by Jerome a Paris
Sat May 6th, 2006 at 10:03:35 AM EST
We've been accused of being so anti-Russian that it's even pointless to give us the other version, but hey, I like to rub people the wrong way and I'll provide another version myself.
As someone who has always been pretty wary of Putin and his entourage, I find the recent war of words unleashed by Blair, Barroso and Cheney against Russia unseemly and stupid. Russia is not blackmailing us with the energy weapon, it is reacting - pretty moderately from the actual words and not from the media spin but on them - to sanctimonious self-interested attempts to grab pieces of its energy resources disguised as common sense advice.
See also poemless's recent diary - the thread is to a large extent about Russia. See also the articles and discussion in this morning's Breakfast, starting here, and the text below the fold.
I'll stand by my earlier opinions that Putin is slowly reducing freedoms in Russia, and that the war in Chechnya, whatever the context and the appalling actions of some of the Chechens, is little short of genocide and needs to be condemned as such. I'll also restate my opinion that Putin and his cronies are looting the Russian public resources just as much as the oligarchs around Yelstin (if not more) - but are lucky that there is so much loot these days thanks to higher oil prices that they can both loot and redistribute enough to the population to keep it happy.
But the West record on the same topics is so lousy in recent years (Iraq, anyone? "Terrorism" laws shredding our civil rights? Mediaset-enabling laws? Cronyism and corruption at the Elysée Palace? etc...) that our governments are terribly hypocritical to say things to Putin today, especially after having cultivated him as "nash" (one of ours, a word with very strong meaning in Russian) not so long ago. Whether it was the oil money or his policies, whether it is centralisation or dictature, Russia has at least undoubtedly moved from chaos to order in recent years, and regained some semblance of prosperity. What achievements can Messrs Berlusconi, Blair, Bush or Chirac claim in the same time period for their respective countries?
Anyway, here's another view on that:
Patrick Armstrong, analyst for the Canadian government, quoted in Untimely-Thoughts (via Ruminations on Russia)
There's always a standing bill of indictment against Russia, although the details continually change. In 2001 the Washington Post warned that Russia would default on debt repayments; the Kursk sinking prompted reflections on the "callous disregard for human life" of Russia's leadership (Knight 2000); in 1997 Kissinger was complaining about Russia's "refusal" to demarcate its borders; no Russian leader had ever left power voluntarily and neither would Yeltsin, warned Stephen Cohen in 1994. Most charges prove ephemeral or false - nuclear tests in Nova Zemlya, the Security Council as the "new Politburo", war over the Black Sea Fleet - but others come up again and again. Some charges have validity. The war in Chechnya was certainly very brutal. Putin has centralized power and tightened control over the media. But, when these charges appear on the bill of indictment, they appear without context. The Russian army is brutal in Chechnya not necessarily because it wants to be, but because bad armies are brutal. And, despite "fabricated rumors of a Chechen-al Qaeda nexus" (Washington Times, 2002), we know better. Nor do we hear as much about "unresolved" (Guardian, 2000) apartment bombings when there have been so many jihadist bombings of nightclubs, railway stations, tourist resorts and mosques. Putin is centralising because he (and, be it clear, most Russians) agree that the 1990s were frighteningly chaotic. A centralised media is not desirable but neither was the media of the oligarch wars. Too many governors were the pawns of local hoods. Putin does have reasons, good or bad, for what he does: saying "tight-lipped 47-year-old KGB staffer" (Guardian, 2000) or "Andropov redux" (Gaffney, 2000) is not an explanation. When Brzezinski last year stormed that Moscow refused to repudiate the Hitler-Stalin pact, it wasn't just "nostalgic efforts by Vladimir Putin to restore Moscow's control": no country will assume responsibility for historical malfeasance when it knows the next step will be reparations claims.
While charging Putin with bringing back the "Soviet anthem" (Wall Street Journal, 2000), the fact that all the other state symbols were lifted straight from the Tsars was not mentioned. This is not argument, it is advocacy. The essence of the charge sheet style is that the conclusion determines the evidence. Take the everlasting assertion that Russia is naturally imperialist: this is the oldest of the charges - experts "knew" that Gorbachev would never leave Germany - and as time moves on, the accusation remains. The format is the same: Russia's so-called nostalgia for empire is asserted (Jonathon Eyal in 1993, Pipes in 1994 and 1998, George Tenet in 1997, Paul Goble 2000) and examples are filled in as needed: "democratic Georgia" today, the Baltics yesterday, Germany the day before. As the troops leave one country, another place is found to prove the point. The "energy weapon" is deployed against contumacious neighbors like Ukraine (but be careful not to mention that Gazprom is raising the price for "friends" like Armenia and Belarus, too). The charge predates Putin - in 1993 The Economist decided that Georgia's independence had been already snuffed out and the energy wars have been going on since 1991.
Rarely, however, is it pointed out that Russia's neighbors are more independent each year and that Russian troops are leaving them too. Or that while Ukraine needs Russian energy, Russia needs Ukrainian pipelines to move its gas to those who actually pay for it. The boot here is actually on both feet. "Imperialist Russia", it is clear, is a premise, not a conclusion. The repetitive bills of indictment have a cumulative effect - people forget the alarms that never came to pass but remember the underlying message that Russia is a menace. Why try to take an objective look at the whole of Russian reality when "traditional Russian imperialism" (Kissinger, 1997) is all you need to know? A great deal of opinion in the USA and the West has been shaped by the continual drum roll of warnings, accusations and indictments. Eventually the message gets stuck in: Russia is an enemy.