Date: Wed, 19 Dec 2001
From: Vladimir Shlapentokh <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Is Putin a pro Western Lone Ranger?
Is Putin a pro Western Lone Ranger?
By Vladimir Shlapentokh
On October 20, 2001 I arrived at Pulkovo, the international airport in Petersburg, and to my Russian friends in waiting I jokingly exclaimed, "Ah, we are now allies!" To my surprise, their reaction was lukewarm at best, and in spite of my further cajoling they declined to talk further on this subject. Later I understood why.
In the last five or six years, during my trips to Russia, I watched anti-Americanism flourish among the country's intellectuals, politicians, and, to my dismay, my close friends. In most cases I found their critiques of the United States unfair. They made America a scapegoat for the failure of the economic reforms and Russia's fall from superpower grace.
In the same period, I met many ordinary Russians who seemed more friendly toward America than my friends and colleagues. The polls confirmed these impressions. The All-Russian Center of Public Opinion Studies reported that 70 percent of the Russians have "friendly" attitudes toward America.
Unfortunately, it is the position of elites that matters most in the Russian-American relationship. One of my colleagues, a close adviser to Putin, explained that the president, amid his rise to power, held the idea of restoring Russia's greatness close to his heart. This personal goal of his played out in his public statements and fomented anti-Americanism among Russian elites who, as a Moscow sociologist said, "hoped that the former KGB man could rebuild Russia's independence, keep its distance from the West, and strengthen its military power." In the first year of Putin's rule, Russian newspapers ran harsh anti-American headlines. I could only sigh when I saw the names of famous liberals among the bylines of these articles.
Amid such an anti-American backdrop, Putin's mild reaction to Bush's National Missile Defense plan (declared by the White House in June 2001) and particularly his firm support of the U.S. after September 11 signaled a radical shift in the Kremlin's policy. It was becoming apparent that Putin had decided to abandon, at least for now, his pursuit of Russian greatness and become, in the words of the prominent Moscow military analyst Feldenhauer, "a strategic ally of the United States."
In light of Putin's shift in foreign policy, I thought that my liberal acquaintances among the Russian intellectual elite, many of whom had previously concealed their pro American views, would be happy about the president's decision. Considering the many threats to the country-its vulnerability to terrorism, the evident Muslim threat from the South, Chechen separatists, the spread of Chechens, Azers and other people across the country, who are resented by most Russians, as well as the potential Chinese threat-I also supposed that some nationalists, despite their hatred of the U.S., would support the alliance with America as dictated by long-term Russian interests. As for the Communists, I expected them to completely reject Putin's move toward a rapprochement with the U.S.
As it turned out, I was right about the Communists and nationalists, but quite wrong about the liberals. The Communists did indeed maintain their deeply anti-American feelings. I was confronted by many of them during my lectures in Petersburg and Moscow, where I discussed the importance of the September events to the relationship between America and Russia. These people attacked me with the most absurd conspiratorial theories, ascribing the terrorists acts in New York and Washington to American special services and describing Osama bin Laden as a CIA agent.
Some Russian nationalists changed their views on RussianAmerican relations. Among these nationalists was Alexander Tsipko, an old acquaintance of mine and a leading political scientist. Only a few months ago he had denounced "the Washington obkom" (an allusion to the regional party committee), accusing it of pushing Russia toward catastrophe. But now he seems convinced that it is necessary for the country to forge an alliance with America.
It was a different story altogether with my dear liberals. Why weren't they pleased now that their sympathies for America won approval from above? Of course, there were some liberals who vehemently supported the new foreign policy. They voiced their opinion mostly through a few consistently pro liberal, pro Western media, such as TV channel 6, the newspaper "Kommersant," and the weekly "Itogi." However, most of those who call themselves liberals, the advocates of the free market and democracy, did not budge from their adverse views of America. Their gut hatred and contempt for America is so strong that they do not want to recognize America as a victim, a just revenger, nor as a victor. Indeed, these liberals felt little compassion for the American tragedy of September. Certainly, as they watched the horrendous pictures on television they felt pain and empathy for the victims and their families. But a month later, in their discourses about the U.S., they forgot about the victims and labeled America as ultimately responsible for the September events. Of course, these liberals also fiercely disapproved of the war against the Taliban. They submitted that the ultimate outcome of these events would be the collapse of American dominance in the world. Later, as the American successes in Afghanistan became evident they tried to downgrade the achievement by declaring that "Americans simply bought their victory." In the aftermath of September 11 the most liberal newspapers, Obshchaia Gazeta and Novaia Gazeta, published a number of nasty anti-American articles, some of which nearly gloated over the American disaster and regarded it as necessary redemption for America's arrogance. One such article was written by Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of the Soviet leader, whose contempt for America was seconded by her uncle Sergei Khrushchev, a recently confirmed U.S. citizen who published a scathing article about America in another supposedly liberal newspaper, Izvestia.
