By Aleksandr Tsipko
After the Republican victory in the U.S. presidential elections in autumn of 2000, many experts forecast a rapprochement between Russia and the West. Their optimism was reinforced by a whole raft of weighty arguments. Both Putin and Bush Junior came to power on the same wave of conservative patriotism, at a time when the need for firm national authority was particularly keenly felt. Both leaders stand for commitment to the traditional values of the state, family and religion. See how Putin, like Bush, uses any occasion he can to stress his commitment to religious traditions. And it should not be forgotten that it has ultimately always been easier for Soviet leaders to find a common language with Republican presidents than with Democrats. Look, for example, at the friendships struck with Nixon and Reagan.
In just the same way that the Americans tired of the liberal missionary zeal of the Clinton administration and Madeleine Albright, the Russians grew weary of the reforming zeal of their own domestic democrats. The new regime in Russia and the Bush administration have both propelled men in uniform, products of the army and security forces, to the forefront of political life. Even during the Cold War, Russian and American generals were known to have no trouble finding a common language, based on mutual understanding.
And as early as in Ljubljana, it could be seen that these objective elements of rapprochement were having their effect, that Putin and Bush too were finding a common language, and that their psychological make-up had common foundations. Interviewed at Ljubljana, Bush said several times that he trusted Putin above all because he was a patriot, committed to his family and to his country.
AN UNEXPECTED PACE
Even so, Putin has pushed his way into the Western community, dragging Russia behind him, at a much greater pace than we in Russia had expected. And this is chiefly because of the tragedy of September 11. It is not only that, confronted with this crisis and asked point-blank where Russia stands, Putin was obliged to take the side of the civilized Christian world. On top of this, since we already consider the task of tackling international terrorism to be on our own national agenda, western and Russian interests in this issue are very closely linked. This is all the more so since the autumn of 1999, when Russians were the first to fall victim to terrorist attacks against civilians, in Moscow and Volgodonsk. It is significant that there is not a single serious political party in Russia, nor any serious political force, who will speak out openly in favor of bin Laden’s extremist organizations. Joining the antiterrorist coalition has been made easier by the fact that U.S. leaders have from the very outset stressed that the struggle against Islamic terrorism is neither a struggle with the Arabs, nor a struggle between the Christian and Islamic worlds. This interpretation of the situation has been of the utmost importance for Russia, 20 percent of whose population is Muslim. While supporting American operations in Afghanistan, we are certainly not declaring ourselves to be the enemies of Islam or Islamic civilization, particularly in view of the fact that, given certain domestic considerations, we decided not to participate directly in the action in Afghanistan, limiting our role instead to one of assisting the operation. The state of the world since the terrorist acts on New York and Washington has clearly given a new legitimacy to our own antiterrorist operations in Chechnya.
In reality, our struggle for Russia’s territorial integrity and the battle against extremism and separatism in the Caucasus needs to be seen as part of a worldwide struggle against extremism and terrorism in all their forms. It was clear that in standing side by side with the United States in its time of trouble, we could expect a better appreciation of our own problems and a more objective assessment of the efforts of our army to safeguard Russia’s integrity. Since our entry into the antiterrorist coalition, it is noticeable that Western leaders have spoken publicly on several occasions in recognition of Russia’s territorial integrity. And it should be appreciated that, since the start of US military operations against Afghanistan, Putin has been given a free hand to take more effective measures to deal with the terrorists in Chechnya, particularly as the Chechen rebels rejected his proposed peace plan, which gave them a seventy-two-hour deadline to lay down their arms in return for a general amnesty. So Putin is now fully entitled to give the go-ahead for a complete blockade of Chechen territory, without which it will be impossible to neutralize the rebels.
To achieve this, it is proposed to divide Chechnya into zones between which communication should be cut off during military operations. At the same time it will be necessary to put a stop to road movements throughout Chechnya, whether by imposing direct bans, confiscating vehicles or cutting off fuel supplies. Introducing a curfew will, of course, be essential. Only when these measures are taken, according to the military, will they be able to deal effectively with the terrorists without sustaining civilian losses. The blockading of Chechnya’s four mountainous regions achieved to date is only the first step towards achieving this aim.
