Time for a sec­ond look at Putin’s Rus­sia

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - AR­NAUD DE BORCH­GRAVE

It’s no longer po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect to be skep­ti­cal about Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia. In fact, said a lead­ing Euro­pean ex­pert on Rus­sia, speak­ing pri­vately in Wash­ing­ton, “Rus­sia is a far dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal con­struct than the one we Euro­peans thought we were deal­ing with for the past five years.” The author­ity’s other con­clu­sions: Parts of Rus­sia are still stuck in mid-19th cen­tury while other parts of the econ­omy are al­ready glob­al­ized. Noth­ing in­di­cates Rus­sia’s new nomen­klatura wishes to em­u­late the po­lit­i­cal democ­ra­cies of the rest of Europe. Af­ter the Cold War, it was a “huge mis­take” to as­sume oth­er­wise. Be­sides, no democ­racy is pos­si­ble with­out a vi­brant mid­dle class, and Rus­sia is yet to de­velop one, let alone a sat­is­fied strata in the mid­dle be­tween ex­treme wealth and ex­treme poverty.

The 1990s, fol­low­ing the fall of com­mu­nism and im­plo­sion of the Soviet Union, was a grad­ual de­scent into an­ar­chy, not the fast as­cent to mar­ket eco­nomics and demo­cratic cap­i­tal­ism per­ceived by many ex­perts in the West. It was a so­ci­ety in ru­ins go­ing through dis­as­trous times. The be­nign view that Rus­sia’s rob­ber barons were the mod­ern coun­ter­part of Amer­ica’s 19th-cen­tury rob­ber barons was a case of ter­mi­nal naivete.

Rus­sia’s new oli­garchs plun­dered the coun­try, si­phon­ing out an es­ti­mated $220 bil­lion, which went into ev­ery­thing from French Riviera man­sions to num­bered ac­counts in the world’s prin­ci­pal tax havens. Amer­ica’s 19th-cen­tury ty­coons rein­vested ill-got­ten gains into grow­ing the U.S. econ­omy. The Bank for In­ter­na­tional Set­tle­ments (BIS) re­ports Rus­sian cit­i­zens still hold $219.6 bil­lion in bank ac­counts abroad — an amount greater than all bank de­posits in Rus­sia, even ex­ceed­ing Rus­sia’s an­nual bud­get.

The emerg­ing democ­racy some ex­perts saw in the 1990s was an un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter. To­day, Rus­sia en­joys re­spect. When Mr. Putin took over in 2000, the po­lit­i­cal or­der changed dras­ti­cally from chaos to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. It was nei­ther dic­ta­tor­ship nor democ­racy, but none­the­less wel­come in a coun­try that has only known au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism for the last 1,000 years.

Un­der for­mer KGB agent Mr. Putin, the Rus­sian state be­came pow­er­ful again with oil rev­enues — and for­mer KGB op­er­a­tives. Out of more than 1,000 lead­ing po­lit­i­cal fig­ures, al­most 800 are for­mer intelligence or se­cu­rity of­fi­cials. But Rus­sia is still a far cry from be­ing a global su­per­power.

Rus­sia’s new rul­ing elite does not see the world the way Western­ers do. For key lead­ers, it’s the world of the 1920s — a tra­di­tional game of power pol­i­tics. They don’t share the same fears about loom­ing threats, such as the en­vi­ron­ment. But they are aghast in say­ing other ma­jor pow­ers threaten the unity of Rus­sia by try­ing to coopt for­mer Soviet re­publics into NATO.

What’s hap­pen­ing to the U.S. in Iraq is wel­come news in the Krem­lin. Rus­sian lead­ers are not in­ter­ested in help­ing to solve or even ease prob­lems that con­cern the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. Pres­i­dent Bush once gazed into Mr. Putin’s eyes, in­spected his soul, and con­cluded he could trust him. A sec­ond, deeper look is now in or­der.

Ref­er­ences to the Euro­pean Union’s re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia are also mis­lead­ing be­cause there is no co­her­ent EU-Rus­sian pol­icy. Fin­land dur­ing its re­cent six­month pres­i­dency of EU be­fore Ger­many took over this month tried but failed to get EU in lock­step on Rus­sia. Be­sides, EU doesn’t have much clout, bogged down as it usu­ally is with yawn-pro­vok­ing minu­tiae.

For any­thing to hap­pen in the EU, two of the three big ones (Bri­tain, Ger­many and France) have to get their act to­gether. And that, too, is mis­sion im­pos­si­ble un­der cur­rent con­di­tions. Ger­many’s Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel is a con­ser­va­tive who lived un­der the bru­tal tyranny of East Ger­man com­mu­nism. She wor­ries about Rus­sia a great deal. But she has to share power with So­cial Democrats in a coali­tion gov­ern­ment. And they ad­vo­cate a softer pol­icy to­ward Rus­sia. Be­sides, Ger­many is tremen­dously de­pen­dent on Rus­sia’s oil and gas de­liv­er­ies.

In early Jan­uary, with no prior no­tice, Moscow sud­denly stopped pump­ing al­most 2 mil­lion bar­rels of oil a day to Ger­many and Poland through Be­larus in a price dis­pute with the for­mer Soviet repub­lic. Mrs. Merkel force­fully con­demned Mr. Putin’s de­ci­sion as “un­ac­cept­able,” but she was pow­er­less to re­tal­i­ate, as was the EU.

France is in limbo pend­ing next April’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, widely ex­pected to be a gen­er­a­tional change. But whether it will be a right- or left-of-cen­ter pres­i­dent will be de­ter­mined by a small per­cent­age in a sec­on­dround runoff.

In Bri­tain, Tony Blair, thor­oughly dis­cred­ited for throw­ing the U.K.’s full weight be­hind Pres­i­dent Bush’s Iraqi cam­paign, will step down as party leader next Septem­ber. No one knows where his suc­ces­sor, Gor­don Brown, stands on Rus­sia. But the re­cent Lon­don as­sas­si­na­tion by poi­son­ing of Alexan­der Litvi­nenko, an ex-FSB of­fi­cer who worked for a Bri­tish se­cu­rity firm, widely sus­pected of be­ing the work of Rus­sia’s FSB, the KGB’s suc­ces­sor, was not de­signed to elicit warm and fuzzy feel­ings in White­hall.

So via-a-vis Rus­sia, EU is dead in the wa­ter. Mean­while, Rus­sia’s power is con­stantly grow­ing via-avis EU — and Amer­ica, too. Less than two years af­ter block­ing such a sale, Rus­sia is now ready to ap­prove ex­port of the Iskan­der-E (SS-26 Stone in NATO nomen­cla­ture) medium-range rocket to Syria. It has a range of 280 kilo­me­ters and mul­ti­ple war­heads. This is a not-so-friendly warn­ing to both EU and the U.S. that Rus­sia is back in the Mid­dle East­ern game of na­tions — op­posed to West­ern in­ter­ests.

Thus, Rus­sia is drift­ing away from West­ern val­ues, which it never es­poused in the first place. There is still a lack of laws to guar­an­tee West­ern in­vest­ments. And even if new laws are en­acted, they will be un­en­force­able be­cause of wide­spread cor­rup­tion in law en­force­ment and the ju­di­ciary.

The 15 topsiders in the Krem­lin not only rule but own Rus­sia. At least, that’s what the prom­i­nent Euro­pean author­ity on Rus­sia said not for at­tri­bu­tion. Lis­ten­ing to him took us back 30 or 40 years. If his as­sess­ment is cor­rect, and there is no rea­son to doubt that it is, why is Rus­sia a mem­ber of the G8, the eight lead­ing in­dus­trial coun­tries in the West­ern world?

On bal­ance, he said: “We would rather have them in than out. Rus­sian lead­ers do not seek con­fronta­tion, but when they try to im­prove their ad­van­tages on the global chess­board, it sounds and feels like con­fronta­tion. But they def­i­nitely do not seek one.” Hence, Win­ston Churchill’s ad­vice: “I deem it highly im­por­tant we shake hands with the Rus­sians as far east as pos­si­ble.” But Churchill still could not “fore­cast the ac­tion of Rus­sia. It is a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.”

Ar­naud de Borch­grave is ed­i­tor at large of The Wash­ing­ton Times and of United Press In­ter­na­tional.

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