Dr. Ariel Cohen’s vision of a Russia allied to the U.S. in the war on terror is an optimistic one (FPM, “Putin: Friend or Foe?” Nov. 29, 2004). His rosy scenario bears much similarity to the visions proposed by proponents of détente in the 1970s. After all, were we not both superpowers? Did we not both have interests? Did not our respective peoples merely want to live in peace and security? That vision, based on superficial realpolitik, fell apart in the 1980s as the corrupt and criminal nature of the Soviet Union became so plainly manifest that even the blindest could not fail to see it.
Everyone should agree that cordial relations between the U.S. and Russia are essential to America’s national interests. Russia can in theory play an important role in the war on terror and in this fight we need every advantage we can get.
However, Russia is not an ally in any conventional sense of that word. Nor should we accept specious comparisons between the Islamist threat facing the West and Russia’s conflict with the Chechens.
Russia is an “ally” of the U.S in the same way that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are “allies.” We are pleased when these countries kill or capture al Qaeda operatives or provide intelligence on our enemies. We know that al Qaeda is a threat to the House of Saud and that radical Islam is a threat to the authoritarian regime in Pakistan. Yet al Qaeda’s threat to Saudi Arabia is not the same as its threat to the U.S. and to the West as a whole.
We know that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have serious internal and structural problems that make them just as much sources of instability and terrorism as helpers in the fight against those threats. Although the U.S. can accept help from Saudi Arabia, that does not mean any American should be asked to accept the steady stream of anti-Semitic and anti-Western propaganda that originates there. Nor should any American be sanguine that a “special relationship” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia allows us to overlook Wahabi extremism as it is exported abroad or as it results in the abuse or repression of internal dissenters or non-Muslims.
For these reasons, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is complex and demands very careful diplomacy that will not implicate the U.S. in the internal messes of the kingdom.
One of the lessons of the post Cold War World that was brought home on 9/11 was that a country’s internal problems can have global consequences. Feeding any people a steady diet of extremist Islam, hatred of the west, internal repression and poverty, results in a deadly cocktail that will spill far beyond the borders of any one country. Moreover, papering over these problems with a handy authoritarian leader at best delays the inevitable and at worst simply tightens the lid on the pressure cooker. Freedom for the peoples of the Middle East—however messy that may be in the short-term—is a far better strategic option than cozying up too closely to regimes that are uncertain allies and likely to cause as many problems as they solve.
America’s relationship to Russia must proceed on a similar basis. Russia’s internal problems are far more serious than Cohen seems to realize. They are not a matter of whether Putin implements this policy or that, or whether there are slightly more or slightly fewer democratic mechanisms in place.
Unlike the Saudi elite who have a moral code—albeit often warped—the Russian elite and the elite in most of the post-Soviet states are completely amoral. This was the parting gift of the old USSR. Thus selling arms to terrorist regimes carries no moral stigma and would only matter if one were caught and had to face negative publicity from those who still care about right and wrong. Ordinary Russians exist only to serve this elite, their lives and fortunes matter little to their “leaders,” a point that has been proven again and again from the Kursk tragedy to the Russian government’s cynical response to the Beslan massacre.
This world view has led Russia to play a major role in creating Iran’s nuclear capability—one of the most serious emerging threats to U.S. security and one which Cohen simply ignores.
While Putin has organized Russia more efficiently, he has done nothing to address the nation’s internal problems. Indeed, his efficient organization may simply make the stealing and abuse of power more ubiquitous. Basic economic reforms have gone nowhere and Russian economic growth in recent years has been due largely rising prices of oil and natural gas. Basic agricultural production has crashed to the point where Russia cannot feed itself. The only mitigating fact is that Russia’s population is crashing just as fast. Moscow thrives, providing a neon-bright façade for Americans visiting the Potemkin village.
Americans live in a world where there are clear political and mental distinctions between the government, the private sector, and illegal world of criminals and Mafiosi. While in Russia such distinctions may exist on paper, in reality these three are fused into a single entity. No government in the post Soviet sphere can seriously crack down on organized crime or provide a level playing field for business. To do so would mean undermining its own raison d’etre. Crackdowns in Russia have occurred only against businesses or criminal organizations that compete or interfere with the interests of the most powerful members of the elite.
Russia’s foreign policy remains strongly anti-American and anti-Western. While Americans may have forgotten who won the Cold War, the Russian leadership does not suffer from similar amnesia. No amount of back-slapping, looking Vladimir Putin in the eye, or vodka toasts to eternal friendship at diplomatic receptions is going to change that. While Russia’s gesture to forgive a large portion of what it is owed by Iraq is a positive step, the Russian elite made a lot of money on the Oil for Food scheme and can afford to be generous. And no favor comes without its price.
At present the main thrust of Russian foreign policy has been aimed at retaking control over the former Soviet empire and undoing the results of the Cold War. In Georgia and Ukraine this has backfired disastrously thanks to crude, hamfisted pressure and bribery. The net result has been an increase in pro-American feeling in both countries. (Ukraine currently stands at a turning point which may—it is hoped—result in a rebirth of democracy and greater support for Western values.) Consider, however, how a similar mistake would play in the largely Islamic states in former Soviet central Asia. Unlike the more Western-oriented Georgia and Ukraine, if pushed too hard by Russia where would these countries turn? Toward the U.S. or toward radical Islam? This is a mistake we cannot afford to have the Russians make.
On a tactical level, Russia’s help is worth little. The Russian military is a human rights abuse waiting to happen. Its campaign in Chechnya has been a disaster, accomplishing almost nothing at high cost. What military help would Russia provide to the U.S.-led coalition? Where would Russian troops be useful? Iraq? Afghanistan? Let’s be serious.
All rumors aside, Chechen terrorism remains a threat mainly in Russia. Almost no Chechen fighters were encountered by U.S. forces in Afghanistan or Iraq and there have been no Chechens detained at Guantanamo Bay. While the Russian authorities have taken to blaming most high profile acts of violence in Russia on Chechens, this is merely a convenient dodge. While Chechen links to al Qaeda are no doubt real, their practical significance thus far has been minimal.
American policy toward Russia has too long been captive to dewy-eyed Russophiles and short-sighted realpolitik. Russia is important, just as other undemocratic and potentially unstable regimes like Saudi Arabia are important. Good relations with these states can provide us with advantages in the war on terror but this comes with a price. If we embrace them too closely, America’s prestige will be co-opted in their effort to repress internal dissent and stifle freedom. We can work with the Russians, but viewing them as friends and allies is dangerously naïve.
Ronald Reagan always said “trust but verify,” which is bit like not trusting at all. If President Bush can look Vladimir Putin in the eye and “get a sense of his soul,” then surely he can insist that the Russian leader to halt all nuclear aid to Iran. This would create some basis for believing that the Russians are serious about combating terrorism rather than advancing their quest for empire.
In the fight against terrorism, our immediate tactical goals are served by working with the Russias, the Pakistans and the Saudi Arabias of the world. But a long-term strategic victory will only be achieved by spreading freedom and supporting its growth—whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Ukraine. We should never confuse our tactical needs with out long term strategy. Only freedom can vanquish terrorism and while Vladimir Putin may not be our enemy, he is hardly a friend of freedom.
John Radzilowski, Ph.D., is senior fellow at Piast Institute (www.piastinstitute.org) and author or co-author of eleven books. He lives in Minneapolis and can be contacted at email@example.com.