Asked by the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer about the recent caning Vice President Cheney gave him and Russia, President Vladimir Putin gave this cocky and cutting reply:
“I think these kinds of comments from your vice president amount to the same thing as an unfortunate shot while hunting.”
In Rostock, Germany, Bush declined to defend Cheney or rebut Putin, though the veep’s tough words in Lithuania May 4, accusing Russia of backsliding on democracy and using its oil as a weapon to blackmail neighbors, had to have been approved by the White House.
Putin, a black belt in karate and the man into whose soul Bush famously saw five years ago, as he gazed into the eyes of that ex-KGB officer, takes no guff from these Americans.
That is among the reasons Putin’s approval rating in Russia is twice that of Bush in America and four times that of the veep. On the eastern shore of Delaware, where college girls from Eastern Europe come to work in the summer, Putin is a rock star among the Russians.
Why is Putin popular in Russia? Why is America no longer so? As one of the achievements of the Reagan-Bush administration was to convert Russia from the hostile global power headed by Brezhnev into the friendly nation headed by Boris Yeltsin, these issues should concern us. For the relationship between the two greatest nuclear powers on earth has been going steadily downhill.
Americans give these reasons for the estrangement: Putin’s reversion to authoritarianism, his support for repressive regimes in Belarus and Uzbekistan, his closeness to Beijing (including joint military exercises), his sale of fighter jets to Hugo Chavez and anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran, his support for Iran’s nuclear plant, his recognition of Hamas’ election victory, his oil blackmail of Ukraine, his unplugging of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and his crackdown on U.S. NGOs promoting democracy in Russia. All seemed designed to show Russia’s independence of – and, indeed, defiance of – the world leadership of the United States.
And that is not an unfair conclusion. But Americans need to ask themselves whether we have had it coming. For consider how we have dealt with Russia’s interests and sensitivities.
Listening to U.S. advisers on how to privatize the wealth of the Soviet state, Russians saw their national assets looted by thieves, hustlers and “oligarchs” welcomed in the West, as their per capita income sank and their social security vanished.
They saw the United States bomb into submission a Serb nation Russia had always seen as her Balkan godchild, for Serbia’s crime of trying to hold on to her cradle province, Kosovo.
They watched America go back on her word – given when the Red Army withdrew from Europe – and push NATO into Poland, the Baltic States, the Balkans and, now, Ukraine and Georgia. This is the political equivalent of Great Britain – had the United States come apart in the Civil War – making Virginia, South Carolina and Texas dominions of the British Empire.
They saw U.S. agents, under cover of Bush’s “democracy crusade,” effect the defeat of pro-Russian governments in Kiev and Tiblisi – though the project failed in Minsk – and the election of regimes pledged to reorient their policies toward the EU, NATO and the United States.
They saw Americans colluding with former provinces of the Soviet Union to develop pipelines that would bypass not only Iranian territory, but also Russian territory.
They saw the U.S. bases in Central Asia they had approved for the Afghan war taking on a permanent character.
They listened as U.S. neoconservatives cheered for Chechen rebels and officials from Cheney to McCain bashed Putin and Russia, with some calling for her expulsion from the G-8.
Putin concluded, not incorrectly, that these Americans do not want partners, they want poodles. But Putin is not Blair. A patriot and nationalist, he has set about restoring Moscow’s independence and self-respect, and started looking out for Russia first. He was determined to stand up for Russia, even if it meant standing up to the United States, which is why so many Russians respect him.
He imposed a flat tax, stripped the oligarchs of their assets and jailed them or ran them out of the country, liquidated the Chechen murderers of Beslan, started using his oil wealth the way great powers always do, and began to reorient his foreign policy without consulting Washington, as Washington never consulted him.
Though the West is losing Russia, Russia is not lost. But the minimal price of regaining Russian goodwill is to start treating her like a great nation. That means getting out of her face, getting our alliance off her front porch, and getting our bases and our Cold War agitprop agencies and pests out of her back yard.
Russia today threatens no vital interest of the United States. Is it too much to ask that we treat Russia and her “space” the way we want Russia and Russians to treat ours?