Mixed Signals From Moscow

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, February 23, 2009

MOSCOW -- Normally sour Russian officials are almost jaunty in describing their first engagements with the Obama administration. "We are excited," says one at the Foreign Ministry.

It's not just Vice President Biden's recent promise of a "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations that prompts this outward cheer from the government of Vladimir Putin. A first visit by a senior U.S. delegation here 10 days ago quickly produced agreement on an agenda that begins with a new nuclear arms control treaty to replace the START agreement, which expires at the end of the year. There is discussion of re-creating bilateral cooperation committees, and of U.S. support for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. And the Russians are thrilled by what they perceive to be Obama's incipient retreat from Bush administration agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to begin building a European missile defense.

So is this the beginning of a new era of cooperation between Washington and Moscow -- a detente that could deliver another big cut in nuclear arsenals, more effective pressure on Iran's nuclear program, and a diminishment of the growing tensions between the United States and Europe over how to handle Russia? A few days spent here with a group of Americans and Germans organized by the German Marshall Fund left me with some considerable doubts.

The first concerns the Russian economy -- the basis of Russians' acceptance of Putin's autocracy -- which has plummeted far faster and further than any in the developed West. This year will see, at best, a massive reversal in Russian output, from the 8 percent growth rate of 2008 to a 2 percent contraction. Industrial production in January dropped 16 percent, and unemployment rose to more than 8 percent. Independent economists predict that the jobless rate will rise as high as 15 percent and that the government's once-vast reserve of dollars will be exhausted sometime next year.

This city remains a showcase of bright lights and choking traffic, but outside the capital popular demonstrations and strikes have begun. With Kremlin funding drying up, regional governments are showing signs of rebelliousness. And in Moscow itself there are hints of an ugly debate among the competing political clans around Putin over how to divide what money is left.

These are all familiar symptoms of the political and economic "chaos" of the Russian 1990s, the rescue from which has been the foundation of Putin's domestic popularity. Little surprise then, to hear a seasoned foreign businessman here agree with the almost universal assessment by Moscow's small democratic opposition movement: "Putinism as it has existed until now is dead." Former chess champion-turned-dissident Garry Kasparov said, "The situation will inevitably lead to political change. What kind of change? I don't know."

To that uncertainty must be added Putin's unaltered domestic political formula: harsh repression of critics such as Kasparov, the unsolved murders of leading journalists and human rights activists, and relentless television propaganda that describes Russia as a great power encircled by enemies -- foremost among them the United States. "Of course the authorities understand that they need good relations with America now," said Arsenii Roginski of the human rights group Memorial, whose main office, in St. Petersburg, was recently ransacked by security forces. "But also the authorities understand that the population should be told who is the enemy, and why you don't live well -- and that is America. And this is the contradiction."

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, a longtime student of Russia, liked to point out that, historically, deepening Russian domestic repression has correlated with greater external belligerence. Will this era be an exception? The Obama administration and European governments seem to hope so; the latest Moscow political murders have not slowed their rush to "reset." Yet the cheery Russian response has covered a series of policy moves that are, at best, ambiguous.

Despite its dire budget problems, Putin's government offered $2.1 billion in aid this month to the government of Kyrgyzstan, which promptly announced the closure of a U.S. air base vital to operations in Afghanistan. Russian officials then smilingly offered a supply corridor to Afghanistan through Russia, providing Putin with a potential chokehold over NATO operations. Officials here were blunt in describing their objective: to be treated as an equal partner by Washington in deciding Afghanistan's future.

Then there are the disturbing signs that Putin's ambition to subjugate Georgia -- manifest in the hysterical rhetoric with which officials here continue to describe its democratic and pro-Western government -- remains very much alive. Pavel Felgenhauer, a respected military reporter for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, offers a detailed case for his conclusion that the possibility of a Russian military operation this summer to "finish the job" of toppling Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is "frighteningly high."

Naturally, those betting on a new spring in U.S.-Russian relations scoff at such speculation. But Felgenhauer is used to that. He was also dismissed last year -- when he correctly predicted that a Russian invasion of Georgia would come by August.

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