It was also important for us that the United States, in turning to Russia for military assistance, showed that it respected our national worth, talking to us as to an equal partner and a world power. Recent world events have shown conclusively that no serious geopolitical problem can be resolved without Russia’s participation, and that we can no longer be cast in the role of repentant student of democracy which we were landed with in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In many respects, the rapprochement between Putin and the West has helped accelerate change in the moral and political situation in the world in the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11. The fact that security problems have come to the fore for the West, and that it now needs to strike a balance between freedom and the need for personal and public safety, has prompted it to draw closer to our country. The key thing is that since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the profound economic, moral and political crisis caused by the shock therapy, we find ourselves in the same state of depression and anxiety as the West is now experiencing. It is therefore very easy for us to understand American feelings, but now at last the Americans will also begin to understand us, and to understand that the problems of human life cannot be reduced to issues about the rights of sexual minorities or the right to participate in presidential elections.
THE NEW CIRCUMSTANCES
Here it is important to recognize that in recent weeks the West and Russia have been moving simultaneously towards each other, and that the question of security is our common concern.
Under these new circumstances, it was vital for Russia to affirm that she is and has always been a European power, an inalienable part of the landscape of European civilization. The fact is that Russia, by virtue of its history, is closer in spirit to conservative, traditional Europe than to the neo-liberal Europe of the “greens” or various other exotic minorities. It was no coincidence that, in his Bundestag speech, Putin alluded to the indissoluble links between Russia’s history and that of Germany, and referred to the close ties between Russia’s pre-revolutionary ruling family and the royal houses of Germany and the rest of Europe. This was a way of declaring our “European-ness” without forfeiting our status.
Putin’s current active role in European and world politics, both personally and as Russia’s President, is having a positive effect on Russia’s internal political situation. It is important to recognize that Putin’s clear and outspoken identification with Europe and the European way forward has both reinforced his legitimacy as leader and increased his popularity in Russia. This was not what might have been expected. After all, Gorbachev and Yeltsin were castigated by the Russian people for their own excessive rapprochement with the US and the West, which was seen as damaging to the country’s independence and autonomy. Yet Putin has only increased his authority and popularity by becoming ‘Bush’s friend’. Putin now has the opportunity to drop the populist policies he was formerly obliged to adopt in order to curry favor with the supporters both of the nationalist Communist Party and of the pro-Atlantic, pro-American Union of Right Forces (SPS).
Paradoxically, now that he has taken an overtly pro-Western stance, Putin is able to adopt a more independent and considered political agenda with respect to Chubais, Gaidar and the SPS, who have latterly been trying to blackmail the President by accusing him of abandoning western democratic values. It should not be forgotten that Yeltsin carried out numerous market reforms, notably a program of rapid privatization, and sought to win over the reformers not so much because he was guided by the interests of the country, but because he wanted the West to like him and wanted to appear a “friend of democracy.” Meanwhile, having become one of the popular leaders of the international democratic community, Putin no longer needs to find intermediaries between Russia and the democratic world, or to make token moves of the sort that have in the past cost Russia so dear. It should be noted that since the tragedy of September 11 in New York and Washington, general anti-American sentiment in Russia has diminished significantly. In this respect, we are approaching a situation similar to that of 1991, when there was a unique opportunity for a rapprochement between our two peoples. Interestingly, according to a recent television poll, over 60% of the population supports the American and British bombing of Afghanistan. This is because the retaliatory operations against the terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan are regarded by a majority in Russia as consistent with our own national and state interests. It is also linked to the fact that the Taliban movement represents a threat to our own national security, both as the main source of drugs entering Russia and as a breeding-ground for religious extremism in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. The people of Russia were also aware of links between the Taliban and the Chechen separatists. We are hopeful therefore that the military operation in Afghanistan will also result in a weakening of the position of the Chechen terrorists.
It is worth noting that, since Russia has joined the antiterrorist coalition, Putin has also had a freer hand in his dealings with the “family.” He clearly no longer needs to fear either being “exposed” by Berezovsky or being blackmailed by Gusinsky. In recent weeks, Putin has begun to take action against the family’s financial backers, Abramovich, Mamut and others. Fresh rumors have begun to circulate that Putin has decided to get rid of the chief “family supervisor,” Aleksandr Voloshin.
Thus it may be said that Russia’s active involvement in the antiterrorist coalition and her rapprochement with the West have brought about a striking convergence of the interests of the civilized world with the interests of Russia and also with the personal interests and ambitions of our president.
Aleksandr Tsipko is senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta.