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Algora Publishing - Our Most Beloved Enemy
                                               For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Tuesday,
Our Most Beloved Enemy
In 50 years who is going to believe that at one time the Russians were teaching the Chinese how industry needs to be created?-- Everyone in the Russian elite admits that we have no foreign policy strategy. But we cannot live that way for long. Sooner or later Moscow will have to make a strategic choice. And what that choice will be we all know very well deep in our hearts. You can call a Russian man an Asian as much as you like. But he feels more comfortable all the same in New York rather than in Beijing or Peshawar.
Moskovskiy Komsomolets

Our Most Beloved Enemy

Commentary by Mikhail Rostovskiy

Obama flew off but he promised to marry.

They met as friends but parted as enemies -- relations between Russia and America under the two previous US leaders developed according to that principle. Barack Obama's first presidential trip to Moscow induces a feeling of deja vu -- the maximum amount of fanfare and high-flown words and, with the exception of Afghan transit, the minimum of concrete agreements. But the likelihood still exists that things will work out somewhat differently with Obama than under Clinton and Bush. That is specifically what Russia's national interests require, at any rate.

A Lot of Questions To Ask

Right after the Democrat Bill Clinton's victory in the presidential election in November 1992, Yeltsin sent him a confidential message. As Strobe Talbot, Clinton's chief advisor for Russian affairs, recalled later, Russia's president "implored" his American colleague to meet with him as soon as possible. Most of the assistants to the new head of the United States were categorically opposed. But Clinton himself said: "His letter reads like a spasm of pain. He appears to be up to his waist in a swamp full of alligators. I really would like to help him." And soon after his inauguration, he met with Yeltsin.

Eight years later the Democrats no longer had time for sentimentality. During the 2000 presidential campaign, the Republican Bush opened direct-laying fire against his rival, Clinton's deputy Albert Gore, accusing him of "inappropriate friendship with the Moscow plutocrats." It is perfectly possible that this was what made the decisive contribution to Gore's defeat. American society is still prone to extreme Russophobic prejudices. And Bush won, as is common knowledge, by a minimal margin.

However, after smearing the Democrats all over the wall, the Republicans fell into the very same "Russian trap." During the 2008 presidential campaign, the candidates for the office of head of the United States organized an informal contest -- who would mock Bush's famous statement seven years ago that "he looked into Putin's soul" more viciously.

Are we present at the start of the third act of the same play? The temptation to say "yes" is very strong. The laws of the journalistic craft demand straightforwardness and precision. A top level summit meeting can be either "epochal and historic" or "empty and doomed." But in the case of Obama's rendezvous with our ruling tandem, all the outward signs point to the second possibility. But other than the "requirements of the genre," there is also the incomparably more complicated and contradictory real life. What if we use that as a starting point? The evaluation of Obama's first presidential visit to Moscow will be much less straightforward in that case.

Recently Russian-American relations have resembled a lunatic asylum. At the last summit meeting, the "guides" of the United States and the Russian Federation made the latest timid, almost unnoticed attempt to put a tiny bit of logic in the madness that we have become accustomed to considering the norm. But won't everything turn into the latest false start? As is usually the case in real life, at the start of any enterprise, all you can do is formulate the questions correctly.

Will we agree on strategic offensive arms and missile defense? The reassuring statements of the leaders of Russia and America about "real progress" in the talks at this point are only a fig leaf covering the absence of real agreements.

But to shout "Everything has failed!" means not understanding the laws of diplomacy. Despite all its outward refinement, it is not very different from an Eastern bazaar where it is customary to bargain to the last second. The legendary "Mr. Nyet (Mr. No)," USSR Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrey Gromyko, respected by diplomats of the entire world, sometimes used the following trick. Not having managed during many hours of negotiations to achieve his maximum program to get concessions, he would ask his "sparring partners" -- "Is that your final word?" Hearing a positive answer, our minister would decisively head for the door. But halfway there he would turn and say with a smile: "Let's do some signing!"

The topics of strategic offensive arms and missile defense affect the vitally important interests of Russia and the United States. No matter what decision is made, it will echo to us for many years to come. Haste on such issues is inappropriate. As Premier Gorbachev showed when he agreed to the unification of Germany in an instant in exchange for minimal compensation, one can easily commit a gaffe.

It certainly may be that the final agreement on strategic offensive arms and missile defense will be achieved at the very last moment. Incidentally, even the above-mentioned figleaf that is being carefully fitted by the officials of the United States and Russia is very useful. It shows that both sides have the desire to reach agreement and creates a positive atmosphere.

