Since his rise to the Russian presidency in late 1999, Vladimir Putin has represented to the Western media and political class an infuriating obstacle that needs to be removed and a kind of politics that they regard as utterly abhorrent. Increasingly savage criticisms of Putin and his regime have over the past 4-5 years flooded the pages of a certain kind of putatively conservative magazine and newspaper—periodicals which evinced little interest in Russia when it was being misgoverned by the inebriated Boris Yeltsin, and looted by the Communist kleptocrats he put in charge of “privatizing” (i.e. confiscating) its massive state enterprises.
The new preoccupation with how well Russia is being governed, and how freely its smaller political parties can express their opinions is relatively new—and, I would argue has little or nothing to do with any particular concern about Putin’s heavy-handed and admittedly increasingly populist-authoritarian rule. Writers really concerned about human rights have much more serious matters with which to concern themselves than the fortunes of a few imprisoned or otherwise thwarted oligarchs—whose Swiss bank accounts are stuffed with money stolen from Russia’s citizens, monies they use to fund “opposition” movements which are little more than front-groups working for special interests. One hears little from such writers about the virtual genocide in Darfur or the persecution of Christians in China—much more atrocious abuses by far more reprehensible regimes.
Then what is it that motivates the new “Russia hawks” who populate the British and American press with grim warnings of the “threat” posed by an allegedly resurgent Russian bear? There are several factors at work, I would argue. In no particular order, I would cite:
• A lingering post-Cold War suspicion of Russia.
• A not-so-latent Russophobia cultivated in America and in most Western European countries.
• The geostrategic designs of proponents of activist foreign policy in the United States.
• The schemes treasured by Europeans who wish to expand the social democratic project of the European Union eastwards to the Urals.
Media objections to the moves by Putin against billionaire oligarch Khodorkovsky and his oil company, Yukos—to take one famous example, did not center on whether they were damaging Russia or retarding her development (though they might be)—but that Putin’s moves were making the Russian state strong and capable of resisting the preferred policies of his critics.
Something that became perfectly clear early on to most Russians was that Western backers of privatization, liberalization and “reform” and their Russian counterparts were supremely uninterested in the well-being of Russia and Russians. Rather, like the transnational elites in the West who were supporting these policies and whose example Russian “liberals” sought to follow, the “reformers” desired to exploit Russian resources in the name of abstract “growth” that never included reinvestment and real development of any part of the Russian economy. The insidious and self-serving collaboration between the oligarchs who raped Russia during the ‘90s under the guise of “privatization” and the proponents of Russian liberalism (or, more often, the advocacy of “liberal democratic” reforms by the oligarchs themselves) had two goals:
• To diffuse political power away from the center, which would work to the advantage of the oligarchs’ building up their own fiefdoms free from central interference.
• To conceal the predatory and criminal practices of men who are scarcely better than mobsters under the sacred mantle of “the free market,” whose attempted regulation would automatically be denounced as a return to the bad old days of the USSR.
Because a relatively strong, assertive Russia poses an unacceptable threat to the ability of Washington and Brussels to dominate their desired spheres of influence in post-Soviet space, every policy from Moscow that appears to advance the interests of such a relatively strong Russia is viewed as hostile in Western capitals and receives almost unremittingly negative coverage in the Western press. The anti-Russian view, as a matter of U.S. foreign policy, enjoys a wide range of bipartisan support (as do most of the positions tied up with current American aggressive interventionist foreign policy).
This is true even of politicians whose views are otherwise largely admirable—captive as many of them are to the neoconservative fantasy that all the earth must be remade along American lines. Think of former Sen. Rick Santorum, who routinely listed Russia on his list of America’s enemies—alongside North Korea, Iran and Venezuela during his pretentious “gathering storm” speaking tour and afterwards. Earlier this year, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden (D-DE), stated bluntly that he believed President Bush should have a “direct confrontation” with Putin over his international consolidation of power. Rather than being examples of extreme or unrepresentative fringes in their thinking about U.S. foreign policy, Santorum and Biden represent different parts of what is very much a consensus view about the Russian government. Ideologues who imagine that U.S. foreign policy should (or could) serve to democratize the planet and spread “American values” work together with cold-eyed nationalists who seek to ensure that that the U.S. remains the unchallenged, single superpower in the world—a goal which was frankly admitted in the infamous 2002 National Security Strategy. Members of each group share a common antipathy to Putin’s Russia because it represents one of the single greatest barriers and potential threats to their goals.
Every action undertaken by the Putin regime, whether at home or abroad, has been fitted into a pessimistic narrative of the re-freezing of Russo-American relations and revived geopolitical rivalry, and this narrative has served as a self-fulfilling prophecy as it has poisoned American and European minds against Russia. Every apparent reaction against Putin at home or in Russia’s near-abroad in the former Soviet republics has been hailed by the Western press and Western political leaders as evidence of “pro-Western,” “liberal,” “democratic” and “capitalist” resistance against resurgent authoritarian statism.
It is for this reason that the appalling, corrupt nationalist, Viktor Yushchenko, whose bigoted supporters make Bolivian President Evo Morales’ voters appear liberal and cosmopolitan, was made into a hero and near-martyr of liberal democracy in Ukraine during the so-called “Orange Revolution.” Looking at the politics of the leading members of the 2004 Orange coalition, it would have been more accurate to call it a red-brown revolution.
