Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Satter, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is the author of Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State. He is presently in Moscow.
FP: David Satter, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Obama is arriving in Moscow today, July 6, for a three day visit. What is the significance of these talks with Putin and his gang?
Satter: This visit will create important first impressions for both sides. It’s true, of course, that Obama has already met Medvedev in London but, on this occasion, he will also be meeting with Putin who, by all indications, wields the real power in Russia and, more important, he will get a feel of the atmosphere of the Russian leadership. For their part, the Russians will have the opportunity to take the measure of Obama.
FP: What are the main issues at stake? What should Obama be pushing for?
Satter: The two sides see the main issues differently. For the U.S., the main issue is Russian help with Iran and Afghanistan. For Russia, the main issues are cancellation of plans for the deployment of an anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe and an end to NATO expansion. Obama needs to push for Russian help. In fact, he should insist on it because in resisting Iran and fighting the Taliban, the U.S. is also acting in Russia’s interests. At the same time, however, he should also be prepared to resist the demands of the Russians which are unreasonable and based on nothing but their desire to recreate a version of the Soviet Union.
FP: Tell us a bit about Putin’s dream and efforts to recreate a version of the Soviet Union.
Satter: I think it has three components – control over the countries that were once Soviet republics (except the Baltics), a say in what goes on in the NATO countries that were once members of the Warsaw Pact (including the Baltics) and an official version of history that grounds Russia’s national identity in the Soviet victory in the Second World War. A fourth component could become Russian Orthodoxy as the Russia’s unique truth and justifying ideology.
FP: Who is in charge in Russia? Describe what kind of regime this is.
Satter: On the basis of what we know, Putin is in charge. Putin chose Medvedev who then turned around and elevated Putin. The process had the attributes of a maneuver whose purpose was to guarantee that Putin could remain president for life. It’s difficult to remain president of a country for 40 years and convince the world that it’s not a dictatorship. So the Russians worked out a plan whereby two heads of state would alternate with one of them nonetheless completely controlled by the other. Medvedev is a creature of Putin. His career was dependent on Putin and what probably recommended him to Putin was his absolute reliability. After all, successors in Russia have a history of betraying their patrons. Nonetheless, the possibility of conflict between the two leaders does exist. It is Medvedev under the Constitution who has the power and the people who work for Medvedev for their own bureaucratic reasons will be pushing for some of his formal Constitutional powers to become real.
FP: Is Putin’s Russia an ally of the U.S. in the War on Terror?
Satter: Not really. The Russians use terroristic methods themselves. This was particularly evident in 1999 in the Russian apartment bombings and in the sieges of the Moscow Theater and Beslan. If Russia were a true ally in the war on terror it would never have interfered with U.S. access to the Manas air base in Khirgizia which is crucial to the war effort in Afghanistan and they certainly would not be supporting the nuclear aspirations of Iran. Similarly, sophisticated Russian anti-tank weapons would not have found their way to Hezbollah to be used against Israel in the South Lebanon war. The most we can say is that Russia is willing to help the U.S. fight terror, as it did at the time of the war against the Taliban after September 11, when it doesn’t have other priorities including the selfish interests of the small oligarchy that runs - and practically owns - the country.
FP: Tell us what you mean when you say that the Russians used terroristic methods in 1999 in the Russian apartment bombings and in the sieges of the Moscow Theater and Beslan. What exactly are you saying? Tell us what evidence has come forth.
Satter: There is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that the 1999 Russian apartment bombings that brought Putin to power were carried out by the FSB. There is no “smoking gun.” We don’t have confessions or irrefutable physical evidence but there was an unsuccessful attempt to bomb a building in Ryazan and the persons arrested were FSB agents. The bomb itself, which could settle the issue of what was being planned – and, by implication, who was responsible for the successful bombings - is in the hands of the FSB.
In the case of the theater siege, it is known that the FSB had at least one agent among the terrorists and should have been aware that the siege was being planned. They also knew from an agent in the audience among the hostages that the terrorists’ bombs were dummies, incapable of exploding. Nonetheless, the authorities flooded a hall full of weakened hostages with an unidentified gas that caused at least 129 deaths. In the case of Beslan, agreement had been reached for the Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov, to negotiate an end to the siege when Russian forces opened fire on the school gymnasium which contained a thousand hostages, including hundreds of children. They used flame throwers and grenade launchers with the result that many of the children were burned alive. No one has ever faced responsibility for issuing such a criminal order.
FP: How did Putin interfere with U.S. access to the Manas air base in Khirgizia? And why does the U.S. think it can get help here when it is clear that the Russians are acting precisely to hurt the U.S. effort in Afghanistan by closing the Manas base? Russia obviously wants the U.S. to fail in Afghanistan and it is doing all it can to achieve this. So the U.S. thinks that it can get Russia’s “help” when Putin’s Russia sees the U.S. as its main enemy. Is the U.S. naïve and uninformed about Russia in this context or is some kind of clever game going on here?
