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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Europe's Most Important Country

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It will be up to the next presidents of Russia and the United States to repair the relationship between their two countries. That relationship is worse than need be, and some improvement can come fairly quickly with the new atmosphere that new administrations usually bring.

There will, however, be a better chance for that improvement if each side has a policy based on a clear perception of the real dynamics of the other's situation. Though the dynamics that drive both Russia and the United States are the direct result of the end of the Cold War, they could scarcely be more different.

The United States' historical task is to learn how to operate as the first unrivaled superpower in history. Like the super rich, superpowers get everything but sympathy. And yet the task has stressful challenges to which the past can offer precious little guidance. In the past, most great powers had other great powers to balance them out and spur them on. Historian Martin Kenner has said the civil rights movement in the United States probably made faster progress because there was a Soviet Union to take the United States to task for hypocrisy.

Russia's situation has its unique aspects as well. Usually once a country is shorn of its empire, it does not return to great power status, becoming instead one of the middling nations. Russia may yet prove a two-time exception to that rule. The tsarist empire that collapsed in 1917 was reborn as Soviet Russia. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in a much weaker Russia but one that still has nuclear weapons and whose gas and oil give it economic power it could not otherwise derive from its own economy.

And that leads to the question of what is the dynamic driving post-Soviet Russia? Is it haltingly seeking its way to a more "normal" and "civilized" society, to use a couple of current buzzwords? Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski was expressing the hope of many of Russia's neighbors when he said: "Now that Russia is not so big and not so influential in the world, it can focus on creating democracy and civil society." But Poland's current leadership betrays anxieties about Russia's intentions in its alacrity to allow U.S. anti-missile bases on its territory. NATO membership and U.S. missile bases -- what better guarantee of a secure future for Poland?

Russia's most anxious neighbor is Ukraine, which unlike Poland is not in NATO. Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister and current leader of the parliamentary opposition, worries about "Russia's long-standing expansionism and its present desire to recapture its great-power status at the expense of its neighbors."

Ukraine has cause for concern. If Russia is driven to regain great-power status, Ukraine has to be the chief target. With Ukraine under its control, Russia would be mighty again. And there are historical claims -- Kiev is the mother of Russian cities, as every Russian schoolchild knows. Almost half the country is Russian-speaking. There are contested territories.

Control would not be exerted in an obvious and old-fashioned way with artillery and infantry. Daniel Fried, U.S. assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs said recently: "We do not want a weak Russia, but a strong Russia must be strong in 21st-century, not 19th-century, terms." But that's just the problem. Russia will use more contemporary methods -- energy blackmail and media manipulation -- to achieve those old ends.

Democracy is certainly weak in Russia, but society has become stronger. People start businesses, worship, travel abroad and live without fear of the state. The other dynamic at work in Russia is the urge to be a superpower again, and that tendency is most likely to be manifest in relation to Ukraine. For that reason Ukraine is right now the most important country in Europe.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."