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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Best Approach to Conflict Is to Plan Ahead

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Recently I was invited to speak in Washington during one of the many conferences on U.S.-Russian relations that are held in the city every year. The topic under discussion at this meeting was fairly standard: "Is conflict inevitable?" I find it much easier to answer this question now than I would have a mere two months ago. Events over the past week have demonstrated that conflict is practically unavoidable, although not necessarily armed conflict -- thank God!

It's easier to answer because the ruling elite appears to have decided on external threats as the focus of upcoming State Duma and presidential elections. "The enemy is at the gate, and we must unite to defeat him!" is a simple but effective slogan that has worked without fail throughout Russian history.

Who are the enemies? The United States and its allies, which plan to install elements of U.S.-made anti-ballistic missile batteries in Europe. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, because he told The London Times that Russia is using energy as a political tool. His country, meanwhile, has charged former security services officer Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of former colleague Alexander Litvinenko and is demanding his extradition. But Britain refuses to hand over tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev for trial in Russia. Poland exports inferior meat products to Russia and then blocks Moscow from signing a new cooperation agreement with the European Union. Estonia relocates a World War II monument to fallen Soviet soldiers from Tallinn's city center to a graveyard outside of town. The list goes on.

State television's scanty coverage of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent visit to Moscow is telling. She came bearing tidings of friendship and a desire to smooth out relations. But why show viewers this and spoil the image that has painstakingly been created of Rice as the "gray wolf," crouching in wait to pounce on Russia?

The one thing that was reported loudly and clearly, and was portrayed as practically the only positive result of Rice's talks with the Kremlin, was the promise to tone down the rhetoric.

This translates as follows: The Kremlin will no longer accuse the United States of sinister intentions regarding its anti-ballistic missile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic. The White House, in turn, will refrain from criticisms of the state of Russian democracy and what it considers to be the Kremlin's authoritarian tendencies. But nothing came of it. Rice's good intentions were shattered shortly after, when First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov quipped to a news conference that Russia would not participate in a joint anti-ballistic missile program with the United States when the missiles in question were aimed at Russia.

The conference's second question was: "What is the proper role for the United States?"

Washington's problems with Moscow result from double standards. Politics are never perfect, of course, but something does seem amiss when U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney harangues Russia's undemocratic practices during a speech in Vilnius, then flies to Kazakhstan where he praises that country's authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Also, the Kremlin's anti-democratic course did not begin yesterday but during the earliest days of President Vladimir Putin's term, when he attacked NTV television (where I worked at the time) and other independent media.

But the White House took an entirely pragmatic view of those events, viewing Putin as the lesser of various evils. At least he was in control of the situation. They reasoned that Putin meant less threat of Russia's nuclear weapons going missing, of civil war, or of other catastrophic scenarios that could destabilize the international community. What he does over there with the democratic opposition, with the independent press and with nongovernmental organizations is his own business, the logic went.

There were some unpleasant moments of course: The Kremlin's anti-U.S. rhetoric sometimes went too far, but never so far as to interfere with the West's strategic security interests. U.S. military forces and their allies fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan were not hindered, but helped, with the exception of some problems with Uzbekistan. Even with Iran, notwithstanding some ambiguity on the part of Russian diplomats, Moscow and Washington ultimately found common ground.

But then the problems began. Russia shut off gas and oil supplies on pipelines serving Europe, frightened its neighbors, attempted to impose trade embargoes, squeezed Western companies out of Russian markets and initiated criminal proceedings against them. Finally, came the poisoning death of Litvinenko. These aren't just instances of harsh rhetoric; they are serious matters.

The warnings from some in the West at the start of Putin's presidency that a policy of appeasement would not work have been confirmed. That is how things have turned out.

The bitter truth for the United States and Europe is that they have very limited opportunities to influence Russia today.

If I were asked by the West for advice, it would be to prepare for the next crisis and start making contingency plans. Otherwise, the West may find itself repeating the mistake of former U.S. President George Bush when he gave his laughable "Chicken Kiev" speech just months before the Soviet Union collapsed, thereby betraying his complete lack of understanding of events in this country.

A new crisis in Russia is inevitable. A new and completely different generation is replacing the old. The attitudes and thinking of Putin's generation were formed during Leonid Brezhnev's time, and today's events resemble those of that period, with Putin and his ministers enjoy arguing with the United States. They like haggling over strategic balances in anti-ballistic missile batteries and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

The generation following Putin's was influenced by times of political turbulence. And this change in power is coming sooner than many think. I speak from experience, having witnessed over the last 25 years the rise and fall of Brezhnev, Yury Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and now the rise of Putin.

Don't expect a miracle to occur here. A crisis is looming because it is impossible to build an authoritative regime parading as semi-Russian Orthodox in a secular country with a market economy. It is wrong to enter into conflicts with neighbors and pursue anti-Western policies in a country with open borders that is trying to integrate itself into the global economy. Russia has endless ties to the outside world, where members of the ruling elite own real estate and bank accounts overseas and their children and grandchildren work, study and live in the West. It is wrong to constantly act as though the country is ruled according to democratic principles when there is no independent parliament and no functioning opposition parties, and where leaders must run to the Kremlin to ask permission for every move they make. There are no independent courts, national television channels or civic organizations. With so many dark clouds on the horizon, a storm is sure to break sooner or later.

The West should not be taken unawares, as it was in 1991. Its role would have been much more effective then had it been prepared for events. Had that happened, we would not now be seeing a worsening of relations between Russia and the West.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst.