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That Sinking Feeling

By Trenin, Dmitri | The World Today, July 2007 | Go to article overview

That Sinking Feeling


Trenin, Dmitri, The World Today


Like the Dow Jones index in reverse, Russian-western relations are hitting new record lows on a monthly, even weekly basis. So why is this happening, how much deeper yet can the relationship sink and what can be done about it? Some critical questions for United States President George Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their next meeting in Maine.

THERE ARE SEVERAL reasons why Moscow and the west seem to be on a collision course. One is that Russia is coming back resurgent, many say; revisionist, is another way of putting it. Russia is no longer willing to put up with arrangements concluded when it was weak and disorganised. Not that the outside world was not warned well in advance.

In 1996, Evgeny Primakov, having just succeeded Andrei Kozyrev as Foreign Minister pointed to the portrait of Prince Gorchakov as the role model for future holders of that office. It took Gorchakov fourteen years to declare null and void the Paris treaty of 1856, a symbol of a humiliating defeat in the Crimean war. It has taken President Vladimir Putin only three years longer to serve notice on another agreement signed in Paris, this tune the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.

Gorchakov used the opportunity presented by the Franco-Prussian war; Putin is obviously exploiting United States misadventure in Iraq. For many in Moscow, America is down, Russia is up, and Europe is out.

Coming Closer

Then there is Russia's economic expansion, which the Soviet Union never achieved. The Soviet superpower specialised in ideology and politico-military issues, but never invaded western markets. Today, Russian private and majority state-owned companies are actively seeking to penetrate those markets, and others fear that Russians may want to dominate them. Energy is the prime example, followed at a distance by metals and defence technologies.

Add to this the rise of nationalism. The Russian Federation has become the latest country to go nationalist after shedding communism. Russia does not command international respect, but it demands it. Messing with Moscow is no longer free of charge.

Even when its reach falls short, it will exact a price from real or presumed offenders. From the Kremlin's perspective, giving asylum abroad to its political opponents or separatists is tantamount to interference in its domestic affairs. This turns foreigners into accomplices, and thus into potential targets.

And in terms of physical distance, the European Union (EU) has come closer to Russia. Its enlargement has had a profound impact on the mutual relationship. It has not only created overlapping near abroads, from Ukraine to Georgia, the new member countries from Central and Eastern Europe, some of them former Soviet satellites and the rest Soviet/Russian borderlands, have a wholly different historical experience with Russia than countries further west. This is not a trifle, as the recent RussianEstonian spat over the removal from the streets of Tallin of a statue of a Soviet soldier demonstrates.

Good and Bad

As with many nationalities, most Russians sincerely see their country as a force for good. When ordinary people are asked about their country's most significant contribution to world history, they invariably cite the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazism and the liberation of Europe. Everything else comes a very distant second. May 9, Victory Day, is the national day, as it had been since 1945.

In the Baltic states and Central Europe, this liberation is increasingly seen as a replacement of one form of oppression at the hands of the Nazis - by another, involving the Soviets led by Stalin. Some would even say Soviet rule was heavier, because it lasted longer. Those in the Baltic States or western Ukraine, who fought alongside Germany against the Soviet Union, are demanding recognition as freedom fighters. To all of them, the bronze Red Army soldiers are a symbol of domination, not liberation.

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