- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

OK, so what do we have? Iraq is on the brink of civil war. Al Qaeda shows no sign of dissipation and the threat of major terror attacks remains very high. Iran is ignoring possible sanctions and is pushing hard for its nuclear program. The Taliban is getting more and more active in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. North Korea already has or will soon have nuclear weapons. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales are engaged in harsh anti-American rhetoric that would make the almighty Soviet politburo envious.

So, what does administration do to address these challenges? Well, it looks like it wants to pick another fight, this time with Russia. A special meeting lead by Vice President Dick Cheney is followed by another one, this time by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Then the Council on Foreign Relations adds harsh rhetoric by issuing a report expressing grave concern about Russia’s direction, and calling for various and immediate tough actions.

If one listens to their policy recommendations, the return of the new and probably more dangerous Cold War is inevitable. Is it in the best interest of the United States? I do not think so.

Actually, Russia is not doing too badly these days. The economy has been growing at the robust rate of 6 percent to 7 percent for the last five years, the state budget every year ends with a substantial surplus, the treasury coffers are filled with about $200 billion and salaries of teachers, doctors and other government employees are constantly on the rise. The middle class is growing and approaching 30 percent of the population. TV serials based on the novels by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Vasilii Aksenov and other exiled authors’ novels about Communist atrocities are now featured on major state channels. There is a consumer boom, Russians are traveling the world in rapidly growing numbers and they do not need exit visas. Russia’s stock-market performance last year was the best in the world and those who were smart enough to buy into it ended up with close to 100 percent gains.

Overall foreign investment in the Russian economy has increased by 32.4 percent in 2005. Russia no longer is begging for foreign loans, but instead is prepaying its debt inherited from the USSR on behalf of all NIS countries. With the constantly increasing demand for energy due to the rapidly growing economies of China, India and other countries, Russia, with its huge energy resources, is in the driver’s seat. It is the world’s second-largest oil exporter and the biggest supplier of natural gas. Most importantly, however, is that presently the majority of Russians are feeling proud about their country, and this is one of the main reasons why President Vladimir Putin enjoys an unprecedented popularity.

However, for some politicians and Russia watchers this picture does not look attractive at all, so they want a major speech blasting Mr. Putin, preferably by Mr. Bush or Miss Rice. They would love to see the total boycott of the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg, or at least its disruption, and Mr. Putin’s embarrassment by organizing a parallel conference with the people who for one reason or another do not like what is currently going on in Russia.

I know what they are talking about because I was involved in the organization of many similar conferences during the Soviet era. But this was when the Soviet Union was our mortal enemy and we had to use all weapons, both Pentagon hardware and intellectual software, to fight communism.

However, modern Russia is not our enemy. It may not yet be an ally, but it certainly is a good friend. I am not the only one who is saying this. President Bush, Miss Rice and many other government officials and members of Congress said it many times too. So why would we use the same methods with friends which we use against the enemies? The good news is that there are some powerful and reasonable voices in the National Security Council, Department of State and Congress who disagree with an adversarial policy toward Russia, and I noticed with satisfaction some dissenting opinions in the Council on Foreign Relations report as well.

Mr. Bush is under terrible pressure to speak up and denounce Mr. Putin’s Russia. So far he refused to do so, and the only thing I can say is: “George, stay the course!” In his recent address to the nation, Mr. Bush said: “In all these areas — from the disruption of terror networks, to victory in Iraq, to the spread of freedom and hope in troubled regions — we need the support of friends and allies.”

It is pretty clear, however, that if we listen to Tom Lantoses, John McCains and others with similar views, we would end up with one good friend less and perhaps one powerful foe more.

Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow.

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