The New Russia

The Russian Bear Awakes

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis


PARIS — As Washington and Moscow exchange increasingly angry accusations and rebukes these recent weeks, it is hard to avoid a sense of Cold War dj vu.

Last Tuesday, Russia launched with great fanfare a new RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile that it claimed could penetrate new US anti-missile defenses. President Vladimir Putin warned the Bush Administration’s plans to deploy anti-missile radars and missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland would turn Europe into a "powder keg."

Moscow accused the Bush Administration of violating international law, following double standards, and being a major violator of human rights. After crushing the life out of Chechnya, Russia was hardly in any position to lecture the US about human rights.

Washington fired back, accusing Putin of extinguishing democracy, silencing political opponents, and bullying his neighbors. The US, with 150,000 troops in Iraq, even had the nerve to accuse Russia of "meddling" in the Mideast. The American pot was calling the Russian kettle black.

Behind the barrages of invective, what’s really going on is that Russia is finally returning to being Russia, as this writer has long predicted it would. Russia the lap dog is gone. The Russian bear has awakened from a hibernation of two decades and is both hungry and ill-tempered.

In the 1980’s, the reforming Mikhail Gorbachev sought to humanize and modernize the crumbling Soviet Union. Gorbachev ended his nation’s confrontation with the west and sought accommodation with Washington — far too much, claimed Russian critics. Gorbachev’s well-intentioned efforts failed. The once mighty Soviet Union collapsed, leaving bankruptcy and massive social suffering in its wake.

Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, allowed criminals and shady financers to plunder Russia. In a story that has yet to be fully revealed, his shaky, financially destitute government was propped up by billions in secret US payments. Washington more or less managed to buy up Russia’s government. In an outrageous, shameful act, the Yeltsin Kremlin even sold the Pentagon the crown jewels of Russia’s military technology. Everything and almost everyone was for sale.

During this period of weakness and corruption, bankrupt Russia allowed the US pretty much a free hand around the world, particularly in the Mideast. Russia’s defense spending plummeted. Washington hailed Moscow’s "cooperation."

In 1999, the KGB, renamed FSB and SVR, staged a palace coup. Former FSB director Vladimir Putin became Russia’s new leader. President Putin and his hard men set about re-nationalizing Russia’s industrial and resource assets, crushing the robber barons, and restoring Kremlin political control over the nation.

Ironically, George Bush’s invasion of Iraq caused worldwide oil prices to surge, bringing Putin’s "new Russia" a huge financial windfall. Russia, which exports more oil than Saudi Arabia, is flush with cash from its current oil, gas, and mineral bonanza, which has revitalized the nation’s defense budget.

Putin long made clear his desire to rebuild the Soviet Union — minus communism — and restore his nation as a world power. This means asserting Russia’s historic interests in Eastern Europe and the Mideast, using energy exports to advance foreign policy, and increasingly standing up to the United States.

There is nothing sinister about this development. The last 20 years of Russian history were an anomaly, rather like the feeble Kerensky government just prior to the 1917 revolution. Russia is off its knees and back on its feet. The days of Moscow’s unnatural accommodation with Washington are past.

The US has become too used to Moscow as a compliant vassal. Washington will now have to resume treating the Russians as a great power with legitimate international interests. The first step is reversing the Bush Administration’s contemptuous and dangerously reckless repudiation of major arms control treaties with Moscow.

The White House’s provocative plan to build anti-missile systems and open military bases in Eastern Europe should be cancelled. Pushing NATO all the way east to Russia’s borders has been another dangerous provocation.

Infuriating and humiliating Moscow in order to create a preposterous, technologically iffy anti-missile defenses against missiles and warheads which Iran does not even possess is the latest folly of the Bush Administration’s ideological crusaders.

The US is going to have to eventually share some of its world power with a renascent Russia and surging China. Treating both great powers with dignity and respect is a good way to start.