The Price Russia Must Pay for Being Hysterical

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor



Will Russia's fierce opposition to possible NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia force the alliance to withhold its official invitation to these two current members of the Commonwealth of Independent States when the NATO summit opens in Bucharest on Wednesday?

And what will President Vladimir Putin say during his speech at the summit?

He could do a repeat of his speech from Munich last year, which was full of grievances and ridiculous accusations leveled at the West. Or, as the Kremlin has indicated, Putin, in his last personal address before Western leaders, could seize the historic opportunity by making positive proposals for improving relations between Russia and NATO countries.

I think Putin feels torn because, on the one hand, he would like to continue lambasting the West, but, on the other hand, he understands that Western countries are not Russia's enemies, but its partners.

Since the country's presidential elections are over, what purpose would it serve now to continue frightening voters about a fifth column and supposed enemies who have encircled Russia because they do not want to see it get up off its knees?

The average Russian actually cares little about NATO expansion. But if you stop him on the street and ask him, "Are you for or against Ukraine joining NATO?" he will probably answer "against." That is how he has been taught to think. This is not surprising considering that state propaganda has hammered into his head for decades that NATO is an aggressive bloc that once menaced the Soviet Union and now threatens Russia?

But if you were to ask him to list his fears and concerns, I would guess that NATO membership for Kiev and Tbilisi would never enter his mind. Instead, he would mention inflation, rampant corruption, abuse of power by the police, a lack of justice, traffic jams and a host of other issues without ever mentioning NATO.

Russians have already heard Putin cry wolf with regard to NATO's eastward expansion. The former Warsaw Pact countries of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary all joined the alliance without any terrible consequences for Russia. Following that, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria joined its ranks, bringing NATO up to Russia's border. Nothing frightening came of that either.

During a recent meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin made an extremely important statement. "Under modern conditions, when there is no longer confrontation between two hostile systems, an endless expansion of the military and political alliance is not only impractical, but counterproductive," he said.

In other words, Putin admitted that NATO did not represent a military threat to Russia. What is actually bothering him then? His further comments provide the answer: "It would seem that attempts are being made to create an organization to take the place of the United Nations. NATO is already going beyond the scope of its mandate. We have nothing against helping Afghanistan, but ... this is not a NATO problem."

So that is the chip Putin been carrying around on his shoulder. He is worried that the entire framework of international relations is changing -- that alongside the United Nations, where Russia enjoys the privilege of being a permanent Security Council member with veto power, NATO is rivaling its global influence. And because this organization requires member countries to observe basic democratic values and procedures, Moscow might find itself on the sidelines.

Also looming on the horizon is the threat by U.S. presidential candidate John McCain --whose chances of taking the White House are increasing with every day -- to exclude Russia from the Group of Eight for revanchism, staging cyber attacks against other states and backtracking on democracy. Some would say this is nothing but pre-election rhetoric from the McCain camp, but it appears that the Russian elite are not interested in taking that chance.

The elite seem to understand that continually irritating the West is a luxury they can no longer afford. An example: Once Russia spoiled its relationship with Britain, even Russians who regularly traveled to London on official business and who used to receive long-term multiple-entry visas on a regular basis are shocked to find out that they are now granted visas just long enough to conduct their affairs and go home. If your meeting in Britain will last one day, you will get a one-day visa -- maybe a two- or three-day visa if you are lucky.

That news had a disquieting effect on this country's higher-ups. It is no secret that Russia's economy is integrated into the world economy and that the lives of its ruling elite are linked to the West because of their vast financial interests there. As a rule, Russia's richest business moguls own major shares in leading Russian companies through foreign offshore financial structures. In the West, they have their bank accounts, real estate, wives, children, soccer teams, seaside villas and mega-yachts anchored at marinas in Sardinia and the Cote d'Azure. This explains why many politicians are trying to lower the temperature in relations with the West.

The problem of Russia's political and economic legitimization is still on the authorities' agenda. Solving that problem will only be possible in the context of a completely different atmosphere in international relations. This is what has motivated leaders to step back from the policy of confrontation and look for another approach.

Extremely indicative of this was President-elect Dmitry Medvedev's decision to give his first big interview following his election to the Financial Times, a newspaper based in Britain, a country that has been Russia's enemy No. 1. In the interview, Medvedev said he respected Prime Minister Gordon Brown and declared that he was prepared to restore full cooperation with Britain with no preconditions. Imagine if the next U.S. president were to give his or her first official interview as president to Izvestia or Kommersant.

A direct flight between Moscow and Tbilisi has already been reinstated, and Georgian wines and Borjomi are expected to make their reappearance any day now. In addition, talks are under way to smooth out disagreements over Russian gas shipments to Ukraine. What's more, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who recently came to Moscow for talks with their counterparts and with Putin and Medvedev, were left speechless by the outpouring of friendship shown by their Russian hosts. They even appeared willing to look for a solution to the European missile-defense deployment stalemate.

It could be, however, that all of this goodwill is coming too late and that Russia will still have a price to pay for their earlier hysterics. And this price could come in the form of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

Yevgeny Kiselyov, a political analyst, hosts a radio program on Ekho Moskvy.