Archive for January, 2000

Why do we want Russia to suffer?

[Originally published in the Burlington Free Press.]

For reasons that a e probably rooted deeply in our psyche, it would appear that America is intent on inflicting maximum punishment and pain on Russia.  We started almost before the Soviet Union was dead.  We have been treating them like the third-rate country they always would have been had it not been for the fact of their nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Almost as soon as the USSR became Russia, we began the process to admit former Soviet satellites into NATO.  This would compare to Cuba or to Mexico having become a satellite of the USSR during the Cold War.  However, in this case, the cold war was over and Russia did not have the power formerly wielded by the USSR.  It  is acknowledged that Clinton did this because he made a campaign promise in order to get ethnic East European votes in Chicago in the 1992 election.  It really has no basis in American needs for the Pos-Cold War period.

Since then, we have consistently undertaken activities that have predictably infuriated Russia.  We have treated them as if they didn’t exist.  We have completely and consistently ignored their course on areas that are and always have been of major national interest.  The Middle East and the former Yugoslavia are perhaps the best examples of issues that are really within the Russian sphere of interest and influence and on which we absolutely and rather pointedly ignored them.  In short, we have consistently rubbed their noses in their Cold War defeat.  We have been lousy winners.

Our most recent foray into this arena has been our handling of Russian activities in Chechnya.  The purpose of this piece is not to attack or defend those activities, but rather to illuminate them.

Our administration and the American press have consistently berated Russia for the barbaric attack of Great Russian central authority on the powerless, minority Chechens.  For their part, the Russians have continued to explain their actions an attempt to control the “criminal” and “terrorist” Chechens.  In assessing where Russians stand, it’s important to remember that this is not the first fracas they have had in Chechnya.  In the mid-’90s, they were humiliated in a destructive and bloody war in Chechnya.  They really can’t afford to fail again.

For reasons that are hard to understand, no one on either side has attempted to shed light on the most likely issues that underlie this conflict.  Chechnya is a part of the Muslim underbelly of Russia.  The changes after the demise of the USSR left Russia only the Caucasus, much of which is Muslim.  In addition, from the Caucasus east, the former Soviet Central Asia, which became independent from Russia in the early 1990’s, is Muslim.

The region holds extraordinarily important natural resources – oil, gas and minerals – and Russia, to the displeasure of the Muslims, controls the flow of those resources to markets around the world.  Russia has a major vested interest in the stability of Central Asia.  It has natural resources in the Muslim Caucasus and it is concerned about political stability there and along its southern border with Muslim Central Asia.

Muslim fundamentalism is currently gaining ground throughout Central Asia and the Middle East.  Although no one either in America or in Russia seems willing to acknowledge it, Russia has to be absolutely terrified that what is happening in Chechnya is a harbinger of what is likely to come throughout its own Muslim world.  If they are right, they view Chechnya as the first domino in their own coming problem.  It is clear that Middle Eastern Muslim fundamentalists are assisting, training and fighting  with the Chechens.  The Russian administration must think of itself as the little boy with his finger in the hole (Chechnya) in the Muslim dike.

If you are a typically paranoid Russian and believe that the above scenario is likely to be true, just what do you do?  You probably do everything you can to stop this Muslim peril as soon and definitively as possible.  Not to do so would be to invite ultimate disaster.  People tend to pull out the stops during Civil Wars.  We certainly did.

Whatever the underlying reasons, Russia is involved in a very serious military action in Chechnya.  They view it as critical to their future.  We don’t have to agree that the way they are fighting the war is appropriate (even though it is similar to the way we fought the war in Kosovo), but one has to wonder what purpose it serves to continue to demonize Russia from our self-appointed perch on high moral ground as we have during this entire decade.  Given our recent military activities and our tawdry politics, are we morally superior to them?

Finally, Russia has hundreds of nuclear weapons that are capable of destroying U.S. targets.  How can it be more important to rise up in high moral dudgeon and rub Russian noses in their Cold War defeat than to create an atmosphere in which we can render those weapons harmless.

Haviland Smith, a former station chief for the CIA, lives in Williston.

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