Putin Gets Away with Murder
by Anders Aslund, Peterson Institute for International Economics
Article in the Weekly Standard
October 23, 2006
© Weekly Standard
In Russia, gangsters have the macabre custom of making a birthday present of a murder. On Vladimir Putin's 54th birthday, one of his fiercest domestic critics, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was shot to death in her apartment building in central Moscow. She worked for the weekly Novaya Gazeta, Russia's last independent newspaper. Its deputy editor was murdered a couple of years ago, and the killer was never found. Although Politkovskaya had been tailed by the Federal Security Service (FSB) for years and her murderer was captured on film, he got away. The Kremlin has made no comment. The prosecutor general claims to have personally taken charge of the investigation, but such investigations seldom result in an arrest.
Western policy toward Russia has been an unmitigated failure since Vladimir Putin became president on New Year's Eve 1999. Every year since then, the Russian government has moved further away from both the United States and the European Union, and Western influence over Russia has waned.
In the last year, President Putin has exported ground-to-air missiles to Iran that can shoot down American F-16s. He has exported arms to Syria that were successfully used by Hezbollah against Israel. A year ago, the Kremlin cheered when Uzbekistan evicted a large US air base, and now it is encouraging Kyrgyzstan to do the same.
Meanwhile, state-controlled Russian media spew out nationalist and antiwestern propaganda. Every evening after the first state channel's main newscast, one of the Kremlin's foremost propagandists, Mikhail Leontiev, delivers his daily diatribe against the West.
To consider Putin a strategic partner or even ally would be to close one's eyes to reality. If Putin persistently behaves like an enemy of both the United States and the European Union, we had better pick up the gauntlet. Only a fool or a coward would do otherwise.
The G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July became a symbol of all that is wrong with Western policy toward Russia. For three days, the Western leaders participated in this televised celebration of Putin's new authoritarian powers, and they got nothing in return.
To flatter himself further, Putin invited the presidents of the other 11 former Soviet states for the ensuing week, but they know how to handle him. A few hours before the summit, four of them dropped out—two announcing that they were going on vacations. By contrast, in St. Petersburg it was President Bush who endured Putin's insult (“We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq.”).
The fundamental problem of Western policy toward Russia is that it is still based on the idea that the Cold War is over. Alas, this truth has become obsolete, as Putin has gone about reviving one feature after another of a police state, including authoritarian rule and an antiwestern foreign policy.
The West has retained the same friendly but half-hearted policy toward Russia it pursued under Boris Yeltsin. But Putin is no Yeltsin. In fact, Putin is the anti-Yeltsin. Whatever Yeltsin was, Putin is not. Whatever policy the West pursued toward Yeltsin should be replaced with its opposite—with a few exceptions: Not even Putin wants to revive Communist ideology, and Russia remains a market economy.
Although poorly understood in the West, Yeltsin was a democrat, as Leon Aron shows in his excellent biography. Yeltsin believed in free and fair elections and free media. Putin, by contrast, is a secret policeman. In his book First Person, made up of interviews, he marvels at his own skillful repression of dissidents.
Putin talks about democracy while systematically destroying it, as Berkeley political scientist Steven Fish has detailed in Democracy Derailed in Russia. Putin has mostly destroyed press freedom, deprived both parliamentary chambers of power, undermined free elections, eliminated the election of regional governors, and seized control over the courts. Where Boris Yeltsin boldly and peacefully dissolved the Soviet empire, giving its peoples freedom, his successor has publicly complained that this was the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”
Yeltsin believed in private enterprise. He has been criticized for privatizing the Russian economy in the only way possible, rather than leaving a larger share in the hands of the state. Putin is currently undertaking the greatest renationalization the world has seen.
Yeltsin regarded both himself and Russia as part of the free and democratic Western world, while Putin does not. He criticizes both the United States and the European Union in evermore paranoid and conspiratorial language, while praising China more and more. Unlike Westerners, the Chinese do not ask nosy questions about authoritarianism, corruption, and money laundering, questions for which Putin has no good answers.
In the end, Yeltsin was one of us, although larger than life. So it was worth talking to him and exploring our common interests through quiet diplomacy. The opposite is true of Putin. He gives lip service to our values, but regularly undermines them. A liar should not be treated like a gentleman.
On a few points, the United States has got its policy toward Russia right. First, the United States and the European Union stood up for democracy during Ukraine's Orange Revolution, and Putin accepted defeat. Second, the West protested loudly against the restrictive Russian draft legislation on nongovernmental organizations, which was softened. Third, the Western outcry over Russia's cutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine last January led to an immediate resumption of deliveries. Putin was upset, but he changed his policy. And the recent US embargo against the Russian state arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, and the military aircraft producer, Sukhoi, because of their deliveries of sophisticated arms to Iran is another step in the right direction.
The lesson is that Putin only responds if protests are loud, public, and backed up by threats. Rather than talking about the Cold War being over (which is true), we should remember that the most successful policies toward the Soviet Union were those of Ronald Reagan.
It could be argued that Western policy toward Russia has not mattered much in recent years because Russia has been too weak to dare to be foolhardy. That is no longer the case. In 1999 Russia's GDP was $200 billion in current dollars. This year, it will reach $920 billion. Russia has financial surpluses to waste on foolish policies at home, and perhaps also abroad.
Right now, Russia is apparently preparing for a war against the independent former Soviet republic of Georgia. With no justification whatsoever, Putin personally has accused Georgia of state terrorism. He likened the arrest of four senior Russian military spies in Georgia to the acts of Stalin's henchman Lavrenty Beria. Russia has evacuated its diplomats and citizens from Georgia and imposed a nearly complete embargo. Major Russian military maneuvers are under way.
Most analysts draw parallels to Yeltsin and argue that Russia's actions are meant only to frighten. I doubt that. Putin is a warrior. He won his presidency on a very dubious war, the second war in Chechnya—the region whose agony Anna Politkovskaya covered at the cost of her life. Putin won his reelection and authoritarian rule with his war against the oligarchs, especially his confiscation of the Yukos oil company. It is a logical next step to illegally prolong that rule by starting a war against Georgia.
It couldn't be plainer that the United States needs a serious policy toward Russia and needs it fast.