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Moscow Times
October 30, 2009
Time to Take the Devil Out of NATO
By Michael Bohm
Michael Bohm is the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.

They say the devil is in the details, but if you listen to leading politicians and conservative journalists and analysts you would think the devil is in NATO. Despite the fact that NATO has radically changed its military structure and heavily demobilized since the Soviet collapse, Russia continues to demonize NATO.

We all remember the exaggerated phrases of then-President Vladimir Putin: “Comrade Wolf who knows who he is going to eat,” or, after the 2004 Beslan hostage tragedy, when he referred to the enemy “who wants to seize the richest parts” of Russia. Although these statements were veiled, it was clear from the context that they were aimed at NATO or the United States, both of which are often used interchangeably in Russia.

During U.S. President George W. Bush’s two terms, the inflammatory anti-NATO or anti-U.S. statements could have been dismissed as an overly emotional reaction to what was then a global phenomenon of anti-Bushism. But what is disturbing is that this negative rhetoric continues even after U.S. President Barack Obama has offered the world a new foreign policy paradigm based on the respect for diplomacy, international organizations and multipolarity that includes a clear recognition of Russia’s important role as a global power.

In a recent example, President Dmitry Medvedev said during a Sept. 20 interview with CNN, “Let’s not forget that NATO is a military bloc, and its missiles are pointed at Russia.”

What NATO missiles was he talking about? After the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, between the United States and the Soviet Union was signed in 1987, all nuclear and conventional ground-based missiles with a range of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers were destroyed ­ a range that clearly covers all of NATO’s European members.

Surely, Medvedev did not mean to imply that NATO’s European members have somehow reconstructed Pershing intermediate-range missiles, snuck them back onto European military bases and aimed them at Russia? These missiles, with a height of more than 10 meters and a weight of 4,600 kilograms, aren’t exactly easy to hide from satellite surveillance. If they had already been redeployed in Europe, we would have definitely heard something about this from Russia’s military brass long before Medvedev’s CNN interview.

In reality, of course, since 1991 there are no longer ground-based, intermediate-range missiles anywhere on NATO territory ­ unless you count the few empty Pershing missiles on display in museums or the scrap parts of an old Pershing that were incorporated in Zurab Tsereteli’s sculpture “Good Versus Evil.” But it is doubtful that Medvedev had these missiles in mind when he spoke to CNN.

Medvedev could have meant NATO missiles that don’t fall under the INF ­ for example, sea-based missiles or U.S.-based missiles that have a range of more than 5,500 kilometers ­ but these missiles aren’t aimed at Russia either.

Perhaps, Medvedev simply misspoke.

But the more likely explanation is that he still clings to the old image of NATO from the late 1970s and early 1980s when the alliance’s European members were armed to the teeth with intermediate-range missiles aimed at the Soviet Union.

There is a rich Soviet history of crude anti-NATO propaganda. Old copies of Krokodil magazine, for example, contain plenty of grotesque caricatures filled with the bloody hands of rapacious Uncle Sam-like figures representing NATO, craving to take over the world. Two generations of Russians grew up reading Krokodil as well as Sergei Mikhalkov, who, in addition to writing several versions of the Soviet anthem, wrote popular, highly politicized fables such as “The Wolf-Diplomat” with direct references to NATO as the predatory wolf that gobbles up innocent hares. Even today, the sound of the word “NATO” invariably evokes a knee-jerk negative response among many Russians, even among the intelligentsia who understand perfectly well that NATO’s military capability and its relationship to Russia are completely different now than they were during the Cold War.

Given the degree to which NATO has disarmed over the past 18 years, it is ridiculous, of course, to speak seriously about a NATO military threat to Russia. (The alliance’s “political threat” to Russia should not be confused with a military threat.)

But the spirit of Krokodil and Mikhalkov continues to this day, particularly among the conservative journalists and political analysts like Mikhail Leontyev, Alexei Pushkov and Alexander Prokhanov. One popular radio and television host recently described NATO on Ekho Moskvy radio as “the iron leviathan that crushes all humanity.” Granted, many Russians to this day find it hard to forgive NATO for its military campaign in the former Yugoslavia, and true, we hear plenty of inflammatory Russia-bashing from Poland and the Baltic states. But isn’t “iron leviathan that crushes all humanity” a bit of an overstatement to describe NATO?

This overblown rhetoric can be heard on a regular basis in the Russian mass media, particularly on government-controlled television. It would be nice if this could be dismissed as harmless bluster ­ or even encouraged as diversity of opinion, if such pluralism, in fact, existed. But the problem is that anti-NATO and anti-U.S. propaganda by the country’s conservative journalists and analysts dominates the mass media, and it has a direct impact on the public. Opinion polls, including the most current ones, confirm that anti-NATOism and anti-Americanism have stayed at the same levels as during the Bush era, despite Obama’s clearly new approach to Russia. Some polls indicate that negative feelings toward NATO and the United States have actually increased since Obama became president. This results in a self-perpetuating vicious circle: the more anti-NATOism increases, the more the politicians and journalists want to cater to this public opinion, fueling anti-NATOism even more. This can hardly help “reset” U.S.-Russian relations.

The anti-NATO rhetoric looks particularly primitive and obsolete after Russia agreed in July to provide the United States and other NATO countries with an air corridor for military shipments. In addition, new NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has made a commitment to improve NATO-Russian relations, and this offers a lot of hope.

It was thus very pleasing when Mikhail Margelov, head of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee and a member of United Russia, cut against the grain several weeks ago. During a debate on the popular "Sudite Sami" talk show on Channel One, he said: “Remember that NATO is defending Russia’s southern borders! I realize that this may not be a popular view in this audience.”

Additional voices like Margelov need to be heard more often in the mass media to give a more balanced discussion and debate within the country on NATO and its new relationship with Russia. It is high time for Russia’s leading conservatives who have such a strong impact on public opinion to bury once and for all their Krokodil-like depiction of NATO.

Russia has a wonderful saying: “ , ” (“The devil is not as terrible as he is made out to be”). There are enough real devils in the world without concocting chimerical ones.

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