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    Wednesday, April 23, 2008

    Why the Kremlin is pulling for Hillary

    Who do Russians want to see in the White House? What do the looming changes in leadership, both in Moscow and Washington, likely mean for the increasingly confrontational relatioship between the Kremlin and the West?

    Both questions were put to me by an astute and concerned audience in London this week who came out to hear me chat about The New Cold War during a pleasant night at The Gallery in Farringdon. Both issues will again be hotly debated at the Eurasian Media Forum, which begins tomorrow here in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

    The short answer to the first question is that none of the remaining U.S. presidential contenders are particularly palatable to the Kremlin.

    Broadly speaking, most Russians would prefer to see a Democrat in the White House. But neither Hillary Clinton nor Barrack Obama comes without baggage on the Russia front.

    Clinton, who would likely win the Russia primary if the world were given a chance to vote, reminds Russians, of course, of her husband Bill's era. While Mr. Clinton was personally popular - his extramarital shenanigans played much better in laissez-faire Russia than they did back home - Russians also harbour resentment at him for the way he ignored Moscow's concerns during the last Kosovo crisis and the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia.

    Ms. Clinton also embarrassed herself when she tried, and failed, repeatedly to remember the name of Russia's president-elect ("Meh, uh, Medevedeva - whatever"). Like presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, Clinton has dismissed Medvedev on the campaign trail as a Putin puppet and been harsh in her condemnation of Russia's sitting president, saying that as a KGB agent, Putin "by definition he doesn’t have a soul."

    Harsh words that will hardly serve to defrost relations if Clinton suprises pundits and manages to win the presidency. But to the Kremlin, she's someone they feel they know and understand - thereby easier to deal with than either Barrack Obama or John McCain.

    It's not just the Kremlin - an opinion poll conducted in February by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (better known by its Russian acronym, VTsIOM) found that if they were given a chance to vote in the Democratic primary, Russians would choose Clinton over Obama by a nearly five-to-one margin.

    Part of that, sadly, can likely be chalked up to rampant racism in Russian society. Very few Russians could fathom a chorniy, a black, being the most powerful person on the planet.

    Obama has actually said little about what his Russia policy might be, but we can draw conclusions from the company he's decided to keep. His top Russia advisor is Michael McFaul, a respected Stanford University academic and a harsh critic of both Vladimir Putin and the system of "managed democracy" the Kremlin has installed over the past eight years.

    On the other hand, he's called for Russia to be included in NATO as a way of resolving trans-Atlantic tension. On that point, I think he's ahead of his time.

    More ominous, to many Russians, is the presence of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's former National Security Advisor, on Obama's foreign policy team. Brzezinski is an Old Cold Warrior who was among the first to call for the West to confront Putin. He also played a key role in both promoting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (which expensively serves the sole purpose of getting Caspian Sea crude to markets in the West without ever crossing Russian soil) and in rallying diplomatic support for Ukraine's pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004.

    But even the presence of Brzezinski doesn't mean Obama will necessarily abandon his pledge to be a less confrontational U.S. president than the outgoing George W. Bush. In fact, both Democrats have made clear that they favour diplomacy over confrontation when it comes to Russia.

    John McCain promises to take the opposite tack. In fact, he's frequently been critical of the Bush Administration for being too soft on Russia.

    “I looked into Putin’s eyes, and I saw three things, a “K’ a “G’ and a “B,’” is a line McCain has pulled out more than once during his push for the presidency. It's a pointed jab at Bush's palsy relationship with Putin, and Bush's famous remark after his first meeting with the Russian leader that after looking in Putin's eyes he "got a sense of his soul."

    While in the Senate, McCain was the most outspoken U.S. politician in calling for the West to confront Putin and Putinism. He also headed the USAid-funded International Republican Institute at a time when it played a key background role supporting both the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and Ukraine's popular uprising a year later. (That's him in the picture with buddy Joe Lieberman sporting orange scarves during the Orange Revolution. Hillary seems to have forgotten hers. At least she's not wearing blue...)

    McCain, who has called for Russia to be expelled from the G-8, was charateristically harsh after Medvedev handily won the March 2 presidential elections:

    "In an election that was uncontested, where opposition candidates were either suppressed or arrested, where the result was foreordained by the manipulations of a corrupt and undemocratic regime, the one thing that was never in doubt was the result. It is a tragedy of history that at this moment, when the democratic tide has reached more nations than ever before, the Russian people be again deprived of the opportunity to choose their leaders in a free and open contest," McCain said in the statement.

    "It is obviously an election that did not pass the smell test … These elections were clearly rigged."

