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Rounding up Russia

The year 2008 will be big on elections. In the United States, the Democratic party will, in my opinion, have a pretty good idea of who is to be the nominee after February 3, when a large number of states hold their primaries and caucuses. A month later the election of a new Russian president will happen on March 2. In December of last year Russia’s premier newspaper, Pravda, declared that Russia will be united , but that “It is still unclear what role Vladimir Putin will choose after his resignation, but it’s likely that Dmitry Medvedev would be nominated his successor. Elsewhere, it is also expected that Dmitri Medvedev will succeed Vladimir Putin, who will then become Prime Minister.*

Meanwhile our own current president (OCP) is traveling in the Middle East attempting, after all this time, to secure some kind of a peace legacy. (The website PressTV-Iran carries an interesting interview, offering a different perspective on the Bush legacy). OCP seems to have no interest in U.S. 2008 elections.

It is also not clear that the U.S. has much interest in Russian affairs. However President Putin in November seemed to feel that foreign nations were meddling in the Russian election process by funding his opponents. The BBC News (11/21/07), headlined “Putin attacks ‘jackal’ opponents. To quote:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused opposition politicians of scavenging like jackals for funds from foreign embassies.

He also accused the West of meddling in Russian politics, saying: “Those who confront us need a weak and ill state.”

Though OCP has looked into Putin’s eyes, and our Secretary of State has a heavy (cold war era) Russian portfolio, the administration seems unable to focus on much of anything but the Persian Gulf region. In a recent post titled,”Bubbling Balkans crisis is back,” Steve Clemons at the Washington Note says as much. To quote from the post:

Lieven is correct to note that there are anti-Putin, anti-Russian hardliners in Washington who want yet more reasons to ignite global conflict and tension — which reinforces the high-fear politics they have become vested in.

But beyond some folks in DC demonizing Putin and a resurgent Russia, there is little evidence that Russia is a priority today on Washington’s foreign policy roster of concerns. As one former senior G.W. Bush administration official said at a
Nixon Center gathering, “I can see no evidence that this administration has a
strategy towards Russia of any kind.”

The image of OCP blithely traveling around the Middle East seeing the sights in Dubai, hugging the King in Saudi Arabia (and filling up their sophisticated weapons caches), contrasts sharply with Vladimir Putin’s markedly increasing unfriendliness towards the West. A headline, “FSB calls British Council staff for questioning” from the Financial Times (1/16/08) illustrates my point. To quote:

Russia’s Federal Security Service has summoned for questioning all the Russian staff of the British Council’s regional offices while the head of its St Petersburg office was detained last night for an hour as a standoff between Russia and the UK escalated.

. . . The intervention by the Russian security services comes after the British Council on Monday reopened its regional branches in defiance of an order by the Russian government in a dispute over the UK cultural arm’s legal status. The diplomatic feud has been linked by both sides to the rapid chill in relations over the November 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko.

Meanwhile, occasionally the Russians are behaving like grown-ups, members of the family of nations. It seems that they are attempting to curb air pollution, by cutting carbon emissions. This headline appeared in Ria Novosti (1/16/07) : “Russia’s auto industry switches to Euro 3 emission standard.” To quote:

Russia’s auto makers have competed their transition to the Euro 3 emission standard in vehicle production, the chief executive of the Association of Russian Auto Makers said on Wednesday.

Nations meddle in each others’ business all the time; it is called diplomacy. Last fall I wrote a post called “The Business of Sovereignty,” which I posted at TPMCafe. It produced a very intriguing conversation with Howard Berkowitz that I saved, just for this occasion it now seems. I quote his lovely Russian spy story in full:

On October 14, 2007 – 11:44am hcberkowitz said:

Even during the Cold War, it was impressive to see Soviet and American warriors (I think the term here is more appropriate than soldier, which are not truly equivalent) get together under nonconfrontational situations. There was an unwritten agreement between the CIA and KGB not to attack one anothers’ officers. If a local CIA case officer had his car break down on a lonely road in a bandit-filled area, he would have been delighted to have his KGB counterpart drive by. It would have been understood that the only damage that would have been done by the KGB man was the shared vodka hangover in the morning.

At high levels, when Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the military adviser to Gorbachev, to the general acceptance and shock of all concerned, to have paid a visit to the Pentagon and been invited into the National Military Command Center, he and the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe, connected on some emotional level, and, by the observation of everyone who saw them together, formed a true friendship. It is not clear how Akhromeyev died in the attempted coup against Gorbachev; suicide was the initial report but that has come into question. Back at the Pentagon, Crowe grieved deeply.

Both sides have been opening their histories, sometimes showing frightening things, and, on other occasions, finding things to share. No one knew, for example, that the Soviet commander in Cuba, during the Missile Crisis, had tactical nuclear weapons with the preauthorization to use them against an amphibious landing.

In the US and fUSSR strategic air defense organizations, there were mid-level officers, who, at various times, made the right call when sensors were reporting a nuclear attack in progress. This happened a handful of times, but it makes the reciprocal teams in the command centers very, very aware of responsibility not just to their own countries, but to humanity.

A colleague of mine had retired from the US Army Band, where he was the lead arranger. One year, he got me VIP tickets to their annual 1812 Overture concert. People forget that Overture is about the Battle of Borodino, when Russia turned Napoleon back. Customarily, the Soviet military attaches were invited and given honored seating. There were various pieces in the concert, but when the Overture played, the Soviets, in dress uniform, arose and stood at attention. After the last cannon and bell was silent, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff saluted them, and the salutes were returned sincerely.

Sometimes, there is reason to hope.


Howard

*Reference regarding Russian presidency: Analytical article from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, by Andrew C. Kuchins. To quote:

Putinism Without Putin?

With a 70 percent approval rating, an economy inflated by oil wealth, stability-minded voters and the media under his thumb, Russia’s president holds all the cards in his country’s 2008 elections. But whatever the results, Russia’s foreign policy likely will continue to be driven by a cold calculation of its national interest.

Not all the news about Russia is bad, though it may seem that way. Today’s Russian Roundup was my attempt to present a bit of both sides of that picture. Some day I will try to write a post about OCP that will be more balanced, but I just do not have it in my heart yet. I am one of those “angry Democrats,” and it will take me a while to regain my perspective and get over it.

View my current slide show about the Bush years, “Millennium,” at the bottom of this column.

(Cross-posted at The Reaction.)

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