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Moscow Times
November 30, 2004
Putin's Impossible Dream
By Pavel Felgenhauer

The falsification of election results in Ukraine's presidential runoff, carried out by a corrupt local oligarchy with Kremlin support, seems finally to have ended the four-year romance between Russia's authoritarian president and the West.

The true nature of President Vladimir Putin's regime has been public knowledge for some time, brought to light at great personal risk by Russian journalists, human rights and democracy activists. But the West either failed to notice or chose not to listen. Western political and business leaders remarked from time to time that Putin had acted regrettably, but the fight against international terrorism was their top priority.

For its part, the Kremlin occasionally offered perks to the West -- the opportunity to make money in Russia or help in adopting a child. In the Soviet era, Putin was a KGB officer involved in the recruitment of foreign agents. He has used his professional skills effectively, probing, locating soft spots and recruiting one Western leader after another.

In the end, Western opportunism created the impression that Putin could get away with anything. The Kremlin maintained that Russia is a special case -- a country with a complex history where Western rules do not apply. A crowd of spin doctors -- both Russian and foreign -- propagated this line around the world, insisting that criticism of Putin's policies amounted to Russophobia or propaganda financed by renegade oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

An illusion was created of a politically stable, rapidly developing Russia that could soon become an ally of the West. Alliances arise from shared values and interests, however. In today's Russia, the core Western values of democracy and rule of law are being eradicated.

Putin seems never to have intended to build alliances with the West. The attempts by the United States and other Western powers following 9/11 to establish a formal partnership -- the NATO-Russia Council, for example -- were effectively undermined by Moscow. Many Western diplomats have told me in frustration that the stubborn Russian bureaucracy seems not to have been told about a fundamental shift in relations with the West. Westerners still do not fully appreciate that in Russia no one ever does anything, especially in the areas of military and foreign policy, that contradicts the will of the Kremlin.

Putin sought Western technology and investment in order to modernize the economy. He wanted Russia to be included in the G8 and the World Trade Organization. The Kremlin wanted the West to recognize the Commonwealth of Independent States as Russia's sphere of influence. In return, Putin was prepared to say the right things about democracy and related issues.

The West took the bait. But it did not simply hand over Ukraine and Georgia. The Kremlin maintained that the West was deceiving Russia and that, despite their lofty pronouncements about partnership and cooperation, the United States and NATO remained Russia's chief strategic adversaries.

In 2003, the United States got bogged down in Iraq, and Russia formed an anti-war alliance with France and Germany. This freed the Kremlin's hands, and it immediately seized the opportunity to smash Khodorkovsky and to conclude Russia's experiment with representative democracy. Steps were taken to establish control over Georgia and Ukraine.

The West expressed its disapproval and was especially distressed by the attempt to take over Ukraine. Yet it is perfectly clear that no one under any circumstances would intervene militarily to protect Georgia or Ukraine from Russia.

The Brezhnev Doctrine, named after the Soviet leader who sent tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush a pro-democracy movement with tacit Western approval -- asserted a limited sovereignty for the states subordinate to Russia. This doctrine is still operative within the CIS. But Putin's Russia does not have the military power to send in the tanks and dominate foreign countries. We cannot even bring Chechnya into line. What could we hope to achieve in Ukraine, with its rebellious population of nearly 50 million?

Along with many others, I have been calling for meaningful military reform for more than a decade. But it now seems to me that we're very lucky the Kremlin never heeded this advice, leaving our unreformed military totally incapable of carrying out Putin's dream of restoring the empire. No matter how you slice it, we're far better off with a weak and revisionist Russia than a newly restored, resurgent Soviet Union.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.