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    Central Asia
     May 16, 2006
Putin points to the Russia of the future
By M K Bhadrakumar

Russian President Vladimir Putin's State of the Union address last Wednesday, coming within five days of US Vice President Dick Cheney's criticizing the Kremlin for its policies toward the Russian people and the country's smaller neighbors, naturally invites comparisons.

But that would be a futile exercise - comparing the incomparable. For one thing, as a leading American scholar on Russia, Anatol Lieven, thoughtfully pointed out in a commentary, Putin is a statesman, whereas Cheney is at best a gifted politician. Besides, Putin's address needs to be understood in an altogether different intellectual context.

What readily comes to mind is The Russia Hand, Strobe Talbott's

cold-blooded account of the Bill Clinton presidency - how Washington incessantly took advantage of Russia's weakness to extract unilateral advantages out of a bumbling, confused president Boris Yeltsin. (Talbott's book is a chilling study of the fate of any state aspiring to have a relationship of mutual respect with the US.)

An incident narrated by Talbott is worth recalling. While jogging along the birch-lined paths in Lenin Hills in Moscow suburbs one morning during a visit to Russia, Clinton told Talbott that as a politician he could already sense that a lot of alienation, a lot of anti-American feeling, was building up in Yeltsin's Russia. The time was April 1996 - hardly five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Clinton explained: "We haven't played everything brilliantly with these people; we haven't figured out how to say yes to them in a way that balances off how much and how often we want them to say yes to us. We keep telling Ol' Boris [Yeltsin], 'Okay, now here's what you've got to do next - here's some more shit for your face.'"

Putin's Russia cannot be understood unless one surveys the backdrop of the drift, anarchy and humiliation of the Yeltsin era. Anyone could sense something profound was stirring when Putin spent a lot of time last month with an extraordinary gathering called the first CIS Arts and Science Communities Forum.

The poignancy of the occasion was obvious. It was the first-ever gathering of scholars and artists and intellectuals from all over the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) since the Soviet Union's disintegration - a Soviet Union that had once undoubtedly scaled heights of cultural and intellectual development unparalleled in history. Putin twice spoke.

What was striking was the lament for the lost decade of the 1990s. Welcoming the delegates, Putin said on April 14, "Your road to this significant event has been long and difficult ... The intellectual and creative communities were most sensitive to the difficulties our countries have gone through in the transition period, and your problems were not just of a material nature but also arose out of the future of our peoples and for the historical and cultural heritage of this immense area of civilization that is ours. But much has changed over this time and new opportunities have now emerged ..."

In his closing remarks, Putin struck an emotional chord: "We've long since lost the Soviet Union, it would seem, and so one could ask, what's the point now in worrying about our common humanitarian space and in lamenting the common foundation we had built in this area? But the thing is that this common humanitarian foundation never did disappear. It is still with us today and it is more relevant than ever. We feel a pull toward each other today. Why is this? What is happening?"

Putin's State of the Union address on Wednesday in a way built on the above thoughts. In a nutshell, it signified that Russia had neared the end of its patient, comprehensive dismantlement of the Yeltsin-era system, and was building afresh its own "fortress". And, in the process, Russia had exorcised itself of the last bit of delusions of being ever genuinely accepted as an equal partner by the West - the United States in particular. Russia need not aspire for a "common home" beyond the limits of Eurasia.

Putin's speech therefore did not put Russia's relations with the US on any special pedestal. (In fact, the speech equated Russia's relations equally with the US, China and India - the three countries he chose to name in the speech.)

It is equally noteworthy that the speech did not make a single reference to the Group of Eight, despite its upcoming summit hosted by Russia at St Petersburg hardly 10 weeks away. This was a deliberate omission.

Putin wanted to deflate the Western egoism as manifest among some US politicians and officials who frequently reminded Moscow, directly or indirectly, that its G8 membership was an unworthy honor for which it must remain grateful to Washington. (Talbott explained that Clinton invited Yeltsin to join leaders of the Group of Seven so that the Russian leader would accept "NATO expansion with a smile", while at the same time, "we'll get more responsible behavior out of those guys if they're in the tent".)

The bulk of Putin's speech was devoted to the issues concerning the modernization of Russia's armed forces and a new approach to defense and foreign policy.

What emerges from Putin's remarks here is that first and foremost, Russia must take full note of the United States' attempts to lock Russia in another arms race. In his opinion, the Cold War mentality toward Russia "and the prejudices inherited from the era of global confrontation" still prevail.

Putin recalled that the US was set to introduce nuclear weapons into outer space and was envisaging the use of intercontinental missiles to carry non-nuclear warheads. Russia cannot but take note of the reality that the key disarmament issues were all but off the international agenda.

Meanwhile, the US was resorting to unilateralism in international life. "As the saying goes, the wolf knows whom to eat ... and is not about to listen to anyone," he said. Therefore, Russia has no choice but to give "convincing responses ... to build our home and to make it strong and well protected".

"We must not repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union, the mistakes of the Cold War era, either in politics or in defense strategy. We must not resolve our defense issues at the expense of economic and social development. This is a dead-end road that ultimately leaves a country's reserves exhausted. There is no future in it."

Putin said Russia would instead resort to "asymmetrical responses" based on the country's intellectual resources - by modernizing the armed forces and making it well trained and professional, developing new weapon systems, and, most important, ensuring an overall strategic balance of forces with the US.

Indeed, it is unrealistic for Moscow to expect from Washington a relationship based on equality and mutual respect. The US invariably pursues its own gut interests. ("How quickly the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one's own interests comes to the fore. In the name of one's own interests, everything is possible, it turns out, and there are no limits.")

What is distinctive about Putin's State of the Union address speech on the whole is that unlike on similar occasions when he used to spell out an "action plan" for his government, this time he in effect defined the strategic objectives for Russia's development that will go far beyond his own term in office. So, what is the Russia of the future that Putin envisages?

Clearly, it is a Russia that is free from the Yeltsin-era delusions regarding relations with the US. This stands comprehensively dismantled; its trammels in the political, economic, military or social spheres have been cast aside. Russia has no need of the Yeltsin era's vacuous liberal rhetoric, either. Russia will set a course of fundamental revival, relying paramountly on its own resources, aimed at making the country capable of safeguarding its vital interests. This involves Russia consolidating its national strength - Russia, in other words, must become a strong state within its natural habitat of the Eurasian space.

Russia indeed is not required to render any apology to Washington while setting out its national priorities. Putin himself set the example by completely ignoring Cheney's warning to the Kremlin on good conduct.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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Cheney puts Moscow to the hardness test (May 8, '06)

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