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Putin and the Rising Tide of Paranoia

How can the West help ease Russian fears over Ukraine?

December 17, 2004

How can the West help ease Russian fears over Ukraine?

Russians give an impression of being quite fearful these days. Most of them, it seems, cannot imagine that the Ukrainian people have spoken freely.

Instead, they conjure up the image of a big, bad American political technology steamroller that first ran over Serbia, then Georgia — and now is running over Ukraine.

And next, these Russians fear, it might run over Russia itself. The newspaper Izvestia titled its December 1, 2004, article on this subject: "Next Stop: Russia."

Some of these comments have made it into the Western press. What Westerners are probably not aware of is that it is a mass phenomenon. In a radio poll, fully 52% of listeners told Ekho Moskvy that the "Ukrainian scenario" could be repeated in Russia.

And it's not just the Russian public that is running scared of the supposed American revolutionary steamroller. A number of high-ranking politicians and strategists, many of them closely allied with the Kremlin, are doing the same.

They are using the fear as an argument for “tightening the screws” further, even for “counter-revolution,” in the words of Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin advisor.

Such a Russian overreaction, Russian liberals say is just what could finally bring on Ukrainian-style events in Moscow, by severing the last honest links between government and people — and between media discourse and truth.

During similar hysterias in the past — such as during the Kosovo conflict in 1999, when it was considered normal and correct in Russia to say that "America is bombing Belgrade today, Moscow tomorrow" — President Putin and his "political technologists" played a moderating role.

They restored Russia’s sense of stability and rebuilt relations with the West. Nevertheless, the general argument for paranoia was never eliminated — only suppressed. Russia regained confidence after 1999, thanks to a strengthening of the central government and the use of authoritarianism to project an image of strong leadership.

Fast forward to 2004. Russia seems thrown back on its 1999 sense of insecurity. The Kremlin helped create the mess in Ukraine by overplaying its hand and trying to pit the pro-Russian majority of Ukrainians against the pro-Western minority.

But the unintended result was that in the November 2004 election, a majority of Ukrainians united against this policy of divisiveness.

Faced with such an outcome, it was easier for Russians to blame their failure to get the pro-Russian candidate elected on a conspiracy rather than on the free will of the Ukrainian people.

And that is why the situation in 2004 could play out differently from that in 1999. Instead of moderating the national hysteria, as they did in 1999, the Kremlin and its supporters have now joined it — blaming everything on America and the West.

President Putin, too, has been unusually slow in regaining his composure. He backed off from his very outspoken pro-Yanukovych posture, but proceeded to plot openly with outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

In addition, Mr. Putin complained loudly about the "foreign interference" by the West. But while there has been some open and transparent Western support for the opposition, Russia proceeded in the most brazen fashion with its own covert interference, which at times was genuinely conspiratorial.

Mr. Putin's people complained of a Yushchenko "coup d'etat," while the Kremlin itself actually plotted with Mr. Kuchma in his attempted coup against Ukraine's constitutional order.

In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev counted it as his greatest success that the Russian people had formed enough of a civil society that they could stand up to the August 1991 coup by Soviet hardliners.

In 2004, Mr. Putin complains of conspiracy and subversion when the fledgling Ukrainian civil society stands up against Mr. Kuchma's attempted coup.

This change in how the emergence of civil society is viewed by the Kremlin is sad — a truly negative evolution in Russian state thinking.

Most ominously, Mr. Putin has combined the paranoia of 2004 with the paranoia of 1999. “This sort of development,” he said on a trip to Turkey on December 7, 2004, would mean "dividing Europe into westerners and easterners, into first-class and second-class people.”

Mr. Putin added that the latter would be subjected to "a nice but stern man in a colonial helmet who will show them under what political understanding they must live. And if, God forbid, the ungrateful foreigner resists, he will be punished with bombs and missiles, as it was in Belgrade."

Beliefs like these have dangerous consequences. Westerners should not let them pass unchallenged. They should refute them, as Colin Powell did, when he rebutted the Russian foreign minister’s charges at the December 7, 2004, OSCE meetings in Sofia.

Mr. Powell rightly pointed out that the Western support of democratic elections is not the same thing as interference in democratic elections.

It is tedious — but necessary — to patiently remind Russians of some elementary distinctions and some basic facts of recent history.

At the same time, the West should not feed the phobias by its other policies. It does so when it combines its promotion of democracy with demands for Russian geopolitical withdrawals.

So while Mr. Powell was right in defending Western involvement in Ukraine as fair-minded promotion of democracy, he undermined his case when he coupled it with demands for Russian withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova.

"Next," Russians will say, "America will be demanding our withdrawal from Sevastopol," the strategically important Black Sea port.

Such demands would look to Russians like clear proof of their belief that the United States was promoting the Ukrainian opposition candidate Yushchenko all along as part of a geopolitical master plan for driving Russia out of Ukraine — along with the rest of the CIS.

What the West should be talking about instead is finding a constructive compromise on Sevastopol, so that the Russian navy can stay there. For example, this could happen by putting the base under the auspices of the NATO-Russia Council.

It would have been better to avoid any talk of Ukrainian entry into NATO until after Russia calms down, but already the talk has begun.

It needs to be balanced by talk of upgrading the NATO-Russia Council — and eventual full Russian membership in the alliance.
The implementation of such a balanced approach will depend, of course, on a return to common sense in Russia as well as on Western willingness to innovate.

The EU should make the effort to reconcile its EU-Russia and EU-Ukraine common space projects — and to reconcile them both with a Russia-Ukraine common economic space.

Otherwise, it could cause Yushchenko's EU orientation to disrupt the organic connections between the Ukrainian and Russian economies — connections that are necessary both for the economic success of Ukraine under Yushchenko and for the Russian economy.

In the past, Russia has come out of its paranoid moments and adapted to reality, even if retaining a residue of the phobias and resentments. However, there are no guarantees.

Today, Russia is once again teetering on the edge. If a nuclear superpower becomes mentally unsound, it will be extremely dangerous — more so than in the relatively stable Cold War era.

The West should pay attention and avoid feeding the frenzy. But in the end, Russia must bear the primary responsibility for its own mental stability.

It is time for Russians to notice, when looking across the border, the existence of a large population of Ukrainians, whose will cannot be wished away by media lies or police manipulations.

Russians also have to stop pointing fingers westward to explain their own failure in Ukraine.

But what should worry Russians the most as they are whipping themselves into a frenzy against the West is that the rest of the world has quietly drawn two conclusions.

First, that the fault lies with the Russian side — and second, that it has started asking whether it can trust the Putin regime at all.