Can the civilized world civilize Russia?

Today’s question: Russia is in the G-8 but not the World Trade Organization. Should membership in those bodies be contingent on Russia’s behavior? Or is bringing Russia into those bodies the way to improve Moscow’s behavior? Previously, Meier and Moynihan discussed NATO’s eastward expansion and the extent to which Russia wants to exert control over former Soviet republics.

How to dampen Putin’s thuggery
Point: Andrew Meier

Michael, since everyone in L.A. and Washington seemed to be watching the Dodgers or Hillary Clinton last night, let’s try a first-pitch swing today: Should we keep the Russians in the G-8 and bring them into the World Trade Organization? My answer is an emphatic yes. Allow me, by way of a brief historical excursion, to explain.

Let’s begin with a pop quiz. How did Vladimir Putin, a ne’er-do-well KGB officer whose chief foreign posting was Dresden (where by all accounts he did little but service Stasi agents and gain 20 pounds on East German beer), become Russia’s greatest leader since Stalin? Your multiple-choice options:

A. He was a Soviet-trained lawyer whose innate genius and latent leadership skills were stifled by glasnost, perestroika and the post-Soviet embrace of the free market and were just waiting for an opportune moment -- say, the murder of uncounted thousands in Chechnya -- to bloom.

B. The price of Siberian crude surprised everyone from Baku to Houston, rising from a low of $10 a barrel to upward of $140 within a decade.

C. A whole slew of Western leaders rushed to embrace the new Slavic Boomer in the Kremlin.

Most people will argue that A and B are the obvious answers. But I think, Michael, if you give me another paragraph to pull this trigger, you’ll see that an equally convincing answer is C. And you’ll see why, oddly enough, I say bring the Russians in.

Putin, despite his stunning and historic on-the-job evolution, is a thug. Just read his first-person “memoirs.” It’s all there: the brutish childhood, the instinct to lunge for the jugular, the small man’s taste for macho aggression and the teary-eyed view of the way things once were back in Leningrad under the brief but glorious rule of Yuri Andropov.

I’ve known Russian mobsters, including the godfather of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Kumarin. And many of the St. Petersburg “authorities,” as the criminal bosses are called, knew Putin from his days there in the early 1990s when he ran foreign investment for the city. Putin’s one of us, they’d say. He negotiates, he deals, he talks our talk.

Allow me just a couple of Putin’s best retorts from the gutter. There was one in Brussels in 2002 at a summit of European Union leaders when a reporter from the French newspaper Le Monde dared ask about the blood bath in Chechnya. Putin shot back an ugly reply that made his translator blush: “If you want to become a complete Islamic radical and are ready to undergo circumcision, then I invite you to Moscow. We’re a multi-denominational country. We’ve got specialists in this question as well. And I’ll recommend that he carry out the operation in such a way that afterward nothing will grow back.”

At another EU summit in Finland in 2006, one of Putin’s non-constituents was dumb enough to pose a real question, this time, about the rise of organized crime in Putin’s backyard. Putin fired a single round, point-blank, in the direction of then-Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi: “Mafia, I believe, is an Italian word, not Russian.”

These moments, unlike Boris Yeltsin’s infamous gaffes, were not blunders. What’s instructive to remember about these moments on the world stage -- the place where Putin so wanted to be and where he was so warmly welcomed time and again -- was the Western response. Each time, the European leaders stood mum. And President Bush? He was caught in the headlights too often to recount here.

So how can the West now begin to try to tame Putin’s worst instincts? The same way it helped to build him into a world-class leader: Widen the circle of East-West cooperation and invite the Russians in. They are nominally “in” the G-8, though half the world still calls it the G-7. But they’d love to be in the WTO and a host of other big-league clubs. Would their inclusion influence Russian behavior? Of course.

The WTO, like the Olympics, has rules. And rules, especially for post-adolescents with little worldly (or work) experience who inherit gazillions overnight, tend to be a good thing. Look at the mess in the Caucasus. What has all the tough talk about preserving Georgian sovereignty yielded? For starters, the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and almost surely, the beginning of the end of Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency. But above all, the bluster of Bush and company has stripped NATO naked (far faster than Putin and his ex-KGB mates ever could) and revealed its impotency to the world.

So tell me, Michael, as the folks in the White House and in the McCain and Obama camps assay the options for the road ahead, how can any half-sentient strategist argue in favor of opposition and exclusion?

Andrew Meier is a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine and the author of the new book, “The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service.”

Reining in Putin isn’t so easy
Counterpoint: Michael C. Moynihan

I think we both agree, Andrew, that tossing Russia out of the G-8 and blocking the country’s ascension to the WTO would likely be counterproductive. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that, even in the event of a John McCain presidency, calls for such punitive measures will be quickly forgotten, as they have been in the past. Recall that when the independent television channel NTV was neutered by the Kremlin in 2001, the Washington Post (among others) editorialized in favor of booting Russia from the G-8, which goes to show just how few options we have in attempting to affect change.

Where we differ, Andrew, is in our opinion of just what, if any, positive effects membership in such institutions will have on Russia’s desire to exert influence on former Soviet member states or respect for democracy at home. Nor am I averse -- in theory, anyway -- to making membership in such international organizations contingent upon good behavior. We have a limited diplomatic tool kit in situations like this, so persuading other G-8 countries to join in threatening punishment is, at the very least, worth considering. (With all of the excitement surrounding his VP pick, it went almost completely unnoticed that Barack Obama echoed McCain’s hawkish response to the Kremlin by calling for “a review” of Russia’s WTO bid.)

Besides, such actions tend not to succeed in forcing political change. In 1997, Belarus was suspended from the Council of Europe for, among other problems, constantly rigging elections in favor of dictator Alexander Lukashenko. (I know, I know, Belarus is not an economic or military powerhouse, but you see where I am going.) And while they are hardly historical analogues, I cannot help thinking of America’s stubborn insistence on maintaining an embargo on Cuba despite the policy’s indisputable failure in provoking political change. Many classical liberals once thought that free trade was the key to undermining authoritarian governments. While I still believe that it is the fundamental component to liberalization, countries like China and Russia have certainly challenged these assumptions, though I still greatly favor economic engagement over economic isolation.

As the Economist’s Putin-loathing Russia correspondent Edward Lucas rightly points out, “Russia’s newfound wealth means that outside economic pressure on the Kremlin is minimal.” And the comments of Vladislav Reznik, chairman of the State Duma Financial Markets Committee, are unfortunately correct: “We are a big economy today. Whether they like it or not, we have to be reckoned with.” And any economic pressures applied to Russia would be bidirectional, likely causing harm to the U.S. economy. As Yevgeny Fyodorov, chairman of the Duma’s Economic Policy and Entrepreneurship Committee, told the Moscow Times, “It’s an absolute certainty that the Americans won’t [impose any sanctions] because they themselves would suffer.”

Besides, expelling Russia from the G-8, to crib from former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, is an “impossibility,” especially when such an action couldn’t be accomplished without the acquiescence of our European allies. And as former EU commissioner for external relations Chris Patten recently wrote, “Russia knows that when it comes to conducting a serious foreign and security policy, Europe is all mouth.” In other words, if America limits its talks of retribution only to expulsion from the G-8, which Moscow knows will never happen, this will only weaken Washington’s position.

The WTO is a slightly different matter. You rightly point out, Andrew, that Russia would “love” be invited in, despite Putin’s recent comments to the contrary. This, you say, would “of course” influence Russian behavior. I am more skeptical, mindful of the fact that, as you mention, the West’s initial embrace of Putin has done nothing to control his illiberal instincts.

You also write that membership in the WTO comes with certain responsibilities, which you hope Russia would then abide by. But membership in the G-8 demands similar democratic responsibilities. Take a look at the first statement of the 2007 Declaration of G-8 Foreign Ministers on the Rule of Law: “We, the Foreign Ministers of the G-8, reaffirm that the rule of law is among the core principles on which we build our partnership and our efforts to promote lasting peace, security, democracy and human rights as well as sustainable development worldwide.” Well, to extend your baseball analogy, Russia’s batting .000 here.

Finally, it’s important to note, as you have, that the West helped to build Putin into a world-class leader. The failure to understand just what kind of Russian future Putin represented seems baffling in hindsight, though, in the case of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who matriculated from the chancellery to a position at Russian natural gas giant Gazprom, I think I’m starting to understand.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

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