by Gordon M. Hahn
Russia: Other Points of View
June 19, 2012

In a recent San Francisco Chronicle article, a Stanford University journalism professor and former New York Times writer Joel Brinkley blames Russian President Vladimir Putin for the recent downturn in U.S.-Russian relations following the progress made during the ‘reset’ years under U.S. President Barak Obama and Russian Prime Minister and former president Dmitrii Medvedev (San Francisco Chronicle, 20 may 2012).

Brinkley’s missive offers yet another simplistic and one-sided assessment of Putin and the history of U.S.-Russian relations after the Cold War. Although Putin is not a full democrat, he is no dictator either. As a soft autocrat, he may be willing to move towards democracy if pushed by Russian society, which appears in process.

American journalists and academics almost unanimously report that Putin was in charge throughout Medvedev’s presidency. If that is true, then much of the credit for the domestic liberalization policy and the ‘reset’ in foreign policy since 2008 must go to Putin. But this view is not considered by today’s American mainstream journalism. In their milieu, sensational reporting – ‘man bites dog’, ‘good guy versus bad guy’, and ‘Russia is eternally an enemy’ – holds sway.

In this case, Putin bites the Russian people, the West and, especially, America; Putin is always the worst sort of bad guy – the Stalin of today. In the same reporting, the U.S. never steps on interests of others’ and, when it comes to Russia, can do no wrong.

For Brinkley and his colleagues, Putin is simple; he “was virtually born and raised in the KGB…to spy on the enemy, the United States.” Other acceptable features of Putin’s pragmatic career are skirted over. Brinkley says: “(A)s the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, Putin found himself in an embarrassing job trying to arrange food aid from the West. For him, it was widely reported at the time, begging for food was humiliating, as if Russia were some poor, Third World state.” What’s left out of this picture is that Putin had abandoned the KGB as the Soviet ship-of-state sunk (as did many Soviet party-state apparatchiki at the time). He went to work for one of the late USSR’s leading democrats, Anatolii Sobchak, mayor of St.Petersburg. Opportunistic careerism, one might say; perhaps so, but not an anti-American ideologue. In short, Putin’s biography is mixed and reflects that of a practical politician, who is loyal to his allies and tough on his opponents.

Regarding Putin’s alleged humiliation, Brinkley would do better to remember that virtually the entire country felt humiliated after their triumph over communism in December 1991, when farms and food lines fell apart, jobs collapsed, and the nation was left under Yeltsin with no discernable direction. Russia’s 150 million people plunged into a depression far worse than ours in the early 20th century.

Russia’s reward from the Clinton administration for overthrowing communism, dismantling the Union state, and beginning the tough transition to democracy was the West’s failure to deliver promised economic assistance during this period. Further, Clinton began the expansion of the world’s most powerful military alliance, NATO, towards Russia with no serious effort to bring Russia into the fold. Russia was told it was a defeated power; and the humiliation of Russia seemed intentional on the part of NATO’S new members.

Difficulties in dealing with Russia on Iran, Syria, Libya, European missile defense plans, and almost every other contentious issue between Russia and the West, is a direct result of these humiliations. Even though wary of U.S. intentions, Russia has still been key in supporting America’s war against global jihadism and the war in Afghanistan.

Brinkley is simply wrong in asserting that after Putin’s election in 2000 “his greatest point of conflict with the United States was Washington’s plan to build an antimissile defense system.”

Russia’s greatest conflict and concern has been over NATO expansion toward her borders and the accompanying ‘color revolutions’ in nearby former Soviet republics as NATO expansion took place. According to Brinkley, “Putin was furious with Washington” again when in 2007 Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered Russia the “option to station staff” at the envisioned missile-defense facilities––only to see the offer pulled back by the White House. One might ask why Washington has not revived the offer, engaged Russia on a Eurasian-wide security regime as Russia requested, or begun NATO cooperation with the CSTO countries, at least in the struggle against global jihadism and Afghanistan.