    Can't argue with much of that. But you have to wonder how that first McCain-Medvedev summit would go. The Moscow News suggests that a McCain presidency would mean "the end of U.S.-Russian diplomatic niceties."

    (As an aside, McCain's speechwriter is Robert Kagan, one of the architects of the argument for invading Iraq. How do these people manage to stick around after being so monumentally, disastrously, wrong?)

    So the Kremlin, if it had a ballot, would vote for Hillary, and would take Obama over McCain.

    The other side of the equation, of course, is Medvedev. What kind of president would he be, and how might he alter the course of Russian-American relations?

    Analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, who I have a lot of respect for, believes that the fact Medvedev was chosen to succeed Putin over the more hawkish Sergei Ivanov, means that "we have reached the end of the latest negative confrontational cycle."

    I'm less sure. It seems to me that Putin - who in addition to becoming Medvedev's prime minister has "agreed" to take over the leadership of the United Russia party - has now made it abundantly clear that he will remain the real authority. Medvedev's reported pro-Western bent will mean nothing if Putin and the siloviki are maintaining control of foreign and defense policy as the Vedomosti newspaper recently speculated.

    Gleb Pavlovsky, who as one of the architects of managed democracy is in a position to know, suggested that the new Russian power system will be a trifecta of the presidency, the parliament and the cabinet of ministers. I don't think it escaped him that Putin controls two of those three power centres to Medvedev's one.

    So the odds are that, no matter who wins the White House, we'll see the same escalating confrontationalism that has marked the past eight years.

    Incidentally, I'm sharing the stage with both Brzezinski and Pavlovsky tomorrow morning at the Eurasian Media Forum. I'll let you know if I get a word in edgewise...

    Thursday, April 17, 2008

    Russia's high-stakes bet in Georgia

    Russia's decision yesterday to establish thicker ties with Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was as predictable as it is inflammatory.

    As Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili rightly protests, the Russian foreign ministry's declaration (Civil Georgia has provided a full text of it here) that it will recognize as legal all documents issued by the separatist governments is a step towards the de facto annexation of those two territories to Russia.

    According to the Russian foreign ministry statement, President Vladimir Putin has ordered his government to "interact with the actual bodies of power" in both places, and to build trade links with the regions.

    This is hardly a surprising move. For years, the Kremlin has been granting Russian passports and citizenships to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even those international law clearly recognizes both provinces as parts of Georgia. Russian citizens now make up a majority of the population in both places.

    The Kremlin clearly foresaw a day when its hold over the two territories would be useful in a standoff with Tbilisi, the West or both.

    Throughout the Kosovo crisis, Russia warned that if the West recognized Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, a strong Russian ally, it would re-evaluate its relationships with not only Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but perhaps the Transdniestr region of Moldova and the Srpska Respublika in Bosnia-Hercegovina as well. (The Kosovo example has also contributed to rising tensions between Georgia's neighbours, Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh)

    When the West (seemingly because it couldn't figure out what else to do with Kosovo) through its weight behind Pristina's UDI, the Kremlin had two choices: accept its dimished stature and do nothing - as Boris Yeltsin did while NATO bombed Belgrade in 1999 - or do something bold to make it clear that Russia's interests can no longer be ignored as they were a decade ago. For better and for worse, Putin has spent eight years choosing the latter route.

    To Saakashvili's consolation, the U.S., the EU and NATO are tripping over themselves today to denounce Russia for "openly siding with separatists" and to call on the Kremlin to respect Georgia's sovereignty. Intentionally or not, their words and arguments are borrowed from Russia's reaction to the West's support for Kosovo.

    The unanswered question is how far does Western support for Georgia's territorial integrity go? How would NATO - an organization that just promised Georgia future membership - react if Russia annexed two chunks of Georgian soil, or backed their independence?

    The status quo in Eastern Europe is starting to slide away, just as it did in the early 1990s, when borders regularly fell away and new states were created seemingly every month. Back then, there was only one player at the table dictating the rules.

    Yesterday, dangerously, the Kremlin anted up and declared that Russia back in the game. Mikhail Saakashvili is betting hard that it's a bluff.

    The New Cold War on the road: if any readers are in London or Almaty next week, please feel free to come, say hello and argue with me. On Monday I'm giving a talk at the Cafe Diplo at The Gallery in Farringdon.

    Friday, I'm in Kazakhstan to take part in the opening session of the Eurasian Media Forum alongside Zbigniew Brzezinski, Gleb Pavlovsky and others. The theme is Cold War deja-vu.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008

    A crucial summit in Romania

    Leaders of the 26 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have just arrived in Bucharest, for what may prove to be one of most important summit meetings the alliance has held since the end of the Cold War.

