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LOZANSKY: Toward a new pragmatism on Russia

Efforts to weaken Putin by backing democracy movements have backfired

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Promotion of democracy is widely known to have become one of the main instruments of U.S. foreign policy. On closer examination of this policy, certain fairly awkward questions arise, such as, does this policy serve America well? Is it really good for the countries on the receiving end?

President George W. Bush brooked no doubts that the American model of democracy is beneficial to every blessed country on planet Earth. Therefore, he confidently predicted that "color" revolutions would sweep through all the countries of the former Soviet Union and beyond.

Later, Sen. John McCain gleefully twitted Russian President Vladimir Putin that the "Arab Spring" would be coming to his neighborhood pretty soon; meaning, Russia. Moreover, Mr. Obama's erstwhile Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged both moral and financial support to the Russian opposition.

All this was in many ways a continuation of Bill Clinton's policy of rejecting even the possibility of making Russia an equal partner in a Euro-Atlantic alliance as a means of promoting regional and world stability. Washington thus continues to pursue the same shortsighted policies intended to drive a weakened Russia into a geopolitical corner and keep it there.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a euphoric West assumed this was the "end of history," the irreversible triumph of democracy and the free market as defined by Western elites. However, the current picture both in the United States and Europe is, putting it quite mildly, not too rosy.

It is instructive to take a look at the results of the democracy drive just at the past decade, starting with the 2003 "Revolution of the Roses" in Georgia, where a putsch brought to power Columbia University graduate Mikhail Saakashvili, who spoke all the right words about freedom, democracy and the evil Russian empire. He also hired top Washington public relations firms, which quickly made him the darling of the Western establishment and its virulently anti-Russian media.

However, behind that verbal smoke screen, Mr. Saakashvili imposed a most repressive and corrupt police regime. There were even intimations of onetime prime minister Zurab Zhvania being assassinated on his orders.

The utterly reckless and criminal assault that Mr. Saakashvili launched on South Ossetia in August 2008 revealed his dangerous mental instability. If there was ever any chance of a peaceful reconciliation between Georgia and its breakaway provinces, it evaporated for good. After Georgia elected a new president, Mr. Saakashvili left the country in a hurry and it is doubtful that he will ever return.

The next U.S. democracy promotion project, which took place in Ukraine in 2004, brought to power the leaders of the so-called "Orange Revolution." A mere four years later, they were bounced out of office, with their flag-bearer and another darling of the West, Viktor Yushchenko, failing to get even 5 percent of the vote. During his term, Ukraine became a basket case in economic terms, and on top of that, he committed one of the most disgraceful political acts by bestowing the country's highest honor on the notorious Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, who controlled an SS-type organization that killed thousands of Jews, Russians and Poles during World War II.

In Kyrgyzstan, the so-called "Tulip Revolution" of 2005 succeeded in merely replacing one corrupt autocrat, Askar Akaev, with the even more corrupt Kurmanbek Bakiyev. To add insult to injury, the current Kyrgyz leadership has ordered the shutting down of a major U.S. military base in that country.

As for democracy promotion efforts in Iraq and Libya, they were not limited to "soft" power, but were complemented by the use of the most sophisticated hard power. Nevertheless, the results are absolute disaster for everyone except al Qaeda, with sinister implications that are now hard to foresee.

One would have thought that in view of these dismal failures, Washington might reconsider its policies, yet we see no sign of it. Russia's Mr. Putin is still seen as "the biggest threat to democracy" — even if he not only enjoys massive domestic support, but was recently proclaimed by Forbes magazine the world's most influential politician, leaving behind Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron.

Ignoring these basic facts about the state of affairs in present-day Russia, many U.S. opinion makers and the media are determined to portray Mr. Putin as the principal enemy of the United States, the Western world, democracy and anything else that comes to hand.

Such irrational thinking, incurably embedded in some Washington circles, is clearly damaging to U.S. national security interests as it leads to increasing the list of America's foes instead of friends.

It is high time for U.S. policy toward Russia to change drastically in the spirit of pragmatism. Not only have all the "color revolutions" failed, but America is currently in retreat almost on every front, from the chain of disasters in the Middle East to the unstoppable rise of China. Most disturbing, Islamic radicalism remains perhaps the most critical, existential danger facing the civilized world. It is simply vital for America to seek a new, mutually beneficial relationship with Russia, and to do so without meddling in its internal affairs — something that no truly sovereign country will stand for.

Washington and Moscow are destined to help each other, as they did during World War II. These days, they must urgently address the current global threats faced by both countries and their allies. No efforts should be spared in seeking ways of jointly overcoming these enormous challenges.

Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow and professor of world politics at Moscow State University.

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