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Russia Remains an Imperial Threat and Has no Claim to Be in G8

Russia Remains an Imperial Threat and Has no Claim to Be in G8

By Petr Vancura (*). Prag, July 9th, 2002.

150 years ago, the Czech journalist Karel Havlicek Borovsky wrote that we must fear the Russians as our greatest enemies, because all they want is, with a Judas' smile, to put us into their pocket. Several centuries earlier, the Russians had gone on the path of conquest of the territories until then held by the Mongolian nomads, and since then they only stopped when forced. Mostly, not very much was needed to stop them, because Russia was always only a monster on clay feet, but at least the will to face them was required. There is so far little reason to suppose that Russian attitudes towards the world are changing - it is still true that the idea of borders, behind which one does not meddle in one's neighbors' affairs, is foreign to the Russians.

As reported by Reuters on April 7, Russian President Putin declared: "I am conducting this [pro-Western] policy solely because I think that it fully suits Russia's national interests and not in the least to be nice to anyone." What "national interests" do then the Russians hold as their own? Upon closer look, we find that it continues to be control of the former satellites of the Soviet Union, a weakening or dismantling of NATO, and the weakening of the U.S. 9/11 may have profoundly changed foreign and security policies of the U.S., but Russian interests remain the same.

One of the two main directions of Russian politics, which emerge from Putin's December 1999 manifesto "Russia at the Turn of the Century", was a de facto confirmation of the traditions of the Soviet past, especially the call for centralization and the renewal of the power "vertical", and, in foreign affairs, the creation of a "good neighborly belt" around Russia. Then Deputy Foreign Minister, Andrey Fedorov, said: "... We are speaking more or less openly now about our zones of interests. In one way or another we are confirming that the post-Soviet territory is such a zone" ... In Yeltsin's time we were trying to wrap this in a nice paper. Now we are saying it more directly: this is our territory, our sphere of interest." But even Yeltsin expressed this sentiment quite unambiguously when, for example, he stated on February 28, 1993: "... The time has come for the distinguished international organizations, including the UN, to grant Russia special powers of a guarantor of peace and stability in the former regions of the USSR." (The other main direction outlined by Putin in his manifesto was Russia's integration into the world economy -- and hence its profound economic transformation -- as the prerequisite for achieving all of its other objectives.)

The most painful concern for the Russians, in developing their new strategies, appears to be the process of NATO enlargement, or even the very existence of NATO - while the Warsaw Treaty collapsed. Russian speculations are full of ideas how to reorganize NATO, strip it of its military dimension, and thus of its defensive capacity, and gain influence inside it. The First Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff, Yuri Baluyevsky, for example, said in an interview for Krasnaya Zvezda on March 13, 2002: "Russia should become an equal partner of NATO in the creation of a new system of European security. And it must be a full-fledged partner with the right to vote ... Ideally, we would like the block to be not a military but a political organization, with which we would collaborate, with due consideration for changes in the world and the new realities." Elsewhere, Stanislav Kondrashov writes in Vremya MN on April 13, 2002: "We should not forget that in the new world this Cold War era organization is doomed; it will fade away, since it is no longer needed. It's vital for us to get along with the United States, to cooperate with it - but if we crawl to it, or do the opposite and try to create the impression that Russia is equal in strength, it would mean we are losing sight of the main strategic goal. That goal entails participating in the setting up of a new global balance, to replace the exhausted model of two superpowers and the assorted Third World countries. The new balance ought to be a guarantee against any slant toward U.S. dominance."

All the while, some analysts, like Professor Francoise Thom of Sorbonne, observe that Russia pursues another of its long-time strategies, the effort to sow discord between the U.S. and Europe. On the one hand, for example, they try to convince the Americans that cooperation with Russia is more useful for them than the complicated haggling with their European Allies, and that Russia could, in fact, substitute for NATO: "We should look at a new military alliance that would include the United States, Russia, Turkey maybe, India maybe, for Central Asia," Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the Russian Duma's foreign affairs committee and a Putin ally, told Jim Hoagland. (Washington Post, April 28, 2002) Putin himself, according to Reuters, said on April 7: "I think that Russia and the U.S.A. can be more active than the European Union in solving the [Israel-Palestine] problem." At the same time, however, Putin has a different story for the Europeans: "Nobody doubts the great value of Europe's relations with the U.S. However, I simply think that, certainly in the long term, Europe will better consolidate its reputation as a powerful and a really independent centre of international politics if it combines its own possibilities with Russia's human, territorial and natural resources, and with Russia's economic, cultural and defence potential," he told the Bundestag last September 25.

The EU enlargement is also seen with displeasure in Russia. James Sherr, a prominent British expert on Ukraine and Russia, wrote last February: "By the time Putin became Prime Minister of Russia (October 1999), there was a broad consensus in the policy-making elite (not to say Putin's own entourage) that Russia was under geopolitical pressure. First, there was the enlargement of NATO. Second, there was the enlargement of the European Union -- once viewed with favour, increasingly viewed (with good reason) as a fresh 'dividing line' between Russia and Europe." In this regard, of course, Russia can only rely on the successes of its secret services, and attempt to utilize its influence networks to discredit the EU among the inhabitants of the countries which applied for EU membership.

On many of these fronts, Russia marked notable successes in the last months: it achieved the creation of the NATO-Russia Council, known as "19 + 1", it was formally recognized by the U.S. as market economy, and it was invited to participate in G8. Criticized for naiveté, American politicians reply privately that Russia today, with its limping economy and GDP the size of that of the Netherlands, simply cannot be seen as playing a significant role. For the U.S., they say, it suffices to monitor Russia, and it is useful to have peace with it, while faced with the tasks ahead, in Iraq and elsewhere, in the fight against terrorism.

The key instrument of Russian political pressure is their energy policy. Despite all the efforts of Western companies, which have already lost quite a few billions of dollars in Russia, the Russians never relinquished control of its oil and gas companies. These companies remain under the control of the Russian government, and the giant financial-industrial groups being formed around them become a tool of asserting Russian interests abroad. Next to the secret services (and the organized crime linked to them), they are, in fact, the only remaining instrument of power Russia has. It is certainly no accident that the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs is headed by two men with very little knowledge of modern economy but with strong intelligence links: A. Volsky and E. Primakov, former director of Russian intelligence, and a strong advocate of Russian great power ambitions.

The former Soviet republics are often completely dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies, but even the dependence of Western Europe on Russian energy sources is growing: one quarter of the oil and two thirds of the gas consumed today in Western Europe come from Russia. Now Russia even suggests it would wish to substitute Saudi Arabia as the main source of energy for the U.S. During his spring meeting with Chancellor Schrà¶der in Weimar, Putin partly revealed his thinking, and indicated how, in his thoughts, the energy clout is transformed into political influence: "If Europe sees Russia as an alien type, then, of course, we could create obstacles on the path of expansion of these relations ... If Russia is, however, treated as an equal partner in long-term agreements, the country will guarantee the long-term delivery of energy supplies." Countries like Ukraine, the Baltic states, or even Bulgaria, however, have by now also experienced Russian trade embargo, and some of them already know how it feels when Russia switches off the gas supply in the middle of winter.

The Russian relationship to their "near abroad" thus continues to be an effort to dominate, and its attitude to the West continues to be that of a rival. When we recall what we have experienced ourselves from the Russians, and what we read and hear about their present activities, both here and elsewhere in the world, we know that it is yet much too early to praise them as new partners. The story of Russian foreign politics, however, is not limited to the attempts to paralyze NATO, to severe Europe from the United States, and to regain control over their "sphere of interest", which no doubt includes also post-communist Central Europe. The Russians are active in the international arena also in ways which are distinctly inimical to everyone in the international community.

This is mainly true of another old Russian instrument - the incitement of unrest, national and ethnic passions, and generally of all possible forms of conflict in different parts of the world. Beside the Caucasus, Russia has a major interest especially in the perpetuation of the conflict in the Middle East: It not only boosts prices of oil and thus raises the attractivity of the present Russian offers for the development of Russian oil fields by Western investors, but at the same time drives wedges between the U.S. and Western Europe, and rocks the dominant position of the United States in global politics. In Nezavisimaya Gazeta from April 8 we read in a piece by Mikhail Leontyev: " ...The current lone superpower is intervening in such a number of diverse conflicts and is dissipating its energies so much ... It seems to me that the United States has made a cardinal decision on the Near East instead of building up complex relationships with Arab regimes. It may have decided to marshall these regimes to fit a 'correct' U.S. template. That is why it needs action in Iraq. It is a very ambitious goal, during the achievement of which it could greatly overstretch itself...." 

For long decades, the Russians have provided support to the Arab and other rogue regimes, financially, supplying arms, and training terrorists. There are no indications that these old links would have been cut. In addition to that we can read, for example, that they still maintain hundreds of "advisors" in Iraq. But recently they also started supporting the extreme right in Israel! This new Putin's strategy of inflaming ethnic and international conflicts has been well described by Dmitri Glinski-Vassiliev in a Memo for the PONARS Policy Conference, Washington, DC, January 25, 2002: "Hence the otherwise seemingly illogical diplomacy of subtly encouraging the hard-line and war-prone groups within Western governments (that are partially overlapping with those who have positioned themselves as the winners of the Cold War). The starkest evidence to date of such an encouragement was Putin's 'impromptu' statement in Brussels that virtually absolved the countries of the anti-terrorist coalition from responsibility for whatever civilian casualties might occur in the course of their operations. Later, he restated the same point differently, by saying that the desire to avoid civilian casualties actually caused some of the U.S. problems in the Afghan operation ... Systematic analysis of Putin and his proxies' actions and statements reveals a pattern of encouragement for the more bellicose forces, both in the West and among its rivals, at the expense of the forces of moderation and tolerance. Consider, for example, Putin's comments to Germany's Bild, in which he softly reproached Germany for being content with its "modest position in the world" rather than playing a more active military and security role globally, and spoke condescendingly of those "intellectuals" who keep reminding everyone about Hitler to justify restraint."

Add to this the extensive influence of the Russian secret services in Western media and universities, revealed, for example, after the opening of the Soviet archives, as reported to us by Vladimir Bukovsky, who worked in Moscow for the Russian Constitutional Court at the beginning of the nineties, and had access to these archives until the Russian government abolished the Court, and closed the archives once again. We may worry whether the Americans are not making a mistake underrating Russia. We ourselves, however, cannot afford to do so under any circumstances.

The last element of Russian foreign politics which must be mentioned is the Russian Macchiavellian tradition, brilliantly described by James Sherr in the paper mentioned above: " ... In much of the former Soviet Union, not to say the Balkans, people who matter often start from a different premise (than in the Western democracies which build on openness): if you want to advance your aims, you had best know how to disguise them. In that world, a straight line is rarely the shortest distance between two points. In the Caucasus (where Russia is very deeply engaged), you can't find a straight line. To us, everything there looks chaotic, and we naturally assume that chaos 'is in no one's interest'. But in the Leninist and post-Leninist view, chaos is simply a medium through which political ends are pursued - and it can be a very useful medium, too. There is a similar cultural difference regarding 'trust'. Our leaders invest a lot of effort in trying to establish trust with their opposite numbers. If you were to ask Western political leaders whether they should judge Putin on the basis of what he says to Russians or what he says to them, many would say 'both', but most would say with greater firmness that the most important thing is to establish one's own 'relationship'. Putin would not entirely disagree. Like most Russian leaders, he believes that personal relationships matter. But he doesn't think they matter nearly as much as we do. And he thinks far less about 'trust', than about the uses to which it might be put."

Value considerations play an important role in Russian thinking, as they always did in the past - just recall the thorough destruction of the value systems wherever they acquired power, and their substitution by the communist ideology. Even now, the Russians would be happiest if the West forgot what its civilization was built on, its moral values and its love of freedom. Alexandr Tsypko, quoted by Dmitri Glinski-Vassiliev at the above mentioned conference in January, expressed it as follows: "The fact that [the West] now needs to strike a balance between freedom and the need for safety has prompted it to draw closer to our country; now, at last, the Americans will begin to understand that the problems of human life cannot be reduced to the rights of sexual minorities, or the right to participate in presidential elections."

The internal developments in Russia should convince everyone that there is no need to worry about Western values coming to Russia any time soon. On the contrary, the chasm is rather deepening. Judging from available information, Russian media openly propagate violence and promote scorn for 'European politcorrectness' and for human rights. A new TV series, 'Specnaz', started in April on Russia's main channel, features non-stop violence, has a stirring rock music soundtrack, and celebrates the tough-guy New Patriotism of Putin's Russia. New successful movies, like 'War' of Aleksei Balabanov or 'Brat-2', are also full of violence, and strongly anti-American. The new regime now openly and publicly endorses censorship of the media. Primakov, who was entrusted with the supervision of the new TV-6 channel, said in March that he planned to make an agreement with Kiselyev and his team on a "certain extent of censorship".

The political world around Putin resembles an intransparent battleground, on which various groups strive to grab a share of influence, and Putin's own team uses one group against another in order to maintain control. A good example of this state of affairs is the prosecution of the last prominent figure of Yeltsin's government, the President's Chief of Staff, Aleksandr Voloshin. Putin can permit his prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, to launch an investigation of Voloshin, while leaving him in charge at the Kremlin, free to take retaliatory measures and to defend the interests of the Yeltsin Family. This uneasy and unstable environment appears to be fully dependent on Putin's personal power. Should his power be put in doubt, Russia will again rock in its foundations. The Russian elites are apparently well aware of this. "If, God forbid, something happens in the country as a result of which Putin's rating will begin to swing, the entire political structure will shake," Anatoli Chubais said in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta on April 30.

Indeed, only very few encouraging points can be seen on the stage of Russian foreign politics, and these are usually minor points suggesting that perhaps the West does give some thought to curbing Russian expansiveness. There are some signs that Western companies are now much more careful in negotiating investments, and when they do enter into contracts, which is rather rare (only some two billion U.S. dollars a year of investments now go into Russia), they insist on much stricter conditions, and demand commercial arbitration in Western courts in case of trouble.

