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Opinion Focus: Another Cold War?

Eugene Rumer
Senior Fellow Institute for National Strategic Studies National Defense University
Friday, December 17, 2004; 11:00 AM

Eugene Rumer, senior fellow at National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies, thinks that Russia's reaction to the Ukrainian election crisis reveals the country's move toward imperialism. What fuels Russia's foreign policy? Is Russia's control of democracy a red flag for future political problems? What would create another Cold War?

Eugene Rumer, will be live online at 11:00 ET on Friday, December 17, to discuss Russia's neoimperialism.


Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: One would think that the Russian government learned that oppressing foreigners is too costly and that it is impossible to win the support and approval of an oppresed population. Trade through societies that respect each other creates the most stable system, and it seems that Gorbachev and Yeltsin having some understanding of this and were moving Russia towards such a goals. Is Putin of an old era KGB mentality that he wishes to reverse this, or what is it that seems to be driving Russia towards attempting towards a new era of imperialism?

Eugene Rumer: Thank you very much for your question. I would like to say first that everything I say in this chat reflects only my personal views.
Now, I am not sure how to answer your question. I think we are dealing with a country that has yet to come to terms with ist history. For nearly 75 yrs the Soviet people were taught one way. Then during perestroyka they were told that everyting they'd learned since 1917 was wrong and they would have to start all over again. And then the 1990's, with their chaos and the breakup of the country and its economy were very difficult. That leaves them with no clear vision. Is Putin of the old school? I don't know. A lot of people in Russia these days are off the old school, the new school and the in-between school.

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Brighton Beach, Russia: Traditionally, Russian "imperialism" has been driven more by a sense of national or individual paranoia over the designs of the West than they have by any innate desire to dominate. This is very different from the actions of the United States and Britain who seem to approach imperial designs as a sort of religious mandate. Failure to see this is probably the single biggest perception problem analysts in the West have when trying to understand Russian mentality.

Can West not see that this latest situation in Ukraine is only reaction to NATO expansion and new American doctrine of "unchained" imperialism of its own?

Eugene Rumer: I am not sure that the latest situation in Ukraine represents Russia's reaction to NATO enlargement. I think there is a good deal of misunderstanding about Ukraine in Russia. I think quite a few people in Russia do not appreciate the grass-roots quality of the movement in Ukraine. Besides, Russia has its own special relationship with NATO. So I don't think that NATO is to blame here.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Has Russia assisted dubious neighbors like Iran, Syria, or Hussein to control its problem with Islamic extremism or as a traditional opponent of the west? Does Russia support or oppose Iran's sponsorship of terrorist groups like Hamas? Does Putin clearly run the show in Russia, or are there other powerful politicians and public debate that we don't hear about in the US?

Eugene Rumer: A lot of questions at once. We know Russia has a strong relationship with Iran, as well as long-standing ties to Syria and had a relationship with Saddam's regime. I think in recent years, since the breakup of the USSR these relationships have been shaped largely by short-term considerations--commercial opportunities, etc. But don't forget that after 1991, Russia was marginalized in the Middle East and these relationsips presented it with an important window into the region.
As to terrorist support, Russia has its own problem with terrorism, it has an important relationship with Israel now and I think they would feel much better about their relationship with Iran without Hamas in the picture.
As to Putin's control, I don't believe he is the absolute ruler of Russia.

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Alexandria, Va.: Does Russia have any relationship with Iran's nuclear program?

Eugene Rumer: The Russian government maintains that its nuclear cooperation with Iran is strictly within the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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Wasington, D.C.: You say very little in your piece about the economic crackdown that Putin is conducting, what should the US do about that? Also, what do you mean about the regional opposition to Putin?

Eugene Rumer: I am not sure what we can do about Putin's economic crackdown. In my view, we have very few levers. The actions of the Russian government speak louder than words about its desire to attract foreign investment.
Regional opposition to Putin includes political and economic elites of many of Russia's 88 provinces. President Putin's reform of gubernatorial elections will put him in charge of in effect selecting regional governors. The welfare reform is expected to shift the burden of providing the bulk of the benefits on regional authorities. In the meantime, they have fewer resources at their disposal and feel more constrained in terms of using them. They are afraid to challenge Putin openly, but are well-positioned to sabotage his reforms.

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Arlington, Va.: Is the Bush administration dedicated to democracy promotion in Russia? What funding exists? What programs are devoted to democracy-building there?

