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Moskovskiy Komsomolets, Russia

Taming Russia: What US Really
Wants from the Kremlin

By Mikhail Rostovskiy

Translated By Olga Kerzhner

17 May 2013

Edited by Mary Young

Russia - Moskovskiy Komsomolets - Original Article (Russian)

Behind the Scenes of the Short Life, Strange Death and Possible Resurrection of the 'Reset'

In 1961, a Soviet diplomatic mission came to the Congo. This African country was at the time one of the hottest fronts of the Cold War. The local CIA station chief, Larry Devlin, immediately started looking for a way to make our diplomats lose their influence. According to Devlin’s memoirs, here’s the method he picked: Americans hired a sorcerer who was well known in the Congo. He put a terrible curse on the building of the Soviet diplomatic mission and anyone who entered it, and, to make sure that every inhabitant of the capital of the Congo knew about it, the sorcerer performed ritual dances for a few hours in front of the building with the Soviet flag.

Today, Larry Devlin’s name is not well known in the political circles of either Moscow or Washington; however, the clever political diversion that he once arranged can be considered a symbol of the current U.S. policy toward Russia. The Magnitsky Act, which was passed by Congress and put an end to the “reset,” is widely seen as proof of one of two versions of the truth. The first version is that the U.S. is ready to make serious political sacrifices for the sake of human rights in Russia. The second version is that Sergei Magnitsky’s former boss, William Browder, is a genius lobbyist. It’s likely that, in reality, neither version is correct. It is a mixture of prejudice and sober, cold and ruthless political calculation.

Washington successfully used these political techniques for the first time against the British in the 1940s and 1950s. Now the policy — I call it "Operation London” — is being used again, this time against Moscow. America would like to turn Russia into the same kind of docile junior partner, deprived of its own geopolitical ambitions, that England has been for a long time.

The Benefits of Prejudice, or Atheism until the Airplane First Starts To Shake

In 2007, I was a guest at the gala dinner that Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of Russia Mikhail Margelov gave in honor of the delegation of U.S. senators that was visiting Moscow. Among the guests who filled the luxurious hall of the Hotel National, I was the least distinguished. But to my surprise the head of the U.S. delegation, former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, approached me, introduced himself and started an amiable conversation.

This politician, who was exceptionally influential at the time, was no less gracious the following day during the official interview. Lott said, “I've walked around Moscow — and what did I see? Friendly people, beautiful women! You are practically like Americans! Sometimes there are bumps on this road that we’re taking. But we’re going forward as friends. Don’t get hung up on who we were to each other 20 or 40 years ago!”*

Today, in contrast to the Cold War era, Washington officials don’t scream "help!" when they see a Russian. While I was in the U.S. capital in 2004, for a reason I don’t recall, I had come to a meeting at the Department of State without a passport. I was allowed to enter the building anyway, using my editorial ID from [Moscow-based newspaper] Moskovskij Komsomolets, where all my information was written exclusively in Cyrillic.

Nevertheless, it’s far too early to talk about the end of prejudice when it comes to U.S. relations with the Russian government. During the election campaign, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Russia "[America’s] number one geopolitical foe."

From the point of view of any unbiased foreign policy analysis, that statement is complete nonsense. Theoretically, Russia could organize a nuclear attack on the U.S., thereby destroying America and itself. Putting aside this clearly suicidal option, you’re left with this: Even with great desire and effort, our country in its present state could not cause any significant harm to the U.S.

So why do the American elite’s prejudices against the Russian government continue to survive and thrive? Here’s not the least of the reasons. The current Russian government is paying for its predecessors: the last three czars of the Romanov dynasty and the Soviet secretaries-general.

The story of how we became America’s favorite bogeyman begins back in 1863. Back then, when in doubt, Washington’s political elite consistently sided with Russia. In January of that year an uprising began in Poland, which was ruled by the Russian czars. Britain and France quickly announced their sympathy toward the rebels and asked America to support their position.

In the next few years, Washington “freedom fighters” rarely had to be asked twice to support protests against the Russian authorities. However, in that particular year, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward stated, “In regard to Russia, the case is a plain one. She has our friendship, in every case, in preference to any other European power, simply because she always wishes us well.”

What was the reason for this unusual sentimentality? According to the brilliant chronicler of Russian-American relations, Alexander Tarsaidze, who died in the U.S. in 1978, it was due to common interests and common enemies. Britain and France, having defeated our country in the Crimean War in 1856, made no secret of their desire to beat up the Russian bear even more. Paris and London had the same plans for America.

