U.S. and European Union policies toward Russia are more dangerous than they may seem. What has been happening on Russia's borders could reasonably be interpreted by the government of President Vladimir Putin as a Western campaign to detach and alienate the neighboring states that Moscow describes as its "Near Abroad."
In an important respect, Putin's government has invited this interference on its frontier. It has combined complacence with complaisance in corrupt leadership in Belarus, Ukraine and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved by Boris Yeltsin in 1991, time should have been up for the whole system. Yeltsin told the leaders of the former Soviet states to take as much freedom as they could manage. In fact, most took as much power, and as much of their states' wealth and resources, as they could.
They did roughly what was being done in Russia itself, to Western approval. "Democracy" was being installed there, but it was the form of democracy described by the oligarch Boris Berezovsky when he said "democracy everywhere is the rule of big money."
A system of swindling, robbery, asset-stripping and appropriation of public resources was created then that Putin is now trying to reverse. Thus his arrest of the politically ambitious oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which continues to be described in the West as an attack on market freedom.
It no doubt was that, but is also intended by Putin to make the state prevail over the oligarchs' version of capitalism, and to resist the international criminal forces that have infiltrated the existing system and are capable, if unchecked, of destroying civil power in modern Russia.
Putin is saying: Do you want Russia run by patriots who will defend political authority and restore Russia's international standing, or are you content with decline and corruption? There is a popular reaction against oligarchy and in favor of what Putin presents as patriotic reform.
There almost certainly is going to be another popular reaction against foreign interventions in Russia's Near Abroad.
Recent events in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and pressures on Belarus - whose despotic president, Alexander Lukashenko, is loyal to Putin, but which is described by President George W. Bush as "an outpost of tyranny" - are creating anxiety and anger in Russia. Moscow sees a big campaign under way to turn Russia's neighbors into allies of the United States and the West.
The congressionally financed democracyadvocacy groups of the two major U.S. parties, plus Freedom House in New York, the German Marshall Fund, the admirable Open Society network financed by George Soros, and other nongovernmental organizations have all been active in training volunteers from these states to overturn the corrupt governments in power (as was done in Serbia in the 1990s).
Some talk darkly about CIA plans, but there is little that has been hidden in this. Official U.S. support was there when needed: the opposition press in Kyrgyzstan was printed in an American-financed printing plant (and when electricity failed, the U.S. Embassy supplied generators).
The changes of government produced by these actions are described in the United States as triumphs of democracy. You can ask whether this really is so, or merely a shuffling of old elites and clans, but that's not the question that bothers Moscow.
I should be the last person to criticize since, in the 1950s, I worked for the Free Europe organization, which pioneered broadcasts and other forms of political warfare directed against the Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. Our efforts certainly contributed to their eventual collapse.
There is a fundamental difference, however, between what is going on now and our activities and broadcasts during the cold war.
The Soviet Union was a powerful and hostile foreign despotism, dominating Eastern and Central Europe against the will of their populations. Russia today, however, is a "strategic partner" of the West. Putin may control national television, but press and public discussion in Russia are free. The public unquestionably supports him, yet there is vigorous political debate and controversy. Elections take place.
Moscow cooperates with the West at virtually every level of international relations. It supplies the West with oil, cooperates in Bush's war on terror, and has made no trouble over U.S. bases in Central Asia.
So why do we want to make an enemy of Putin?
The Russians are being subjected to a very high level of provocation. Russia is now encircled by American power. There are U.S. forces in Central Asia and the Caucasus. With the Baltic states now members of NATO, alliance aircraft are deployed on Russia's frontier. The Poles and others are anxious for Ukraine to join NATO and the EU.
The Russian government has been amazingly calm about all this, but it might one of these days lose that calm. Russia today is not the Soviet Union, but it could still find ways to be very unpleasant to those who chose to make an enemy of it.
© 2005 IHT