It is remarkable that Russian liberals simply do not believe (and who knows, perhaps their familiarity with the Kremlin's Byzantine intrigues entitle their scepticism) that Putin's move toward a rapprochement with the U.S. will be long-lasting. Rather, they perceive it as a temporary manoeuver and in no way a radical shift from the age-old anti-Western policy. Liberal Russian journalists often cite previous episodes of rapprochement between the two countries (during the times of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin), all of which ended with an outburst of mutual animosity. Moreover, many liberals do not believe that Putin will relinquish the Eurasian ideology with its focus on the alliance with China against the West; the ideology is also supported by many generals.
During my stay in Russia, it was announced that Putin would close two miliary bases-one in Cuba, another in Vietnam. This was evidently another powerful sign of the president's determination to abandon the struggle for equality with the U.S. in the international arena. In the Russian TV program Vremia (October 21), this decision was hotly attacked by former generals, but defended by some political analysts. However, the people around me were totally indifferent to this event and refused to see it as another milestones in the new relations between America and Russia. None of my interlocutors paid great attention to the landing of American troops, with the Kremlin's full endorsement, in Central Asia, a territory that had been under Russia's control for roughly two centuries. This event infuriated Communists and their allies among the nationalists.
In each of my lectures at the leading sociological and economics institutions in Moscow and Petersburg, I prodded my audience by praising Putin. I spoke of the president as a great leader who showed that he understood the deep national interests of the country by proclaiming Russia as an ally of America. To make my point even more provocative I compared Putin to Stalin, who had joined the anti-Hitler coalition. I displayed the famous picture from the Yalta conference in 1945 that recently reappeared in the French magazine Nouvelle Observateur, only the heads of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had been replaced with the heads of Bush, Blair and Putin. In each audience my praise of Putin was received with sly smiles or total indifference. During the hot debates over the content of my presentation none of the participants made positive comments about Putin's shift in foreign policy.
With one of Putin's advisers on public opinion I developed my idea that Putin is a great Russian leader, that he decided to stop chasing the specter of greatness, and that he now pursues the true national interests of the country. The advisor mentioned in an ironic tone that no one in his office, which is visited by some of the highest Russian dignitaries, including the head of the presidential administration, has spoken as highly of Putin as I did.
It is quite curious that many Russians who have visited the U.S. many times, who have entertained close ties with their American colleagues and even those who have children living in the U.S., Israel and other Western countries are no less (or perhaps even more) hostile toward the U.S. than those who have no experience of life in America. In Soviet times as well as in the first fives years of the post-Soviet regime there was a positive correlation between one's level of education and social status and one's friendliness toward America. Now, it is quite easy to see (and the survey data supports my personal impressions) that the inverse is true. The more socially active and educated a person is the more they dislike America. Only members of the lowest strata of Russian society are close to the cream of society in their negative attitudes toward America. In any case, my personal experience in Moscow refutes an idea that is deeply ingrained in the American mind: "If they knew us they would love us."
Meanwhile, the bulk of the population is quite friendly toward the U.S. If Moscow was the hotbed of pro American feelings in the past, the province is now more congenial toward America. The results of a Fund of Public Opinion survey published during my stay in Russia showed that the relative number of Muscovites who considered the bombardment of Afghanistan as "a means to consolidate the American dominance in the world" was one-third higher than the relevant number for Russia as a whole.
A comparison of Russia's attitudes toward America with that of other countries engenders some interesting results. As explained, in Russia the elites are much more hostile toward the U.S. than the masses, but in Pakistan the opposite is true. The ruling class is more pro American than the rest of society. In Eastern European countries we see unity among the elites and the masses in their support for the U.S. in the wake of September 11, while China probably serves as an example of a country in which both the elites and the masses are suspicious of the U.S. even after its terrible tragedy.
While there are some commonalities, the causes of anti-Americanism vary from one country to the next. According to the theory of one of my colleagues, Russia's enmity toward the U.S. is deeply rooted in the unwillingness of ambitious people to reconcile themselves to the fact that they are successful only in a rather provincial country and that they are not on par with their American counterparts.
One of my old acquaintances-a prominent scholar who often visits America and has two children living in the West-was surprisingly inimical toward the U.S. The rejection of Osama bin Laden as the main suspect of the terrorist acts is an almost irrefutable indicator of deep anti-Americanism, a device often used by educated people who try to cover their true feelings toward America by citing their respect for the assumption of innocence. This scholar, like many other Russian scholars, believed that America's accusations against Osama bin Laden were suspicious. He also said that America was guilty for the failures of economic reforms in Russia and fumed about the arrogance of American foreign policy. I met several other intellectuals, most of them with experience of life in the U.S., who shared practically the same views.