There are, however, also some more important cases. Above all, it appears that in Central Asia matters have got out of hand for Putin. Our media gave full coverage to Putin's embraces with President Bush in Crawford in Texas, and briefly noted that, afterwards, Putin dutifully reported to his Chinese allies in Shanghai. It completely overlooked, however, that Putin spent the next three days on the phone trying to convince the Central Asian presidents not to provide their territories for the American strikes against Afghanistan. "All five of the Central Asian presidents thought otherwise, however, and boldly told Putin so. President Karimov of Uzbekistan held a press conference to say that when its national security was at stake, Uzbekistan did not have to consult with anyone. Putin then deftly executed a 180 degrees turn and announced to the world that, through his tireless efforts, he had succeeded in persuading the Central Asian states to cooperate with America." (Wall Street Journal, 11th December 2001) The resulting military cooperation of these countries with America which, despite American lack of experience in this environment, could develop into long-term cooperation, can hardly be very welcome by Moscow. A similar development on a smaller scale could be observed in Georgia: While the 9/11 events freed Russian hands for their genocidal war in Chechnya, and, in November, they conducted military operations even in Georgia, the present deployment of an American unit in Georgia against Al Qaeda cannot please the Russians. Even in Ukraine, despite all the various forms of pressure and direct Russian influence at the highest political levels, it does not appear that the Russians are succeeding in thwarting the "strategic European course" completely. In January, Ukraine has applied to join NATO's Membership Action Plan (MAP) and has met with positive U.S. support. The 'war on terrorism' has distracted the United States from Ukraine, yet it is no more ready to concede Russia's claim that 'this is our territory' than it was before.

Finally, it remains to take a look at the Russian successes in the Czechlands. After last October's BIS report (the Czech internal intelligence agency, 'Security and Intelligence Service'), we cannot doubt that their efforts in this regard are very intensive indeed. According to this report, the Russians are penetrating government ministries and local government administration, and also conduct disinformation campaigns in the media! It would be supremely advisable for the Czech Government to pay more attention to the report. Foreign secret services penetrate our public service - and our Government is completely inert. Does it mean that the Government itself is under this Russian influence? The whole of it, or only parts? And who specifically? Our public representatives, who occasionally speak a lot about our security, should make the effort and answer these questions.

The worries about Russian influence are not soothed very much by the various government transactions with Russian participation, of which quite a few have been observed by our media. Remember, for example, the mysterious deal concerning the Russian debt, organized without any comprehensible reason through a very suspicious mediating firm, Falcon Capital, apparently linked to the Russian government. The firm, Falcon, has reportedly been watched by police since its very arrival to the Czechlands in 1995, suspected of links to organized crime. The flows of money made possible by this transaction remain obscure, and the purposes to which the money will be used, will definitely remain hidden to us. The Czechlands is to receive some Russian airplanes, and a share of ownership of some ships, which, however, are to remain in the majority possession by a Russian shipping company. The value of these goods will supposedly be some 550 million dollars. Yet, according to the Moscow Times from January 25, the Russian Government released $1,35 bn towards the repayment of the debt. Almost one billion U.S. dollars thus disappeared somewhere else. From the Moscow Times report, we can assume that most of it was taken by UES of A.Tchubais.

Another strange transaction is the highly overpriced construction of highway D 47 in Northern Moravia, which the government contracted to a group of Israelis who speak fluent Russian, without any public competition, despite the fact that their firm was not even registered at the time. The controversial ZVVZ Milevsko contract for ventilation for the Iranian nuclear power plant at Bushehr was also subcontracted by the Russians. Among the members of the board of directors of ZVVZ was then, and likely still is, Livia Klausova, the wife of Và¡clav Klaus. The Czech Parliament was forced, at the time, after huge pressure from the U.S., and after a personal visit by Madeleine Albright, to approve a law specifically forbidding this contract. The export of the old Russian fighter planes, conducted by Agrofert, was also reportedly a Russian deal, and more examples could be quoted of cases when the Czech government accommodated Russian interests, without any justification.

When we consider the old/new Russian strategy of inflaming conflicts abroad, it is hard not to feel amazed at the passionate nationalism of Và¡clav Klaus, newly born in the last two years, at his repeated anti-EU statements and his fierce but unnecessary defense of the so-called 'Benes decrees'. Equally strange was then Prime Minister Zeman's provocative conduct in Israel last spring, and in a number of other cases. We shall also need to watch closely the new Prime Minister, Vladimà­r Spidla, with his "balanced" foreign politics in the program declaration of the new Government. In the interpretation of former foreign minister Jan Kavan, such "balance" would clearly mean equal emphasis on cooperation with Russia as with the West in Czech foreign politics.

Thus, indeed, we must conclude that we still need to fear the Russians as our enemies, even today.

(*) Petr Vanèura, former Deputy Ambassador of the Czech Republic in Washington D.C., is currently director of the Prague Institute for National Security.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).