In September 1984, British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe approached Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and “raised the same human rights names with him as we left the talk to take our coffee when no one else was within earshot. His reply was just as prompt and even more brutal. ‘Sakharov’ he said, taking up one of my names apparently at random. ‘Sakharov. That is Russian for sugar. No thank you, I don’t take sugar with my coffee.’ He was grinning dismissively.” Russians are understandably angry that their head of State should now be lectured on human rights — by Condoleezza Rice, at that.
President Vladimir Putin’s speech in Munich on February 10 was much more than a chargesheet. It was a message that what Russia seeks now is “the architecture of security” based on multi-polarity, which respects its interests and status; “something like co-chairmanship of the Western club — or at the very least membership in its Politburo,” as Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, put it.
There is little sign that the US realises the roots of Russian resentment, the sense of repeated betrayal by the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin’s assertiveness has come as a shock. Less than a week before this speech, Mikhail Gorbachev’s article in The Guardian was in the same vein.
“The US and the West as a whole succumbed to the ‘winner’s complex’ and ‘a new arms race is now under way’ with every chance of a new Cold War.” He had hoped for “a new security architecture”. That was not to be. In the summer of 1991, his plea to the G-7 in London to support reforms was rejected. “When they needed 100 billion for the war in the Gulf, they had no problem.”
His former advisor Andrei Grachev accused the West of using “the strategic weakening of Russia to push it onto the back-burner of the global political stove”. Little imagining that the emaciated superpower of old would emerge as an “energy-producing superpower”. Alexander Solzhenitsyn attacked the US and Nato for moves “to encircle Russia and destroy its sovereignty”.
He praised Putin’s efforts to lift Russia from decline when “Western democracy is in a serious state of crisis”. Gorbachev also holds that “in essence, his (Putin’s) position is very close to the aspirations of the people”. It was hypocritical of US Vice-President Dick Cheney to criticise Russia’s human rights record one day and fly to Kazakhstan the next, where President Nazarbayev won a third term in a Soviet-style 91 per cent of the vote.
It is a nationalist surge across the board, which US policies have produced. Nato has reached near the borders of Russia flouting assurances to the contrary. Attempts were made to install pro-US regimes in Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus. US bases were developed in Central Asia. Now come moves to erect a new anti-missile system in Central Europe; a radar network in the Czech Republic and an anti-ballistic missile system in Poland in order, incredibly, to intercept ICBMs from Iran and North Korea. Even western Europe is not persuaded.
Putin’s popularity has soared. According to opinion polls, he has 70-80 per cent of the people behind him, especially the prosperous middle-classes. A poll conducted late last year by the independent EU-Russia Centre in Brussels, headed by the former British Liberal Party leader, Paddy Ashdown, found that only 16 per cent of the Russians consulted want to see ‘Western democracy’ in their country. Their priorities were security (68 per cent) and housing (64 per cent).
There is a keen perception that the West manipulated a corrupt, incompetent Boris Yeltsin, contributed to the economic collapse in the 1990s and is out to undermine Putin because he refuses to play its game. William Pfaff sums up Russians’ feelings realistically. “Putin has given them a society of rules, security and — at the level of the ordinary man and woman — predictability. It is not a democracy, but it votes. It does not really have a free media, but it has free speech. Thanks to its energy resources and the rise in energy prices set off by war in the Middle East, it again is a recognised international power. Whatever Russia is now, the Russian people seem comfortable with it. They are not comfortable with the foreign attitude to this new Russia. They find America threatening, for exactly the reasons Putin expressed at the Munich” conference.
Two concepts dominate Russian thinking. One, articulated by Vladislav Surkov, ideologue and deputy head of Putin’s administration, is ‘sovereign democracy’. Russia will be democratic in its own way. The other is the concept of ‘return’, as Dmitri Trenin describes it picturesquely. “Until recently, Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the centre but still fundamentally a part of it. Now it has left that orbit entirely. Russia’s leaders have given up on becoming part of the West and have started creating their own Moscow-centred system.”
The invitation to the Hamas leaders to visit Moscow and other Russian initiatives, especially in West Asia, are part of this strategy. With the third largest currency reserves in the world, Russian self-assurance is understandable, especially after its success in defeating US plans, which a French journalist Jean-Marie Chauvier has accurately described. The oligarchs had acquired holdings in the hydrocarbon sector at knockdown prices in the Yeltsin era. In 2003, Putin handed over control of this crucial sector to State units. It was intended to block a 1991 US policy aimed at diminishing Russian power. This was the aim of Nato’s enlargement and the establishment of alternative energy supply routes to replace the Russian networks.
Putin’s indictment was explicit: “Where are your promises?” he asked apropos Nato’s spread. “We are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations, which plunges the world into a string of conflicts,” adding, “The US has overstepped its national borders and is imposing its legal system on other States. This is dangerous. Nobody feels secure anymore because nobody feels protected by international law. This policy fuels the arms race… encourages countries — Iran and North Korea — to acquire WMDs.”
There are problems — internal conflicts, “tyrants” and WMDs. “Can we remain indifferent observers?” He was clearly offering cooperation in combating these; provided “the decision (to use force) is sanctioned by the UN”. Read, with Russia’s consent.
Putin is unlikely to be patient any longer with homilies on democracy. “They keep teaching Russia democracy, but don’t want to learn it themselves. Why do they resort to bombings and shellings all the time? Could it be because of a lack of political culture, respect for democracy and law?” He seeks more than concessions on some issues. He seeks fundamentally a concert of nations based on “a reasonable balance between the interests of all”. That is very much in India’s interests as well.