Eugene Rumer: For information on funding for democracy promotion in Russia you probably should contact the State Department. I don't have these numbers at my fingertips. I think the Administration would like to see democracy take hold in Russia. This has been a shared concern of both political parties since perestroyka days. But I am not sure that at this point Russia is very receptive to our efforts to promote democracy there. In my experience, quite a few Russians feel that they tried to follow U.S. advice in the 1990's and ended up with the financial crash of 1998 nand chaos of the late-Yeltsin era.

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Chicago, Il.: Good piece in the Post this morning, but can you address the dangers of continuing to allow Russia to complicate the US's issues with rogue regimes like N. Korea and Iran; notably Russia's blocking of UN sanctions, and constanly supplying weapons/technology/energy.

Eugene Rumer: Thank you. It is a difficult situation, indeed. However, on North Korea the Russians are participating in the multilateral talks. On Iran it is my understanding that the Russians were only one part of the problem, so to speak, others--the Europeans and the Chinese--were not prepared to go the sanctions route yet. The Europeans in particular wanted to pursue negotiations.

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Washington, D.C.: I just returned from a year of teaching law in Baku. I would like to know how you view the near and long term future of the South Caucasus nations from the viewpoint of development, security and democracy.

Eugene Rumer: I am not sure I can answer your question, it's really enough for a dissertation or two. I think the issue of "frozen conflict"--Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Ossetia--has emerged as the major obstacle to what outherwise could be a pretty promising trend in the region. How these can be handled is a very long and complicated conversation, my guess it will take a lot of wisdom and leadership on the part of the region's leaders, as well as involvement by major outside powers.

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Dulles, Va.: Russia feels strongly that it should have a say in the domestic politics of its "near abroad" countries. A good case in point are the Baltic States where Russia uses the excuse of represtenting the interests of the many ethnic Russian non-citizens living in those countries, while failing to accept the fact that these people are only there in the first place since they are the remnants of decades of forced Russification of these nations. This is used for many purposes including the failure after more than 10 years of independence to enter into agreements delineating the borders with Baltic States. Their view is that accepting a border closes the door on these republics that the Soviet Union "lost".

Eugene Rumer: It is a very contentious issue, indeed.

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Barcelona, Spain: Do you see evidence of American imperialism in how America has dealt with the Ukrainian elections?

Eugene Rumer: No, don't see it at all.

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Washington, D.C.: Where do you think Moscow's interest in Moldova and Transniestria will go from here? Will Chisinau's recent "polite but firm nyet" to Russian interference dissuade Moscow? How much impact do you think this situation will have on Russia's 'near abroad' or Russian foreign policy in general?

Eugene Rumer: Predicting is difficult, especially the future. I think much will depend on how things turn out in Ukraine. But no, I don't think that the Russians will radically change their posture vis a vis Moldova and Transniestria. As to the consequences for Russian foreign policy in general, I think here too Ukraine is likely to be the defining issue. I don't think it is not in our interest to escalate tensions with Russia, but we cannot control Russian responses. We can hope that cooler heads will prevail in Moscow, but there are no gurarantees.

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North Hollywood, Ca.: Does Bush rely too much on the Russian diplomacy to scold Russia for its weapons stockpile and faux democracy?

Eugene Rumer: I don't think the Administration has scolded the Russians. My impression is that the White House and the State Department have opted for quiet diplomacy.

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Charlotte, NC: Is free speech/press thriving there? Would that prevent a true repeat of the Cold War?

Eugene Rumer: My impression is that free speech is not thriving in Russia, but this is not a situation similar to what existed duing the Soviet era. State-controlled TV, newspapers and magazines are much more informative than then. And there is also the Internet. We don't appreciate its impact on Russian domestic and social life, political discourse and future direction of the country. I don't think another USSR is possible and I don't think another Cold War is likely either.

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Monterey, Ca.: What are the chances of another Yukos incident?

Eugene Rumer: It depends on what you mean by "another Yukos." Just recently, another prominent Russian company, Vimpelkom, was hit with a roughly $160 million tax bill for previous years. Is this another Yukos case in the making?--watch how the Vimpelkom case develops.

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Washington, D.C.: What are the benefits/drawbacks of quiet diplomacy with Russia?

Eugene Rumer: I think quite diplomacy offers our government a chance to gauge the Russians' ability/willingness to address contenious issues in a constructive, practical manner. But it has its limits. A more public approach can also be helpful in terms of conveying your message to the public in the United States and in Russia.

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