia and the Caucuses.

How is this latest anti-Western shift in the consciousness of the Russian political class and its most prominent mediocrity dangerous?  Firstly, it is taking place for the first time in a situation where the West and Russia are no longer the absolute dominant players on the world stage, as was the case in the XIX-XX centuries. And the West and Russia (especially the latter) have never been so vulnerable and confronted such serious civilization challenges. Never before have Russia and the West so needed each other, and it is today that they can least afford a rift. At the same time, those reasons which have provoked the latest dramatic anti-West turnaround in Russian policy are not mitigated, as was the case more than once, by digging oneself into objective restrictions (or more simply, head against the wall), but quite the contrary, due to specific historical circumstances there is a tendency towards synergetic self-development. There are at least four such reasons.

Firstly, the trauma of defeat in the Cold War, the loss of the empire, and of the status of a superpower, gave rise to a deep and ever lingering psychological complex in the collective unconscious of the Russian political class.  For this class the West has remained a phantom enemy providing meaning, in heroic opposition to which the myths of Russian foreign policy arm themselves and will long continue to do so.

When, in 2001, Putin offered the USA any possible practical assistance in carrying out its operation in Afghanistan, that choice, despite its obvious pragmatism, met with mute displeasure from the majority of the Russian political “elite”.  Sharing all the complexes and prejudices of his class, Putin was guided in the given situation not by emotions, but by cold and rational calculation. The Americans, following their own military and geopolitical aims, along the way solved an important problem for Russia’s security – they eliminated the base of Islamic radicals on our southern rim.

For the first time in our military history, someone else did our dirty work for use – it was normally the other way around. The Afghanistan experience could have become an important lesson in understanding what Russian-American strategic interests in the geopolitical configuration of the XXI century had in common. Unfortunately this did not happen, and the emotions and complexes again triumphed over reason.

Secondly, by Putin’s second term of office gone were the modernizing aspirations of the beginning of his presidency – to carry out structural reforms, to “catch up with Portugal”, “to double GNP”, and so forth. – “Modernization” had turned into a banal re-apportioning of property in favour of the “brigade” of those from the St Petersburg Mayor’s office and the FSB.  Consolidation of this property and of the power it brings demands further “cleanups” of the political scene which are already impossible to justify using demagogic words about “authoritarian modernization”. The image of the West as enemy becomes the only ideological justification for Putin’s model of a corporative state.

Thirdly, the incredible price of oil which fell into the Kremlin’s lap as a result of the Iraq War filled the Kremlin boors with a sense of omnipotence and reinstated “greatness”. “The great energy nation” could already find the once cherished dream of catching up with Portugal comical.  The collective Kremlin old guard, having sniffed enough oil dollars, already has no wish to be an honorary noble in the “G8” – it wants to be sovereign of a Eurasian realm.

There is also another factor, stemming from the inner nature of today’s Russian regime. Those 10-15 people in power in present-day Russia, do not only govern, they effectively own it, first and foremost its oil and gas assets. There is too much in their life today: power, stability of the regime, world influence, and at the end of the day personal fortunes, that is dependent on the number of dollars per barrel of oil.  They will not let themselves remain passive observers of price fluctuations on the oil market. Thus a great deal of Russian policy around Iran can be explained not only by the traditional desire to annoy the Americans, but also by the desire to hold onto high prices for oil.

Fourthly, a series of mistakes and failures of the West, the crisis in trans-Atlantic relations, the rift in the elite in the USA itself, the lack of really substantial leaders, the rising challenge from Islamic extremism no longer just in the Middle and Near East, but also in Europe and even America, all of this creates in a significant percentage of Russian politicians the impression of the West as of a sinking ship which they need to abandon as quickly as possible.  Such motifs can be clearly heard in the “conceptual” articles of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergei Lavrov, with the same thought running through all of them to the effect that “Russia cannot take any side in the unfurling inter-civilization conflicts on a global scale”. This is a memorable and tragic-farcical remake of an utterance by one of Mr Lavrov’s predecessors,  Molotov in September 1939. “The Soviet Union cannot take any side in the unfurling English-French imperialist world war”. The image of the West as a sinking ship, unfortunately, has an element of truth, but only with one modification: Russia is a part of this ship. However much we may flirt with obvious swine, however much we remind them of the USSR’s services in their growth, however much we may provide them with “protection” in the Security Council, in the eyes of Islamic extremists, waging their “sacred” war with the West, Russia remains a part of this “satanic” West, and the most vulnerable part at that, and therefore the most alluring for expansion.