When the Civil War began in the U.S. in 1861, England and France — supposed friends of freedom throughout the whole world — supported the slave-owning South without hesitation. French Emperor Napoleon III was eager to repeat the triumphs of his great ancestor and namesake. His plans included the creation of a French empire in North America. As he once said, he wanted to get a hold of Florida, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

London saw the industrialized North as a dangerous international trade competitor. Therefore, the British preferred a victory by the agrarian South. But the British must be given their due. They were able to pass off their de facto support of slavery as a high moral stance. An example of this was written by a newspaper called The Times, a cog in the British establishment: “[Southerners] have so gallantly striven so long for their liberties against a mongrel race of plunderers and oppressors.”

In 1865, the American North defeated the South. Russia and America’s common geopolitical interest gradually became a thing of the past. However, due to inertia, an atmosphere of mutual sympathy remained between the two countries for several decades. What poisoned this atmosphere and rendered it so negative?

In 1891, the famous American explorer George Kennan published a book in New York titled “Siberia and the Exile System.” The effect of this detailed account of the Russian Empire’s rigid system of criminal punishment was stronger than the explosions of thousands of bombs. In America the word "czar" became equivalent to a dirty swear word overnight.

American prisons were not much more humane than their Russian counterparts. To put it in modern terms, a skillful public relations campaign in the American press would have mitigated the effect of Kennan’s revelations. Yet, in response to a suggestion of such by Peter Botkin, a proactive subordinate, Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Prince Grigorii L'vovich Kantakuzen angrily wrote, “What is it with you? Are you crazy? No, we Russians have not gone so far as to defend our country in the pages of magazines or in the course of lecture tours.”

As is absolutely clear today, if anyone was crazy, it was Prince Kantakuzen. However, even if the smart Botkin had been the envoy to Washington instead of the prince, the Russian government’s reputation in America would not have been saved. Even with skillful propaganda, it would have been impossible to counter the other cause of America’s changing attitude toward Russia.

Stop a citizen of any nationality on any street in any modern Russian city, and there’s an 80 percent chance that he’ll tell you how hard life is for his ethnic group in the Russian Federation in 2013. Let’s assume that some portion of these claims is perhaps true. Even if this is the case, the discrimination is hidden. Officially, all Russian citizens, regardless of nationality or religion, have the same rights.

In the Russian Empire, however, ethnic discrimination was not just out in the open — it was insistently displayed and a source of pride. It’s painful and unpleasant to remember this, but you have to tell it like it is.

By the end of the 19th century there were about 5 million Jews in Russia. Of these, only about 200,000 of the most privileged were allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement — small towns with no work, only extreme overcrowding and poverty.

The number of Jews among male high school and university students in Moscow and St. Petersburg was officially limited to three percent. By order of the minister of war, the number of Jews among doctors and paramedics in the Russian army could not exceed five percent. By the decree of Emperor Alexander II, Jews were forbidden to buy land. During the rule of Nicholas II, Jews were forbidden to participate in local elections.

Even more frightening measures were not written in the official legislation. Any high-profile political event caused a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms and massacres. For example, during the pogroms in October 1905, approximately 4,000 people were killed and 10,000 were injured.

A fish seeks where it's deeper, a man seeks where it's better.** A wave of Jewish emigrants from Russia surged into America. By 1914, the number of these new U.S. residents exceeded 1.5 million. Just like any other major Western power at the time, America was not free of anti-Semitism. However, the recently powerless subjects of the Russian czar were immediately granted full civil rights, including suffrage.

Imperial authorities had created with their own hands a powerful anti-Russian lobby in America. By 1911, in protest against the policies of Emperor Nicholas II, Congress broke a Russian-American trade agreement. The Revolution of 1917 and the Cold War made our country’s image in America even worse. In the eyes of several generations of Americans, there was every reason to see us as their country's number one enemy.

Why, though, does America continue to look at Russia through the lens of old prejudices in a new historical era? Is it only a matter of political inertia? I can guess the answer: Because massive violations of human rights continue in Putin's Russia.

Let’s assume that is true. What about the fact that in countries with close partnerships with the U.S. — such as China or Saudi Arabia — human rights violations are far more widespread and all-encompassing?

In Saudi Arabia, according to various estimates, there are from 10,000 to 30,000 political prisoners. Women in that country are deprived of all rights. By law, any homosexual act is punishable by death. People can sit in prison for 16 years without even being charged. There are many documented cases in which employees of the Saudi government subjected prisoners, including citizens of Western countries, to the most sophisticated medieval torture. According to their criminal procedures code, criminals in that country can be punished by amputation, public flogging or public beheading.

But have you ever heard of Congress passing the equivalent of the Magnitsky Act with respect to Saudi Arabia? Or with respect to China, which according to the rankings of international human rights organizations is always one of the most problematic areas? You couldn’t have heard it. Congress has never passed such legislation.

Don’t say that America has one set of requirements for a European country and a different set of requirements for Asian countries. Everything is much simpler and more cynical. On a social networking site, I recently came across what is, in my opinion, a quite brilliant quote by an unknown author: “Feminism, until the first worthy husband. Communism, until the first personal capital. Atheism, until the airplane first starts to shake.”

The American intellectual elite’s attitude toward modern Russia is "Communism, until the first personal capital." Saudi Arabia is America’s key to energy security. Americans learned the hard way in 1973 what happens when the Saudis are angered. Arabs proclaimed an oil embargo on the West and gas disappeared from American gas stations.

Sanctions against China’s human rights violations would perhaps be even more dangerous. Millions of intertwined threads connect the U.S. and Chinese economies. If you think in economic terms, it’s difficult to see where China ends and America begins — and vice versa.

Conversely, trade turnover between the U.S. and Russia is only $30 billion. It’s more than $400 billion between the U.S. and China. You could say that our country is not even represented in the U.S. economy. For aforementioned reasons, the Yankees are also no longer afraid of our nuclear strike. As a result, the U.S. can safely practice on Russia as if on a punching bag. It's so nice to feel like a defender of noble principles when it doesn’t cost you anything!

In practical terms, this means that the same mise en scene has regularly played out in Russian-American relations for many years. Successive presidents beat their breast and solemnly declare: We are for a pragmatic and honest attitude toward Russia! We’re going to fix everything now. We’re going to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which has been archaic for a long time. We will not let the Magnitsky Act pass!

Then an informal coalition of Cold War "hawks" and various human rights defenders replies: And we are for high moral principles! Let Russia dive to the bottom of the sea and bring us back who knows what!*** After this, the president usually washes his hands, and with a sense of accomplishment reports to Moscow: We honestly tried! But they wouldn’t let us!

The Secret of Puffing Up Gills

Speaking recently on his “Direct Line” televised conference, President Putin compared passing the Magnitsky Act with a puffing up of gills and said, “It would be a mistake to think that in some other country, the States, the Congress, the upper chamber are absolutely uncontrollable, and ours is totally tame.” These words provoked a dual response in me, to the point of schizophrenia. In my opinion, Putin is absolutely wrong and absolutely right.

Putting aside brief historical anomalies such as Ruslan Khasbulatov’s Supreme Soviet, in our historical tradition the Parliament is an extension of the executive branch. Conversely, in the American historical tradition the executive branch was considered an extension of the Congress. Toward the middle of the 20th century, the presidents finally managed to win a vast power niche for themselves. However, life became very difficult for presidents who, in moments of complacency, forgot about the necessity of constantly gratifying Congress.

In 1936, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt achieved one of the most impressive triumphs in American political history. Roosevelt’s rival in the presidential election, Republican candidate Alf Landon, won only two out of 48 states. Such a great number of the president’s fellow Democrats won the Congressional election that 12 new Democratic senators had to sit in the Republican section of the chamber.

Roosevelt was overcome with euphoria. Without the consent of his party’s congressmen, he introduced a bill that granted him the right to appoint six additional judges to the Supreme Court. The political drama that followed — which has been completely forgotten — nearly had disastrous consequences on a global scale: Hitler's victory in the coming war.

Congress, which was controlled by Roosevelt's party, rebelled against the president. His bill was buried. This defeat made such an astounding impression on Roosevelt that he went to the other extreme. He became Mr. Indecision. He would not take any drastic steps without first securing the absolute support of Congress and the public.

Meanwhile, the global situation demanded that the American president take drastic measures. By the summer of 1941, England was suffocating in Hitler’s blockade ring. Prime Minister Churchill openly acknowledged in his small circle: Without America's swift entry into the war, British defeat was only a matter of time. Hitler's decision to attack the Soviet Union gave the British a strong ally, but our country’s position was just as desperate. Russia lacked the material resources necessary for defense, and only America could provide them.

Roosevelt perfectly understood that, if Hitler beat all of Europe, sometime in the foreseeable future he would suffocate America too. However, despite the increasingly desperate calls of those who surrounded him, the president was in a state of paralysis. He feared that a decision to join, in one way or another, the fight against the German fuehrer would not be supported by Congress or the public.

At first, this really was the case. Americans did not want to shed blood for the sake of European squabbles. Nevertheless, the propaganda campaign arranged by forward-thinking community activists bore fruit. Most Americans reluctantly reached the conclusion that entering the war was the lesser evil. But once bitten, twice shy.

Only the attack of German allies, the Japanese, on the American fleet in Hawaii in December 1941 pushed the president to act decisively. However, after declaring war on Japan, Roosevelt still refused to declare war on Germany. As the American journalist Lynne Olson wrote in her excellent book “Those Angry Days,” even then the president feared that such a move would not have congressional and public support. Hitler “helped” Roosevelt with this excruciating dilemma by declaring war on America himself. Only then did a stream of economic aid start flowing into Britain and the Soviet Union.

If Congress cannot be taken by force, as any proud, beautiful lady, it can be charmed and persuaded. The method of such persuasion has been worked out in the U.S. down to the smallest detail. The president should pick up the phone and start calling influential members of Congress:

"Hi, Tom, Dick or Harry! It’s Barack. How's the wife? How are the children? How’s fishing? By the way, Congressman, I'm calling you for a reason. I really need your support on Bill X. I understand that this bill is not quite in line with your views, but it’s necessary to pass it for national security. You ask me, how about the bill that you’ve introduced? I understand you, Dick. I think we’ve reached a mutual understanding."

In regard to influencing Congress for Russian interests, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama has ever tapped into this strategic presidential resource. Why? U.S. officials’ responses to that question from their Russian counterparts invariably boil down to this: “I'm sorry, guys! But the presidential resource is limited. We have to choose very carefully what to spend it on, and this time you did not make the list of priorities. But don’t worry! The next time you will definitely get lucky.”

That answer is logical and even partially true — but only partially. Once, in response to a request from the British government, Joseph Stalin replied, “I, myself, would be glad to accommodate you. But I'm afraid the Supreme Council would not let me do it!”

The behavior of U.S. executive branch officials is somewhat similar to the Stalinist duplicity demonstrated in that story. Associates of successive U.S. presidents have not been too upset that Congress periodically pinches the Russian bear. From the American executive branch’s point of view, Congress is acting in line with U.S. strategic interests by behaving in this intractable way.

Former Foreign Minister and current President of the Russian International Affairs Council Igor Ivanov explained to me the motivation behind these subtle diplomatic maneuvers. Ivanov said, “The Magnitsky Act is a provocation that has no precedent in international law. America is trying to simultaneously get leverage on Russian domestic policy and squeeze our country out of the ranks of the upper echelon’s influential international players. This law is designed to create additional delay in our foreign policy activity, especially in those areas where the Russian position is not the same as that of the U.S., for example, in Syria.”

This is the art of diplomacy at its most cynical, but let's face it — also at its most effective. With minimum spending of political and other resources, very tangible results were achieved — all because Americans correctly located their “partner’s” vulnerability. Our weak spot is the political situation, the state of public institutions and human rights.

Don’t delude yourself with the starry-eyed illusion that once "evil Putin" leaves, all these issues in Russia will magically get better. There’s no magic. Our vulnerability in this regard is absolutely objective, and it will continue to be, at least for the next couple of decades. No matter who may occupy the post of the president of Russia in the future — be it Putin in his next incarnation, Navalny, Kudrin, Vladimir Ryzhkov or Andrei Sakharov’s spiritual counterpart — if desired, the U.S. can always dig up material for a new and improved version of the Magnitsky Act.

In short, bravo, ingenious Yankees! This time around, you turned out to be very lucky Talleyrands!**** But why is that surprising? As mentioned above, a few generations ago we were "tamed" with very similar techniques.

*Editor’s Note: This quote, while accurately translated, could not be verified.

**Translator’s Note: A Russian proverb, meaning everyone looks for a better place to live.

***Translator’s Note: This is a reference to a fairy tale, in which demands were made intentionally impossible.

****Translator’s Note: This is a reference to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, whose name has become synonymous with shrewdness and lack of morals.



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