Baiting the Bear

I confess that I cannot quite understand the campaign by the neoconservatives and also a number of leading Democrats to vilify Russia and confront it at every opportunity. The Cold War has been over for more than 20 years, but some appear to want to revive it. Russia has evolved into a developing democracy, has a relatively free press, has a judiciary that functions at least some of the time, is natural-resource rich, and has an economy that is now linked to the rest of the world and is doing reasonably well. On the negative side, it is plagued by corruption and cronyism as well as increasing authoritarianism, but the average Russian enjoys freedoms never experienced in Soviet days and can also see steady improvement in the standard of living. The country’s president, Vladimir Putin, continues to be supported by most Russians, though dissent is admittedly growing over his clear reluctance to give up power.

Russia has a lot to offer the West. It has good ties with its traditional friends in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, and it still is seen by many foreign governments as an anti-colonial power. This means it is well placed to help mediate crisis situations with countries like Syria and Iran, which no longer trust Washington or the Western Europeans. Instead, however, the U.S. and some of its allies have seen Russia as an obstruction precisely because it refuses to endorse “humanitarian intervention” and regime change. Regime change has not exactly worked out very well in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and we shall soon see what will happen in Syria. Moscow’s cautious approach is almost certainly the better option.

And Russia is still a major military power. It is the only country in the world that has the ability to destroy the United States, which one might think would be sufficient reason to establish a friendly relationship. Russia has also indicated its willingness to reduce its own nuclear and chemical arsenals and to work with Washington to safeguard existing nuclear stockpiles through the bilateral Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

So there are many reasons to establish a modus vivendi with Moscow and no good reasons to act otherwise, but somehow the recriminations go on. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a frequent critic of developments in Russia, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has labeled Russia “public enemy number one.” Leading neocon Robert D. Kaplan attributes to Vladimir Putin both cynicism and “unalloyed thuggery.” In the wake of Putin’s overwhelming victory in presidential elections held in March, a team of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that there had been a reduction in “flagrant violations” compared to parliamentary elections last December. Putin had nevertheless “faced no real competition and unfairly benefited from lavish government spending on his behalf.” The charge sounds a bit like electioneering in any one of a number of countries, so one has to assume that the real issue is Putin himself.

Russians have plenty of good reasons to be paranoid about the West and its intentions. The West’s interaction with the new Russia started with the looting of the Russian economy by European and American entrepreneurs in the 1990s, aided and abetted by the corrupt government of Boris Yeltsin, a useful idiot if there ever was one. It continued with the rise of the Oligarchs in the years that followed, gentlemen who finished the job started by the initial carpetbaggers. The rise of Vladimir Putin is attributable in part to his pledge to bring to justice the Oligarchs who had stolen the country’s natural resources, though Putin understandably was selective in his prosecutions, going primarily after the billionaires who opposed him politically. Putin also was intent on pushing back against U.S. and European attempts to democratize and incorporate the regimes along his borders, bringing them into the American orbit and even arranging for their entry into NATO and the European Union.

Relations with the Putin’s Russia soured when the first major trial of an Oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, took place in 2004. Khodorkovsky was, to be sure, a critic of Putin, but he was also a mafia-connected crook and quite possibly a murderer. He was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2005 and on charges of embezzlement and money laundering 2010. After the second trial, Hillary Clinton said the sentence would “have a negative impact on Russia’s reputation for fulfilling its international human rights obligations and improving its investment climate,” while the Obama White House criticized “the allegations of serious due process violations, and what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends.”

The sympathy for an imprisoned world-class criminal was largely the result of successful lobbying to influence Western public opinion. Public relations consultants, portraying Khodorkovsky as an honest businessman and reformer, successfully pushed resolutions through the U.S. House of Representatives and the Council of Europe on his behalf. But the Clinton/Obama comments reveal a profound level of ignorance about Russia’s recent history. Hillary Clinton should be asking how it was that Khodorkovsky became one of the richest men in the world in little more than 10 years. Perhaps both she and the president should have checked the extensive files on Khodorkovsky at the FBI, just down the street from the White House.

In 2008 when Georgia attacked Russia and was subsequently defeated, Washington wound up supporting the aggressor. Many will recall Sen. John McCain’s refrain “We are all Georgians now.” McCain adviser Randy Scheunemann was also a paid adviser for the Georgian government, the Israeli government was heavily engaged in a U.S. government contract to train and arm the Georgians, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was in the trenches working on its latest Eastern European pastel revolution.

