International Relations Jihadism Putin Russia US-Russian Relations

Reflections on Hill’s and Gaddy’s “The American Education of Vladimir Putin” (The Atlantic, 16 February 2015)

Photo Putin and America

by Gordon M. Hahn

Fiona Hill and Cliffird Gaddy have provided a superb analysis of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alienation from America and its foreign policy. In most accounts nowadays Russia’s actions are interpreted shorn of context. “Russia invaded Georgia.” “Russia invaded Ukraine.” “Putin criticized America.” “Russians see the U.S. as an Enemy.” Routinely, almost unanimously, Russia is portrayed as acting spontaneously in a vaccum with reference to the world around it. Its policies and actions are not reponses to Western policies and actions. They are carefully thought out plans designed to defeat the West, regardless of what the West may or may not do.

For example, in the 2008 Ossetian war, Russia is said to have begun the war. What preceded Russia’s invasion – Georgia’s massive bombing of South Ossetia’s capitol of Tskhinval(i) with inaccurate GRAD missiles, the killing of one hundred civilians and 19 Russia peacekeepers in the GRAD bombings, and Georgian troops’ invasion of South Ossetia and crazed rampage through Tskhinval(i) – is left out of the picture. Similarly now, accounts of “Russia’s war in Ukraine” and “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” leave out prior events: . Moreover, the nature of Russia’s intervention in the Donbass is overstated and ‘evidence’ is often shoddy and even falsified by Kiev and taken as gospel truth without question by US government and media.

Hill and Gaddy offer a strong antidote to the American rusological community’s penchant for propaganda and alarmism pursuing sales, ‘likes’ and clicks masked as ‘expert analysis.’ In their account, Putin started out with no attitude or a practical and open one towards America, despite his arrival to the KGB at the peak of Soviet-American Cold War tensions in 1983 and his stationing at the Cold War’s frontline in Germany. Thus, as deputy to St. Petersburg’s very democratic mayor Anatolii Sobchak in the early 1990s, Putin facilitated American businesses’ activity in the city and was helpful in resolving contract disputes for them. “He gave no impression whatsoever of any anti-American or anti-Western views.”

However, after his arrival to Moscow, several rounds of NATO expansion, the 1999 US-NATO bombing of Belgrade without a UN resolution, and NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, Putin’s attitude towards the U.S. began to harden. These events occurred when Putin chaired the FSB. This was bound to induce a negative reaction with a man who entered the KGB at the peak of Cold War tensions and likely revived all the anti-American Cold War inclinations his early KGB education instilled. As Putin put it in a speech 15 years later during the present Ukrainian crisis: “It was hard to believe, even seeing it with my own eyes, that at the end of the 20th century, one of Europe’s capitals, Belgrade, was under missile attack for several weeks, and then came the real [military] intervention.” As Hill and Gaddy note, “NATO’s Kosovo campaign was a turning point for Moscow and for Putin personally. Russian officials interpreted the intervention as a means of expanding NATO’s influence in the Balkans, not as an effort to deal with a humanitarian crisis.”

This would not be the last time Moscow would interpret events like Western humanitarian interventions, ‘right to protect’ doctrine, and color revolutions as merely cover for NATO expansion. As I have noted previously, it was this pairing of democracy and human rights promotion with NATO expansion  – the ‘militarization of democracy promotion’ in Moscow’s mind – that has not only degraded U.S.-Russian relations but intensified Russians’ suspicions of the real aims behind Western democracy-promotion and the utility of democracy itself.

Russian paranoia seemed reasonable when in the wake of the Yugoslavian events, the second Chechen-Russian war broke out in August 1999. Washington insiders and human rights groups ignored the jihadi nature of the Chechen invasion of Dagestan. They focused only on Russian violations of human rights. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor in the Carter administration, and retired general Alexander Haig, a former secretary of state in the Reagan administration helped to establish an advocacy group for the Chechens, and the former downplayed jihadism as a threat to Russia. This raised fears in Moscow of a possible NATO intervention in Chechnya, given the powerful Polish and East European lobbies that Brzezinski represented and Haig’s prominence in US military and NATO circles.

Even before 9/11 Putin hoped to remove the danger of a ‘right to protect’ intervention in Chechnya by explaining the Chechen conflict in terms of the ‘war on terrorism’ (the war against jihadism) offering cooperation with the US and the West in that war in a “conciliatory” (according to Hill and Gaddy) November 1999 New York Times oped piece. After 9/11 Putin intensified his proposed and actual cooperation in that fight. Before the recent downturn in relations, Russians were providing intelligence, training and material assistance in the war against jihadism.

