Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Wall Street Journal
November 13, 2001
Russia Embraces the West
By Richard Pipes.
Mr. Pipes, history professor emeritus at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of "Communism: A History" (Modern Library, 2001).

One of the very few positive results of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack has been a shift in the orientation of Russia's foreign policy toward a rapprochement with the U.S. The latest proof of that change will come today when presidents Bush and Putin conduct talks at the White House -- talks that will continue tomorrow, convivially, at the Bush ranch in Texas.

Because her Orthodox version of Christianity, adopted over a thousand years ago, isolated her from Catholic and Protestant neighbors to the West, as well as from Buddhist and Muslim neighbors to the East and South, Russia traditionally felt that she did not belong to any supranational community. She considered herself a country sui generis, unique in her culture and role in world history.

The Communist takeover exacerbated this sense of isolation by imposing on Russia a regime that had no counterpart anywhere on the globe but which her leaders insisted was the model that the rest of humanity was bound to follow. To be sure, the Communist bloc that emerged after World War II bloated Russia's domain, especially after China had fallen under the rule of a Marxist-Leninist party. Even so, Russia never ceased to view herself as the unchallenged leader of the bloc.

Since Sept. 11, Putin has chosen to side with the U.S. It is a brave decision that could alter the course of history. Then came December 1991. The Communist bloc fell apart with a speed that demonstrated its artificial nature. Worse than that, the Soviet Union, an empire in fact even if a federation in name, disintegrated along with it. Russia reverted to her borders of the early 17th century, surrendering all the conquests made since that era.

To appreciate the traumatic effect of these events, one must imagine today's U.S. being reduced, virtually overnight, to the size of the original 13 colonies, losing in the process half its population and a good part of its industry and agriculture.

Ten years ago Russia found herself utterly bewildered, the more so that the drastic reduction in size was accompanied by no less drastic changes in the country's political and economic systems. The totalitarian regime gave way to a quasi-democracy, and the command economy was replaced by a quasi-market. Russia suddenly lost both her great power status and the sense of her uniqueness.

Public opinion polls conducted in Russia over the past decade indicate the degree of confusion and resentment. Approximately two-thirds of Russians believe that their country should follow its own, separate path and not emulate any other civilization. A similar proportion regards the West as an enemy. When asked to name the 10 greatest men in human history, they come up with nine Russians: Peter the Great in first place, followed by Pushkin, Lenin and Stalin. (Napoleon is the only foreigner, presumably because he suffered his worst defeat in Russia.)

Cut down in size, power and importance, post-Communist Russia has been searching for allies. Both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin have laid stress on Russia's community of interests with China, with which she shares a hostility to America's perceived global "hegemony." But this eastern orientation has never been popular because Russians dislike Oriental peoples and suspect Chinese designs on their Pacific regions.

More popular was the European orientation, which involved driving a wedge between Europe and the U.S. by exploiting the continent's resentments of U.S. power and sought to depict Russia as a continental nation. This policy, too, did not get very far because whatever disagreements divide Europe from America, their common interests are too strong to be affected by Russian interference.

That left a third alternative, a decisive shift to a pro-Western orientation. It is not popular in part because it means conceding that the U.S. is indeed the world's hegemonic power and Russia its junior partner, and also because the Russian elite identifies American culture with vulgarity and debauchery.

And yet it is this third option that President Putin has adopted since Sept. 11, overriding the opposition of influential political and military circles as well as disregarding public opinion. It was a very brave decision which has the potential to alter radically the course of Russian history by ending the illusion of uniqueness and planting her firmly in the Western camp -- with all attendant consequences.

We know little of Mr. Putin's mind and personality and hence can only guess what made him embark on this risky venture. He is not a visionary statesman but a pragmatic politician. He must have instinctively realized that failing to join the Western camp in its support for the U.S. campaign against global terrorism would have placed Russia on the side of the world's most reactionary forces. Such a step would have robbed Russia of the prospect of progress. Furthermore, it would have allied Russia with the very Muslim fundamentalists with whom her armies have been fighting in Chechnya and Tajikistan.

Sept. 11 offered Mr. Putin an opportunity, which he wisely seized, to approach the U.S. as a friend and helper rather than as a defeated and humiliated foe. His decision to allow American military bases in Central Asia was extremely bold, for although Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are sovereign nations, Moscow has claimed them for its sphere of influence.

Furthermore, he let it be known that he is prepared to come to terms on two issues that had aggravated U.S.-Russian relations -- namely, American insistence on revisions to the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and the expansion of NATO to the Baltic republics. The latter is particularly sensitive for Russians, since the border of Estonia is less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg. But if Moscow and Washington can reach agreement on these issues, the road will be clear for the establishment of a long-lasting friendship.

Yet one must view this prospect, welcome as it is, with great caution. We ought not to forget how quickly we were disillusioned at the end of World War II, when the hopes that the alliance forged against the Axis would continue in peacetime were rudely shattered by Stalin's Cold War offensive. It is also not irrelevant to recall the rapidity with which Mr. Yeltsin's pledges of cooperation collapsed to the point where, in the Kosovo crisis, he could threaten the U.S. with nuclear weapons.

The most harmful factor in Russia's efforts to establish friendly relations with the West, and with the U.S. in particular, is Russian nationalism. This nationalism entails not so much love of country, and a willingness to bear sacrifices for it, as dislike of foreigners combined with superpower aspirations.

Although the roots of this nationalism are many, two call for emphasis. One is pride in Russia's territorial expanse, which stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific and touches on three major geopolitical regions of the globe: Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. Russians derive immense gratification from the knowledge that even after the loss of vast territories, theirs is the largest country in the world. Never mind that the bulk of this land is uninhabited and uninhabitable. Its sheer size instills in them the sense that they are a power without peer and disinclines them to cooperate with others on terms of equality.

The second factor is psychological. For all their nationalism, Russians realize that they are poor and, in many respects, backward. The conviction that they are a superpower compensates for the inferiority they feel in contacts with the West.

There is not much that we can do about these attitudes except to show sensitivity to Russian insecurities and to bear in mind that, given the shallowness of the domestic base for Mr. Putin's pro-Western policy, the latter can quickly reverse itself. Only time will show whether the latest reorientation of Russia's external relations represents a fundamental shift of direction or merely a tactical maneuver.

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