More recently, we have had the Magnitsky case, which has produced the still-pending-in-Congress Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would impose an asset freeze and travel ban on all Russian officials who were allegedly involved. Magnitsky was a lawyer and a whistleblower who revealed a 2007 tax fraud reported to exceed $230 million. For his diligence, he was arrested, reportedly tortured, and eventually denied medical care. He died in prison eight days before he was supposed to be released. It was at a minimum a horrible miscarriage of justice, and it has been blamed on the lack of a truly independent judiciary combined with the rule of law in Russia. As a result of a subsequent Russian government investigation, 20 senior police and prison officials were fired.

Putin also aroused the ire of official Washington when he complained about the NED’s support for opposition parties in Russia. For those who are unfamiliar with the organization, the NED, which has a Republican and a Democratic arm, is largely funded by Congress, though it calls itself an NGO. It operates worldwide to bring democracy to foreign countries. It does so in a heavy-handed fashion with minimal oversight, and it was deeply involved in the numerous pastel revolutions that bloomed and then went sour in Eastern Europe. By its very nature, it tends to be anti-regime, as it is working primarily with opposition parties and groups and does so openly, allowing opposition politicians to be seen going into and out of the U.S. embassy in Moscow. It is currently involved in Syria, and Egypt recently tried to expel it before succumbing to pressure from the United States and allowing the group to stay. Some observers liken the NED to the old CIA covert-action programs. Putin’s turning on the NED angered many in Washington because there is a bipartisan sentiment that the United States should be allowed to tell other countries how to run their affairs.

Most recently we have seen the Pussy Riot story. Pussy Riot is a three-woman punk band that has never actually produced a record. It is, to say the least, controversial. The group, which has been connected to the NED, staged a performance at the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral which was correctly been described as both blasphemous and obscene. They were arrested, convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” in a trial that appeared to lack much due process, and have now been sentenced to two years in a penal colony. Defenders of the group note that they band was exercising its right to free speech to attack Putin, while also indicting the close links of the Russian Orthodox Church to the government. Numerous artists and entertainment celebrities like Madonna, Sting, and Paul McCartney have condemned the arrest and both the White House and State Department called the sentence “disproportionate” with a “negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia.”

To be sure Putin has been subjected to much harsher criticism from dissident Russians than from foreigners, a sign that Russia’s much maligned democracy might just be alive and kicking. That is as it should be because if the Russians choose to change their government they must do so themselves, without interference from organizations like NED that provide substance to regime changes that the opposition serves foreign interests. After parliamentary elections in December 120,000 demonstrators gathered in Moscow, and following Putin’s recent election as president for the third time 15,000 protested in Pushkin Square.

One might reasonably argue that if Russia’s politics were somehow a genuine threat to the United States then Washington would have a legitimate interest in acting proactively to deal with the danger, but no one appears to be arguing that case. The criticism of Russia is based on the country’s domestic policies, its governance, and the personalities of its leaders. There is considerable hypocrisy in the American viewpoint. If the Pussy Riot protest had taken place in a cathedral or synagogue in Washington many Americans would be calling for punishment as severe as that meted out by the Russian court.

A broader comparison of the United States and Russia is illuminating. Russia is openly corrupt while the United States has a legal system designed to benefit the elites that run the country, so the corruption is hidden. And the US tends to look the other way when corruption involves an ally. Afghanistan is the most corrupt country in the world yet it continues to get a free pass from Washington and is also projected to receive many billions of dollars in aid in the next decade.

Russian elections admittedly produce no alternatives, but nor do elections in the United States, though for different reasons. The courts in Russia often return government approved verdicts, but so do courts in the US when the government cites states secrets. Washington sends NED overseas to tell others how to govern themselves but would react in fury if the Russians or Iranians were to do the same over here. If Washington truly believes that the treatment of Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky, and Pussy Riot has been unfair it should perhaps recall Jose Padilla, Bradley Manning, and Julian Assange. At the end of the day, what goes on in a Moscow court room has nothing to do with the United States government unless an American citizen is being unfairly treated. And when Washington feels empowered to act against foreign officials as in the Magnitsky case it should consider the Bush Administration war criminals who are still running free and picking up lucrative speaking fees. When a US President or Secretary of State feels compelled to speak out about the treatment of a foreign citizen in a foreign court it must be related to a vital national interest, but if that is so, it is difficult to discern in the recent criticism of Russia.

All of which is to suggest that the nature of the Russian government and its leaders is none of our business as Americans. That 120,000 Russians can gather in the streets to protest an election speaks well of them and they should be left alone to find their own way. Would that half that many Americans could come together to actively protest the political process in the United States. That would be something worth seeing.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.