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Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Legacy of The Wall: An Evil Never To Forget

[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

On August 13, 1961, the East German Army and police installed the Berlin wall, or Schandmauer (Wall of Shame).  It began in the dead of night with the East Germans stringing barbed wire and concertina along the line that marked the boundary between the Soviet Sector of Berlin and the English, French and American sectors.  Before that moment, there had been no physical barrier between the sectors.

The decision to approve the erection the wall was probably made on the spur of the moment , most likely by Nikita Khrushchev. It was clearly made because of the debilitating flow if refugees from East to West Germany.  By 1961, roughly 3 .5 million East Germans had left for the West.  The total loss to East Germany was measured in the tens of billions of 1961 dollars.  The Wall was clearly a snap decision, as no one in the West had any inkling that it was in the offing.  It was then and remains today a telling testimony to the horrors of Soviet style communism.

Unfortunately for the East Germans, those who departed were the cream of their crop. They were smart, educated, and competent, consisting mostly of professionals – teachers, engineers, physicians, technicians  and skilled workers – anyone capable of making a good life in the West..  They were just the kind of people whom the East German regime could least afford to lose.  The issue was often referred to as the” Brain Drain” which, in fact, it most certainly was.

Over the twenty-eight year life of the Wall, some 5,000 East Germans managed to escape, despite its existence.  In addition, over 200 were killed in the process of trying to escape.

On Sunday, November 14, 2009, an exhibit opened at Harvard University’s Davis Center which displayed photos and narratives of the Cold War Czechoslovak Secret Service’s (StB) covert photographic surveillance of dissidents in and around Prague.  It was an excellent exhibit attended by much of the northeastern Czech/American academic community as well as a diplomat from the Czech Embassy in Washington who gave an excellent presentation on the issue of surveillance of dissidents during Cold War.

These two events, the Czech exhibit at Harvard and the celebration of the demise of the Wall of Shame took place in the rather narrow contexts of the countries in which they had taken place.  This is not to say that the Wall was not important to Germans.  It was, as it symbolized the rupture of the previously heterogeneous German State, the artificial separation of families and friends and probably underlined the realities and humiliation of the German loss of the Second World War.

At the same time, the Czech surveillance exhibit, at least on the face of it, showed seemingly unaware Czechs as seen through the photographic lenses of their own secret police – their countrymen.

Even though these exhibits and events were effectively presented and celebrated, as were probably all those other commemorations of the downfall of  Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe, what seemed to be missing from them was an explicit focus on the extraordinary evils that these now fallen regimes represented not only in the countries in which they existed, but in the world at large.

Soviet-style Communism was the quintessential totalitarian regime.  It most certainly was an Evil Empire.  It was totally disinterested in the welfare of its people.  It put up its walls, surveilled its own people and murdered millions of its own citizens purely to maintain itself in power. It committed these horrors because it knew that it had scant support from its people and because it had no reason to believe that would change.

When you think of the extraordinary cynicism such an approach involves, it boggles the mind.  The regimes of the USSR and its satellite countries presented themselves to the world, particularly the developing world, as having a system worth emulating, while at the same time knowing they were  politically and morally bankrupt at home.

The world now has an entire generation that never experienced the horrors and the incredible cynicism of Soviet communism. Yet there is no communist equivalent of the Holocaust Museum.   Even though it all ended with a whimper and not in the glory of a VE day, we in the West should make sure we neither forget, or permit those who follow us not to learn just how evil those folks really were.  Otherwise, like skinheads and neo-Nazis, they will sneak back to plague us again.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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[Originally published on Nieman Watchdog.]

Does anyone really think that expanding NATO into Eastern Europe is going to bring out the best in Russia? A former CIA station chief says there’s a lot more to the Georgian conflict than meets the eye.

In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia, the media have been filled with accusations, charges and countercharges about what “really” happened.  The simplistic, disingenuous claims and explanations from all the parties — the U.S., Russia, and Georgia — leave a lot to the imagination and a great deal of unexamined and unreported fodder for the media.

Q. Just what sort of threat does Russia pose to the U.S. today? Should the nature of this threat persuade us to undertake an aggressive policy toward them, such as expanding NATO into Eastern Europe and involving Poland and the Czech Republic in a “missile shield”?

It is difficult to see how Russia, unlike the U.S.S.R. with its ideological imperatives and military might, represents a strategic threat to the U.S. and hard to understand why we treat them as provocatively as we do.

Q. Does the United States have the moral authority lead the charge against Russia?

Our adventure in Iraq and our moral ambiguity in supporting undemocratic regimes in that region make that an open question.

