Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 5

By Andrei Piontkovsky

It looks as though Russia’s political class has finally found that eternally elusive unifying Russian idea: anti-Americanism.

The United States has halted grant payments to three Russian institutes and announced that it may elect not to use Russian missile carriers, evoking a unanimous wave of indignation and resentment amongst those who like to call themselves the “political elite.” “They want to punish us for pursuing an independent foreign policy, and for our creative flights of political fancy–for the courageous idea of a strategic triangle between Russia, India and China.” Such were the themes of articles in leading liberal publications.

First, however, Moscow has already punished itself for the ill-conceived idea of a strategic triangle, receiving an icy rebuke from a representative of the Chinese government. Throughout his career in the party bureaucracy, Yevgeny Primakov has refined the art of looking meaningful and declaring in his deep, commanding bass voice truisms and platitudes which are accepted by his subordinates as supreme revelations of stately wisdom. Given that today every Russian official is subordinate to Primakov, it has become an unquestioned rule of political correctness in Moscow to marvel at the prime minister’s extraordinary wisdom both in diplomacy and in economics. Only the most desperate can occasionally be heard to murmur timidly that Russia’s political emperor has no clothes.

He demonstrated this once more in Delhi, when he proposed in authoritative tones the creation of “a strategic Russian-Indian-Chinese triangle.” Up until now, China’s diplomats had listened distastefully, but with diplomatic courtesy and Eastern inscrutability, while Russia’s politicians busily tried to impose themselves upon the Chinese as strategic partners. But a triangle with India was absurd. A swift response came that very evening. An official representative of the Chinese foreign ministry coldly reminded Moscow that “China pursues an independent foreign policy, and while it may support cooperation with Russia and other countries, China does not intend to enter into blocks or alliances with them.” A slap in the face for Russian diplomacy.

Secondly, the Russian “elite” has a very inadequate understanding of its own significance if it believes that American foreign policy is governed by the desire to punish or encourage it. U.S. policy, like that of any normal state, is governed primarily by consideration of its own national interests. And, in order to defend Russia’s national interests, we need to have a realistic rather than a mythical understanding of the interests of other players on the world stage.

The priority for U.S. foreign policy is not to allow radical regimes and movements hostile to Washington access to nuclear weapon technology which they could potentially use against the United States. One could argue at length about how much the Americans exaggerate the threat and whether this preoccupation is a sort of phobia, but that does not matter. What matters is that this issue exists and that it is extremely important and sensitive to Washington.

This is why the United States has been talking seriously to Moscow for many years now in an attempt to persuade Russia to cease its government-level technical cooperation with Iran and to increase control over the activities of private companies and institutes in this field. Officially, Moscow’s position is legally unassailable. The construction of the nuclear power station in Bushehr is being supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the teaching of Iranian students and graduates likewise contravenes no international agreements.

Unofficially, however, everyone knows that the gap between Iran’s first active nuclear reactor and Iran’s first nuclear bomb will be no greater than that between Enrico Fermi’s first reactor in 1942 and the first explosion in July 1945 in Alamogordo. And everyone can see that Iran is carrying out tests of more and more sophisticated, longer-range missiles.

Basically America is asking Russia for a very important favor in a very important area. This gives us an opportunity to hold a serious dialog on mutual strategic interests–for example, the wide deployment of Russian antimissile technology in existing projects for the defense of Europe and other regions from possible terrorist attacks. This would present huge opportunities for our military-industrial complex. It would be extremely difficult for the Americans to insist on our cooperation in nonproliferation and at the same time reject our participation in antimissile defense projects. After all, the two tasks have a common aim–to defend the planet from nuclear terrorism.


The first is economic: The Iran project brings in relatively large amounts of money for the Atomic Energy Ministry and smaller amounts for various institutes and individual experts. At the same time, it has long been clear that sooner or later it will place in jeopardy much larger space exploration and other contracts.

The second is metaphysical: For a significant and ever growing section of our “political elite”, any opportunity for causing the US discomfort brings with it a deep feeling of satisfaction to compensate, at least partially, for defeat in the Cold War, which the same “elite” suffered, and for Russia’s unenviable position today, for which it is responsible. These feelings are understandable and even justifiable from a human perspective, but in this particular case is not the price we may have to pay for them too high? Who can guarantee that these lethal weapons will only fall into the hands of the America-hating Ben-Ladens, not into the hands of the Russia-hating Khattabs?

Anti-Americanism on principle as a basis for foreign policy is destructive in any case. It bears witness to the lack of independence and deep inferiority complex of the “foreign policy elite,” which has not even managed to develop its own Russian reference system for analyzing world events, but makes do with the American one, simply changing the terms.

There is no more great power dignity in hysterical anti-Americanism than there is in obsequious pro-Americanism. Why do Paris or Beijing, who often disagree with the Americans on many issues, never make a fuss? They do not recall their ambassadors for two days, breaking off negotiations on humanitarian aid (which, incidentally, they do not apply for either); they do not show pictures on all television channels of the president and the prime minister leaning over a military map after a sleepless night, looking like resolute generals (imagine Jacques Chirac or Lionel Jospin in such ridiculous poses). But at the same time, following their own national interests, they try to reap the maximum political and economic benefit from any situation.

Until it is governed by cool calculation and pragmatic interests rather than infantile grievances (“nobody told us,” “nobody asked us”) and the megalomaniac complexes of the veterans of a Cold War which they lost without honor, Russian foreign policy will continue to suffer setback after setback. And the “political elite” will continue to alternate between bouts of patriotic madness and appeals for humanitarian aid.

Andrei Piontkovsky heads the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based think-tank.