Even more interesting was my contact with a group of students in a prestigious postgraduate school of advertisement in Moscow. I attended a class where the instructor, at my request, linked all of the day's tasks to the developments of September 11. One of the tasks was to invent three titles for articles about the horrific incident. To my great surprise most of the proposed titles were ostensibly anti-American: "A card house," "The collapse of America and globalism," "The hypocrisy of political correctness," "The power of the dollar," "The triumph of America as the symbol of the end of the world," and so on. Only one student, a Georgian, emerged as a true friend of America. When I shared my perceptions of the students views and mentioned that I was astounded by their almost unanimous anti-Americanism nobody protested against my generalization.
At the same time, I discovered in intellectual circles total indifference toward the fate of Russian democracy. Intellectuals have witnessed the evident decline of democratic institutions since 1993 and the acceleration of this process under Putin. In our conversations, they did not deny that the State Duma was somewhat similar to the Supreme Soviet, that there were no serious political oppositions in the country, and that self censorship in the media was almost universal. They also did not deny that the Kremlin was trying to shutdown TV-6, the last independent television station in Russia. However, none of my interlocutors expressed even the slightest concern about these developments. The major subject of my conversations in both capitals was not the miserable status of Russian civil society (nobody took seriously the fuss about "the forum of civic organizations" arranged by Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin's main adviser on public relations), but the deep conflict inside the political establishment and the fight for control of the bureaucracy and corporations. The struggle between two groups, "Kremlin I" and "Kremlin II," to use the terminology of the Moscow press, captivated the people I talked to. "Kremlin I" was made up of the old team of officials that Putin inherited from Yeltsin. "Kremlin II" consisted of the "gray wolves," as also termed by the press, for their obscurity and aggressiveness; the members included Leningrad's KGB men, and Putin's acquaintances from his native city. Both teams were deeply anti-Western and anti-democratic. With sharp interest some intellectuals discussed the gossip about an exotic political issue-the growing role of the gay faction in the ruling elite, particularly in the Ministry of foreign affairs.
While displaying their coolness about Russian democracy the same liberals with almost sadistic pleasure attacked the attempts in America to diminish some civil liberties as necessary for the fight against terrorism. One journalist, whom I had always regarded as a friend of America (he has visited the U.S. several dozen times), venomously rebuked the White House for Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's criticism of the American comedian Bill Maher's insensitive comments about the September events. This journalist called it "the end of the freedom of speech in America."
During my stay in Moscow I came across a very interesting and important political development: the ideological and psychological conflict between Putin and most of the political establishment. As the prominent political analyst Sergei Karaganov formulated, "Putin is now far away from his obsolete foreign policy establishment." Karaganov also contended that "people in Russia simply do not understand what the president is doing." He was seconded by Viacheslav Nikonov, his Moscow colleague, who asserted that "Putin has assumed a position that is more pro Western than 90 percent of the Russian electorate and the elite are prepared to tolerate it."
Certainly, the conflict between Putin and the elite has not been made fully public. Putin's authoritarian rule and the corrupt elites' fear of arousing the ire of a vengeful Kremlin explains why the voices of critics have been muffled. Adjusting to the new views of their boss, Sergei Rogov suggested in his article published in Nezavisimaia Gazeta that it was not Putin who was pushed to change his foreign policy, but Washington that began to "grovel" before the Kremlin, looking for its support in the war against the Taliban. Another journalist suggested that Putin's forthcoming relations with the American president made "Russia a superpower" again. Only Gennadii Ziuganov dared, in an open letter in Sovietskaia Rossia, to directly equate the president to Gorbachev and Yeltsin as a potential traitor, while the rabid nationalist Mitrofanov mocked Putin's intention to replace Tony Blair as "the first deputy mayor of the global village." The contempt of most Russian military generals for Putin's friendship with America is conventional wisdom in Moscow. The open letter of "the generals and admirals of the Soviet armed forces and the Russian army to the president of the Russian Federation, the deputies of the State Duma, the members of the government, and governors (presidents) of the Russian Federation" (published on November 10) harshly critiqued Putin's military policy and confirmed this conviction.
It is not amazing that many members of the Russian elite-for instance, political analyst Dmitry Gornostayev-underscored that even if Moscow and Washington achieved, during Putin's visit to the U.S., an understanding on nearly all of the issues on their agenda they have failed to accomplish a rapprochement on strategic issues per se.
Confronting the clearly spiteful feelings of the elite in relation to his new foreign policy (these feelings are reflected in the grim faces of Russian dignitaries at televised meetings with Putin in which he explains his new friendship with America), Putin deemed it necessary to say on November 20 that the critics of the new rapprochement with the West are "deeply deluded" if they think that this new move is a tactical ploy.
Of course, the future of Russia's relationship with the U.S. depends on a host of factors, both domestic and international. I will not discuss the different prognoses and I am far from excluding the chance of a complete reversal of Russia's friendly stance toward Western foreign policy, but I do believe that the political and intellectual elite, whatever the extent of their anti-Americanism, will not be able to force Putin to revoke his new stance toward the West.
I discussed this question with a few respected social scientists in Moscow. Most of them dismissed the idea that Putin is taking a serious political risk with his turnabout in foreign policy. Ironically, they believe that Putin's risky friendship with America can not hurt him because of the character of his authoritarian rule, his control over the media, the spreading of fear among those who are at odds with his policies, and the complete demoralization of the Russian generals.
As for the masses, they should be ignored as an actor in foreign policy issues. Putin continues to be the only Russian politician who is supported and trusted by the majority of the population. After Putin's trip to the U.S., the public's willingness to reelect him as president was higher than before his proclamation of the new course in foreign policy (compare 53 percent on November 17-18 against 44 percent in July 2001). At the same time, two-thirds of the Russians endorsed the alliance with the U.S. on the eve of Putin's trip to America.
Similar to several leaders and regimes of the past, Putin is a popular leader who runs an authoritarian (though not totalitarian) society, which shares several elements of a Bonapartist regime. One of the sources of Putin's popularity is the clear difference between him and Yeltsin, who was openly corrupt and often drunk. Several regimes in history belonged to this group (for instance, the regimes of Napoleon I and Napoleon III in the nineteenth century, the Peronist regime in the twentieth century, leaving aside the Caesarism in Roman history). In such a regime the head of state enjoys high popularity among the masses, which is often due to his attacks against elites and promises to ordinary people to bring order in society and satisfy their basic needs. He combines this support of the populace with the use of the army, or in Putin's case the political police, as his major instrument of power. Under these circumstances he is not restrained by any political body-democratic or nondemocratic, such as the Politburo or a military junta-and feels mostly free from the influence of the regime's political and economic elites, and especially enjoys his independence in matters of foreign policy.
Putin now has the West as an ally and a weak and craven elite as an opposition. His position, no doubt, has been fortified. He has shielded himself from the foreign critiques of his mimic democracy and the cruel behavior of his troops in Chechnia. What is more, with his alliance with America he can now be more confident in diverting the threat of Islamic fundamentalists to Russia, a threat much more important for the survival of Russia than the American presence, even in the long term. He can also hope to get assistance from the West in the case of an emergency.
A threat to Putin's regime lies only in the potential change of the mood of the masses and the drastic decline of Putin's popularity, which could happen only with a new economic crisis as a result of a continued decline in oil prices. Only in this case (and if Western aid was not sufficient to overcome the economic adversities) could Putin's popularity fall drastically and the specter of mass riots emerge. In such a case, he would be confronted by rivals. Under certain circumstances these rivals might have a chance, though very slim, for success. At the same time, it would be difficult to dislodge Putin in almost any case.
By the end of my visit to Russia, I found myself in a strange mood. In the last year, I had watched Putin's behavior with mixed feelings. I recognized that he helped stabilize the society, but I also saw in him a ruler who used lies and demagoguery consistently. He systematically destroyed Russia's fledgling democratic institutions, without speaking about the suspicious circumstances of his arrival to power. And now, as it seems, he has sincerely joined America in the fight against a very dangerous enemy of Western civilization. In my hierarchy of values, Putin's involvement in the war against international terrorism is much higher than my genuine concern for democracy in Russia. What is more, I could not escape the thought that this turnabout in the Kremlin's policy (so beneficial for America and the West) would not be possible if democracy was triumphant in Russia and the State Duma had clout in foreign policy decisions.
Reflecting on Putin's new foreign policy, I sometimes think of my grandfather. He had been an owner of a few pharmacies in Kiev before the revolution. By all means he hated the Bolsheviks who confiscated his property and introduced a repressive regime in the country. And yet, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and Stalin headed the fight against the Nazis my grandfather reconciled with the Soviet regime and wished it victory with all his heart. In the same fashion, in spite of the dubiousness of comparing Putin to Stalin, I have moved from being a harsh critic of Putin to a bourgeoning supporter. It seems clear to me that the war on terrorism is too serious for America to discard Putin as an ally. Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank Joshua Woods for his editorial contribution to this article.