The end of the Cold War brought about an attitude adjustment in American culture toward several aspects of the tense, decades-long conflict with the Soviet Union. That adjustment is worth keeping in mind with today’s report that the Russian successor to the KGB has detained an American accused of spying for the CIA, because it’s doubtful the post-Cold War change was more pronounced on any subject than the spy game. Where once Americans saw Russian spies access the highest reaches of the government and couldn’t help but wonder what other walls might have ears, the U.S.-Russian espionage trade suddenly became either goofy or romanticized–sometimes both.
How else to explain the reaction to the discovery of Russian spies living in America 2010? They were either incompetent or making fools of their own bosses back in Moscow by sending back “intel” they had culled from the pages of American newspapers. And of course they were all satellites revolving around Anna Chapman, the redheaded Russian spy who, upon repatriation in Russia, immediately launched a second career as a model and television show host. In one fashion show, Chapman traversed the catwalk flanked by men dressed as Secret Service agents–and this was playfully reproduced by U.S. newspapers. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.
After 9/11, there was an explicit question at the heart of much of the security apparatus put into place at the federal level, as well as the efforts to streamline intelligence analysis, foster cooperation between agencies, and put an administrative umbrella over the process in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Why, we wondered, didn’t the government “connect the dots,” and how could we connect them in time in the future?
These were appropriate questions to ask, and they were asked again after the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi and now are being asked after the Boston Marathon bombings. Of particular concern is a trip to the Russian Caucasus taken by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased older brother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, both of whom are accused of carrying out the bombing and planning others. Tamerlan apparently spent much of 2012 in Chechnya and Dagestan, hotspots of Islamic extremism and home to Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, a breakaway Islamist authority and terrorist group. Early reports claimed Tamerlan caught the attention of the Russian security services, which alerted the FBI. Today, the Boston Globereports that the Russians seemed particularly concerned about Tamerlan:
You’ve got to hand it to Vladimir Putin and his pals. They really know how to stick it to Uncle Sam. Not.
On Friday the Obama administration reluctantly complied with the Sergei Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress and named in honor of a Russian lawyer who did not receive adequate medical care and died in prison after trying to expose widespread governmental corruption. The act compels the administration to bar from entry into the U.S. and from the use of our banking system any Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s mistreatment. The administration duly complied by barring some two dozen individuals, some of them in secret, including, it has been reported, the Russian henchman who now serves as president of Chechnya.
In her memoirs, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalls meeting with young Russian entrepreneurs in Moscow and, thinking the audience sympathetic to her concerns, knocked Russia’s state-dominated–and seemingly Soviet inspired–television stations. One of the men agreed: “Here is what our news looks like: The first story is about the great man [Putin]. The second is about agricultural production being up. The third is about whatever innocent people the United States killed today. The fourth is about the chosen successor to the great man.”
But having identified the problem, he seemed to dismiss it in the same breath. “But who watches television? We’re all on the Internet,” he told Rice. The secretary of state then went to meet with Putin’s handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev, and lodged the same complaint to him about Russian state media. He too agreed, and then added: “But who watches television? We’re all on the Internet.”
In late 2009, Russia lost a man it had already begun to forget. Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the “shock therapy” designed to transition Russia immediately from socialism to capitalism, died at the very young age of 53. Gaidar was sorely underappreciated, because the troubled Yeltsin years that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union were marked by hardship and the wiping out of Russians’ savings. Gaidar was a staunch proponent of privatization because he understood the primacy of private property in any aspiring democracy.
Aside from Gorbachev and Yeltsin, few in Russia could be said to have had as much influence on the new Russia as the brilliant Gaidar. And few could be said to have personified the Russia inherited from Gaidar more than Boris Berezovsky, who died in exile in England over the weekend. Berezovsky was one of the original “oligarchs,” who got rich quickly in the new Russia and used his wealth to influence Russian politics, first by backing Yeltsin and then by helping to elevate Vladimir Putin. Putin would betray Berezovsky by seeking to undo much of Gaidar’s privatization and wrest control of the oligarchs’ assets. Some challenged Putin, like the still-imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky; some wavered, like Berezovsky; some played along, like Berezovsky’s former partner, Roman Abramovich. Berezovsky put two and two together and fled Russia, never to return. He sued Abramovich in a London court, which ruled against Berezovsky in 2012. The suit nearly bankrupted Berezovsky of his wealth and, it seemed from his reaction, his very will to live.
Today is the 60th anniversary of the death Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. There are many ways to mark such an occasion, though you could hardly do better than this Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photographic tribute to Stalin’s victims. As the introduction notes, at the height of the purge period, Stalin’s henchmen were executing 1,000 people a day. And the anniversary comes this year at a time when Stalin’s vision for society, the fear and terror of totalitarian Communism, lives on in North Korea.
Recalling Stalin’s crimes is important, if repetitive, because it seems to be what the world failed to do with Stalin’s mentor, Vladimir Lenin, who created the system maximized by Stalin and who should also be remembered as a monstrous criminal, only one with fewer victims than his protégé. At any rate, one person who has chosen the wrong way to remember Stalin’s death and legacy is exactly who you might expect it to be: Vladimir Putin. Reuters reports:
One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”
Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.
