“For the Sake of One Man”
Getting the facts straight about the old-new Russia
By Bret Stephens
The Wall Street Journal, 17.07.2007
In the six or seven years in which they interacted on a regular basis, Vladimir Putin’s police state and journalist Fatima Tlisova had a mostly one-way relationship. Ms. Tlisova’s food was poisoned (causing a nearly fatal case of kidney failure), her ribs were broken by assailants unknown, her teenage son was detained by drunken policemen for the crime of not being an ethnic Russian, and agents of the Federal Security Services (FSB) forced her into a car, took her to a forest outside the city of Nalchik and extinguished cigarettes on every finger of her right hand, “so that you can write better,” as one of her tormentors informed her. Last year, the 41-year-old journalist decided she’d had enough. Along with her colleague Yuri Bagrov, she applied for, and was granted, asylum in the United States.
Ms. Tlisova and Mr. Bagrov are, as the wedding refrain has it, something old, something new: characters from an era that supposedly vanished with the collapse of the Soviet Union 16 years ago. Now that era, or something that looks increasingly like it, seems to be upon us again. What can we do?
The most important task is to get some facts straight. Fact No. 1: The Bush administration is not provoking a new Cold War with Russia.
That it is seems to be the view of Beltway pundits such as Anatol Lieven, whose indignation at alleged U.S. hostility to Russia is inversely correlated with his concerns about mounting Russian hostility to the U.S., its allies and the likes of Ms. Tlisova. In an article in the March issue of the American Conservative, the leftish Mr. Lieven made the case against the administration for its “bitterly anti-Russian statements,” the plan to bring Ukraine into NATO and other supposed encroachments on Russia’s self-declared sphere of influence. In this reading, Mr. Putin’s increasingly strident anti-Western rhetoric is merely a response to a deliberate and needless U.S. policy of provocation.
Yet talk to actual Russians and you’ll find that one of their chief gripes with this administration has been its over-the-top overtures to Mr. Putin: President Bush’s “insight” into the Russian’s soul on their first meeting in 2001; Condoleezza Rice’s reported advice to “forgive Russia” for its anti-American shenanigans in 2003; the administration’s decision to permit Russian membership in the World Trade Organization in 2006; the Lobster Summit earlier this month at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport (which Mr. Putin graciously followed up by announcing the “suspension” of Russia’s obligations under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty).
This isn’t a study in appeasement, quite. But it stands in striking contrast to the British government’s decision yesterday to expel four Russian diplomats over Mr. Putin’s refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the former FSB man suspected of murdering Alexander Litvinenko in London last November with a massive dose of polonium. “The heinous crime of murder does require justice,” British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said yesterday. “This response is proportional and it is clear at whom it is aimed.” Would that Dick Cheney walked that talk.
Now turn to Fact No. 2. Russia is acting with increasingly unrestrained rhetorical, diplomatic, economic and political hostility to whoever stands in the way of Mr. Putin’s ambitions.
The enemies’ list begins with Mr. Putin’s domestic critics and the vocations they represent: imprisoned Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky; murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya; harassed opposition leader Garry Kasparov. It continues with foreign companies which have had to forfeit multibillion-dollar investments when Kremlin-favored companies decided they wanted a piece of the action. It goes on to small neighboring democracies such as Estonia, victim of a recent Russian cyberwar when it decided to remove a monument to its Soviet subjugators from downtown Tallinn. It culminates with direct rhetorical assaults on the U.S., as when Mr. Putin suggested in a recent speech that the threat posed by the U.S., “as during the time of the Third Reich,” include “the same claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world.”
None of these Kremlin assaults can seriously be laid at the White House’s feet, unless one believes the lurid anti-Western conspiracy theories spun out by senior Russian officials. And that brings us to Fact No. 3. Russia has become, in the precise sense of the word, a fascist state.
It does not matter here, as the Kremlin’s apologists are so fond of pointing out, that Mr. Putin is wildly popular in Russia: Popularity is what competent despots get when they destroy independent media, stoke nationalistic fervor with military buildups and the cunning exploitation of the Church, and ride a wave of petrodollars to pay off the civil service and balance their budgets. Nor does it matter that Mr. Putin hasn’t re-nationalized the “means of production” outright; corporatism was at the heart of Hitler’s economic policy, too.
What matters, rather, is nicely captured in a remark by Russian foreign ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin regarding Britain’s decision to expel the four diplomats. “I don’t understand the position of the British government,” Mr. Kamynin said. “It is prepared to sacrifice our relations in trade and education for the sake of one man.”
That’s a telling remark, both in its substance and in the apparent insouciance with which it was made: The whole architecture of liberal democracy is designed primarily “for the sake of one man.” Not only does Mr. Kamynin seem unaware of it, he seems to think we are unaware of it. Perhaps the indulgence which the West has extended to Mr. Putin’s regime over the past seven years gives him a reason to think so.
Last night, Ms. Tlisova was in Washington, D.C., to accept an award from the National Press Club on behalf of Anna Politkovskaya. “She knew she was condemned. She knew she would be killed. She just didn’t know when, so she tried to achieve as much as she could in the time she had,” Ms. Tlisova said in her prepared statement. “Maybe Anna Politkovskaya was indeed very damaging to the Russia that President Putin has created. But for us, the people of the Caucasus, she was a symbol of hope and faith in another Russia–a country with a conscience, honor and compassion for all its citizens.”
How do we deal with the old-new Russia? By getting the facts straight. That was Politkovskaya’s calling, as it is Ms. Tlisova’s, as it should be ours.
Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays..