Moscow May Have Lost the Cold War, but It Still Knows How to Turn a Cold Shoulder

Rajan Menon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

Russia has given us some rude surprises of late. In the days before the war against Iraq began, Moscow went public with a threat to veto a United Nations resolution on Iraq sought by the United States, Britain and Spain. Once the military campaign started, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov lost no time in declaring that the U.S. war against Iraq had no justification.

But clearly we hadn’t seen anything yet. Now it is alleged that Russian companies supplied night-vision goggles, antitank missiles and electronic jamming technology to Iraq. Washington has complained to the Kremlin.

This is not the way it was supposed to be. Americans have heard about the good chemistry between President Bush and “Puti-put,” Bush’s nickname for the Russian leader. Russia, we were told, was our friend and ally. Why then was Putin unmoved by Bush’s phone calls for his support? Why has there been such a parting of the ways at so critical a time?

The answer is that our government and most of our Russia experts committed a classic blunder: They allowed their wishes to father their thoughts.


Our officials erred in assuming that Russia was in such bad shape economically that it could not jeopardize the relationship with Washington for the sake of Saddam Hussein’s doomed regime and that it would never do so while the super-pragmatist Putin was in charge.

The U.S. is essential to Russia when it comes to trade, investment, debt rescheduling and arms control. What, by contrast, could Hussein offer, especially because he lives on borrowed time? Sure, the Russians would drive a hard bargain to extract concessions for their support, but in the end they would fall in line. That was the calculation in the State Department and the White House. And it was mistaken.

U.S. experts on Russia got it wrong for different reasons. In American academic circles, the standard line is that Russia has turned the corner toward democracy and capitalism and has decided that its future lies with the West in general and the U.S. in particular. Never mind that once one leaves Moscow, Russia’s reality is a good deal more complicated and dismal. Bribery, criminality, myriad social problems and resentment are ubiquitous.

American experts on Russia have a genuine affection for that country; they desperately want it to succeed. (Who does not?) The Russians they know are privileged, Westernized and sophisticated businesspeople and academics who have done well by the system -- avatars of hope and reassurance that the future is bright. Our experts believe that what they want to happen in Russia is in fact happening.

But much anger seethes below the surface. The Russian reaction to the war in Iraq flows from resentment that has pushed aside pecuniary and pragmatic considerations. A once-mighty superpower has become something of a basket case. Many Russians feel that democracy and markets have benefited chiefly the criminal, the crooked and the well connected. And it’s all too easy to chalk up the misery and shattered hopes to lack of American generosity, bad American advice or an American desire to see Russia fail.

Russians are also a lot less happy with the prospect of Pax Americana than we might think. They are unenthusiastic about the “end of history” and the “unipolar moment” we so routinely celebrate because these concepts convey their marginalization. The American decision to wage war against Iraq more or less unilaterally is a vivid display of the supremacy and triumphalism they dislike and mistrust.

Russia has put the bottom line aside in order to vent its wounded pride, to poke us in the eye. This desire to do so is strong -- among the masses and within the elite. For their part, Russia’s military, intelligence services and oil companies have long-standing ties with Iraq and have been suspicious of U.S. motives behind the war against Hussein.

Also, 20% of Russia’s population is Muslim. The Kremlin, which is facing militant Islamic movements in Chechnya and neighboring Central Asia, does not want to be seen in the Islamic world as an adjutant in a war against Islam.


Add these considerations together and it’s obvious why Russia has not behaved in the agreeable manner we expected.