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#6 - JRL 7024
The Russia Journal
January 17-23, 2003
Cold reason meets wounded feelings
By Andrei Piontkovsky

Just as Copernicus revolutionized the way people looked at the universe, last year brought about a revolution in the Russian political class' foreign-policy and defense consciousness. Slowly, amid great resistance and inner antagonism, it is coming round to the heretical thought that the West does not represent a military threat to Russia in the modern world.

It so happened that I ended up discussing various national-security issues with a high-placed official from the Foreign Affairs Ministry and, a few days later, did the same with a general from the General Staff. What struck me was that these two people, neither of whom knew each other, both said the same phrase: "You understand, Andrei, my reason agrees with you, but my heart does not." This phrase aptly reflects the mood prevalent among the Russian elite.

Intelligent professionals are fully aware that there is no military threat from the West, but in their hearts, they, for some reason, refuse to accept this seemingly good news. I think psychology can help explain this paradox.

It's not a case of paranoid suspicion; rather, it's that for decades, Soviet diplomats and military men (and there is no other kind of diplomat and military man in Russia) were trained to think of themselves and their professional work, of which they were rightly proud, only within the context of global confrontation with the West, above all with the United States.

By analogy with Rene Descartes' famous "cogito ergo sum," the Soviet diplomatic and military motto, whether conscious or unconscious, was "I am America's rival, therefore I exist," or, to be more precise, "I am America's equal rival, therefore I exist." For many representatives of the Russian elite, losing the West as a threat feels like a loss of personal status.

For Russia's political class, their country's search for its place in the new geopolitical framework also represents a problem of personal and psychological status.

President Vladimir Putin, it seems, resolves this issue by perceiving himself to be one of the leaders of the global coalition against international terrorism. One of the latest fashions among Russian politicians and propagandists is to assert that Russia and the United States have an increasingly common understanding in the fight against international terrorism. At the same time, they criticize Europe, which, in Moscow's opinion, doesn't understand the demands the fight against terrorism imposes and even slips into helping terrorism.

This seems to me a fallacious and illusory argument, which, if it persists, will only lead to new mutual disappointments. The problem is that when Moscow talks about the fight against international terrorism, it means above all, and to the exclusion of almost everything else, its military operations in Chechnya. And when it talks about greater understanding with the United States, it means approval, or at least milder criticism, from Washington of Russia's actions in Chechnya.

Washington has noticed how sensitive Moscow -- and Putin personally -- are about the Chechnya issue and has learned to approach it in a pragmatic fashion. From time to time, President George W. Bush appears on the White House lawn, saying that Putin acted rightly during the hostage crisis in Moscow, and, though some say he didn-t, he looked into Putin-s soul and knows that he acted with courage and decisiveness and is a reliable ally in the fight against international terrorism.

These kinds of words set off a rush of warm feelings in Moscow and make officials more willing to work constructively with the United States and the U.N. Security Council on Iraq.

But this barter deal can't be a long-term foundation for Russian-U.S. relations. Russia's policy in Chechnya, with its ongoing cleansing, refusal to negotiate and self-deception about the referendum, is so rigid and unconstructive from the point of view of Russia's own interests that, sooner or later, Washington will find itself having to criticize Moscow.

When it comes, this criticism will cause great disappointment and irritation in Moscow, and the whole Russian propaganda machine that has been busy attacking tiny Denmark will bring its wrath down on the United States. The Russian political elite is still a long way from succeeding in reconciling what its reason sees with what its heart feels.

(Andrei Piontkovsky is director of the Center for Strategic Research.)

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