Brinkley’s spotty narrative then jumps to and past the Medvedev interregnum, skipping over the August 2008 Georgian-initiated war with South Ossetia (where Russia was part of an official UN Peacekeeping Force)––and U.S. miscalculations that instigated the war, including plans to expand NATO to Georgia and Ukraine; not to mention Washington’s overzealous support for Georgia’s erratic and pseudo-democratic president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

The insertion of the NATO expansion into the tinderbox regions of intense inter-ethnic conflict (with self-determination and sovereignty issues) as in Georgia and Ukraine, was a grave error. Its gravity was intensified by the fact that NATO’s injection into that region was undertaken against the geographic and financial interests of the region’s largest power, Russia, at a time when the Washington was overwhelmed with other military commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas fighting against global jihadism. When this tension was added to the Georgian-Ossetian, Georgian-Abkhazian, and Georgian-Russian tensions, the result was almost guaranteed to be war.

With Putin’s return to the presidency, Brinkley offers a back-handed compliment to Putin as “a clever man,” who used, albeit, “a vicious anti-American campaign, once directly blaming Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for instigating the anti-Putin riots he could see out his office window.”

Actually, most of the demonstrations beginning on December 10th were peaceful, the demonstrations’ leaders appear on state television and radio quite frequently, some have their own shows on state radio. Incidentally, Putin could not have witnessed the incidents of violence from his location in the Russian White House, as Brinkley stated. More importantly, he leaves out (as the entire Western media has), the liberalization of Russian politics during Medvedev’s presidency, climaxing with major democratic reform legislation proposed in response to the December demonstrations and passed into law this spring.

This period occurred on an international background of more Western interventionism, this time in the revolutionary Muslim world, that required Russian approval to receive a UN mandate. With Russia’s own very dangerous global jihadi revolutionary movement (the Caucasus Emirate) carrying out on average, more than one attack a day in Russia; killing and wounding Russians and Muslims alike, Moscow fears more fires in this region. Not to mention that the West is backing revolutionary forces across the Middle East that are made up largely of Islamist and Jihadist elements, in particular the less-violent Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Such peaceful Islamists like the MB are in fact more influential than their violent Jihadi brothers, because the former are likely to garner much more public support against the U.S., than the latter.

It was “into this melee” of domestic and foreign tensions (not those that Brinkley describes) that U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, “stepped into,” as he put it. McFaul’s appointment may have been a good one in some respects, but may not have been the best choice in terms of unintended consequences driven by Russian perceptions. Here I am referring to a simmering Russian fear, which is understandable given the history of U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War. Ambassador McFaul became the focus of this difficult history.

McFaul has been known throughout the past dozen or more years to be a “practioner of democracy promotion,” in addition to being a Russia specialist. His biography feeds on Russia’s paranoia as a result of the Clinton and Bush administrations’ policies of combined NATO expansion and pro-democracy ‘color revolutions.’ In reality, however, McFaul is not in Moscow to foment a ‘white ribbon revolution.’

Russia’s present political instability is the result of massive corruption, soft authoritarianism, the rising economic and political expectations of growing middle and entrepreneurial classes, the intelligentsia, and democratic, communist and nationalist activists [ADD and] are Russia’s to sort out. This paranoia on Russia’s part produced the anti-McFaul media campaign that ensued upon his arrival in Moscow. And it has led to a spiral of growing mistrust and suspicion in Russia, the U.S., and the mass media.

Here, however, Russia’s paranoia was informed by rationality based on facts (long denied by the U.S.) regarding its support for past color revolutionaries. Ambassador McFaul himself acknowledged in a recent talk in Moscow and a later “Tweet’ that “(o)ther administrations used to do it (foment color revolutions). And it’s true. …” “Other administrations have supported democratic revolutions in other countries" (Russia Today, 13 June 2012 and http://twitter.com/aavst/statuses/213001620525559812). For years Russian officials had charged this, while U.S. officials denied it. Now the truth apparently has come out.

Russia’s problem with the color revolutions was not so much democratization (on that score the color revolutions have had mixed results) but rather the militarization of Western pro-democracy policy resulting from the simultaneous expansion of NATO and its incorporation (or attempted incorporation) of post-color revolution states into its fold. This has been the crux of almost all post-Cold War tensions between Russia and the West, and has become a major obstacle to Russian democratization.

