The Russian Mind Today: A Geopolitical Guide

Discussion in 'Europe and Russia' started by A.V., Jan 9, 2011.

  1. A.V.

    A.V. New Member

    Feb 16, 2009
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    Moscow, russia
    During my 60-plus trips to Russia over the last 20 years, I've noticed how Russian attitudes toward the U.S. -- once relatively friendly -- have evolved. Today, dislike -- even hatred -- of America leads some Russian national security officials to believe that if you are an enemy of the U.S. (e.g., Venezuela, Iran), you must be a friend of Russia. Most are not so dogmatic, but they also are not America's friends. Their philosophical embrace of something akin to Mussolini's corporate state, plus their ambitions for increased influence in, or annexation of, former Soviet territory, practically ensures they will hold negative feelings about the American government. After all, we believe in an open society and the independence and sanctity of borders of the former Soviet states.
    Russia's antipathy toward the U.S. is mitigated only by its opportunism. When it suits Russian strategic interests, Moscow will cooperate with the U.S. -- over Afghanistan, say, or securing loose nuclear materials. Conversely, Moscow certainly will not hesitate to cause problems for the U.S., whether through sleeper agents or in its dealings with Iran or Venezuela. Russia's dominant geopolitical idea, then, is neither friends nor enemies -- only interests. Yet despite this openly opportunistic approach, Russia has been getting what it wants from the Obama regime.
    For instance, Barack Obama canceled George Bush's planned missile defense deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, thus devaluating American promises worldwide (regardless of the military merits of the move). The Obama administration's current plans to deploy a less robust missile defense system have not lessened the fear of American unreliability. Furthermore, Obama made the START agreement, which has formal language favorable to the Russians, even more attractive by pledging to restrict the development of American missile defense programs. And under the Obama regime, America has disheartened its friends in Ukraine, Georgia, and other parts of the former USSR with increasingly passive behavior in Russia's "Near Abroad." For instance, Obama reversed the Bush administration's suspension of nuclear cooperation with Moscow in protest against Russian actions during and after the 2008 Georgian/Russian war. This reversal is viewed by many as "letting Russia off the hook" and a harbinger of things to come.
    All of these concessions occurred without a substantial change in Russian behavior. Of course, that may come, in which case the Obama team's defenders will have a case to make. If not, however, the Obama administration will increasingly be judged as incompetent. In any case, Obama's policies have made him very popular among Russia's ruling class. This lovefest is likely to continue, with the only question being who will be the main Russian interlocutor for this popular American president.
    Relations between the camps of Russian p resident Dmitri Medvedev and his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, are increasingly contentious. Medvedev has been irked by Putin's activity in national security areas that are the province of the president. Further, in addition to the usual competition for power, there are significant domestic policy differences between the Putin and Medvedev camps, which now consider themselves rivals.
    The Medvedev camp lacks the raw political power of the Putin camp, whose loyal KGB colleagues control Russia's most important positions and have already registered websites for Putin 2012. What then is the basis for serious Russians saying that Medvedev has any chance to fully grasp the reins of power?
    The answer is "kompromat," the Russian word used to describe secret evidence proving misconduct. If the Putin/Medvedev battle becomes serious, look for shocking public revelations of Putin misdeeds -- evidence that would make the continuation of his public role a problem for those whose collective support is necessary for anyone who wishes to lead Russia. This battle, however, may not happen as the personal relationship between Putin and Medvedev is not beyond repair. Additionally, key players in both camps have an interest in preserving some version of the status quo -- namely, not igniting a risky power struggle that could jeopardize ownership of private property questionably accumulated by many top supporters of both Putin and Medvedev.
    Russia's domestic policy would likely move in a more "free market" direction should Medvedev consolidate his power, with Putin fading from the stage. What difference would a Medvedev-directed national security policy make? It is impossible to know, but perhaps not very much. Whether it's Medvedev or Putin in charge, Russia will grapple with serious problems that will test the Kremlin's relationship with the U.S. Here is a guide to some of the key trouble zones.
    The Muslim Population
    Russia's problems with its Muslim population are not new. It suffered enormous casualties (estimates range as high as 500,000) bringing the Caucasus under control during the 1834-1859 Murid Wars -- wars in which no quarter was given. Russia's last two Chechen wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2000) and subsequent guerrilla and terrorist activities have also been gruesome. On numerous occasions, Chechens tortured Russian prisoners and sent videotapes of the torture sessions to Moscow, in addition to launching separate terror attacks on Russian theater patrons and schoolchildren. And the Russians' leveling of Chechen cities and treatment of their prisoners was conducted in the same vein. This brutality, designed in part to dissuade other Caucasus clans from a similar rebellion, has not stopped increasingly Islamicized and foreign-funded elements in the Caucasus from seeking a broader insurrection. In fact, anti-Russian terrorism increased in 2009, with more than 100 bombings killing 263 people in Dagestan (population 2.4 million) and 319 in Ingushetia (population 460,000).
    The increased foreign funding and training of terrorists in Russia motivates Moscow's support for sharing intelligence on terrorist and Islamist activity with the U.S. Because Russian officials fear that homegrown Muslim extremism will be a long-term and growing problem for them, their appetite for a common approach with the West will not fade soon.
    The Near Abroad
    Of course, Russia's problems extend beyond its borders, and no countries are more important than those of Russia's "Near Abroad" -- the now independent countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Russia wishes to be the dominant foreign power in these areas. That means reducing the West's influence. Apart from negotiating a reduction in Western activity and influence in these countries, Russia's national security establishment believes that if they can exacerbate U.S. problems in other parts of the world, Washington will have less desire and capability to interfere in Russia's Near Abroad. They are constrained, however, by the need for American cooperation in areas where U.S. and Russian interests overlap (e.g., our sharing of intelligence on terrorist activity). These conflicting policy goals play out in different parts of Russia's Near Abroad.
    Belarus: The Putin inner circle would like to unite Belarus and Russia. In spite of early signs to the contrary, Belarussian dictator Lukashenko has blocked all serious attempts to do so, as he prefers being head of a sovereign state to being an expendable governor of the expanded state. This opposition and the bad personal chemistry between Lukashenko and Putin have aggravated relations between Belarus and Russia. These relations were further damaged when Belarus recently granted asylum to ousted Kyrgyz leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
    When I asked why Putin did not simply use covert means to push Lukashenko aside and annex Belarus, senior Russian figures told me that Belarus's KGB are of a Soviet-era mentality and more effective than the current crop of intelligence officials running Russia. This led me to believe that Russia is making efforts to topple Lukashenko. In spite of a growing Belarussian nationalism, time is on Russia's side as its Nord Stream pipeline, due to begin operation in 2012, will permit Russia to meet its contracts in Western Europe without using the pipelines that currently go through Belarus. In this case Russia could end the heavily subsidized delivery of gas to Belarus, forcing it to buy at market prices -- or even higher. This would be disastrous for the already weak Belarus economy. As a result, those in Minsk who favor accommodation with Russia may gain sway.

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