As this supposed resistance has weakened or disappeared in the past two years with the collapse of the Orange governing coalition over Yushchenko’s appointment of his former rival, Yanukovych, to be prime minister, and the economic and political isolation of Saakashvili’s Georgia last year, Western scrutiny and criticism of the Putin regime have increased—as if to take up the slack. 2006 saw a number of events in Russia or in some way related to Russia that Western journalists, pundits and politicians have used to increase suspicion of the Putin regime and force Russia into increased isolation from and opposition to the West, such as Moscow’s recent decision to off gas supplies to Belarus>(and, thus, to countries farther west as well), its embargo imposed on Georgia, the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. The exploitation of these events to fan the flames of anti-Russian sentiment (and thus encourage an equally irrational anti-Western backlash in Russia) serves the interests of neither country. However, it certainly does conform very well to the policy aspirations of different interested parties in the West that would like to see Russia cut off, cornered and on the defensive.
The most well-known of those recent episodes was the radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB operative and long-time Putin critic with ties to the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Posing as an independent journalist, Litvinenko helped propagate Berezovsky’s fairly outlandish tale that the Moscow apartment bombings of September 1999, which the Russian government blamed on Chechen terrorists, had been the work of the FSB (formerly the KGB) security and intelligence service. Once Litvinenko became ill from his poisoning and died, after garnering tremendous media attention in Britain and throughout the West, the predictable accusations that Putin had ordered his death began flying. At the time of this writing, the investigation is still ongoing and it remains unclear exactly what role Litvinenko’s allies and rogue FSB agents may have had in Litvinenko’s death, but so far nothing substantive has been made public that corroborates the reflexive reaction of blaming the Putin regime.
Regardless, thanks to six years of a steady drumbeat of warnings about Putin’s authoritarianism and the supposed menace a “new Russian imperialism” poses to Europe, the former Soviet republics and, ultimately, the entire world, the unsubstantiated claim that the Kremlin authorized the exceedingly clumsy, public murder of Litvinenko seemed only too plausible to people who have been conditioned to think of Putin as a new Stalin.
What of the truth of Berezovsky and Litvinenko’s claims? According to the government, the 1999 Moscow bombings had been masterminded by Amir Khattab, a Saudi Arabian Salafist jihadi who had taken up the Chechen cause in the name of Islamic radicalism, and given Khattab’s previous history and the increased Islamicisation of the Chechen cause in the 1990s this remains the most plausible explanation for the attacks. The bombings led directly to the resumption of open hostilities in Chechnya. The Moscow bombings had come shortly after Chechen rebels had begun to infiltrate neighboring Dagestan where a bombing earlier in the month had prompted Russian military action. It was the potential destabilization of Dagestan, which was and is, like Chechnya, a part of the Russian Federation, that represented the real provocation to Moscow to resume the war against Chechen separatists—not the Moscow attacks. Because of the very real human rights abuses that have occurred during the prosecution of the Chechen wars—as they have happened in Iraq, by the way—Western public opinion has tended to look favorably on reports that cast the Russian government’s methods and motives in the worst possible light, which has played very well into the hands of anti-Russian forces.
This brings us to Western agitation about Chechnya. Chechnya has been a preoccupation of certain influential and prominent American Russophobes in particular at least since the start of the Second Chechen War. Sen. John McCain, one of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination in 2008, was already on a tear about Russian depredations in Chechnya in his 2000 campaign and gave indications during the campaign that he considered it an important priority to intervene in Chechnya in some manner to bring an end to the war there. As some will recall, Sen. McCain was at that time the poster boy for aggressive, neoconservative foreign policy activists inside the Republican Party, and his hard line on Chechnya matched the long-running neoconservative interest in encircling, containing and weakening post-Soviet Russia that recurred throughout the ‘90s. Beginning with the infamous 1990 Wolfowitz Memo, which laid out a proposal for massive military buildups and interventions in the non-Russian republics, it continued throughout the decade and included brazen, full-throated neoconservative support for the U.S. and NATO bombings of Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1999 respectively. Praise for the Chechen cause, descriptions of Chechnya’s “president,” Aslan Maskhadov, as a freedom fighter, and apologias for Chechen terrorism (which none of the writers would have accepted on behalf of, say, Palestinians or anti-American terrorists), became regular staples of neoconservative commentary for a decade. Their most frequent outlet was the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, a veritable fountain of pro-oligarch and anti-Putin articles. Many prominent neoconservatives, such as Midge Decter, Robert Kagan, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen and Bill Kristol, among many others, joined together with others after the start of the second war in Chechnya to continue their blatant anti-Russian campaigning by forming the euphemistically-named organization, American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus.
Much as many of these same people were eager to break Kosovo off from Serbia proper as a way of weakening a state whose government they wanted to see brought to heel, the ACPC’s goal of aiding Chechen separatism and terrorism has the clear goal of increasing political fragmentation inside Russia and inciting ethnic resentments of minority groups against Russia in an effort to foment internal disorder and achieve the eventual break-up of the Russian Federation.
It is in the context of such dangerous and provocative anti-Russian Western activism that Americans and Europeans need to view the inevitably heavily biased reporting, frequently excessive criticism and ideologically and politically driven commentary that seek to make Putin’s regime appear somehow uniquely abominable and seeks to make Russia, a natural ally against jihadis, once more into an implacable enemy. This does not require us to endorse all of the Putin regime’s actions, nor does it mean that Americans should ignore when legitimate American interests do conflict with those of Russia, as will sometimes happen, but it does require us to be wary about trusting the obsessive vilification of another nation and another government when tension and conflict between America and Russia serve the interests of neither great nation.
Daniel Larison is a doctoral candidate in Byzantine history at the University of Chicago. He blogs at Eunomia
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