    What the debate should be focused on is NATO's ongoing mission in Afghanistan, which currently lacks the men and equipment it needs to succeed. Canada - which has 2,500 soldiers deployed in the volatile, Taliban-friendly Kandahar region - has borne a disproportionate share of the fighting and the casualties thus far, and has threatened to withdraw its forces unless other alliance members step up and contribute an extra 1,000 troops, as well as additional drones and helicopters.

    So far, no member nation has stepped up and offered the needed forces, raising the possibility that the NATO alliance may be sliding towards ignominious defeat in the Afghan mountains, just as the Soviet Union did 20 years ago.

    But as crucial as the Afghan debate is to the alliance's future, the war against the Taliban is not even the top item on NATO's agenda. Instead, the wobbling alliance is debating the merits of taking on Ukraine and Georgia as new members. (U.S. President George W. Bush continues to praise the idea, while France and Germany have wisely made their opposition plain.)

    Adding the two ex-Soviet states to NATO is dangerous for many reasons. First and foremost is the possibility that it could put the alliance on a military collision course with Russia over the future of two breakaway regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

    As I've written before, the West's poorly examined decision to back independence for Kosovo has heartened the Moscow-backed separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, pushing them closer to their own unilateral declarations of independence. If the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians choose to follow Kosovo's path, look for Russia (and Serbia) to quickly support them and for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to threaten military measures to keep his country together.

    If that happens today (which it could), the crisis could be defused by international mediation, even if a few shots are fired. But if a fragmented Georgia is made a NATO member before Abkhazia and South Ossetia are brought back into the fold, any standoff between Tbilisi and the separatists suddenly becomes a crisis between Moscow and the West that could have serious implications.

    Former British defense secretary Malcolm Rifkind put it succinctly in an opinion piece published in today's London Telegraph:

    If Ukraine or Georgia become full members, Britain and other members could find themselves required to contemplate war or other forms of military intervention if either of these countries faced armed attack.

    This cannot be considered a hypothetical concern. For some years, Georgia has been unable to enjoy full territorial integrity because of the de facto secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both secessionist regions enjoy strong Russian support and there have already been clashes between Georgian troops and those of the two breakaway regions.

    Would it really be wise for Nato member states to accept a legal obligation, not just an option, to come to the aid of Georgia if either or both of these secessionist regimes, with or without the support of Moscow, continued to use armed force against the Georgian government?

    There are similar reasons to tell Ukraine that now is not the time for it to join NATO either. Not only is the Kremlin even more heatedly opposed to seeing Ukraine join NATO than it is Georgia (President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly raised the possibility of targeting its neighbour with nuclear weapons if Kyiv joins), most Ukrainians are themselves either opposed or indifferent to the alliance, raising the possibility of further internal strife if President Viktor Yushchenko pushes ahead without public opinion fully on his side.

    And, it has to be said again that NATO's relentless eastward expansion (Croatia, Albania and Macedonia are expected to join this week) - while never inviting Russia to join - raises questions of what the alliance's purpose is in the 21st century.

    NATO, on paper, has always a defensive coalition. Does adding a few Balkan states, Ukraine and Georgia make the other members safer against any external threat? Or does it increase the likelihood of its members being drawn into an armed conflict?

    NATO's previous waves of expansion into the former Communist bloc (including the 2004acceptance of the former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have nutured the Kremlin's suspicion that NATO remains an anti-Russia bloc, thus feeding the growing paranoia and surliness in Moscow. In the minds of the ex-KGB agents who now run the country, NATO's push east demands a response.

    We've already seen how this goes. NATO pushes east, ignoring Russia's concerns; Russia responds by investing more money in its military, testing new weapons systems, and doing all it can to thwart Western interests around the globe. The West's conviction that Russia is hostile necessitates Russia behaving in a hostile manner. Eventually, the damage done to the relationship between Russia and the West will become irreversible.

    There's a new president on the way to the Kremlin, and while I hold little hope that Dmitriy Medvedev will be anything more than Putin's loyal second-in-command, I also once believed that Yeltsin would control Putin. Until we see what Medvedev's Russia looks like, perhaps this is a time to put the escalations on hold.

    So here's a vote against expanding the Old Cold War alliance in hopes of calming the new one. NATO has other things to worry about right now. So do Ukraine and Georgia.

    P.S. The New Cold War has just been published in Turkey and Estonia. That's the Turkish cover top left. Can't say I'm a fan, but maybe orange is the new black in Istanbul.