Vladimir Putin is putting the finishing touches on a second retaliation for American legislation targeting Russian human rights abusers. After the U.S. passed the Magnitsky Act, banning American entry of Russian officials involved in the brutal prison death of a whistleblower, Putin responded by having his allies push through a ban on American adoption of Russian children. This was a particularly cruel act, since Americans are the ones who usually adopt disabled Russian children; Putin was gratuitously punishing the young and disabled.
But Putin has since added another ban on Americans in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, since one was not enough to fully convey Putin’s disdain for human rights. And this one is a list of his own: now finalized, the “Guantanamo list” bans certain Americans from entering Russia, and it is centered on the supposedly “medieval” conditions of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to one Russian official, however, calling it the “Guantanamo list” is merely a convenient categorization; “It’s a label,” Russia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs told Bloomberg. “Like Johnnie Walker.” And true to form, Putin’s version of the list was constructed without much actual concern for human rights, as the Washington Timesreports:
The historian Robert Conquest once wrote that one of the fundamentally flawed assumptions of political scientists seeking to establish a “scientific” approach to understanding the Soviet Union was that they insisted the tension between the United States and the USSR stemmed from the two countries misunderstanding each other. In fact, Conquest wrote, the opposite is true: “U.S.-Soviet relations have always been good when the United States misunderstood the USSR.” FDR and Jimmy Carter were his prime examples. One of the pitfalls of “Kremlinology,” however, was that “members of the Politburo themselves do not know which way they are going to jump tomorrow.” They would wait “to see how the political wind blew.”
Many things have changed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but Conquest’s observations retain surprising relevance to us. Today, the government of Vladimir Putin has made no secret of Putin’s intentions and his attitude toward the U.S. And as Conquest would have it, relations between our two countries are considerably sour. And Putin’s bureaucratic drones in his “power vertical” are today still waiting to see which way the wind blows before knowing how to carry out their orders. Both these seemingly eternal truths are evident in the fallout from Putin’s horrifically cruel ban on American adoption of Russian orphans. The New York Times today builds one story about the ban around the Preeces, a couple from Idaho who are in Moscow to (hopefully) take home a 4-year-old boy with Down syndrome they are adopting. Their adoption was approved before the ban, and Putin has since suggested that the moratorium on adoptions would be postponed a year. But he has sent mixed signals, and the Russian bureaucracy has no idea what to do about cases that should be straightforward, like those of the Preeces:
Gerard Depardieu is a great actor. He is also, like many showbiz types, a political naif.
He had earned a fair amount of sympathy–and caused considerable embarrassment for France’s Socialist President Francois Hollande–when he announced that he would move to Belgium to avoid a punitive, 75 percent tax rate that Hollande was attempting to impose on income over a million euros. (The tax hike has been stopped, for the time being, by a court.) Now he has forfeited all sympathy–and made himself into a laughing stock–by embracing Vladimir Putin. Quite literally.
It is hard to overstate the cynicism and cruelty of Vladimir Putin. He is willing to use orphans as his pawns in his public-relations battle against the West. That’s no exaggeration, given that he has just signed a law forbidding Americans to adopt Russian children. Approximately 650,000 of them live in orphanages and foster care including a substantial number who are sick or disabled and are unlikely to ever find a permanent home. Russian orphanages have a reputation for terrible conditions and rampant abuse. They are some of the grimmest places to live in the industrialized world.
If the new law had not been passed, a few of the kids stuck there would undoubtedly have benefitted from being adopted by well-meaning Americans such as Heather and Aaron Whaley of Frederick, Maryland, who say they are devout Christians eager to adopt a 4-year-old Russian girl with developmental issues. But now that is not to be.
The New York Times reported last week that Russia finally seemed to be ready to give up on Bashar al-Assad. Russia, the report noted, “was making contingency plans to evacuate its citizens from the country, the Kremlin’s last beachhead in the Middle East.” But in the world of aspiring great power politics, “last beachheads” usually become gateways to the next beachhead. In danger of losing its influence in the region, and aware that Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt isn’t especially picky about his allies, Russia is seeking closer ties with Egypt.
There’s a problem, however. “How come you are asking to have a strong relationship with us while you see [us] as a terrorist group?” Mahmoud Ghozlan recently asked Russia’s ambassador in Cairo. Ghozlan is a spokesman for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–an organization outlawed as a terrorist group in Russia due to its history of aiding and egging on the Islamist rebels in the North Caucasus. In only the latest example of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newfound respectability on the world stage just by virtue of taking power in Egypt, Russia may let bygones be bygones:
On Election Day last week, Connecticut elected a replacement senator for the retiring Joe Lieberman, the very last Scoop Jackson Democrat. In terms of Jackson’s legacy, it was one half of the end an era; the other half begins today, as the U.S. House votes to graduate Russia from what’s known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a piece of Cold War-era legislation sanctioning the Soviet Union for its refusal to allow Jews to emigrate. The amendment is still on the books, but mostly as a symbolic measure. Now that Russia is joining the World Trade Organization, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment would actually harm American companies looking to benefit from the normalization of trade relations with Russia.
