Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Washington Post
November 10, 2001
. . . The Resistance at Home
By Masha Lipman

Masha Lipman, a Russian journalist, writes a monthly column for The Post.

MOSCOW -- The dramatic foreign and domestic policy moves undertaken by Russian President Vladimir Putin since Sept. 11 may be hailed in the West, but they are not necessarily welcomed by his political elite at home. In fact, substantial elements of the Russian political establishment are apprehensive, feeling much as the Communist elite felt when Mikhail Gorbachev began his overture to the West in the late 1980s.

Putin regards integration with the West as a way to improve Russia's dire economic situation. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 gave him an opportunity to move faster and closer toward the Western world, and he didn't miss the chance.

His prompt declaration of support for the United States was followed by concrete steps. He repeatedly expressed firm determination to join ranks with America in its struggle against terrorism, and thus managed to silence his generals, who are strongly opposed to the deployment of U.S. forces on the territory of Central Asian states.

He allowed U.S. military aircraft to fly over Russian territory. He softened Russia's stand on NATO expansion and made a decision to close down two Soviet-era military bases in Cuba and Vietnam. He has displayed flexibility on the very sensitive issue of the ABM Treaty. On a minor but controversial issue, Putin promised to return to Germany another portion of art looted during World War II.

Gorbachev, too, realized that opening up to the Western world was the only way to rescue his country from an imminent economic crisis. In the framework of his policy of new thinking, Gorbachev pulled Soviet troops out of Eastern Europe and made possible the reunification of Germany.

And he was getting ideas about economic reforms. Gorbachev presided over a Communist state with a heavily militarized economy. A master of political intrigue, he was able to fool his Cold War-mongering elite for a while. But they gradually realized that their regime had been seriously undermined and their status threatened. In a quiet but powerful act of resistance in 1990 they forced Gorbachev to reject an economic reform plan called "500 Days." In 1991 Communist coup-plotters attempted to reverse altogether Gorbachev's policy of democratic change. Their coup resulted in a collapse of their own regime, which was just as well, but it was also the end of Gorbachev.

Putin's explicitly pro-Western trend is highly unappealing to the vast conservative constituency among foreign-policymakers, the top brass and the legislature. It should be especially frustrating to those among them who regarded his election to the presidency as a signal that they would be back on top. A former KGB officer, he has avoided denouncing KGB practices of the past, brought back the old Soviet anthem and set out to reestablish ties with some of the ugly clients/allies of the Soviet Union.

The discontent caused by his abrupt turnaround may not be expressed much in public, but it is noteworthy that one such public remark was made by the minister of defense, Sergei Ivanov, who is believed to be Putin's most trusted man. Some in the top brass reportedly mustered a substantial, if failed, effort to torpedo the decision to close down the old military bases.

Like Gorbachev's elite 10 years ago, today's anti-Western conservatives are alarmed that the new change of policy may deprive them of their benefits. There is no likelihood of a 1991-like coup at this point, but an attempt to force a reversal of the foreign policy course should not be ruled out. Such an attempt, if buttressed by rhetoric about an undermining of Russia's national interests, might still resonate strongly with the Russian people.

When Gorbachev pulled Soviet troops out of Eastern Europe, he was given a promise that in exchange for his good will NATO would not expand. NATO later expanded, a move that contributed significantly to the rise of anti-American sentiment and the slowdown of Russia's integration with the West.

Even though Putin told Barbara Walters that "Russia's not bargaining," he will probably expect compensation for his change of policy. Zbigniew Brzezinski recently wrote that it is "still an open question whether Russia has made a historic choice in favor of the West or is seeking to exploit America's preoccupation to extract specific concessions" [op-ed, Nov. 2]. It seems, however, that a historic choice may be abetted by certain concessions, whether it's membership in the World Trade Organization, debt relief or a more delicate handling of the issue of the ABM Treaty.

Back to the Top    Next Article