It is unlikely that Ambassador McFaul’s retort, "Where do they get my calendar? I respect the press’ right to go anywhere and ask any question. But do they have the right to read my mail and listen to my phone?" regarding NTV journalists’ ‘snooping,’ was really meant as a serious charge, as Brinkley assumes.

McFaul’s comment was more likely an emotional reaction to the harassment to which he felt he was being subjected. If a U.S. Ambassador is really having his phone and email bugged, there are official ways of addressing this: Washington’s temporary recall of the ambassador in protest, an official U.S. government protest delivered to the Russian ambassador in Washington or directly to the Russian Foreign Ministry, or even the expulsion of Russian embassy personnel from the U.S.

Under the influence of paranoia and suspicion, Russian officials, especially but not only Putin, often react with unnecessary harshness. This is at the root of the anti-McFaul campaign and not an “inherent hatred of America” on Putin’s part, as Brinkley claims.

Brinkley’s and the rest of the U.S. mass media’s fundamental mistake is to regard Russian politics as monolithic, viewing every anti-American action as ordered from the very top––while ignoring every reform policy instituted along with cases of cooperation with the U.S., and making sure that none of these reasonable policies are attributed to Putin. It is under “the number one geopolitical foe, Putin,” that Russia has been the U.S.’s lead non-Western partner in combating global jihadism and fighting the Taliban and Al Qa`ida in ‘AfPak’ (Afghanistan-Pakistan).

The contradiction between anti-American and pro-American actions and Russian reformist and reactionary domestic polices, is due to a major political struggle going on both inside the Russian political elite, and between the political elite and the “opposition.”

Putin has been a balancer of these divergent various forces within the system. First, he began rolling back the 1990s version of democracy when he took office in 2000, promoted FSB officials (those he trusted from the past) to key positions, and challenged U.S. policies under the George Bush administration. Then came a period of liberalization during Medvedev’s presidency, the removal of FSB officers from power, and the reset in U.S.-Russian relations.

There are some signs that Putin seems to be moving now to counterbalance the recent reformism. Domestically, he appears to be trying to confine political space in the streets (outside the political system) in order to split the opposition and isolate radicals, while opening up the political system in order to bring the moderates into it. Unfortunately, he may go further and move toward a crackdown on opposition forces if they endanger the current stability. If suspicions (fostered in good part by past U.S. actions) are not somehow addressed, the likelihood of such a crackdown and an end to the liberalization process of the last four years, will increase.

Ambassador McFaul, among others, is well-equipped to halt these negative trends. One-sided ‘black-and-white’ journalism, is not the answer. The ambassador’s acknowledgement about past U.S. practices during the “colored revolutions” in nearby countries, is a good first step.

But there is little time to waste and much more to do. With almost daily deterioration in an ominous international situation which affects America both economically and politically, Russia can be a constructive pivotal partner for the U.S. and the West. But the West will have to offer something in return––treating Russia as a negotiable competitor rather than an intransigent enemy, will be a must.


Joel Brinkley, “Putin’s return to power roils relations with U.S.”

San Francisco Chronicle, 20 may 2012

Now that Vladimir Putin is back in the Kremlin’s highest office as the result of another fraudulent election, Americans should expect ever more hostile relations with Russia.

Putin, a vain and vulgar man, was born and bred to despise the United States. And in recent times, Washington has given him little reason to change his mind.

The latest example: President Obama waited several days before calling Putin to congratulate him on his inauguration as president this month – though Obama did manage to call Francois Hollande just a few hours after he was declared the winner of the French presidential elections. And if you want to see what Putin has in store for the United States, there’s no better example than his government’s treatment of Michael McFaul, the new ambassador from Washington.

Ever since McFaul arrived in January, the government and the state-owned news media have treated him as a pariah – heckling and harassing him, bugging his phones and reading his e-mails while accusing him of plotting with opposition figures to overthrow the government. "Aren’t you ashamed to be doing do this?" McFaul asked a TV crew that ambushed him. "This is against the Geneva Convention." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, reacting to McFaul’s complaints, sniffed and called him "arrogant."

