From Russia With Love?

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‘Russia is not claiming the role of a superpower,’ Mr. Putin told al-Jazeera. ‘But Russia knows its own worth and we will strive to make the world multipolar.’

Wall Street Journal, 28 February, 2007

Vladimir Putin got Senator John McCain’s dukes up a few weeks ago at a security conference in Munich when he criticized US unilateralism. “The United States,” Putin said, “has overstepped its national borders, and in every area.” Whether Putin meant to antagonize America or cozy up to Europe or just speak his mind, his words were unmistakably a sign that Russia’s feeling its oats again. It’s rediscovered its self-confidence.

While America’s been obsessed since 2001 with the Middle East, lots has been happening in Russia. Like China, it’s forged ahead — and now arguably exists as one of several counters to US power. On the Iranian front, for example, the US can’t deal with Tehran exactly as it pleases: Moscow’s been using its power in the UN Security Council to oppose wide-ranging sanctions against Iran; it’s signed on build Iran’s first nuclear power plant; and it’s sold Iran millions of dollars worth of arms and defense systems.

What’s responsible for Russia’s renewed self-esteem? High oil and gas prices, for one thing: the country seems to be betting its economic future on petroleum, and so far it’s certainly raking in cash and building geopolitical muscle. Putin’s also consolidated power in the office of the president: he now nominates Russia’s 89 governors and appoints the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg; and he effectively acts unopposed by the Duma. No one really disputes that the 2008 Russian presidential elections (assuming they’re held) will be more than theatre to part the curtains for Putin’s hand-picked successor. The combination of renewed political stability — albeit at the cost of democratic freedom — and an uncommonly strong economy has made the majority of Russians rather content with the curent situation. Content enough not to — for the moment anyway — revolt against the string of dead journalists, the imprisonments and disappearances of political opponents, the disastrous situation in Chechnya, the cleverly muzzled media.

So: What’s to learn about the inner workings of Russia? What does domestic stability means for Russian action on the global stage? What kind of a mirror does Russia hold up to America? What might all of this tell us about our superpower trajectory? In one poll from last summer, 37% of Russians called the US an enemy — so what do they really think of us, and how does that matter?

Michael Specter

Staff writer, The New Yorker

Former Moscow Bureau Chief, The New York Times

Mark Kramer

Director, Harvard Project on Cold War Studies

Senior Fellow, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University

Pavel Podvig

Research associate, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University

Extra Credit Reading

Michael Specter, Kremlin, Inc, The New Yorker, January 29, 2007: “Since 1999, when Vladimir Putin, a career K.G.B. officer, was, in effect, anointed as President by Boris Yeltsin, thirteen journalists have been murdered in Russia.”

Andy Young, A new cold war? Don’t believe the hype, Siberian Light, February 12, 2007: “It’s not the start of a new cold war, but it is clear that not every country in the world shares the same worldview, and that Putin feels that Russia has the opportunity to become a standard bearer of sorts for countries who share one particular worldview. I actually found the speech quite refreshing.”

Candace Rondeaux and Lori Aratani, Intelligence Specialist’s Shooting Stirs Speculation, The Washington Post, March 4, 2007: “Two men shot Joyal about 7:35 p.m. Thursday, sources said. The shooting occurred four days after Joyal alleged in a television broadcast that the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in the fatal poisoning of a former KGB agent in London.”

Justin Raimondo, Phony “Dissidents”, Anti-War Blog, March 5th, 2007: “Every time a critic of Russia stubs his toe, Putin is going to be blamed. Logic is not a strong point with our New Cold Warriors.”

The Editors, Gangster President, The New York Times, March 3, 2007: “This week Vladimir Putin delivered another clear message about the kind of state Russia is becoming. He did so by nominating as the new president of the republic of Chechnya a man named Ramzan Kadyrov — an unspeakably savage and corrupt warlord.”


It’s complicated, because most people do live better than they ever did before, and most people don’t really get all that worked up about things that bother a few intellectuals in Moscow, like freedom of speech, and the ability to write and say what you want.

Michael Specter


I think it should be remembered the system of power in Russia has always been surrounding one man, sometimes one woman, but one person. And when Boris Yeltsin ran the Kremlin, he ran the Kremlin. And he picked a guy who was a cipher, who nobody felt would be anything more than a puppet, and when he ran the Kremlin, he suddenly wasn’t a cipher, and everyone responded to his whims. I only say that because I don’t think it’s all clear what’s going to happen when Mr. Putin leaves office.

Michael Specter


In Michael’s recent story, he cites Evgenia Albats saying that the K.G.B. was not reformed, but I would go beyond that. I don’t think it was a reformable organization. It should have been disbanded, and some new structure created that would have been much more politically controllable.

Mark Kramer


If you’re in Moscow, you can go get internet access, and there are all these bloggers writing whatever you might want to read, and some of them are quite perceptive, and they’re very critical. But in Tomsk, in Yakutsk, all across the country, there are not those choices.

Michael Specter


If you look at the recent steps that Russia has been taking, Russia actually was fairly reluctant to go ahead full-speed to supply nuclear fuel to Iran, for example. The fuel has been sitting there for, I think, three years now.

Pavel Podvig


To the extent that there was what I would describe as a broad sentiment seeking integration with the West under Yeltsin; that has really diminished under Putin. It’s not a return to the Soviet era, but it’s a sense that Russia is not part of the West and need not become part of the West, that it will be a great power on its own.

Mark Kramer


There’s actually no telling what will happen yet, even though I think we do see a continuation of the sort of corporate Kremlin. Who knows what’s going to happen. Maybe Mr. Putin will just decide to become Prime Minister, and rewrite the constitution in such a way that it’s a strong prime ministerial country. That would take about an hour.

Michael Specter

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