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Putin: Friend or Foe? By: Ariel Cohen
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, November 29, 2004


As George W. Bush is starting his second presidential term, relations with major powers will play an important role in defining his foreign policy. Russia is holding important cards on two top priorities of the second Bush Administration: Iran and North Korea.

At the meeting in Chile’s capital Santiago during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on November 21, Bush and his Russian counterpart presidents Vladimir Putin have reached an agreement to forgive 80 percent of Iraq’s debt to Moscow. Putin will forgo 7 out of $8 billion Saddam owed the Kremlin – not a small feat for Bush. The two presidents will meet for summit talks in the first months of 2005, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the press. Lavrov announced that at their meeting Putin and Bush discussed Iraq, Iran, Korea and Afghanistan.

Putin informed Bush about measures “to strengthen the integrity of Russian executive authority and to develop the country's multi-party system,” Lavrov said. Russia is not claiming a monopoly role in the post- Soviet space, Lavrov noted, though, Russia has its interests and its relations with former Soviet republics must be based on “mutual respect and understanding of these interests.” He added that all conflicts in countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States will be settled either under the aegis of UN or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
 
George and Volodya
 
Bush’s relations with Russia have been surprisingly good after he struck close personal ties with an unlikely friend – former KGB operative Vladimir Putin at the summit in Slovenia in June 2001. Then Bush said, “ I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy... I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
 
The relationship paid off, as Washington walked away from the antiquated anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty, which was a sacred cow for Democratic presidents since Lyndon Johnson and for the Russians. This allowed the U.S. to start building an anti-missile shield. Bush also presided over unprecedented expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004, for the first time to include the three ex-Soviet States: the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and former Soviet satellites Bulgaria and Romania.  Plans were announced to establish U.S. forward military bases which aim at power projection to the Middle East. Moscow barely made noise.
 
U.S. military presence now encompasses Central Asia, where Russia cooperated in Operation Enduring Freedom to get rid of the Taliban, which threatened ex-Soviet Central Asia.
 
Speaking hours before John Kerry conceded his challenge, Putin said: "If Bush wins, I will be able to rejoice that the Americans have not allowed themselves to be scared and made the decision they considered reasonable." During the U.S. election campaign Putin often said that terrorists had tried to prevent Bush from getting re-elected, while calling Bush “a safe and predictable partner,” and a “good man”.
 
The U.S. Interests and Russian Challenges
 
Since 9/11, the war on radical Islamist terrorism is America’s Number One Job. Putin explicitly recognizes that the jihadis are aiming to build a global Califate and are “wrapping their activities in Russia with slogans of Chechen independence.”
 
Nevertheless, Putin is ambiguous about Russian cooperation with the West in fighting terrorism. In a September meeting with Western experts and journalists in which this author participated, Putin launched a long tirade about the Soviet Union and the U.S. releasing the jihad jinni out of the bottle. While the U.S. did so by supporting the moujahedeen in Afghanistan; the  USSR also did “its share,” he said, referring to terrorist support spanning from the Baader-Meinhoff Group in Germany and the Brigadi Rossi (Red Brigades) in Italy, as well as a slew of Middle Eastern groups, such as Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Popular Front of Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and others.
 
In the same meeting Putin accused the Western intelligence services of maintaining contact with the Chechen rebels. Clearly, he believes that the U.S. supports anti-Russian terrorism: “I have been tracking the issue for several years and have made up my mind,” he said. From Putin’s perspective, the Western powers are supporting Chechen separatism because they are interested in keeping Russia pinned down and “involved in its own problems.” Great Britain and the U.S. granted political asylum to some Chechen leaders. In fact, Putin could have also mentioned the long unencumbered fundraising activities carried on in the West by radical Muslim groups to aid “jihad” in “Chechnistan.” Such activities went on in Great Britain and US for years. In this regard, Putin’s criticism may be legitimate in view of the Beslan atrocities and Islamist Chechen leader Shamil Basaev’s own admission that he received money from abroad and that he would have taken money from Osama bin Laden himself.
 
As an intelligence professional, however, Putin should appreciate the difference between information gathering and operational support. Instead, he is apparently convinced that the West is preoccupied with creating an irritant for Russia.
 
Less democracy, more power?
 
