The Emperor Putin

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by David Levine

1.

Run your finger around the borders of Russia, and you begin to realize what a worrying place the world must seem when viewed from the Kremlin. Ukraine, supposedly the closest and best-loved of Russia’s immediate neighbors, has just biffed its big brother on the nose by electing a West-backed president, Viktor Yushchenko. Three other neighbors or near neighbors of Russia—Belarus, Turkmenistan, and North Korea—are run by dictators whose grasp of reality is open to question. Unstable autocrats run the rest of Central Asia. Georgia and Moldova are crippled by illegal Russian-sponsored secessionist regimes on their soil. Armenia and Azerbaijan teeter on the brink of renewed war. Dialogue with Japan has been hostage for decades to arguments about four disputed islands of negligible value. The Baltic states are the objects of a Russian government hate campaign. Relations with the rest of the European Union are at their chilliest since the cold war. The rise of China, and its imagined designs on the Russian far east, are the long-term worry that keeps the Kremlin awake at night. That leaves Mongolia for comfort.

It takes time and effort to build up a set of problems quite as impressive as that. Probably no year since 1945 has been a particularly good one for Russian foreign policy, but last year must have ranked among the worst since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It ended with the Ukrainian election, which has sent anger and anxiety reverberating through the Russian political establishment. The anger was directed mainly at the United States, blamed with some justification for engineering the defeat of the Russian-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych,1 although the real force for change was widespread outrage within Ukraine at early attempts to rig the voting in Yanukovych’s favor, coupled with determined public support for his poisoned challenger, Yushchenko. The anxiety was reserved for Russia’s own regime. If “people power” could change the course of politics in Ukraine, a similar country in so many ways, could it do the same in Russia too? Probably not, even according to Russian liberals, since in Russia the public was more passive and the regime more powerful.2 But it was a shocking precedent all the same.

Events in Ukraine have confirmed Russia’s fears about the recent expansion of NATO and the European Union into Central Europe.3 The Putin regime thinks that the former Communist countries in that region will work against it, using their newfound influence inside the European and Atlantic institutions to draw more countries—especially Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—away from the Russian sphere of influence and into the European one. Janusz Bugajski, in his splendid new survey of Russian foreign policy in the region, Cold Peace, suggests that relations with Central and Eastern Europe are even worse than they might be because Russians have only “paltry information about their Western neighbors [which] fosters hostile stereotypes about the allegedly Russophobic East…



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