Kremlin's U.S. policy: From Yeltsin to Putin
The death of Boris Yeltsin in many ways symbolized the ending of an era in U.S.-Russian relations that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Already strained relations between the two Cold War superpowers deteriorated markedly when the Pentagon announced plans to place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic.
Ironically, on the same day that Yeltsin was buried in Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived on his first official visit to Moscow since his last visit to the Russian capital as CIA director some 15 years ago.
The mission of U.S. Defense Secretary was a clear-cut one: to press Kremlin's top leaders to accept a U.S. plan for anti-missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. The answer from Gates' Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, was a firm statement that the Kremlin was absolutely in opposition to America's missile defense plans in Eastern Europe.
Three days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the stake. In his meeting with Czech President Vaclav Klaus on April 28, the Russian president warned that the U.S. anti-missile system for Poland and the Czech Republic would "increase the danger of mutual damage and even mutual destruction many times," and he threatened strong Russian "countermeasures." In his annual address t0o his nation-the Russian version of the "State of the Union" address, Putin said that unless the U.S. plans were stopped, he would withdraw from Europe's key arms control agreement-the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, signed in the dying months of the Cold War and regarded as the cornerstone of stability in Europe.
The boiling dispute between the United States and Russia over the U.S. missile shield plan in Eastern Europe is clearly bubbling over into increasingly harsh rhetorical exchanges with disturbing overtones of the Cold War. As Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told London's Financial Times in an interview last week, "Since there aren't, and won't be, any ICBMs with North Korea and Iran, then against whom is this system directed? Only against us."
Boris Yeltsin was the man who brought down the Soviet Union from the inside and the archetypal symbol of post-Soviet Russia's "Westernism." In the mid-1980s, he turned decisively against communism and performed one of history's great acts of liberation. While he had no idea about how to bring stability amid the wreckage of the former Soviet Union, Yeltsin had nevertheless been converted to the concepts of democracy and free market.
Yeltsin's final act of handing the country over to a former KGB colonel as his successor, however, has proved devastating for Russia's new democratic enterprise. As Garry Kasparov, the leader of an anti-Kremlin coalition called "The Other Russia," pointed out during his recent visit to Washington, today's Russian state is unique: "the world's other dictatorships are monarchical, clerical or military. Russia's is government of and by the secret police."
"These days," writes Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, "Putin decrees everything. The parliament, from whose free elections Yeltsin sprung to become president of Russia and its liberator, is now a rubber stamp. The press is overwhelmingly a mouthpiece of the state. Power of all kinds-even corruption-has been re-centralized in the Kremlin. Twenty years ago, Yeltsin made a strategic choice for democracy. Putin and his KGB regime have made a different strategic choice: the Chinese model. They watched two great powers take their exits from communism-Maoist China and Soviet Russia-and decided the Chinese got it right."
In Putin's Russia, especially since the "color revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, Yeltsin's "Westernism" has been replaced by a rebirth of nationalism. Xenophobia and strong nationalistic sentiments are increasing, both among the leaders of political parties ideologically close to the Russian government and among those that comprise its opposition.
By preaching nationalism and the United States as again a military threat, what the Putin regime is doing is to develop a policy of "enemy-projecting". Such a policy arbitrarily defines an enemy and argues that the West is Russia's "eternal" enemy and no matter what enemies Russia actually faces, like terrorists or Chechen "secessionists," they are really just instruments of Western manipulation in the end; and if Russia is in danger of falling apart, it is really the fault of the West's leader, the United States. Russian-U.S. relations are now at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.