Won't everything amount to unilateral concessions on our part? That is the billion dollar question. In Russian diplomatic circles, even today you can hear vague rumors that in the end the Kremlin under certain conditions might agree to the creation of a third positioning region of the American missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The laws that the world lives by are ruthless. Whoever is stronger usually proves to be right on our planet. And undoubtedly the Americans are stronger today. Remember how at one time Moscow fiercely objected to the inclusion of Eastern Europe itself in NATO? And today it is a given that we are not trying to change.

So we will not entertain illusions -- our defeat on the missile defense question and on other fronts is possible. But at this point nothing is predetermined yet. Professional orators are even now raging -- we have once again given up everything, they say. In response to Obama's demonstration of super-professional PR habits, Moscow once again behaved like the young miss in muslin and resorted to unilateral concessions.

But let us think about it --specifically what are we talking about? About granting the Yankees the right of military transit across Russia to Afghanistan? To "choose with our hearts," for most people born in the USSR, there is really nothing nice about such a decision. But what if our heads are also included? The repetition in Afghanistan of the Vietnamese scenario -- that is what we should really fear.

For many years one US president after another called victory in the war in Vietnam a matter of honor for America. But in the end President Nixon decided that the most sensible thing was to wash his hands of it.

Today the possibility of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan seems fantastic. But if the Taliban is never overcome during "x" number of years, we will be able to see in Kabul scenes of the capital of South Vietnam Saigon in 1975 --helicopters taking off from the roof of the American embassy with bunches of people clinging to them.

Moreover, we will have a perfectly real chance to be in the shoes of those South Vietnamese officials who were cast to the winds of fate. America is a long way from Afghanistan. But then we are close. The countries of Central Asia with their operetta armies and enormous number of internal problems will not be able to play the role of a buffer. So by helping the Americans in Afghanistan, we will be helping ourselves in practice rather than just in words.

Besides that, by opening a transit channel to Afghanistan, we receive an additional instrument for influencing the United States. After all, the charm of the channel is that it can be blocked at any moment. Needless to say, there is a 99% probability that this "gun suspended on the stage" will not go off. But the very fact that it is on the stage will have a sobering effect on the hotheads in the Yankee camp.

Won't all the noisy initiatives disappear into the sand? After Medvedev's rendezvous with Obama, the two presidents gave a solemn promise -- Russia and the United States will create a joint missile launch early warning center very soon. This statement caused officials and experts who know the history of the matter to smile.

Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton issued such a "work initiative" the first time back in 1998. Two years later Clinton and Putin once again announced this "achievement." The third time the construction of the notorious center surfaced among the results of the meeting between Bush and Putin in 2007. It is difficult to refrain from being sarcastic -- I wonder who will declare an "agreement in principle on the creation of the center" the fifth time, and when.

This anecdotal story can serve as a model for Russian-American relations of recent years. All the grandiose plans and good intentions invariably disappeared into the sand. Why did that happen? Among the ordinary population, it is customary to consider politicians outrageously cynical beings. But the recollections of the associates of the top leaders of Russia and the United States clearly confirm that Yeltsin and Clinton, and Putin and Bush sincerely wanted Moscow and Washington to "start living differently."

Under Clinton the reason for the failure was the excessive expectations of the Westerners: having clouded themselves and us with empty illusions, they believed that Russia as if by magic would turn into Luxembourg.

Under Bush, Jr., the essence of the problem changed. The Moscow officials in private conversations often called Bush the "most pro-Russian US president in recent decades." But then came bad luck. Bush rarely "came down from Mt. Olympus" and worked on "details of the moment." And inside the administration, besides the president, only Tom Graham, Bush's assistant on affairs of Eurasia, believed in the idea of a "fresh start with Moscow." The neoconservatives who really steered America's foreign policy -- like Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld -- counted Russia among the countries that should be finished off.

The results of the activities of the Cheney-Rumsfeld tandem proved so horrible that the concept of "neoconservative" acquired the same kind of negative aura in the United States as the word "democrat" has in Russia. As applies to Russia, that means that the number of supporters of building bridges with Moscow in the new administration is measured in altogether different figures. This nuance is especially important -- among the "doves" are not only the top officials, who have a bunch of other concerns besides Russia, but also officials who do the work and can "turn the wheels."

"The Americans really want to reach agreement," a major foreign policy official in Moscow told me. "Who specifically are we talking about? About Hillary, who wants to be 'more radical' than her husband. About William Burns, the deputy secretary of state -- his father was also a diplomat and was a 'past master' at negotiations with the USSR on strategic arms reduction. About Michael McFaul, the president's assistant on Russian affairs -- so as not to pick on the Kremlin, he did not hire the prominent Russophobe and member of President Clinton's team Stephen Sestanovich to work for him. About Rose Gottemoeller, the assistant secretary of state. About Alexander Vershbow, the former ambassador to Russia and now assistant secretary of defense for political affairs."