There is a reason why Bush asked Putin hard question about Russian power and state. On September 13th, while the country was still shell-shocked after the evil terrorist attack in Beslan, in which over 330 civilians were killed, including 200 children, Putin announced the following measures to ensure that Russia is “effectively governed”:
 
·        Regional leaders will no longer be elected by a popular vote. Instead, Regional legislatures will approve nominees submitted by the President.
·        State Duma deputies will be exclusively elected through party lists, in single seat constituencies, as has been the case with one-half of the Duma.
·        A “public chamber” will be established to provide public oversight of the government, and particularly, law enforcement and security agencies.
·        Voluntary people’s patrols, ubiquitous in the Soviet era will be established and work in tandem with police to ensure that public order is re-established.
·        The President has ordered that a special Federal Commission be set up to oversee the North Caucasus issues.
·        The government will re-establish a new ministry for nationalities and regional policies.
·        The government will elaborate a system of responses to thwart terrorist threats.
 
Putin essentially is rebuilding the Soviet security state apparatus and is applying the 19th century Russian imperial model to a 21st century state, riddled with terror and corruption. For example, there are plans for the re-introduction of police-issued residence permits, similar to the Soviet-era propiska, which severely limit internal movement of population. Nostalgia for the Soviet past may beget new authoritarianism, as Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev warned in their September 16, 2004 interviews.
 
Back to the Future?
 
Putin’s decision to nominate governors, doing away with their election, will not only dilute Russia’s developing democracy. It will effectively do away with administrative ethnic autonomy, which was adopted by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 coup.
 
The number of regions – “federation subjects” as they are called in Russia – is likely to be reduced through constitutional changes. But in the 21st century it is extremely difficult to govern an 11 time zone country from one political center. The information overload and corruption may become severe enough to slow the pace of economic growth. Putin’s proclaimed goal of doubling Russia’s GDP by 2010-2012 may have to be abandoned.
 
It is also counterproductive to undermine the connection of voters and their elected representatives by abandoning single district system and shifting to elections by party lists. This was tried in the czarist Duma and the post-czarist Russia during the chaos of the 8-month Provisional Government in 1917, and ended in the elections of a barely legitimate Constituent Assembly, quickly dissolved by Lenin.
 
Establishing an unelected and disempowered proposed “public chamber” to supervise the security services will not solve Russia’s flagging anti-terrorism conundrum. There is no substitute for effective civilian control by the legislative and civilian executive branches. Nor are additional bureaucratic offices, such as the new Ministry for Regional Policy and Nationalities, likely to resolve the systemic problems of the Northern Caucasus.
 
Finally, there is the issue of oil. In the 1990s Russia demonstrated a phenomenal double digit growth in the mostly privately owned oil sector, while the state natural gas monopoly Gazprom grew in anemic single digits, while keeping Western investors at bay. By effectively bankrupting the most dynamic oil company YUKOS through a multi-billion dollar back taxes claim, increasing state control of Gazprom to over 50 percent, and merging oil assets into Gazprom, the Kremlin is trying to create a Russian Saudi Aramco. However, it may end up with a mismanaged industrial dinosaur along the lines of Venezuelan PDVSA or the Mexican Pemex – a state-owned, non-transparent, inefficient energy monster, which can be used as a foreign policy heavyweight and a private kitty of those who control it politically. Russia may effectively become a petro-state. Such a scenario vanishes hopes of those who expected Russia and Eurasia to play a role of an energy alternative to the increasingly unstable Middle Eastern oil.
 
US-Russian Cooperation Possible
 
Presidents Bush and Putin already agreed to hold a summit in the near future, at which they should hammer out a joint anti-terrorism action plan. In the aftermath of Beslan, the U.S. should emphasize to the Russian people that the two countries are facing the same enemy. U.S. should increase outreach in the battle for Russia’s hearts and minds, paying particular attention to the younger generations of Russian citizens. The two countries should expand security cooperation in anti-terrorist force structure, command, control and communications and on techniques for dealing with hostage situations. The U.S. and Russia should expand the range of joint programs to designed to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to terrorist organizations, going beyond the current Nunn–Lugar funding.
 
Democracy Matters
 
However, even though the two countries face a common threat, the U.S. does not have to agree to Russian policies toward its neighbors. It should support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all post-Soviet states, and the U.S. should not remain silent if the democracy in Russia is rolled back. Instead, Washington should develop programs that support growth of the non-profit/non-government sector, promote the rule of law, and help to advance transparent, participatory, and democratic governance in Russia. The U.S. should also expand support of the independent media in all forms, including print, broadcasting, and Internet.
 
True cooperation exists between democracies sharing same enemies. As the case of France and Germany shows, even that is sometimes tough. Considering Russia’s history – and Putin’s background, things could be worse. One hopes that they will be better.
 
Ariel Cohen is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation and editor/author of Security Shifts in Eurasia After 9/11 (Ashgate, 2005).

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Sarah and Douglas Allison Center of the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.


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