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Jackson Diehl

Russia's Unchecked Ambitions

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page A21

Steven Theede, chief executive of the Russian oil company Yukos, sadly observed during a visit to Washington last week that most Western investors had convinced themselves that the persecution and incipient takeover of his company by the Russian government was an isolated incident -- rather than an integral part of President Vladimir Putin's emerging authoritarianism. "They don't want to believe it's a broader issue," he said. So they ignore the obvious: "If it can happen to Yukos," Theede said, "it can happen again."

A similarly flawed logic pervades the Bush administration's reaction to Putin. Yes, officials will acknowledge, Russian behavior is cause for concern, but that doesn't mean there should be a blanket U.S. response. Instead, they say, the Bush team will manage Russia issue by issue. Where there is advantage in cooperation with Putin, it will be taken; and when there are objections to his policies, they will be raised -- but all under the umbrella of the friendly partnership between Putin and President Bush.

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In practice the administration has been pretty tough in denouncing the fraudulent elections in Ukraine -- though nothing has been said about Russia's blatant backing of the fraud. But the White House, like those shortsighted investors, is treating the Ukrainian crisis as if it were an isolated affair. Bush and his team refuse to make the obvious connections to Putin's interventions in other former republics of the Soviet Union. So they don't draw the obvious conclusion: that what is happening in Ukraine is part of a larger push to establish a modernized Russian empire.

This willfully blinkered approach will be on display today and tomorrow at the meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Ukraine will surely be discussed by the two dozen foreign ministers gathering in Sofia, Bulgaria, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. What won't be talked about -- at the insistence of Russia, and with the West's acquiescence -- are three other OSCE countries where Russian imperial meddling is underway: Georgia, Moldova and Belarus.

The first two countries tell a clear story of how Russia has changed under Putin, and how the West has failed to react. At the 1999 OSCE conference, the last when Boris Yeltsin was president, Russia promised to withdraw its remaining troop garrisons from Georgia and Moldova by 2002. In 2002, with Putin in charge, no withdrawal had taken place, but a new promise was made for 2003. This year, with the troops still there, Russian officials are stating they will remain indefinitely -- and they are blocking any mention of their earlier promises from being included in the agenda or conference declaration. What's more, appeals by the Georgian and Moldovan governments to the Bush administration to insist on the issue have been rebuffed.

Behind this screen, Putin is up to much the same game as in Ukraine. Last week his government declared a blockade on the Georgian province of Abkhazia, a separatist region. Why this virtual act of war? Because Putin's designated puppet lost the province's presidential elections in October, and its parliament had the temerity to declare the actual winner as president-elect. So, even as he denounces the idea of new elections in Ukraine, Putin is cutting railways and freezing trade to force a new election in Abkhazia -- which is, mind you, a province of another sovereign country. He would insist on installing his stooge, so as to use the region to undermine Georgia's new democratic government.

In Moldova, the Kremlin is backing the opposition to President Vladimir Voronin in the general elections expected in February of next year. "After Ukraine We Shall Tackle Moldova," said the headline in a pro-Moscow newspaper two weeks ago. Beneath it was the picture of Moscow's new favorite, Serafim Urecheanu, shaking hands with Putin. Voronin was elected as a pro-Moscow Communist, but a year ago he rejected a demand by Putin that he swallow a "federalization" plan between Moldova and the separatist region where Russian troops are based, Trans-Dniester. As in Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus -- where Moscow backed a fraudulent referendum in October that made its client president-for-life -- Russia can be expected to use slush funds, intimidation, fraud and, if necessary, force in an attempt to install a more pliable Moldovan regime.

Connect these dots and Ukraine is not an isolated affair but the centerpiece of a concerted and dangerous Russian imperial strategy, one disturbingly reminiscent of that which installed puppet regimes in Central Europe in 1947-48, and created the Iron Curtain. As the West learned then, such a strategy can be countered only by determined resistance at each point of aggression and by a broad rejection of the imperialism behind it. But the Bush administration has yet to acknowledge, in its public statements, that Russia has played any role in Ukraine. And when European ministers meet today to talk about security and human rights in Europe, Russia's actions to undermine those principles -- in Georgia, Moldova and Belarus -- won't even be on the agenda.

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