What makes this seem so odd, at least on the surface, is that McFaul had come directly from the National Security Council, where he’d been charged with directing the "reset" with Russia, Obama’s <http://www.sfgate.com/barack-obama/&gt; effort to improve relations with Moscow. McFaul, on leave from Stanford University <http://www.sfgate.com/education-guide/&gt; , has spent most of his life studying and writing about Russia.

That’s where Putin comes in. Of course, he was virtually born and raised in the KGB, whose primary raison d’etre was to spy on the enemy, the United States. Then, as the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, Putin found himself in an embarrassing job: trying to arrange food aid from the West. For him, it was widely reported at the time, begging for food was humiliating, as if Russia were some poor, Third World state. Russia, he swore, would come back.

He won his first presidential election in 2000, and in the next years his greatest point of conflict with the United States was Washington’s plan to build an antimissile defense system in Europe. Then, in 2007, after Putin had delivered an anti-America screed during a speech in Germany, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made an extraordinary offer. He told Putin that Russia could actually station staff at those missile-defense facilities to be sure the missiles were not aimed at Russia. But before Putin, astonished, could catch his breath, the White House rejected Gates’ proposal. Gates, it seems, had spoken out of turn.

Putin was furious with Washington once again. After serving two terms as president, under Russian law he was barred from seeking a third consecutive term. So he put his subordinate colleague, Dmitry Medvedev, up for election in his place, served as prime minister in the interim, and then ran for president again this year.

Putin is a clever man. Sure, during his latest campaign, the streets of Moscow were alive with major demonstrations denouncing him. But Putin knew that most people outside the city still disliked America as much as he did. So he ran a vicious anti-America campaign, once directly blaming Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for instigating the anti-Putin riots he could see out his office window.

Into this melee stepped McFaul. Just before he left Washington, he tweeted: "This is going to be fun." But before he had even unpacked his bags, the assaults began: State television attacked him for meeting with dissidents. "He’s not a Russia specialist," the TV charged. "He’s a democracy specialist" trying to stir revolution. The American Embassy, it asserted, actually was paying the protesters. Another television commentator said anyone meeting with McFaul "can only be called a traitor."

The next day, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow James Collins told NPR: "This was a shot across the bow – don’t interfere in our electoral politics."

As the weeks wore on, however, McFaul’s situation grew even worse. Almost everywhere he went, a state television crew was waiting to hassle him, causing him to ask: "Where do they get my calendar? I respect the press’ right to go anywhere and ask any question. But do they have the right to read my mail and listen to my phone?"

Since Putin took office May 7, the "hyperbolic and inaccurate" attacks "have receded," McFaul said a few days ago. Putin has other things on his mind. On inauguration day, anti-Putin demonstrators were pouring into the streets once again.

While the police had held back during the mass demonstrations in December and January, this time they turned out in force and arrested anyone who even looked as if he might start demonstrating. So, as Putin attended his Kremlin swearing-in ceremony, walking down red carpets through gold-encrusted doors, out in the street police were hauling away hundreds of people, whacking some of them with rifle butts. About 100 of the young men under arrest suddenly were given draft notices. In the United States, Russia experts remarked that Russia had not faced a moment like this – major protests as a new leader took office – in almost 200 years, since Czar Nicholas I stamped out a major uprising.

And there’s little doubt who had ordered the crackdown. After all, in January, Putin had called the street demonstrators "monkeys" paid by Washington. The white ribbons they wore, he cracked, "look like condoms." Right after he was sworn in, the new president let Washington know there was a change at the top. He told Obama he would not be coming to the Group of Eight summit at Camp David this month, planned in large part so Obama and Putin could meet.

Sorry, he told Obama, I’m just too busy. And a few days later, Obama told Putin he was simply unable to attend another international meeting, in Vladivostok in September.

And so it goes – as if the Cold War had never ended.

© 2012 Joel Brinkley Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.


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