Q. What was Russia really trying to accomplish in invading Georgia?

The invasion appears to have been a response to Russian concerns over what it views to be increasing NATO hostility toward them.  The past inclusion of so many countries within the Soviet sphere of influence was bad enough.  But the proposal to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the installation of “missile shield” components in Poland and the Czech Republic are seen as  matters of national interest to the Russians.  They are seen as a pure NATO provocation, appropriately met with the full force of Russian diplomatic and military power.

Q.  Did Georgia believe it had western guarantees for protection? Do we really believe that Georgia would have attempted the invasion of South Ossetia, without some hope or maybe even assurance that we would support them when the Russians responded militarily?

Given the historically difficult relationship between the two counties, it is doubtful that Georgia would have taken such a risk without some assurances.

Q. Why did the Georgians send 2,000 troops to Iraq, the most of any other nation other than Great Britain?

The logical conclusion is that they saw it as a chip in the game designed to get the U.S. and NATO to support their territorial ambitions in Abkhazia and Ossetia.

Q.  Did anyone in the Bush administration encourage Georgian President Saakashvili to attack the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali?

Post-invasion comments by Vice President Dick Cheney and Republican presidential candidate John McCain support the contention that they welcomed the invasion.

Q. Is there a difference between Kosovo and Ossetia/Abkhazia?

We recognized Kosovo as an independent country despite Russian protests.  Now we protest when they do the same with Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Q. What is the purpose of a militarized NATO today?

It looks to the Russians like a continuation of the West’s Cold War containment of the U.S.S.R.  Other than that — and supporting the U.S. in Afghanistan — what other purpose could it possibly have?

Q. Did the Reagan administration tell the Russians prior to the fall of the U.S.S.R. that we would not extend NATO into the East European countries?

This is said to have been the quid pro quo for Soviet acceptance of German reunification. Whatever assurances we gave them, our expansion of NATO has been a pure provocation to Russia.

Q.  Why is the U.S. supporting Georgian membership in NATO?

Are we intent on picking a fight with Russia — something that is clearly not in our interests? It was our intention 17 years ago to see Russia peacefully join the rest of the world, yet NATO remains an active barrier to that integration.

Q. What role has Randy Scheunemann, Sen. McCain’s top foreign policy advisor, played in the Georgia affair?

Scheunemann is a neoconservative, on the board of directors of the Project for a New American Century, and is a registered agent for Georgia. The Los Angeles Times has reported that the Georgian government has paid his two-member lobbying firm $830,000 since 2004.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief, who served in Eastern and Western Europe, Lebanon and Tehran and as chief of the counter-terrorism staff.

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American policies provoked Russia

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

The ongoing tiff between the United States and Russia over Georgia has far less to do with Georgia than it has to do with mounting Russian revanchism and Russia’s concerns about what is happening in its “near abroad,” the 14 former Soviet Republics, and in its former “satellites,” their seven former East European Socialist “allies.”

Compelled as they are by their history, the Russians will pay dearly for their compulsive incursion into Georgia and for their threats against Poland. How that works out remains to be seen, but at minimum, their Georgian adventure will precipitate a worldwide re-evaluation of Russia’s goals and tactics that will not be favorable to Russian interests.

All that aside, America has vital interests in a viable, non-hostile Russia and for that reason, we need to be very cautious and thoughtful in how we deal with them on these emotional issues.

Russia’s concerns are historical, going back to the early days of the Russian Empire. As with most empires, Russia has a long history of armed conflict with most of its “near abroad” and many others, including its former satellites. This reality has led, understandably, to a high level of Russian anxiety and paranoia. They have always viewed the outside world with grave suspicion.

During the Cold War, the Soviets complained constantly about the “capitalist encirclement” of the USSR, and they were right. We surrounded them with NATO and SEATO from Europe to East Asia. They in turn, had their “near abroad” and European satellites as buffers against Western encirclement.

That could and probably should have ended with the USSR’s demise, but by 2004, we had added 10 former Soviet properties, all seven former Soviet satellites and three former Republics, to NATO. Russia saw this as pure provocation. NATO was once again encircling Russia, and, as NATO looked more and more threatening to them, they returned to the more traditional and aggressive geopolitical tactics of both Soviet and Imperial Russia.

It should be noted here that Russia’s historical behavior has added to this unsettling mix. Small countries that for ages have existed precariously on the periphery of an aggressive Russia are understandably nervous about what appears to be the resurgence of Russian geopolitical ambitions.

In the post-Soviet world, Poland, Georgia and the Czech Republic, small, vulnerable countries on the fringe of Russia, as well as the seven others that have joined up with NATO, have sought big power protection. They would all like to maintain their democracies and their territorial integrity. Their long and bitter experiences have taught them that when it comes to Russian geopolitical imperatives, big power protection is mandatory. NATO led by America is that big power.

