It’s good to see that the mainstream press is not far behind the truth where Russia is concerned these days. Writing in the Washington Post, columnist Jim Hoagland (pictured) echoes the sentiments you’ve already seen expressed on the this blog about the fundamental fraud that characterizes Putin’s Russia generally, and in particular in regard to the Politkovskaya arrests.
Russian prosecutors say that the separate grisly murders of two of the Kremlin’s most vocal opponents during the past year have a common motive: They were committed by enemies of Vladimir Putin to frame and embarrass his government.
A similarly sinister hidden agenda lies behind U.S. plans to create antimissile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russian officials are telling Western diplomats. The silos that the Americans say are needed to defend against Iranian missile attacks will, in the Russian version, be stuffed with multiple-warhead offensive rockets aimed at Moscow.
These “explanations” of murders and missiles raise a chilling question about Putin’s Kremlin: Is it worse if the Russians are cynically offering up blatantly implausible tales as propaganda — or if the Russian president and his aides actually believe their own accounts?
Americans should root for cynicism. Hostile governments run by delusional fantasy are far more dangerous than those run by knowing lies — especially when the government in question possesses a vast nuclear arsenal and when the Bush administration is tempted at times by its own version of delusional thinking.
Two disturbing patterns emerged more clearly last week when Yuri Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general, announced 10 arrests in the slaying last October of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot to death in an elevator in her apartment building. Chaika portrayed the assassination of Politkovskaya — a fierce critic of the Kremlin’s policies in Chechnya — as the work of a Chechen crime boss who hired Russian police officers as killers to embarrass the government.
Politkovskaya’s death emphasized the growing dangers of practicing independent journalism in Russia. In March, Ivan Safronov, a defense correspondent for Kommersant, mysteriously fell from the window of his Moscow apartment. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists reports that as many as 13 journalists have been murdered in Russia by paid killers since 2000.
The second pattern can be found in the motives cited by Chaika in Politkovskaya’s killing. The prosecutor’s account echoed the Kremlin’s explanation of the poisoning in London last November of dissident Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210. Behind this plot, which was once again aimed at defaming Putin, was exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, Russian officials suggested, without offering any evidence to support the theory.
The diplomatic argument between Washington and Moscow over missile defense in Central Europe also turns to a great extent on Russian suspicions that balance on a thin line between cynicism and paranoia. It does not help that Kremlin distrust on this issue has been stimulated by the Bush administration’s refusal to engage Putin’s repeated demands for new discussions on nuclear arms control and other confidence-building measures.
Publicly, the Russians reject the U.S. contention that modest deployments of U.S. radars and interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic will help defend against Iranian long-range missiles. In private conversations with Western diplomats and others, some Russians have been even more scathing.
The Russian argument holds that the Iranian missile threat “might” materialize only 15 years from now. So U.S. haste on deployments in the two former Soviet satellites is a cover for “creating facts on the ground” and gaining an offensive strategic edge over Russia.
It’s worth asking if this is merely psychological projection at work: We know you Americans are going to hide MIRVs because it is what we would do in your shoes. You, after all, must be as cynical as we are. Your offers of unprecedented transparency and inspection rights (which were conveyed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Putin) are just one more trick and will not fool us.
The KGB graduates who run the Kremlin do seem to see Bush as being far more cunning and purposeful in planning to undermine their rule than is indicated by any available evidence. The same can be said of Berezovsky and for Chechen crime bosses — if, that is, you are not a prosecutor trying to close politically explosive cases.
Other factors suggest that the Russian-American relationship today is a matter more amenable to psychology than to diplomacy, which runs its course as Putin and Bush move deeper into lame-duckhood.
The Russian leader leaves office next spring. He is not likely to have another encounter with Bush as substantive as their July meeting in Kennebunkport — which in fact produced no concrete results. In retrospect, Kennebunkport looks more like a leave-taking that seems to have augmented Russian anxiety over Bush’s intentions and capacities — precisely because nothing happened.
“We cooperate where we can and compete where we have to,” Russian and American officials say when describing the uneven relationship the two leaders have forged. Perhaps only a cynic would have expected any better result.