The real relationship of these dregs to Russia was demonstrated by the murder of our diplomats in Iraq.  The most disreputable role in this tragedy was played by our new geopolitical ally and partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Iran. Without concealing their links with terrorists, the Iranian leaders hinted at the possibility of their intervention if Russia asked them nicely. You can just  imagine how those swine will talk with Russia if they get their own nuclear weapons. The Minister who “cannot take any side” when his diplomats are beheaded, that is Russia’s shame. How is it possible to stop Russia’s self-destructive descent no longer into a phantom, but a real confrontation with the West?

Russian society needs broad foreign policy debate, the opportunities for which are becoming fewer and fewer. Such debate is replaced by rabidly anti-Western, and most of all, anti-American hysteria in the mass media. As for the United States itself, up till recently it preferred to pretend that nothing was happening.  For example, quite recently Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice stated that “in the history of Russian and the USA relations have never been so good”. However, at the Vilnius summit in May, Vice President Dick Cheney felt free to make a number off critical comments about the Russian leadership. Cheney concentrated his criticism in the main on the internal political processes in Russian and made several clear and unequivocal comments about the ever more authoritarian nature of Putin’s regime. It doesn’t seem as though tactically this was the best warning message of the long brewing open sorting out of relations between the USA and Russia. Democratic Russia, that is first and foremost a matter for Russians themselves.  Lectures on the subject are psychologically rejected from within Russia even by those who agree with the basic content.  Our great poet made a very apt comment on this subject almost 200 years ago: “Of course I despise our country, from head to toes, however I find it extremely unpleasant when a foreigner share this opinion with me".  It is much more productive to place at the centre of discussions between strategic partners (which the USA and Russia, the West and Russia still are, if one is to believe their joint declarations regularly signed by the Russian President) questions regarding the relations between them based around developing global conflicts, perception of each other as allies, or on the contrary, an awareness of the “impossibility of taking any side”

These questions already needed to be asked two years ago. President Bush was simply obliged to ask at that time: “Volodya, do you really imagine that I send terrorists to kill your children? If this is a misunderstanding and they just got it wrong, explain that, please, to your people. But if you really think that, then what are doing at all together, in the G8, on my Texas ranch, in the White House, in the Kremlin?”   The meeting in St Petersburg will give the leaders of the West and of Russia what may be their last chance to stop pretending and to try to answer each other as openly as possible at this critical moment in world history the questions – who we are, what kind of threats we are facing, who the enemy issuing a challenge is, and who our allies and partners are.

Such an agenda, such a formulation for the questions will assist a long needed foreign policy debate within Russian society. A considerable part of the establishment, entirely loyal to the regime and itself ready to play anti-American games, is following with growing concern both all the new conceptual revelations of Minister Lavrov, and the latest escapes of practical Russian diplomacy.

There is one circumstance that could radically influence both the course of this debate, and the outcome of the entire century-long Russian argument between “westerners” and “Eurasians”. That is the success of Ukraine. Ukraine really does represent a threat, but not to Russia’s security, as the Kremlin propagandists trumpet, but to the relative popularity of Putin’s model of a corporative, authoritarian state showing animosity to the West. The experience of our former communal apartment neighbours, having chosen a different model of development, and first of all Ukraine, must not under any circumstances become an attractive prospect for Russian subjects.

The Baltic Republics don’t count – they were always different. However Ukraine’s success – now that would really spell the doom of Putinism, that pitiful philosophy of the lower ranks of the FSB, crazed from the protection of furniture shops and the carving up of oil companies. The economy of Ukraine needs to be undermine, its political system of parliamentary democracy discredited. Immediately after the summit, Moscow will make all efforts to achieve this noble aim.

If Ukraine stands firm and confirms its ability to survive and the irreversibility of its European civilized choise, this will become a decisive argument issued to the entire century-long debate within Russian culture. The best way of helping Russia today is by helping Ukraine.

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