In the American political system, nothing can be done without support from Capitol Hill, where Congress is located. There are supporters of making peace with Moscow even here. One of them, it is true, only just switched to working in the executive branch of government. Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, the chair of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Strategic Nuclear Forces, for a long time blocked allocation of money for the missile defense project in Eastern Europe. She has now become Hillary Clinton's assistant.

Of course, the numerous and well organized anti-Russian forces have not disappeared in the United States. And as Obama's honeymoon runs out, their voices will become louder and louder in America. Nor can we ignore one more unpleasant question -- won't the "supporters of friendship with Moscow" restructure after Russia gives them what they want?

Cheating is just as ancient, respected, and popular a tradition in diplomacy as in the Cherkizovskiy Market. How can we prevent us from being deceived once again? For that we need to try to move away from problems that though important are momentary and try to look at the situation from a bird's eye view. What does America need from us in the long term? And what do we want from the Yankees? What truly are our interests on the global world stage?

Why Do We Need America?

The group Gosti iz Budushchego (Visitors From the Future) has a song with the paradoxical title "The Most Beloved Enemy." If we examine ourselves quite carefully, it will become clear that for contemporary Russia America is in fact that "beloved enemy." It is fun to squabble with Washington. It brings back to mind the nostalgic times when the entire world trembled before the might of the Soviet Union. We must squabble with Washington. The Yankees' boorish pranks like linking the Jackson-Vanik amendment (if you don't stop restricting Jewish emigration, we will not trade with you normally) with importing American chicken must be rebuffed in the same style. Finally, it is perfectly safe for us to squabble with Washington. During the Georgian war, American rulers hysterically threatened the Kremlin with terrible revenge. And what happened? Absolutely nothing. They made some noise and then calmed down, and they did not even prohibit the Russian nouveau riche from getting to their villas in Miami.

But we live in the real world where enemies are not plush toys, but perfectly real to us and capable of a real bloodletting. All of us can see very well what is going on around Russia-- and often without any special American participation, moreover.

Our great neighbor China is getting stronger by the day and by the year. So far Beijing is behaving in accordance with Deng Xiao Ping's principle "Do not thrust yourself forward." But will the Chinese always be so amenable?

Nothing special has been heard recently about Bin Ladin's atrocities. But Islamic fundamentalism is by no means going into decline. Even if we leave out Afghanistan, there is still Pakistan -- an enormous, poor country with, for the moment, an atom bomb. And will Iran always be so considerate of us? Things have gone too far there. By no means is everything with fundamentalism in order in the former fraternal republics like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan either. So far the lid is keeping the steam in the kettle. But everything could change at any moment.

The topic of the near abroad is actually a special conversation. The Western intrigues are just one of the reasons that the former republics of the USSR are slowly but surely moving away from Russia. At one time we were an attractive civilization center and a source of science-intensive goods and technologies for our southern neighbors. But what do we have now except raw materials? In 50 years who is going to believe that at one time the Russians were teaching the Chinese how industry needs to be created?

As the experience of recent years shows, the "dollar leash" is not too effective either. We pumped up Lukashenka so much, and even he is looking at the West, blackmailing Moscow -- give me more or I'll leave you!

And what is going on in Russia itself? We have so far (?) not managed to create a contemporary economy. The "demographic bomb" is almost the only thing that runs like clockwork in our country. So far we are still in the top 10 countries with the largest populations. But soon bunches of states like Bangladesh will pass us.

Our nuclear arsenal will repel the desire to test Russia's teeth for a long time yet. But as science develops, access to nuclear technologies will become increasingly simpler. And the significance of the nuclear sword will inevitably decline.

But now let us add all this together and ask ourselves the most important question -- under that alignment of forces, will we be able to entertain the illusion for long that America is our foremost enemy? Even given the most favorable development, no more than a couple of decades.

Everyone in the Russian elite admits that we have no foreign policy strategy. But we cannot live that way for long. Sooner or later Moscow will have to make a strategic choice. And what that choice will be we all know very well deep in our hearts. You can call a Russian man an Asian as much as you like. But he feels more comfortable all the same in New York rather than in Beijing or Peshawar.

The warming of relations between Moscow and Washington in Obama's era may certainly come to nothing. But even in that case after a certain number of years, we will still have to start setting up relations -- only the Kremlin may actually have fewer trump cards than it does now.

Obama's smiles should not mislead anybody. The Americans are egoists who in the larger picture think primarily of themselves. But then are we any different? Any political decision is the fruit of compromise based on a balance of interests. And on the strategic level, on the scale of decades, America and Russia all the same have more common interests than disagreements. Perhaps not everyone has realized that yet -- either in Russia or certainly in America, which is boasting of its might.

In ancient times cave men would nestle close to one another in order to keep warm and survive together. If we think about it quite hard, not so very much has changed since those times.