By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 3, 2006
MOSCOW -- In this city, it's beginning to feel like a new Cold War, driven by what many people here see as an old American impulse: to encircle, weaken or even destroy Russia, just as the country is emerging from post-Soviet ruins as a cohesive, self-confident and global power.
The specter of a U.S. nuclear first strike even resurfaced this month. An article in Foreign Affairs magazine, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that the United States could hit Russia and China without serious risk of retaliation. That sent heads spinning here with visions of Dr. Strangelove.
"The publication of these ideas in a respectable American journal has had an explosive effect," former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar wrote in an article in London's Financial Times newspaper. "Even those Russian journalists and analysts who are not prone to hysteria or anti-Americanism took it as an outline of the official position of the U.S. Administration."
"Today, it's accepted by most of the establishment that we are under pressure, that we are being surrounded, and it's leading to a defensive nationalist vision," said Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute of the United States and Canada in Moscow.
Intensifying U.S. criticism -- that Russia is rolling back democratic institutions, interfering in the countries of the former Soviet Union and using its vast energy resources to further its interests -- is leading to widespread resentment here and seen as little more than self-serving rhetoric. Russians widely believe that U.S. programs to promote democracy in Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus are a Trojan horse intended to sideline Russia and expand NATO.
Academics point to reports such as one released recently by the Council on Foreign Relations: "To ease Russian pressure on neighboring states," it said, "the United States should work to accelerate those states' integration into the West."
"We are gradually being pushed to the northeast of the Eurasian continent away from the seas . . . to the place where the depths of freezing is more than two meters," said Natalia Narochnitskaya, vice chairman of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, and a member of the nationalist Rodina Party.
She rues the loss of the three Baltic states to European Union and NATO membership and the possible loss of Russia's naval presence on the Black Sea.
"The messianism of American foreign policy is a remarkable thing," she said. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks, Narochnitskaya said, "it seems like Khrushchev reporting to the party congress: 'The whole world is marching triumphantly toward democracy but some rogue states prefer to stay aside from that road, etc. etc.' "
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks appeared to put U.S.-Russian relations on a new and remarkable footing. President Vladimir Putin facilitated the stationing of American troops in Central Asia to support military operations in Afghanistan. In 2002, Putin, still regarded as a reformer, was offered a year-long chairmanship of the Group of Eight leading industrial democracies.
Today, some public figures in the United States, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have suggested that President Bush boycott the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg this summer to register dismay at Russia's foreign policy and its internal direction.
Many U.S. officials hold up the administration of President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s as imperfect but headed in the right direction; people here say those years were simply chaotic.
"For a person of democratic and liberal persuasions, I can say that Russia has never been freer or more affluent," said Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. "Putin inherited a non-state, so he first wants to build a state and create the conditions for modernization and democracy. Do I worry about some domestic developments? Of course. I could be more critical than most Americans. But it's like blaming winter for following autumn."
In Moscow, strains in the relationship are viewed more as a result of the United States' inability to accept the fact that Russia is no longer the servile entity of the 1990s -- when it blustered but, in the end, always caved because it was weak.
"We have safeguarded and will safeguard our national interests," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters last week. "If someone dislikes this, this is not our problem."
On certain issues, such as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, Russian officials say they will work with the West, but on their own terms. There is, for instance, broad agreement with the United States that Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons, but little consensus on what steps to take to prevent that from happening. Russia is opposed to imposing sanctions on Iran, with which it has strong economic ties.
But in the area known as Russia's "near-abroad," the former Soviet republics at its periphery, Russia and the West often take diametrically opposed views of the same situation.
In Belarus, Western governments condemned the recent reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko as a farce. Russia declared the contest free and fair, as it has in contested ballots across the former Soviet Union.
Even if Russians recognize electoral fraud, they are not going to concede the point, said Rogov. "My suspicion is that since we see no better alternative, we prefer the status quo -- no matter how bad it is."
Narochnitskaya said the underlying issue is not democracy but influence. "The hysteria around Belarus and the demonization of President Lukashenko has more to do with his anti-NATO, anti-Western stand than his lack of democracy," she said. "Belarus is a missing piece of the puzzle assembled from the Baltics to the Black Sea. There are points on the map where we can yield, but there are some where it's important not to do so."
The point that appears to animate Russians most is Ukraine. Since that country's Orange Revolution, the popular protests that swept President Viktor Yushchenko into power 16 months ago, relations between the two countries have soured. At the beginning of this year, the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom briefly cut off natural gas supplies, which are critical to Ukraine's heavy industry and households. In parliamentary elections last month, Yushchenko's party suffered a humiliating setback to a Moscow-backed candidate.
In Washington and European Union capitals, the cutoff was seen as punishment for Yushchenko's Western orientation, particularly his desire to bring Ukraine into NATO.
For Russia, such a move would be anathema. The defense and civilian industries of the two countries remain closely intertwined, and Russia's Black Sea fleet is based in the Crimea on Ukrainian territory.
"The idea of admitting Ukraine into NATO is hammering the final nail into the coffin of Russia as an independent great power," Rogov said. "We go out, you go in. Unfortunately, it's almost a consensus in Russia that the West is trying to isolate Russia."