- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2000

One of the most important foreign-policy issues facing the next U.S. administration, be it Republican or Democrat, will be fashioning a relationship with Russia. It has to be one based on present realities, not illusions and the high hopes of the early 1990s. Just as well that new hands will be on the tiller at the State Department, for it will take considerably more toughness and realism than has been displayed by President Clinton and his friend Strobe Talbott, chief architect of America's Russia policy over the past seven years.

More likely than not, the next American president will find as his counterpart in the Kremlin, the unsmiling, steely gazed former prime minister and now acting President Vladimir Putin. Like Mr. Yeltsin's previous two prime ministers, Sergei Stepashin and Yevgeny Primakov, Mr. Putin is a veteran of Russia's secret services, a man who radiates all the warmth of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

Engineering this succession, former President Boris Yeltsin, who resigned Dec. 31, pushed the next presidential election to late March, a date that violates the Russian constitution by accelerating the election schedule, but which has the distinct advantage of making it next to impossible for other players for high office to gain ground. Constitutionality, though, is probably not high on the list of criteria for Russian voters just now; they give Mr. Putin high marks for the brutal war waged under his leadership against Chechnya's guerrilla warriors and civilian population alike.

Furthermore, as Uri Ra'anan, director of the Institute for the study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy at Boston University told Insight magazine's Michael Waller, "In what normal country does one go to the secret services to appoint a new prime minister?"

The answer is, of course, that Russia is not like any other country. It is a huge empire in decline, held by bonds of feudal historical traditions; a proud nation brought to its knees by terrible ideological and political choices; and a very incomplete democracy at best. The popularity of Mr. Putin, on which he will continue to ride unless Chechen rebels manage to bog Russian troops down in the capital of Grozny, as they did in the 1994-96, is a phenomenon American policy-makers should take seriously. Like the clownish figure of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the pugnacious and flamboyant Gen. Alexander Lebed, now governor of distant Siberia, Mr. Putin presents himself as both an autocrat and a nationalist. Unlike the two others, however, he is also an insider, backed by the Yeltsin "family" that still controls the levers of power in the Kremlin.

Extremely informative when it comes to understanding thinking in Russia today, particularly thinking vis—vis the United States, is a new publication by the Nixon Center, "Russia Survives" by former Yeltsin top foreign-policy aide Dimitry Ryurikov, now Russia's ambassador to Uzbekistan. Mr. Ryurikov served Mr. Yeltsin from 1991 to 1997, the post-Cold war period of the greatest thaw in relations with the United States. The disillusionment and anger against the United States to which he gives voice is clearly not that of the lunatic fringe which makes it all the more important to listen.

In Mr. Ryurikov's words, Russia has been undergoing "a quiet holocaust that started in 1992." He directs the blame against the "reformers" which were embraced and supported by the West. From the view of this country, the young reformers surely labored heroically against overwhelming odds (though some admittedly turned out to be lining their own pockets). From the Russian point of view, though, they are neo-Bolsheviks, whose legacy with the collusion of the International Monetary Fund is poverty, population, decline, drug addition, growing suicide rates, crime and every other social ill besides. In fact, the author says, there is widespread suspicion in Russia that the IMF deliberately set out to damage the country. The financial collapse of 1998 only appeared to prove this point.

Last year's NATO air war on Serbia, he writes, was a wake-up call for many Russians, the beginning of a new era which led to a redefinition of Russian military doctrine. It intensified Russian efforts to cooperate with other countries to oppose American international domination, seeking alliances in Eurasia.

All of which sounds bad indeed. Fortunately, as Russia struggles to rise from its current depths, Mr. Ryurikov also notes a dilemma. Through the opening of Russia to the West, which has allowed contact between millions of people in businesses, universities, political groups, etc., the United States has inevitably influenced Russia in ways that cannot be undone. Russians, too, have a taste for freedom. This trends works exactly counter to efforts to return to Soviet totalitarianism or days of imperial domination. All of which speaks in favor of a policy of engagement with the Russian people on one level and toughness with its leadership on another which is not unlike the policy we ought to pursue in relation to China. The power of Western ideas simply cannot be underestimated.

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