But the legacy of Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s fight for human rights in Russia will go on. The bill is set to be replaced with a bill targeting the Russian government’s recognizable human rights violators. Referred to as the Magnitsky bill, it is named for a Russian whistle blower arrested and abused by Russian authorities for uncovering corruption. Magnitsky died in custody. As with the sanctions on Iran, the Obama administration had personally opposed the Magnitsky human rights bill, and dispatched John Kerry to try and kill or water down the bill. When the Senate comes back from its Thanksgiving recess to take up its own version of the bill, we’ll find out just how much contempt Kerry has for the advocacy of human rights. Vladimir Putin’s government, unsurprisingly, isn’t thrilled with being held to account:
Yesterday, Abe wrote that “Barack Obama ushered in America’s first large-scale experiment in personality-cult politics. The experiment continues apace.” The experiment really has two parts to it, and only one of them continues. Electorally speaking, it was a success–Obama was elected and then reelected with a majority of the popular vote both times. But the other side of the experiment is how a personality-driven campaign incentivizes governing. Because President Obama ran on personality more than policy, the latter has been shaped throughout his presidency with the former in mind, producing not so much a governing philosophy as a slogan factory.
One of the more interesting aspects of the president’s health care reform legislation is how many liberals hate it. Conservatives don’t like it on constitutional grounds and on policy grounds. But liberals I meet often tell me how much they hate the bill on ideological grounds, because it took an idea that sprang forth from the perceived failure and greed of the insurance companies and then forced everyone in the country to buy their product. The left wanted universal health coverage; they got a bill that encourages the young and healthy, who currently often don’t buy health insurance, to continue not buying health insurance. But the left misunderstands Obama’s intent: he is not a detail man, nor a policy wonk. He is a man in constant search of a slogan, and saying he reformed health care was all he wanted out of the bill, even if the end result was a logical and regulatory nightmare. And health care is far from the only such issue.
Over Sunday brunch, an opposition Russian journalist mentioned a State Department policy that symbolizes everything that is wrong with the American approach toward autocratic regimes: In order for foreign journalists to get State Department credentials, the journalists must not only have a letter in hand from the organization for which they work, but they also need a cover letter from the press attaché from their country’s embassy in Washington.
Opposition Russian journalists must therefore get a letter testifying to their journalist credentials from the Russian government or the Russian embassy in Washington; Opposition Venezuelan journalists must get credentials from the Venezuelan embassy; and opposition Turkish journalists must get certified by the Turkish embassy. Needless to say, these countries grant credentials only to those journalists who at worst sing the praises of Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and at best self-censor.
Now that Moscow has expelled USAID from Russia and announced it will not renew one of the pillars of U.S.-Russia post-Soviet cooperation–the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program–the Obama administration and other disappointed actors will be looking for a silver lining.
At least the Obama administration can take solace in the fact that while Putin is thoroughly dedicated to publicly and without consequence bullying Obama in the last month of the presidential election, he isn’t only isolating the U.S. As usual, Putin reserved some of his ire for NATO as well. Reuters reports:
The electoral defeat of the ruling party of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili — which helped usher in Georgia’s Rose Revolution — is being greeted with mixed feelings from democracy promoters. On one hand, the free and fair election and Saakashvili’s concession were a remarkable success in a region that’s known for its rigged votes. On the other hand, the party that won the parliamentary elections, and gets to choose a new prime minister and cabinet, is run by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man who supporters of Saakashvili and others worry is a cutout for Russia.
Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen. Ivanishvili made his billions in Russian state-owned industries, and was recently able to sell off these assets at a fair rate, something that just doesn’t happen without the green light from Russian President Vladimir Putin. As James Kirchick explains at the Wall Street Journal:
President Obama, upon taking office, promised “A New Beginning” for U.S. relations in the Middle East. We know how that’s working out. Yet another pillar of his foreign policy is faring no better–the “reset” with Russia. Vladimir Putin has kicked metaphorical sand in Uncle Sam’s face by demanding that the U.S. government end all assistance for civil-society organizations in Russia, which totals some $50 million a year.
This is more bad news for Russia’s future. As Yelena Panfilova, head of the Moscow branch of Transparency International, told the New York Times: “What is the list of other countries that have expelled U.S.A.I.D.? It’s not about money — we can cope somehow — the problem is about this whole feeling that we have been brought together with Venezuela, Somalia and Belarus.”
I agree with Max’s post below. While Friday’s sentencing in Russia of three members of a punk rock protest outfit was a travesty of justice–the girls were each give two-year prison terms–it also exposed the Putin regime’s thuggish tactics to a broader audience, making it more difficult for apologists to gloss over the government’s oppression. As Seth noted, Pussy Riot’s treatment is being condemned by celebrities, who may be politically clueless but can still bring a lot of much-needed attention to the issue.
The regime’s response to protesters after the sentencing has only invited more global outrage. Human Rights Foundation chairman Garry Kasparov, a prominent chess champion and activist, was reportedly beaten severely by Russian police outside the courthouse where the sentencing took place today.