Putin Needed to Hear It

Friday, October 19, 2007

When President Bush met President Putin in July at Kennebunkport, he was trying to improve relations with a Russia that is becoming increasingly dangerous to the security interests of the West.

Bush was apparently counting on his supposed “friendship” with Putin. But the “George-Vladimir” relationship works in only one direction: to confuse and limit the policy options of the United States. Putin has become increasingly hostile not because he has tragically misinterpreted our intentions but because he is the architect of a corrupt bureaucratic system in Russia that needs an anti-Western policy to survive.

Two important issues were to be discussed: U.S. plans for strategic missile defense in Eastern Europe and Russian support for Iran. In neither case was there likely to be progress.

Russia wants to stop the United States from installing an anti–ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe on the grounds that it undermines the Russian deterrent. Putin offered instead to share the Russian earlywarning radar station in Azerbaijan to help the United States protect itself against Iran. But the offer made no sense technically. The radar is too close to Iran to be secure and cannot guide interceptors based in Poland.

At the same time, Russia continues to lend support to Iran. At a press conference on June 20 in Tehran, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that Iran was not a threat and that Russia would continue its cooperation with the Iranian regime, including construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant that was scheduled to come on line in October.

Western officials have often been mystified by Russian actions that, by undermining Western security in the face of Islamic fanaticism, undermine Russia’s security as well. But the Putin regime is concerned first of all with its own security; the national interests of Russia are often not taken into account.

At first glance, the position of the Putin regime appears impregnable. Russia was the single largest beneficiary of the world commodities boom of the 2000s and, since 1999, its GDP has grown by 6–7 percent a year, from $200 billion in 1999 to $920 billion in 2006 (in current dollars). Reserves now top $300 billion. Average salaries under Putin have doubled and his approval rating is above 70 percent.

Despite this, the Putin regime is actually quite fragile. It sits at the apex of an unjust social system and tolerates just enough liberty to make it extremely vulnerable to a serious investigation of its apparent crimes.

Putin has grown hostile not because he has tragically misinterpreted U.S. intentions but because he leads a corrupt bureaucratic system that needs an anti-Western policy to survive.

Under Putin, the handful of people who run Russia also own it. Government officials are on the board of Russia’s largest state-run companies. First Deputy Premier Dmitri Medvedev is chairman of the board of Gazprom; Igor Sechin, deputy head of the Kremlin administration, is chairman of the Rosneft oil company; and Igor Shuvalov, an assistant to the president, is on the board of Russian Railroads. The capitalization of Gazprom is $236 billion, Rosneft $94 billion, and Russian Railroads $50 billion. It is estimated that the people around Putin control companies accounting for 80 percent of the capitalization of the Russian stock market.

Putin has systematically eliminated other centers of power. As a result, the bureaucracy rules alone without interference from society but without its support.

The country is the scene of gross income inequality. In 2006, the average income of the top 10 percent of the population in Moscow was 49 times greater than that of the bottom 10 percent. Despite the oil boom, 83 percent of the Russian population is poor, with 13 percent living below the subsistence level.

Historically, income inequality has been dangerous for Russia and seldom has wealth been flouted in Russia the way it is now.

The income gap also has grim consequences because of the government’s failure to invest in social services. Those with money obtain high-quality medical care. Those without money give up and wait to die, aware that decent medical care is out of reach. One result is that there are 160 deaths in Russia for every 100 births. Male life expectancy in Russia is now 58 years (lower than that of Bangladesh), and Russia’s murder rate is nearly five times that of the United States.

Because the oil boom has seen a gradual improvement in conditions and because Russians were traumatized by the chaos of the Yeltsin years, they accept conditions under Putin. But an oil-price collapse would plunge Russia into recession and change the social and political situation overnight.

At the same time, Russian leaders know that if the social situation in the country becomes unsettled, several terrorist acts and political assassinations could be re-examined, with far-reaching consequences.

Russia has been the scene of many crimes and unexplained deaths in the past eight years, but the best-known were the 1999 apartment bombings, the hostage takings in Moscow and Beslan, the apparent poisoning of the investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin, the murder of Duma deputy Sergei Yushenkov, and the recent murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko.

The government has done virtually nothing to investigate those events (refusing to extradite to Great Britain a suspect in the murder of Litvinenko was typical). But private citizens and journalists have continued to turn up information. It is now known, for example, that the authorities knew about plans to take hostages in Moscow and Beslan but did nothing to disrupt them, and that they had a videotape of two of the persons who shadowed Anna Politkovskaya before her murder but did nothing that might have avoided it.

Western officials have often been mystified by Russian actions that, by undermining Western security in the face of Islamist fanaticism, undermine Russia’s security as well.

Opposition political figures have taken an interest in these cases. Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister who may run for president, has called for a new investigation of the apartment bombings and the hostage takings in Moscow and Beslan. Even supporters of the regime may use those crimes to their advantage. When Vladimir Ustinov was removed last year as prosecutor general, his opponents proposed reopening the investigation into the apparent poisoning of Shchekochikhin, who had investigated corruption in the FSB (Russia’s state security service). This was a way of attacking their enemies in the FSB.

Under these circumstances, the anti-Western policies of the Putin regime, far from being a mystery, actually make perfect sense. By insisting on the right to give orders to countries it once dominated, Russia guarantees a series of needless conflicts to distract the Russian population from massive corruption while playing to primitive nationalistic instincts. A sign of the success of this policy is the mounting xenophobia in Russia, exemplified by the tolerated attacks on dark-skinned foreigners in the streets.

Anti-Western policies also guarantee that Russia will absorb the West’s attention. This can be depicted, with the help of state-controlled television, as a return to Russian greatness.

The Putin regime is actually quite fragile. It sits at the apex of an unjust social system and tolerates just enough liberty to make it extremely vulnerable to a serious investigation of its apparent crimes.

Finally, anti-Western policies set the stage for unrestrained demagoguery that can undermine Russians’ ability to draw even the most basic moral distinctions. The most recent example was Putin’s remarks to a delegation of teachers that no one should try to make Russia feel guilty about the Great Terror of 1937 because in other countries “even worse things happened.”

There was an attempt in Kennebunkport to put a good face on U.S.- Russian relations. But it came at the expense of U.S. self-censorship, which changes nothing in Russian behavior and denies Washington the possibility of influencing the underlying tendency. In fact, Bush needed to speak frankly to Putin about the obstructive and self-defeating character of his policies. The United States cannot allow itself to be drawn into a world of self-serving Russian illusions. If Bush told Putin things he needed to hear, he behaved as a true friend.