There is a great deal in the balance here. There is the fate of a democratic Georgia threatened by Russian regime change. There are the Georgian pipelines, the only petroleum pipelines from Central Asia to the West that are not controlled by Russia. There is the message that Russia is sending to its former territorial appendages in the “near abroad” like Ukraine and the Central Asian Republics, that they must not flirt with the West or NATO. Finally, there is the Missile Shield and NATO.

The real question here is what we see as the future role of NATO. The Russians see it as simply a continuation of the Cold War, with essentially unchanged goals. In that respect, at least as long as it remains primarily a military organization, NATO is and will remain a provocation to the Russians. It’s hard to see how a still militarized NATO, built for the Cold War, has any viable role today other than to intimidate Russia.

The same is true of the “Missile Shield” to be deployed initially in the Czech Republic and Poland. Despite concrete assurances to the contrary (remember Russian paranoia), the Russians see our explanation that it is designed to defend the United States against nuclear missiles (as yet non-existent) from nuclear armed rogue states (also as yet non-existent) as a fiction designed to cover its real target which they see as Russia. This has resulted in an intemperate Russian threat against Poland. With talk of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, Russian paranoia has hit high C and prompted the Georgian invasion.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia today does not represent a strategic threat to the United States. We need to decide if there is anything positive to gain from continuing policies that do little other than provoke the Russians. Yet we continue to do just that with the Missile Shield and NATO.

Perhaps we are still punishing Russia for its role in the Cold War. Perhaps our concern is based on the resurgence of a powerful Russia, fueled by its oil wealth and pursuing what we think of as its old imperial goals. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that Russia seeks world domination as it did in Soviet times. It is more interested in protecting its own turf and “near abroad.”

As a result of our current Middle East adventures, America today has little diplomatic leverage in the world. We can shout and threaten all we want, but the Russians know we are toothless and that they can do pretty much what they like. With our military totally committed elsewhere, all we have are our nukes – not a terribly flexible asset.

Lacking any credibility or flexibility, a continuing American struggle with Russia is not in our own interest. For many reasons, not the least of which is safeguarding Russian nuclear warheads from the rogue states and terrorists we fear, we have long hoped to see Russia integrate into the West. Yet we continue to provoke them with these policies, making such integration far less likely.

Unless we seek further confrontation with, or humiliation of Russia, bringing Georgia into NATO would rank as sheer stupidity, to be matched only by continuing to aggressively pursue the questionable “Missile Shield” in Eastern Europe, or by failing to demilitarize NATO.

It’s one thing to be tough when you have muscle; it’s another thing when all you have is flab.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who worked in East and West Europe and the Middle East, primarily against Soviet targets. He lives in Williston.

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When Biden speaks, duck and cover

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

There are times when having a chatty White House official given to winging just about any topic before him can be entertaining, even positive. Such an official can be used purposefully to float trial balloons or to cagily suggest an openness to different approaches. However, it is seldom helpful in serious foreign affairs matters, particularly when such an official apparently is speaking or writing without coordination with White House policy makers.

Meet Joe Biden. Everyone knows that he drops gaffe after gaffe, so why should anyone take him seriously? The problem, in this instance, is that his most recent gaffe is focused on Russia – one of the world’s more paranoid nations. Even if literally everyone in the world knows not to take Biden seriously, there will always be an important element in the Russian leadership that believes that what he says really reflects true American policy.

There simply isn’t much wiggle room for gaffes when dealing with Russia. But why should anyone care?

The Russian issue is very simple. Russia is a member of the United Nations Security Council and, as such, has veto power over any and all Security Council resolutions. That veto, or a lack thereof, can mean success or failure for the United States on some of today’s most critical international issues.

Take North Korea. North Korea, the DPRK, has at least one nuclear weapon as well as delivery systems that will most certainly destabilize Asia and could conceivably threaten the United States. Russia has supported U.N. sanctions against North Korea since the DPRK exploded their first nuclear device in 2006. Early this month, Russia renewed its support for U.N. sanctions designed to halt North Korea’s efforts to expand its nuclear arsenal.

The inclination of Russia to support these critical sanctions is certainly based on the Russian national interests. However, this policy has been encouraged by the clearly more-friendly attitude of the new Obama administration, in contrast to the essentially hostile policies of the Bush years.

Will this inclination continue to be favorable in the face of Biden’s rhetoric? Just how much of it are the Russians prepared to overlook? And remember, when and if they turn against this sort of international cooperation that is so important to us on critical security issues, they always have their Security Council veto to use against us and any sanctions we might choose to propose against North Korea.

Iran is a bit different. There is no sixty year history of close ideological and international cooperation with Iran, as there was between the USSR and North Korea, so the Russians are not emotionally or historically bound in the same way to Iran as they are to the DPRK.