Putin: The Russians used bribery to get the Manas base closed and it’s possible that the U.S. has used bribery to get it open again. In any case, Russia’s intention was not to sabotage the U.S. effort in Afghanistan which is even more important to Russia than it is to us. The idea was to create a situation in which the U.S. would be dependent on Russia’s good will for the movement of supplies because alternative routes into Afghanistan were closed. It didn’t work in the end because, according to what I’m hearing in Moscow, the Russians counted on the Khirgiz leaders and the Khirgiz double crossed them.
FP: Why is Putin supporting, and involved in, the nuclear aspirations of Iran? And what sense does it make for the Americans to think they can get help from Russia on stopping Iran from building a nuclear bomb, when the Russians themselves are engaged in building this bomb? Is the U.S. naive, pretending it doesn’t know the reality? Or is something else in play here?
Satter: Of course, it terms of Russia’s real national interests it makes no sense to support the nuclear aspirations of Iran. Who in their right mind would want a country run by nuclear armed religious fanatics on their border? But Russia’s leadership is trying to safeguard its own position in Russia. The best way to do this is to play to the imperialist sentiments of Russians and nothing increases Russia’s international profile like support for Iran. Suddenly, the world is beating a path to Russia’s door, negotiating with them, pleading with them, trying to reset relations with them. If they behaved like a decent, sensible country, they would be contributing to world peace and their own security but they would be ignored.
FP: So, in the end, Putin’s Russia is in solidarity with Hezbollah because it is arming that terrorist organization, yes?
Satter: Not exactly. The arms for Hezbollah went through Syria, which shouldn’t have been armed either. But this was probably not a question of direct support for Hezbollah so much as total disregard for the consequences of arming Syria. I think the danger of doing so is one of the messages that the Israelis are trying to bring home to Russia.
FP: What policy should Obama pursue toward Putin’s Russia?
Satter: The attitude toward Putin should be neither hostile nor friendly but rather grounded in a commitment to the strength of our alliances and the security of our institutions and people. Because our strength derives from our principle we should, under no circumstances, make corrupt deals with the Russians or concessions to their distorted view of reality. Russia seeks to rebuild the Soviet Union with our assistance. In this, they should be disappointed.
FP: Putin’s regime is an enemy of the U.S. and sees the U.S. as an enemy, correct? And it survives, in this economic crisis, on anti-Americanism. Does the Obama administration understand this? Is it cleverly trying to take this weapon away?
Satter: I don’t agree that the Putin regime is the enemy of the U.S. Putin and his friends use anti-Americanism to consolidate their position with the Russian population. They know that nothing unites Russians behind an unworthy leader like the impression of an external threat. But, in many ways, the Russian leadership loves America (and the West.) They own real estate here, they have their bank accounts here, they party here, they send their children to be educated here and they look to the West as an escape route if things get too hot for them in Russia and as the place for a quiet retirement.
The attitude was well illustrated by the circumstances surrounding the arrest on pimping charges of Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the directors of Norilsk Nickel, the giant Russian mineral metals producing company and one of the world’s richest men. He and 16 of his girlfriends were arrested in the French resort town of Courchevel where they had gone to celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas. (Prokhorov was later released. The girls’ trips were all paid for but the French police were not sure what they were supposed to give in return.)
FP: What in the end did we learn from Kissinger’s policy in détente and cooperation with the Soviet Union? What lessons can the U.S. apply?
Satter: What we learned is that détente is not always good and confrontation is not always bad. It was during détente that the Soviet Union carried out the biggest strategic arms buildup in its history.
FP: What’s going on with Mikhail Khodorkovsky?
Satter: Khodorkovsky is on trial for the second time. The reason is that he has already served most of his first term and without a second sentence will soon be released. The charges are absurd. Khodorkovsky is being charged with helping to steal 900 billion rubles worth of oil from the Yukos oil company. This is equivalent to all of the oil that Yukos extracted in the history of the company’s existence.
FP: What might happen with Georgia and what position should Obama take?
Satter: Georgia faces the threat of a second invasion. This time, the goal would be to replace Saakashvili with a pro-Russian puppet regime. Obviously, Obama needs to make every effort to impress on the Russians that the consequences for them of an invasion would be very painful.
FP: In terms of what we know about the Obama administration, is the chance quite high that the Putin regime will outmaneuver it?
Satter: It’s hard to say. Obama is a very smart man. His experience is limited and it’s the wrong kind of experience. But he’s open to different points of view. I’m hoping that he’ll sort things out.
FP: David Satter, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.