Who Provoked the Russian Bear?

If America’s former president, Richard Nixon, the erstwhile red-baiter, wasn’t safely in his grave, most probably he would be writing an oped in the New York Times this week to say that, ”we are in danger of losing Russia”.

By Jonathan Power

Published: Sun 31 Aug 2008, 1:56 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:12 AM

For all the bodies of the liberal /left in America, dispatched by him on the way to the pinnacle of power, he became as president the originator of detente with the Soviet Union and at the same time a respecter of its history and Russia’s massive contribution through the arts, its culture and its Orthodox religion to the great civilisation we call the Western world. In his own words, Nixon was a Russophile. Once communism was defeated, he used to argue, Russia could assume its rightful place as a powerful European nation.

It seems that no one, neither in the US nor in Europe, has the courage to stand up and say this, to educate the populace that the way things are with Russia we are falling back on our well-honed, oversimplistic, reflexes of the Cold War.

The invasion of Georgia didn’t just happen because of some Kremlin malevolence. It happened because of the West’s ill thought-out position on the independence of Kosovo, the self-defeating military support President George W. Bush provided for an unstable Georgian leader and, not least, because the West did make full use of its opportunities to bring Russia into the fold after the death of the Soviet Leninist system. This is not to exonerate Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for his continuous macho posturing and his disregard of the importance of building a nation not of men but of laws.

Neither is it to exonerate Boris Yeltsin for his erratic presidency that allowed the deterioration of much of his country, the economy not least, and the rise of the robber barons. But the West was the victorious party in the Cold War. The West was shining in its triumph. The West was economically healthy and politically robust. It had nothing to lose and everything to contribute to the new Russia.

But it dragged its feet in the most appalling way. If it had been sensible it would have started to move off its haunches when Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev came to the London G-8 and asked for financial aid for a careful but steady transition to a more open economy and more open and pro-Western society.

Despite all the warm words spoken about welcoming Perestroika, the West demurred from getting too involved. Nixon’s plea for a much more positive response fell on deaf ears.

As Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, ”Washington’s crucial error lay in its propensity to treat post Soviet Russia as a defeated enemy.”

Washington’s attitude was totally at variance with that of both Gorb achev and Yeltsin who expected to see developing a common strategic partnership.

At the same time Washington missed the great opportunity offered for large-scale nuclear disarmament and took the fatal step, mainly for electoral reasons at home, of expanding Nato up to Russia’s doorstep, ignoring the pledge made to Gorbachev by the administration of George W. Bush Senior.

The Clinton administration couldn’t resist taking advantage of Russia’s weakness, hoping to win a geo-political advantage that Russia never could unwind, even if one day it recovered its strength. It was even low down enough as to exploit Yeltsin’s heavy drinking, extracting concessions when he was over the limit.

Washington wanted Russia to have no independent foreign policy and to swallow economic reforms at such a speed they would have been instantly spat out in any self-respecting Western democracy. It failed to understand Moscow’s reservations about going to war against Serbia without the necessary legal approval from the UN’s Security Council.

Washington tolerated Yeltsin’s excesses, in particular his decision to literally go to war with Russia’s parliament, the Duma, as long as these merciless ”economic reforms” continued on track.

Later, when Putin was in power, Washington blatantly ignored his offer to cooperate against Al-Qaeda and the Taleban, believing the U.S. could do the job unaided and preferred to annoy Moscow by concentrating on bringing ex-Soviet Muslim states under Washington’s wing. Even after September 11, 2001, when Putin went out of his way to aid Washington, allowing the US overflying rights, endorsing the establishment of American bases in Central Asia and facilitating access to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, a Russian-trained military force, the US continued to treat Russia as a country it could walk over. The Kremlin side is by no means faultless, but Washington badly needs to look at the beam in its own eye.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London.

Watching History Being Made in Denver

Gary Younge

Beyond the shadows of Chicago’s impressive skyline, in the scarred urban landscape of the city’s southside, the Regal Theater swelled with expectation and pride. In the area where Barack Obama worked as a community activist and his wife, Michelle, grew up, people had come to see their native son - their boy - fill a sports stadium in Denver a thousand miles away and hit it out of the park.

Some came dressed as though for church, complete with hats, slacks, earrings and handbags. Others came casual -- sporting jeans and their candidate on their shirt. They came in all ages. Parents brought their children, who tried not to fall asleep. Grandparents brought each other and tried not to cry. But for the most part they came in one colour, black, and for one reason - history. They did not go home disappointed. In the video before the speech Obama recalled his grandfather taking him to see astronauts coming back to earth. As the boy sat on his shoulders his grandfather said: ”We’re Americans. We can do anything when we put our minds to it.”

It was one of the many moments when the audience rose to their feet. But in this instance patriotism wasn’t the half of what got them there. It was the unlikeliness of it. Watching Obama accepting the Democratic nomination at the Regal was like seeing a man return from the moon decades ago. The achievement had expanded the audience’s understanding of what was possible. It compressed into an evening what they thought would never live to see in their lifetime. And it had left them incredulous.

Beatrice Sumlin grew up two blocks from 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four girls at Sunday school were killed in a fire bomb attack by Klansmen just a few weeks after Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech. ”I’m just blessed I could be here to see this day,” she said. ”Because I never thought I would see it. And now I’ve seen this, I’ve seen it all. My mother’s still alive and she still can’t believe it. This is history, honey.”

The front page of the Chicago Sun-Times that morning showed a picture of a black delegate in Denver crying as Obama was nominated and the banner headline ”Believe it”. But the crowd at the Regal barely could. ”I’ve got to be honest with you, I never thought a black man would get this far,” said Jimmy, who, in his sharp hat and silky shirt neither offered nor apparently required a second name. ”But a lot of white people are hurting too right now. They’re losing houses and jobs, so they’re beginning to look past the colour thing.”

The speech was well received. But then that was barely ever in doubt. As everyone knew what was going to happen, there was no suspense. But precisely because everyone knew what was going to happen there was plenty of anticipation. The evening had long been set up as a seminal occasion for America in general and black America in particular, on a scale usually reserved for sporting events. Going to the cinema with large numbers of African-Americans is best described as part religious revival and part contact sport. The relationship between audience and image is active and interactive.

Like the call and response of a good Baptist sermon, the crowd’s participation is neither demanded nor discouraged. People shout at the screen, yelling advice, caution and encouragement. ”Go on now.” ”That’s what I’m talking about.” Or simply, ”That’s right.”

Thursday night was no different By the time Obama took the microphone, there was no policy point or rhetorical flourish that did not find itself worthy of an amen and a cheer.

When he announced that he was accepting the nomination an ear-numbing thunder broke through the auditorium. They punched the air; some held each other. And many wept.

Addressing the convention on the 45th anniversary of King’s I have a dream speech, the comparisons were inevitable. Indeed that was the point. King had called for freedom to ring from ”the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado”. For those at the Regal, Thursday represented the shift from the metaphor to the man. But for some the associations were also painful. ”I believe he can win,” said a barber a few blocks away earlier in the day. ”I just hope he doesn’t get killed. They’ve done it before.”

Having disbelieved that he would get this far, the crowd were now prepared to believe anything -- even that in two months’ time America could have a black president.

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