Monday, December 3

Vladimir Putin and US policy toward Russia

"Pundita, dear, there has not been a peep out of you for many months, or has it been more than a year? about Putin or Russia. Are you still defending Putin, or can you squeeze out a few words about Russia's fall from democracy under Putin, which is now evident even to the blind since the parliamentary election.
Boris in Jackson Heights"

Dear Boris:
Are you telling me that Russia had democracy under the rule of the Oligarchs? The Oligarchs were backed by American and West European business interests and governments that did not give a fig whether Russians starved, much less whether they had democracy. But yes, I will say it: Vladimir Putin and the group around him have gone too far. Are you happy now?

Putin has also been lucky; Russia's economic turnaround has been greatly due to high oil prices. But given that a majority of Russians were starving under the rule of the Oligarchs, one can hardly blame the majority of Russians, who are now not starving, for their gratitude toward Putin and his government. This includes their willingness to overlook government actions that would not be acceptable in a true democracy.

If you listened to Stephen Cohen on John Batchelor's show last night, Steve's analysis of the election makes it clear that Putin engaged in below-board maneuvers in order to offset the Communist Party's power in the Duma.

The biggest losers from the maneuvers were Russia's genuinely 'liberal democratic' parties, which combined wouldn't have taken more than 10% of the vote -- but a percentage that Putin's party needed as a hedge against the Communists. Thus, Putin used every means to squash the opposition parties.

Is this what I mean by going too far? The maneuvers were undemocratic. Yet the most troubling situation at this time is that Putin has allowed major corruption into his government.

Putin's argument for his authoritarian government was always that he was preparing the ground for genuine democracy to develop in Russia. However, he has in effect created a new class of oligarchs, which works against democratic government.

The new oligarchs steal less from the Russian people than the old ones and they are under Putin's thumb. And clearly, Putin is determined that Russians should do well. Yet in the end there is no such thing as the 'good king,' for the task of keeping the throne eventually causes him to betray the best interests of his people.

And it's all come down to one man. I don't want to think about what would happen to Russia right now, if Putin should die or become too ill to function.

Meanwhile, the US policy on Russia has made it impossible for Washington to wield any influence with Moscow. As Cohen said last night, Putin's government has simply given up on the US government. Moscow believes that no matter what they do, they will still be demonized by the US government. Moscow now considers the US policy to be simply irrational.

As to what, if anything, the US Department of State can do to overturn this perception: for starters, they can cease basing Russia policy on editorials in the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times that decry the loss of democracy in Russia under Putin. As Steve Cohen astutely pointed out last night, the businesspeople who read those papers are not the ones who write the editorials.

Russia is still the poor little rich country; business interests outside the country want what they've always wanted: control of Russia's natural resources via control of Russia's government. Until US policymakers acknowledge in their thinking this bald fact, it's not possible to devise a rational US policy on Russia.

The US government can also do what they've done before after they've realized it's far too late to do anything: consult with Steve Cohen, who is one of the best American experts on Russia.

If you missed Steve's discussion last night, you can listen to the Batchelor show podcast at KFI 640 AM when it becomes available in the next day or so. The discussion started about 95 minutes into the broadcast and spanned two segments.

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