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RUSSIA

A Major Case of Superpower Envy

Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page B02

Perhaps no country in the world bristles more at American unilateralism than Russia. The idea that the United States can bomb Belgrade or Baghdad without U.N. approval usually sends the Russian people and politicians into paroxysms of outrage. It's a constant reminder that their country, once America's equal on the world stage, has now been relegated to second-tier status.

Yet if the choice in the U.S. elections comes down to Bush the unilateralist vs. Kerry the alliance builder, Russia will still take the unilateralist. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made his preference clear in recent months. Even though he too opposed the invasion of Iraq, Putin last summer insisted that Democrats had no right to criticize President Bush, since the Clinton administration had done essentially the same in Yugoslavia. When Democrats bashed Bush for exaggerating Iraqi connections to terrorism, Putin volunteered that Russian intelligence had warned Washington that Saddam Hussein was planning terrorist attacks against the United States.

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And just last week, as if reading from the Bush-Cheney campaign Web site, Putin declared that terrorists in Iraq were rooting for John F. Kerry. "The goal of international terrorism is to prevent the election of President Bush to a second term," Putin told a news conference in Tajikistan.

In part, that stems both from the personal relationship between Bush and the man he calls "my good friend," and from a devil-you-know pragmatism. As Mikhail Margelov, a Putin adviser and head of a parliamentary foreign affairs committee, put it on the radio this month, for Russia a Kerry administration would be "largely a Pandora's box."

Putin's counterintuitive embrace of Bush despite their differences over Iraq also reflects the counterintuitive belief here that Republican administrations are better for Russia -- a deeply held, Nixon-in-China philosophy that extends back to Soviet times. The Russian elite considers GOP leaders hardheaded realists willing to talk deals rather than offer idealistic Bill Clinton-style lectures on democracy-building.

When, during the first presidential debate, Kerry assailed Putin's increasing authoritarianism and rollback of democratic institutions, indignant cries were heard in Moscow. "We shouldn't tuck our tail between our legs," huffed Dmitri Rogozin, head of a nationalist party. "What we are doing is our own internal affair." Bush, while extolling freedom elsewhere, has largely refrained from criticizing Russia's backslide toward one-man rule. Putin grew irritated even at Bush's mild criticism of the Kremlin's plan to eliminate the election of governors; a top aide told us that Bush had violated "etiquette."

Still, perhaps Russia's support for Bush is not so counterintuitive after all. Putin has made restoring Russian greatness his goal. By all indications, he wants Russia to think and act like a superpower again, which means he wants to have the freedom to strike preemptively, to invade at will and to carry himself on the world stage with the same sort of swagger as his partner from Texas.

In the days after last month's terrorist massacre of schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia announced that it felt free to strike terrorists whenever and wherever it found them, regardless of national boundaries. The Kremlin clearly has read the post-9/11 script followed by the White House and decided it's for Russia, too.

-- Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser,

The Post's Moscow bureau chiefs


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