The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Blame to go around

July 24, 2007

Today’s IHT has possibly one of the most idiotic commentaries about US-Russian relations that I’ve read in a long time. In this column, [sorry, it’s behind the pay wall] John Vinocur essentially places all the blame for the current deterioration in US-Russian relations squarely on Russia’s shoulders.

He writes:

Does anybody out there remember Dick Cheney’s harangue in Lithuania last year, the growlingly bellicose one that the Russians regard as heralding a new Cold War?

Here’s how that dreadful man, who is 800 percent responsible for the Russians suspending the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, threatening to target European Union members with new missiles, and even talking the possibility of an America versus Russia shooting war within the next decade, got it all started:

In a speech in May 2006 to a group of new democracies at the edges of the old Soviet Union, Cheney said, “None of us believe that Russia is fated to become an enemy.”

“A Russia that increasingly shares the values of this community can be a strategic partner and a trusted friend as we work toward common goals,” he said.

The Wild Man from the White House also asserted – although just in passing, a re-read of the speech shows – that there were opponents of reform in Russia trying to reverse its movement toward a lawful, civil society, and that “no legitimate interest is served” when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail.

For at-your-throat shock and provocation challenging peace among nations and good sense, that’s it.

Fourteen months later, we have a remarkable situation. The Russians, insisting they face a vast, American-led Western menace, move almost weekly from new outburst to new provocation.

No where in this column does he mention Russia’s sense of encirclement as NATO expands to its borders, the plan to deploy a ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe, or the US’s expressed lack of interest in renewing the START arms control treaty. Nor does he mention the American go-it-alone, we-don’t-need-your-stinking-input attitude that has alienated plenty of countries besides Russia.

Instead, he quotes one speech by Dick Cheney–and in his deep grasp of the nuances of Russian politics, completely misses what seemed provocative: Cheney praises the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and then moves on to criticize Russia. He says:

The freedom movement is far from over, and far from tired. And we still live in a time of heroes. From Freedom Square in Tbilisi, to Independence Square in Kiev, and beyond, patriots have stepped forward to claim their just inheritance of liberty and independence.

Later he adds, in case it wasn’t clear that “you’re next”:

The spread of democracy is an unfolding of history; it is a benefit to all, and a threat to none. The best neighbor a country can have is a democracy — stable, peaceful, and open to relations of commerce and cooperation instead of suspicion and fear. The nations of the West have produced the most prosperous, tolerant system ever known. And because that system embraces the hopes and dreams of all humanity, it has changed our world for the better. We can and should build upon that successful record. The system that has brought such great hope to the shores of the Baltic can bring the same hope to the far shores of the Black Sea, and beyond. What is true in Vilnius is also true in Tbilisi and Kiev, and true in Minsk, and true in Moscow.

Perhaps it seems completely harmless to you, but if you know that the Kremlin fears that the opposition might attempt to launch a color revolution in Russia, it starts to look like a veiled threat. Russians already widely believe that both the Rose and Orange Revolution were US-supported plots (some even go so far as to claim that they were CIA-lead coups). Did Cheney mean his remarks to be provocative, or was he simply praising the march of democracy without realizing how it would be read in Russia? That’s unclear to me. Surely there are diplomats who vet speeches, but as we’ve recently seen Cheney pretty much operates as a law unto himself, so both possibilities seem equally plausible.

Vinocur, however, seems to display nothing but ignorance. He willfully disregards the actual provocative part of Cheney’s speech, while quoting a few platitudes about cooperation. But if you really want to understand Russia’s perspective on the deterioration of relations with the US, you have to look beyond a few nice words and look at the US’s deeds.

The truth is, we don’t treat Russia like a partner, despite Cheney’s platitutes–we treat them like they don’t matter. Russia wants desperately to matter. Like the middle child who’s jealous of all the attention received by the over-achieving eldest and the cute baby of the family, Russia consistently acts out in attempt to have their concerns taken seriously. One thing that Vinocur does get right: Russia seems to be off the radar screen for US policy makers, and Russia don’t like it that way. They want to be treated like a great power (or at the very least, a regional power). So they throw these unbecoming temper tantrums and throw their weight around where they can. Russia’s recent oil-fueled growth both emboldens them and makes them all the more frustrated with their apparent second class status. So they do the only thing they know how.

So, yes, there’s plenty of blame to throw Russia’s way for the current state of Russian-US relations. But let’s not try to make out the US to be a wounded innocent, standing there in confusion, saying “What did I do?” That won’t fly in any relationship.

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