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Moscow Times
May 8, 2003
The Elite Is Not Up to the Job
By Andrei Piontovsky

The Iraq crisis proved to be a serious ordeal for Russia's foreign policy establishment, and a number of its mistakes and miscalculations are all too evident.

Looking back, the Foreign Ministry's enthusiasm for a Russian-French-German alliance -- what Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called "a new phenomenon in world politics, the significance of which goes beyond the Iraqi crisis" -- already looks richly comical.

The forecasts of most experts in the foreign policy, military and intelligence establishments regarding the course of the military campaign proved to be wide of the mark. There was no "new Vietnam," no heroic resistance by the Iraqi people rallying behind their leader, bloody street battles in Baghdad or any of the other claptrap. Assessments were made not on the basis of cold-blooded and rational analysis, but rather were clouded by emotion and deep-seated hostility toward the United States, coupled with a strong desire to see things go badly for it.

Moscow officialdom, assessing the military intervention in Iraq as a "political mistake" -- appended to its censure a reiteration of the thesis that the strategic partnership between Russia and the United States that has taken shape over the past year and a half is so important for both sides that it cannot be seriously damaged by differences over Iraq.

However, the prevalent mood of the Russian political elite, as broadcast with much fanfare for three weeks on all national TV channels, was of triumphant schadenfreude over the slightest slip-up -- real or imagined -- by our "strategic partner." There was really no attempt to conceal the hope that the war would be as protracted as possible with plenty of casualties, both among the allied forces and among the civilian population. This was the scenario that was seriously presented to the public as best serving Russia's interests.

China played its hand in a much more skillful manner than Russia. It declared its disagreement regarding military intervention in Iraq only once, and did not then proceed to make a song-and-dance in front of the television cameras together with its French and German colleagues; it did not threaten on a daily basis to use its veto in the UN Security Council; and did not send its top-level representatives to meet with the fascist dictator. As a result, China managed to preserve its relations with the United States without in any way shifting from its independent position.

Moreover, China consciously positioned itself as a predictable and responsible partner for the United States in the business of maintaining global security. Reinforcing this image in Washington's eyes is crucial to China's strategy for the 21st century. China's soft position on Iraq was just the first step in this direction. It proved successful and was followed by a much more serious move vis-a-vis North Korea, where Russian diplomacy suffered yet another "victory."

North Korea's change in position, declaring its willingness to participate in multilateral negotiations, was a political sensation that was not fully appreciated against the backdrop of the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime. And it would seem that a wise and firm word of advice from China played a role in it. If this is indeed the case, it sends a clear message from Beijing to Washington that cannot go unanswered -- especially given the garbled noises that have been coming out of Moscow.

The triangular relationship between Russia, the United States and China will be the most important for Russia as far as its security in the 21st century is concerned. And in this connection, it is vitally important for Russia to have closer relations with the United States than China does. Otherwise, its soft economic and demographic absorption by its neighbor with the tacit blessing of a friendly United States will become a matter of a historically very short period of time.

Does our political class realize this? The three-week orgy of hatred toward the United States raises serious doubts about its competence and sanity.

The issue of replacing our military and foreign policy elite -- which is incapable of thinking and acting in the new era, and continues to battle with the ghosts of the past, while preferring to ignore the real security threats facing the country -- is long overdue. These people are simply not up to the task of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century. They will actively oppose a policy of strategic partnership with the United States, and all who try to conduct such a policy.

Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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