In December 2006, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran, “blocking the import or export of sensitive nuclear materiel and equipment and freezing the financial assets of persons or entities supporting its proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or the development of nuclear-weapon delivery systems.” Both Russia and China supported the resolution.

The United States is heavily involved in the Middle East today. We are fighting insurrections in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan while trying to figure out what to do next in Iran.

Russia has been traditionally involved for centuries in the area in question. Although they do not label it with the highest political importance of their “near abroad”, they have fought wars there, attempted coups, and supported their political allies while battling their foes. Today their involvement is based on commercial interests, arms sales, a threatening lack of security to their south and their desire to be considered a major world power.

With a history of American involvement in Iran to the detriment of Russian (Soviet) interests, they are not about to abdicate what they see as their historical role in Iran, even if that only means countering our interests.

If America and the West are going to deal successfully with Iran’s growing nuclear capability, it would be an infinitely simpler task with the involvement of a supportive Russia. That makes it extremely difficult to understand how the Obama administration would say, as Biden did, that “Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years”, in effect, writing them off.

If you want to infuriate the Russians and weaken their inclination to support, or at least not oppose, our goals in the Middle East, that’s a pretty good start.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who worked primarily against the USSR in East and West Europe and the Middle East. He lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

Over the centuries, many in the West and in Russia itself, have found it convenient and relatively accurate to characterize the Russian people as paranoid. Over the centuries, Vikings, Tatars, Mongol hordes, Swedes, French and Germans have invaded Russia. Had that happened here, we might well have become paranoid ourselves.

This national paranoia persisted during the Cold War when the Soviets always referred to themselves as victims of “capitalist encirclement.” They have also used these foreign “threats” to keep a disparate country united and their peoples’ minds off the inadequacies of their lives. If you can acknowledge those realities, then their recent behaviors are more understandable.

At first glance, one might think the Cold War was starting up again. Presidents Bush and Putin have been arguing about issues in Central Europe and the dialogue does seem to have some of the old tone of the Cold War. But there is no resurgence of the Cold War. We are not about to have a nuclear holocaust. What’s happening here is that two powerful nations are flexing their muscles — with predictable results.

Since the relative instability of the 1990s and as a result of the increased social and political stability that Vladimir Putin’s policies have brought to Russia, as well as the very helpful rise in the value of vast quantities of Russian oil on world markets, Russia has become far more socially and economically healthy than it ever was during the Soviet era. Putin, despite the fact that some of his policies are patently anti-democratic, has become wildly popular in Russia. He has approval numbers that any American president would die for.

Russia probably feels better about itself today than it has at any time during the past century. It sees itself as a player on the world stage, one that should be treated with respect.

If you look at today’s events knowing that paranoia is a longtime part of the Russian psyche, you will see why they see only threats and problems in the current U.S. policy of further expanding NATO to include their former East European satellites. For the Soviets, in the worst case, NATO has remained a military threat. In the best case, its move into a former sphere of Russian influence in Central Europe is humiliating for a country that is increasingly feeling it should be respected. And now, their oil and gas riches give them considerable leverage in Europe, where those commodities are needed; and they have used that leverage to persuade some NATO members to their side. Further NATO expansion has been shelved, at least for the moment.

Any indication that the United States is changing the rules that existed during the Cold War still brings apprehension to the Russians. Our withdrawal from the ABM treaty and the Bush administration’s drive to install a “missile shield” are precisely the rule changes they fear.

The 1972 ABM treaty, from which the United States unilaterally withdrew in 2001, was part of the structure of MAD (mutually assured destruction) that played an important role in keeping the Cold War from becoming hot. That treaty stipulated that its cosigners, the USSR and the U.S., would not develop anti-ballistic missile systems. This was based on the reality that if one country were to do that, the balance brought by MAD would be tipped in favor of the country that had the ABM system. If that system had been developed and deployed secretly, its owner would be in a position to initiate a preemptive strike, since it would have the ABM system needed to negate the counterattack. Thus the ABM treaty was an important part of keeping the peace.

America has withdrawn from that treaty, is seeking to place the “missile shield” on the territory of Russia’s former satellites and to bring more of those countries into NATO, an organization created to counter Soviet power. If you were a paranoid Russian today, wouldn’t you wonder about American motives?

The reality is that we have no objectively valid reason to build the missile shield at this time or to expand NATO further into what was previously a Soviet sphere of influence. On the other hand, the Russians have no objectively valid reason to fear those American moves.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Europe and the Middle East, working primarily on Soviet and East European targets. He lives in Williston.

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Feeding Russian paranoia

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

Over the centuries, many in the West and in Russia itself, have found it convenient and relatively accurate to characterize the Russian people as paranoid. Over the centuries, Vikings, Tatars, Mongol hordes, Swedes, French and Germans have invaded Russia. Had that happened here, we might well have become paranoid ourselves.

This national paranoia persisted during the Cold War when the Soviets always referred to themselves as victims of “capitalist encirclement.” They have also used these foreign “threats” to keep a disparate country united and their peoples’ minds off the inadequacies of their lives. If you can acknowledge those realities, then their recent behaviors are more understandable.

At first glance, one might think the Cold War was starting up again. Presidents Bush and Putin have been arguing about issues in Central Europe and the dialogue does seem to have some of the old tone of the Cold War. But there is no resurgence of the Cold War. We are not about to have a nuclear holocaust. What’s happening here is that two powerful nations are flexing their muscles — with predictable results.

Since the relative instability of the 1990s and as a result of the increased social and political stability that Vladimir Putin’s policies have brought to Russia, as well as the very helpful rise in the value of vast quantities of Russian oil on world markets, Russia has become far more socially and economically healthy than it ever was during the Soviet era. Putin, despite the fact that some of his policies are patently anti-democratic, has become wildly popular in Russia. He has approval numbers that any American president would die for.

Russia probably feels better about itself today than it has at any time during the past century. It sees itself as a player on the world stage, one that should be treated with respect.

If you look at today’s events knowing that paranoia is a longtime part of the Russian psyche, you will see why they see only threats and problems in the current U.S. policy of further expanding NATO to include their former East European satellites. For the Soviets, in the worst case, NATO has remained a military threat. In the best case, its move into a former sphere of Russian influence in Central Europe is humiliating for a country that is increasingly feeling it should be respected. However, their oil and gas riches give them considerable leverage in Europe where those commodities are needed and they have used that need to persuade some NATO members to their side. Further NATO expansion has been shelved, at least for the moment.

Any indication that the United States is changing the rules that existed during the Cold War still brings apprehension to the Russians. Our withdrawal from the ABM treaty and the Bush administration’s drive to install a “missile shield” are precisely the rule changes they fear. Quite apart from the political, technical and military aspects of the development and feasibility of the missile shield, one has to wonder about the way in which this subject has been breached and pursued by our government since 9/11.

The 1972 ABM treaty, from which the United States unilaterally withdrew in 2001, was part of the structure of MAD (mutually assured destruction) that played an important role in keeping the Cold War from becoming hot. That treaty stipulated that its cosigners, the USSR and the U.S., would not develop anti- ballistic missile systems. This was based on the reality that if one country were to do that, the balance brought by MAD would be tipped in favor of the country that had the ABM system. If that system had been developed and deployed secretly, its owner would be in a position to initiate a preemptive strike, since it would have the ABM system needed to negate the counterattack. Thus the ABM treaty was important part of keeping the peace.

America has withdrawn from that treaty, is seeking to place the “missile shield” on the territory of Russia’s former satellites and to bring more of those countries into NATO, an organization created to counter Soviet power. If you were a paranoid Russian today, would you wonder about American motives?

The reality is that we have no objectively valid reason to build the missile shield at this time or to expand NATO further into what was previously a Soviet sphere of influence. On the other hand, the Russians have no objectively valid reason to fear those American moves.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Europe and the Middle East, working primarily on Soviet and East European targets. He lives in Williston.

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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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We Should Not Support Russian Imperialism

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

In a press release on January 3rd, the US State Department said that what the Russian Government is doing in Chechnya is perfectly OK because it is simply Russia keeping order in Russia.  They even made a comparison to our Civil War.  What a shameful statement!

Why has the Clinton Administration chosen to support Russian military action in Chechnya?  Very simply because they feel they have no other choice and that chaos might follow the end of the Yeltsin interregnum.  That is a poor basis for foreign policy formulation as George Bush found out in supporting Mikhail Gorbachev.

Despite the graphic and often disturbing pictures that are brought us by the public media, Chechnya and Groznyy are places that seldom intrude into our conscious concerns.  It all seems too far away, too remote.  However, what is happening there really does matter.  It matters not because of what is happening, but because of why it is happening and what it really means.

There are three factors at work in Russia today which could easily contribute to the further weakening, if not the outright disappearance of Russian Democracy.  They are Russian/Soviet history and the concern of myriad minority groups about Russian Imperialism, the recent rapid disintegration of the Russian Military establishment and the lack of strong approval and support of democracy by millions of Russians.

Russia is not simply a country, it is one of the last remaining Empires.  It was created by the Imperial Russian push eastward to the Pacific Ocean which subjugated millions of people and hundreds of cultures over a period of more than 400 years.  That Empire was maintained and even expanded by the USSR.  Apparently an attempt to continue the tradition will be undertaken by the current “democratic“ government of Russia.

The history of Russia is such that this move by the Yeltsin government has to be sending shock waves through all the national minority groups in the former USSR.  It is, quite simply, the first step down a very slippery slope.  If you are a member of any national minority group in the former Soviet Union you should be worried.  If we learn from history (and hear from the far right in today’s Russia) there is no reason to believe that this Russian exercise of Imperialism in Chechnya is not the first step in reassembling either the old Russian or the Soviet Empire.

By all counts, the Russian Army is in the process of being thoroughly humiliated by the Chechens.  If they are able finally to take Groznyy, the Chechens will almost certainly take to the hills where they are capable of putting on a performance that will make Afghanistan look like a picnic to the Russian leadership.

All of this results from the degeneration of personnel, materiel and leadership in what was once a proud, first-class military establishment.  Russian military units have sold equipment and supplies on the open market and sharply curtailed training simply to be able to quarter and feed their troops.  The formerly effective Soviet draft is now almost nonexistent.  Conscripts simply do not show up for service with the result that some units have more officers than troops.

This is a very unhealthy situation.  The greatest inherent threats to the fledgling democratic movement in Russia are probably the Russian military establishment and the political right.  The situation in Chechnya provides them with a situation around which to coalesce, and that is both dangerous and frightening since their ideology generally supports return to the old Imperialism.

It is important to  remember that the Russian people have exceedingly little experience with democracy.  The sole democratic government in Russian history was the Kerensky government which succeeded the Czar in July 1917 and fell to the Soviets in October of the same year.  That government had little opportunity to remake a population that had lived under a series of repressive Czars for 500 years.  Most Russians are currently unhappy with their current lot.  They are also passive and long-suffering – not healthy traits in the face of anti-democratic political change.

There is now a set of circumstances at work in Russia which could easily lead to the empowerment of a xenophobic, military-supported, right-wing Government that would not be a friend to the United States in particular or to the West in general.  It’s difficult to believe that the United States Government is actually supporting Russian anti-democratic activities when the only thing that can save democracy in Russia is the strengthening of democratic principles and processes there.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who specialized in Soviet and East European operations. He served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran and Washington and now lives in Brookfield.

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[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus.]

A people unused to responsibility

In early January, authorities in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) moved toward converting their systems into market economies.  They began to let some prices find their own levels.

We applaud this change as a step toward making their systems functional.  In doing so, our assumption is that CIS citizens want to live as we do and that they are willing and able to accept the negative, interim consequences of such a difficult transition .  They have been told that the road to a good life is through a market economy.

They want the good life, but will they accept the hardship inherent in getting there?  We have decided that what is good for us must be good for them.  Maybe it is, but let’s take a look at the people whose futures we are trying to influence.

”We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”.  That statement typified the relationship between Soviet citizens and their employer, the state.

CIS citizens have functioned in master-slave relationships for centuries.  On one of the few occasions when they had a free choice, after the abolition of serfdom (peasant slavery) in 1861, the peasants did opt for privately owned farms, they joined together in collectives which continue to exist today.  The “collective” is part of the national psyche.

CIS citizens are the product of centuries of evolution.  They are non-competitive, knowing they have to blend in to survive.  They are jealous, resentful and vindictive toward those who try to get ahead.  They are highly paranoid and with good reason!  Life has taught survivors to keep their heads down.

Fifteen years before slavery was abolished, the great Russian writer (and landowner), Lev Tolstoy decided to unilaterally free his serfs and give them their own land.  They refused his offer, believing he was somehow trying to trick them!

The psychological imprint from this deep seated distrust of freedom and authority affected the workplace in important ways, giving rise to an incredibly inefficient Soviet system. In the workplace, this incredibly inefficient Soviet system has created a workforce that is essentially disinterested in what it does.

Workers do what they are told to do and no more.  Initiative and self-improvement are dirty words.  The system has never demanded excellence from them, only mediocrity.  They are lazy, escapist, unmotivated, inefficient, incompetent, apathetic, indifferent and impractical.  They have no work ethic.

CIS citizens are unquestionably and unavoidably as much a product of their recent Soviet past as they are of their national heritages.  Many cheat and steal whenever possible.  “Why not?  We take from the state, but we own the state.  You can’t steal from yourself!”

A tractor driver in an MTS (an organization providing mechanized support to collective farms) once described to me his way of doing business.

In order to earn his daily pay he had to plow 5 hectares (11 acres) to a depth of 30 cm (12 inches).  If he plowed more, he got a bonus for “overfulfilling his daily work norm”.  So he set his plow at 20 cm., was able to plow an extra 1-2 hectares and got a fat bonus.

His work was never checked and it was of absolutely no concern to him that he was damaging the subsequent harvest.

It can be argued that the Soviets designed and built some very sophisticated military hardware.  However, they did not build those weapons because their system was inherently efficient or competitive, but because their centrally controlled economy allowed them to concentrate unlimited resources in a linear fashion on specific goals.  Lacking a competitive system, the work was done at extraordinary expense by individual special design bureaus working in virtual vacuums.

Reaping the consequences

Stories are already appearing in the press about the movement of Soviet-made arms and equipment to Iran.  Certainly that is compatible with what we know about the character of CIS man.  In these very hard times when just about everything is for sale, it is to be expected that arms will be exported for personal or “collective” gain.

Our major concern should be that nuclear weapons, materials and know-how might be exported to countries that would like to use them.  With their feet to the fire, there are elements in the CIS who would do that even knowing that they might be used.

One certainly hopes that the Bush administration has a policy for and is dealing with that potential problem.

You can safely bet that the stories appearing in the press right now about the lack of food in the stores is the result of someone, somewhere running some kind of scam.

The theory behind letting prices float was that higher prices would bring more goods to the market, which in turn would bring down prices.

That has not yet happened, possibly because someone is holding back goods, hoping to see prices rise even higher.  One short year ago in the USSR, this act was a serious punishable crime called profiteering.  Today’s consumers are in the impossible position of not having enough income to cover their basic needs.  Many of them long for the “good old days” when this was illegal.

We will see more of that.

On a personal level, many CIS citizens can be said to want the benefits of democracy without the attendant responsibility.  A KGB defector of the 1970’s used to berate us, his CIA contacts, for telling him what to do (not drink so much!), just as his former KGB boss had done.  In the next breath he would complain that we refused to tell him what job to seek!

CIS citizens probably do want all the trappings that democracy and a market economy would bring them.  We have to wonder if they will accept the privation they will have to go through to get there.

Knowing the Problem

Understanding how life has conditioned CIS citizens and their ancestors over 500 years should give us a better feel for whether or not they are equipped to travel the road which we think they must.  They have lived under a succession of repressive totalitarian governments which have told them what to do and how and when to do it.  They have never had any say in the governance of their own lives.  They are not conditioned to desire or seek choices.

What kind of a citizen does that produce?  Is he good raw material for a democratic market economy?  Does he really want the freedom of choice and responsibility that comes with such a system?

Is he even capable of understanding such a system?   Remember that almost no one alive in the CIS today has any practical personal experience with either  democracy or a market economy.

If the world is very lucky, the CIS will succeed in making the transition to a democratic market economy.  The West can probably help by providing enough short term humanitarian aid to smooth out the coming year’s radical changes.

On the other hand, there is ample historical evidence to fear that it will be an extremely difficult and complicated transition, one that may bring out the people’s basest traits and instincts.  If things do not go well, it is quite possible that the people will seek or accept leadership more in harmony with the authoritarian models of their past.  If that happens, we should not be surprised.

Unfortunately, there is very little we can do to influence the matter.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA officer who specialized in Soviet and East European operations with the agency from 1956 to 1980.  He lives in Brookfield.

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[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

For the past week we have had a vicarious ride on the great Soviet rollercoaster.  We have gone from Gorbachev to the hardline conservatives and back to Gorbachev.  Where do we go next?  It has been a bit frightening and very difficult to understand what has been happening.  The real issue in the USSR was and still is whether or not to keep the country intact as it has been since World War Two.  Does anyone want to “save” the USSR and if so, who?  Can anyone save the USSR, anyway?  The alternative is simply to let the USSR break up into a number of smaller nations.

The USSR today is an unhappy amalgam of dozens of ethnic, national and linguistic groups which have little in common other than the fact that they all have been ruled for centuries by despotic Tsars and Commissars.  They have an unelected “head of state” (Gorbachev) trying to salvage the USSR.  There is nothing idealistic or altruistic about Gorbachev’s policies.  A glance at his personal history shows that he is both extraordinarily pragmatic and a hard-line, activist proponent of Marxism-Leninism.  His primary goals now are to maintain his own position and to keep the USSR together through the perpetuation of the power of the Communist Party.

A coup in the USSR is a dramatic and unprecedented event.  The conservatives who ran it; senior members of the armed forces, the party hierarchy, the KGB and the internal security forces (MVD), wanted to “save” the USSR.  They never wanted any change.  They never wanted glasnost (openness) or perestroika (restructuring).  They were Soviet reactionaries who simply wanted the USSR to continue the way it had for over seventy years under the repressive fist of the Communist Party.

These were the people who benefited and profited from the continued existence of the old structure.  They were the pampered Soviets with special stores, housing, schools, privileges and opportunities.  Why should they have wanted to give it up?  After all, they were the only ones who really profited from the system.  They were also the ones who bankrupted their country through mismanagement.  What sort of job opportunities would they have had in their own country under new management?  The future must have been extremely bleak for them.  Keep in mind that there are still millions of them in the USSR today and that they remain a potential threat to the process of democratization.

Gorbachev also wants to “save” the USSR.  In order to do so, he will need massive infusions of aid and technology from the west, probably more than even exists.  He clearly enjoys his position and would like to perpetuate it.  What will he do when the USSR fragments?  He has never been elected by popular vote to anything and he currently enjoys very poor approval ratings in the USSR.

The coup may turn out to have been a blessing for Gorbachev.  Although it probably won’t have much effect on his popularity at home, it certainly will boost his ratings abroad and his potential to get western assistance.  Having had a glimpse at the potential consequences of conservative governance of the USSR, Gorbachev becomes infinitely more attractive to us in the west.  In the murky world of Soviet intrigue, claims will be made that the whole show was orchestrated by Gorbachev to strenghten his hand abroad.  Even if this is not true, it can’t be denied that he has really benefited from the coup attempt at a time when his political future was becoming increasingly dim.  If the coup hadn’t happened, he would have been forced to invent it.

Does anyone else want to “save” the USSR?  Certainly most of the people who live there do not! Citizens of the Baltic states, Central Asia, the Ukraine, and particularly people from places like Moldavia, Karelia, and Tadzhikistan, who have national, religious and ethnic ties to countries outside the USSR, have no desire to continue under the yoke of central Soviet control.  In fact, as a result of years of Soviet and Tsarist suppression  of their legitimate yearnings, most Soviet citizens have no desire for any kind of association with any kind of central government.

The  Bush administration’s past Soviet policy does not provide much comfort.   The pre-coup policy of strong support for Gorbachev had a number of negative  aspects:  it would very likely have left the status of Soviet military and internal security forces unchanged and it would probably have perpetuated Soviet domination of national minorities.    In addition, it would have permitted the Soviets not to have to face either  rapid democratization,  or political and economic decentralization and liberalization.

One wonders if it was a concensus policy of the National Security Council or if it had much input from other Soviet specialists either inside or outside the administration.  If our Soviet specialists had been involved, President Bush would not have made his recent gaff in the USSR when he addressed an audience in Kiev as “Soviet citizens”.  He did this in the capitol of the Ukraine, where their continued participation in the USSR is very much in doubt, and where nationalist feelings against central Soviet government run high!   He appears either ignorant of or insensitive to current Soviet realities, something that would never have happened if he had been coached by our Soviet experts.

It is more likely that it was the personal, private policy of a president who is convinced that he has a profound understanding of foreign affairs.  If George Bush had been a Democratic president pursuing such a Soviet policy, the Republicans would have crucified him!  It was the kind of policy to which Republicans have always objected.  It was poorly thought out and counterproductive.  It put the United States in a curious moral and practical position.  We found ourselves actively supporting a system that only recently had given its peoples the right to speak freely, which still withheld their basic right to self-determination and which had done almost nothing to change the system that had failed them.  We have been assisting the Soviets in the further subjugation of their citizens!    The current argument that the coup could have been obviated by additional aid begs the issue of the negative results of that aid.

Will the Bush administration continue to support Gorbachev – a man who has never been elected to anything by popular vote?   Maybe we should be supporting someone else, like Yeltsin, or no one at all.

In explaining our Soviet policy, much is made of the need to “keep Gorbachev in power”.  An excellent case can be made that keeping Gorbachev in power, per se, is irrelevant and that his departure would hasten the changes that we hope for in the USSR.  Gorbachev doesn’t want to scrap the system, he wants to save it.  Despite all his talk, other than “openness”, he has implemented very few tangible changes which would be beneficial to us.  Quite the contrary, Gorbachev’s clear enjoyment of his position and power, his past accommodation of the conservatives, his inclination to compromise and his disinclination to act can be seen as impediments to constructive change.   The fact is that there has been a lot of talk and precious little action under Gorbachev.

The USSR is in the process of economic collapse.  Collapse may be an acceptable answer from our point of view.  Given the facts of our own economic situation, we have absolutely no hope of “saving” them ourselves.

Nor should we wish to do so.  The USA has major (but limited) interests in the USSR.  We want to peacefully render the USSR non-threatening to ourselves and the rest of the world and we would like to see the peoples of the USSR exercise their rights of self-determination.

We can accomplish both of these goals by encouraging the peaceful, non-violent break up of the USSR into its component national parts and, if the Soviet people desire it, some type of future confederation.

The US needs to back off.  We don’t need to grant the Soviets Most Favored Nation status.  We don’t need to grant them or to help them get credits.  We really don’t need to help perpetuate the reign of the Communist Party at all.

Once the Party and Gorbachev are gone, it will be time to re-evaluate our position to see what we can do to help.  Until then, we and the Soviet peoples will profit most from benign neglect.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA officer who specialized in Soviet and East European operations from 1956-1980.  He lives in Brookfield.

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