A rift is widening between Russia and the West. Where will this lead?
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The anti-U.S. rhetoric coming from Russia is once again approaching Cold War levels—and some believe it is on the verge of becoming worse.
While the relationship between the two powers has been strained since the beginning of the Iraq War, the exchanges and events of recent months indicate that Russia and the United States, along with their respective allies, are on conflicting paths.
In addition, several recent events in or connected to Russia are proving that authoritarian government is alive and well in the world’s largest country.
Consider for a moment recent events surrounding sociopolitical freedom in Russia. The BBC reports that Scotland Yard is preparing arrest warrants for three former KGB agents suspected of murdering Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Litvinenko died in November 2006 in London from radiation poisoning. His wife and friends maintain that his death was a function of “state-sponsored terrorism,” allegedly carried out from an order by President Putin.
In the meantime, Russia has twice demanded that Britain extradite Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, who, from his London office, has been calling for Mr. Putin’s removal from power.
German magazine Der Spiegel reported in October 2006 that no less than eight influential journalists have been murdered during Mr. Putin’s reign, some of whom were highly critical of the Russian president (in regard to issues such as the war in Chechnya). Most were investigating areas of Russian life that were presented in a less than flattering light. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Russia as number three on a list of nations in which journalists are most likely to be killed.
In mid-April, about 2,000 Russians participated in anti-Kremlin demonstrations in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, each ending with fights involving baton-wielding police and interior ministry troops. According to BBC reports, many were beaten, including an elderly man. Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who was one of those arrested, said, “It is no longer a country…where the government tries to pretend it is playing by the letter and spirit of the law.”
The crackdown brought formal statements of concern, including from several European states and the EU presidency.
More recently, Der Spiegel reported that the Russian government has told all state-run media outlets to produce at least 50% “positive” reports about Russia. The recent takeover of the nation’s largest independent radio news network leaves an increasingly small number of media outlets not managed directly by the Kremlin or the state national gas company, Gazprom, which is itself a major owner in the Russian media industry.
The article also indicated the Russian parliament is examining news resources on the Internet as well, and went on to theorize this latest campaign “seemingly aimed at tying up the loose ends before a parliamentary election in the fall that is being carefully stage-managed by the Kremlin.” Media watchdog groups say the recent restrictions are the worst since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In a national address similar to the American “State of the Union,” President Putin said Russia would not tolerate the continued “colonial-style” assault from the West on Russia’s internal affairs. He also announced that Russia would implement a freeze on its observance of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which placed limits on non-nuclear forces in Europe. Mr. Putin indicated that this was in response to U.S./NATO plans to install anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. He also told Russian media, “The threat of causing mutual damage and even destruction increases many times.”
The Itar-Tass news agency also quoted him as saying, “This is not just a defense system, this is part of the U.S. nuclear weapons system,” after meeting Czech President Vaclav Klaus.
Reuters also reported that Mr. Putin stated the following: “These systems will monitor Russian territory as far as the Ural Mountains if we don’t come out with a response. And we will indeed do this. Anyone would. We will not get hysterical about this. We will just take appropriate measures,” he said, without elaborating.
Mr. Putin also confirmed that he would indeed be stepping down as president in 2008. The expected successor is one of the two current First Deputy Prime Ministers, Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov. Analysis by Peter Zeihan of Stratfor (a private intelligence agency), based on the fact that history largely operates in cycles, indicates that Russia is in the process of transition between what he refers to as a “white rider”—a leader who is primarily optimistic and operates with a grander vision in mind—and a “dark rider”—a leader who rules with great power and authority, regardless of any morals or beliefs.
Mr. Zeihan further indicates that the crackdowns in April, on what were relatively small groups of demonstrators, were intentional and indicative of Mr. Putin’s realization, involvement in, and preparation for, this leadership transition.
Few, it would seem, can still maintain the position that Russia is “an ally” of the U.S. in the “war on terror.” Russia has always sought its own interests first and foremost, and will likely continue to do so. Many would also concede that, at this point, Mr. Putin has done a “good job” in this regard, and that Russia has maintained and/or restored its position on the world scene as a major power. This alone will set the nation once again on divergent and, ultimately, likely conflicting paths with the United States of America. In addition, few can still insist that Russia is, or is going to be, any sort of democratic nation—its history, people and geography seem to dictate that it is characteristically governed with a strong hand.
Consider just a few points based on the autobiography of former Russian spy Colonel Stanislav Lunev and an interview he had with talk radio host Barry Farber:
The current alliance between Russia and China makes the landscape more dangerous than during the Cold War, when these giants were in ideological conflict. They are now cooperating politically and militarily.
The Russians now have more than 100 spy satellites, mostly searching for new technology developed by the U.S.
Russia’s first democratic leader was bitterly anti-U.S. and vigorously pro-military. Yet the Americans considered him a friend of democracy and presented him billions of dollars to rescue the economy and to dismantle the Soviet arsenal—but these funds were mostly used for weapons research and development.
The geopolitical winds of change are blowing hard. Consider: the soon-coming changes in government in Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.; the renewed effort in Europe, with Germany leading politically and economically, toward a “United States of Europe”; the burgeoning Chinese economy and military; the turbulence in Iraq; the nuclear standoff with Iran; and the ongoing unrest in the Middle East.
Ask yourself: What if the U.S. Dollar collapses?
What if Turkey undergoes a bloody revolution?
Who will come out on the other side of any of these possible scenarios in better shape—America or Russia?
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