Where strong men rule
I spent most of last week in Moscow talking with Russian Middle East experts. It was a deeply saddening experience. Not because of the Middle East: that is a gloomy subject even in Washington DC. It was above all Ukraine, but more broadly Putin’s Russia that darkened the mood.
First, the good news: Moscow looks good, the Russians I met were friendly and helpful, and the Bolshoi Opera is once again open. Contrary to my expectations, downtown the skyline has not changed much, Lenin is still in Red Square (though it is unclear how often his mausoleum is open or whether anyone bothers to visit it), and traffic is light compared other European capitals. Skyscrapers have not been allowed in the center. I saw them only at a distance from the Foreign Ministry, near the Arbat market. Most of the older buildings in the center are renovated, some like the GUM department store beautifully. Ditto the churches.
Walking streets lined with high-end fashion as well as low-end chic lace the center. As in the Gulf petro-states, the number of customers seems inadequate to support the investment. Recently enforced parking rules have cleared the streets of double parked cars and limited the number of people interested in paying a couple of dollars per hour for a space. Drivers are surprisingly respectful of pedestrians and each other. Public spaces (Red Square, parks, walking streets) are well-groomed. Security guards, private and public, are everywhere. Order prevails, at least in the center.
The smiling Moscow I found on the street evaporated quickly in the meetings I attended. Ukraine cast a long shadow. American and Russian leaders, the Russians said, are not communicating. There is a lack of trust. The media are biased. Russia has pursued integration with the rest of the world only to find itself blocked by sanctions, even after the recent ceasefire in Ukraine. US/Russia relations are at a nadir. Is it wise to sacrifice global issues for the sake of Kiev? Fascism is reemerging in Ukraine, which the West is using as a pretext for blocking Russia. All Russia wants is for Ukraine not to join NATO, for the Black Sea not to become a NATO lake threatening to Russia, and for the Russian navy to remain in Sevastopol. Crimea did not join Ukraine voluntarily. There is no reason why it shouldn’t return to Russia.
From the American perspective, the Russians are in denial. They deny their army has anything to do with the rebellion in Ukraine. They ask Americans to understand that Ukraine for them is an emotionally searing internal question, apparently unaware that this implies that they do not recognize the independence or sovereignty of their neighbor. They deny Ukraine the right to make a free choice about joining the European Union and NATO. They fail to mention the downing of the Malaysian airliner, the deaths of Russian soldiers, or the photographic evidence of Russian army tanks and other heavy equipment crossing the border. They insist that Russia is in no way involved in Ukraine, even while trying to justify anything Moscow and its proxies might be doing there.
The Russian attitude on Ukraine is linked to broader themes. The Russians I spoke with do not regard Moscow as having lost the Cold War. It liberated itself from the Soviet Union, defeated totalitarianism and initiated a democratic transition on its own. While this was achieved under Boris Yeltsin, no one has anything good to say about him. President Putin is viewed as the best available leader, attractive because of his efforts to restore Russian power. Nostalgia for that power is palpable: even a casual conversation produces admiration for the Soviet Union. Czarist Russia is not far behind in the memory pantheon. The opposition to Putin is all more nationalist than he is, claim his defenders. Americans should view Russia as an equal, a superpower that Washington should treat with caution and respect.
It is not easy to convey what the Russians had to say about the Middle East with this static in the air. Harking back to Condoleezza Rice’s “transformational diplomacy,” we were told rigid American ideologically driven efforts to export democracy triggered the Arab uprisings, even though democracy is inappropriate for traditional societies in which family relations are predominant. The UN, the G7, the G8 and the G20 are all fronts for American ambitions, which are driven by an “energy elite” thirsting for hydrocarbons (no mention was made of America’s soaring energy production and reduced dependence on imports). Ukraine is part of the American democratization program. Ultimately, Washington aims at regime change in Moscow.
The Russians see what is happening in Syria as vindicating their support for Bashar al Assad, even as they repeat the refrain that they are not necessarily attached to him personally. The Russian port facilities at Tartous are not vital to Moscow. The Russians attribute the emergence of Islamic extremists, in particular the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to American mistakes and even to American assistance. At the root of the crisis is the American invasion of Iraq, which gave power to the Shia and incited the Sunni rebellion in both Syria and Iraq.
Fearing that it will eventually infect Russia’s Muslim population, the Russians want ISIS defeated. It will take a long time. The US should team up with Russia for the fight. Russia can be helpful in identifying and blocking foreign fighters, especially Chechnyans coming not only from Russia but also from Austria and other European countries. Bombing ISIS in Syria without permission of Damascus would be wrong and likely counter-productive. Arms sent to the opposition will end up in the hands of jihadists. Rejection of the election results in Syria while accepting them in Ukraine demonstrates America’s double standard. Assad has to play a role in the Syrian transition. Russia may prove useful in promoting intra-Syrian dialogue, though the regime has not yet accepted this idea.
My last night in Moscow was spent at a marvelous performance of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” This iconic Russian opera features a guilt-ridden hero who rises to the throne by murdering the heir apparent. Guilt was not something I found in Moscow last week, but confidence in strong men was much in evidence.