Unfortunately, Western support for the 2004 Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine and the Arab ‘Spring’ revolutions, along with misguided ‘right to protect’ humanitarian interventions in Libya and Syria more than negated the positive effect on the US-Russian relationship rendered by counter-jihadism cooperation (of which Moscow’s contribution was substantial and important) and closer economic and other ties hoped for under the ‘reset.’ It was some time in the bumbled, if not ill-advised intervention in Iraq, which was falling apart by 2003, and the Libyan and Syrian escapades of 2011-2012 that Putin’s view of the US as incompetent began to be replaced by a feeling of suspicion and mistrust – a felleing that what looked like ineptitude was a clever policy of destabilizing regions in order to gain control of them or garner some other unclear advantages, while saddling other states with the cleanup.

Two minor shortcomings in the Hill-Gaddy piece is the absence of any reference to the role of the West’s intervention in the Lybian civil war in Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin and the role Putin played in the crisis over Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons against the opposition. Regarding the first, there is some evidence that Medvedev’s decision to have Russian abstain in the March 2011 UN Security Council vote and therefore not block the Western-sponsored UN resolution on a Libyan ‘no fly’ zone was taken independently. That decision mobilized and sparked indignation within the traditionalist camp as Putin was making his final decision on who should run for the presidency (See the interview with Dimitri Simes, “Why Russia Won’t Yield on Syria,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 17, 2012, Putin himself calling into question the wisdom of Medvedev’s decision, saying the UN’s resolution “resembles medieval calls for crusades.”  Medvedev hastily called a press conference within hours, donning a fighter pilot’s jacket outside his Gorky presidential residence to counter Putin’s assertion. He emphasized: “I think we all need to be careful in our evaluations. In no way is it acceptable to use expressions that in essence lead to a clash of civilizations, such as crusades and so forth — this is unacceptable.”

Medvedev’s decision, the ensuing public Medvedev-Putin public disagreement, the subsequent Western bombing of Libyan forces, and Qadaffi’s bloody demise could only pique Putin’s and the traditionalists’ anti-Western angst and their doubts about Medvedev. More importantly, the bombing and Qadaffi’s extrajudicial demise meant the resounding defeat in Moscow for Medvedev’s more Western-oriented view that emphasized more cooperation with the U.S. and the West. Moreover, the Libyan debacle was but a single episode within the larger challenge of the Arab ‘Spring’ that Putin must now have thought Medvedev was unfit to handle.

In the second, Putin was given no credit whatsoever in Western policymaking cricles for his fulfilled promise to secure the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. Hill and Gaddy conclude that it was at this point that Putin’s “American education was complete.”

As the crisis in Ukraine began in November 2013, “Putin’s view of America had become dark indeed,” Hill and Gaddy note correctly. Then, Putin, celebrating Russia’s PR and sporting triumph at Sochi, was betrayed by the West yet again. The Ukrainian opposition violated an agreement with Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich for a transfer of power; one largely secured because of Putin’s pressure on Yanukovich to sign. On February 22nd, when the opposition seized power instead of withdrawing from Kiev’s city center as agreed, Washington and other Western capitols celebrated the ‘democratic revolution’ rather than demanding fulfillment of the agreement that had been hammered out by Russia, the French and German foreign ministers, and Ukraine’s regime and opposition. The cumulative effect of all these betrayals, real and perceived, rendered Putin’s view of America darker still. This and the strategic effect that ‘losing Ukraine’ to the West would constitute, prompted Putin’s clever but ultimately overdone occupation and annexation of pro-Russian Crimea.

In noting the “unfulfilled” promise of a WW II-like alliance that one against jihadism possibly held, Hill and Gaddy quote Angela Stent: “When countries form partnerships forged out of exigencies such as the 9/11 attacks, the shelf life for these alliances is usually short because they have a specific and limited focus.” Stent cites the example of the U.S.-Soviet anti-Nazi alliance which “began to fray as the victors disagreed about what would happen after Germany surrendered, and the Cold War began.” The problem with this analogy should be obvious. The US-Soviet alliance against Nazism ‘began to fray’ once Nazism was defeated. The global jihadi revolutionary alliance has not been defeated. To the contrary, it is gathering strength. Moreover, no US-Russian, Western-Russian, no less the broader alliance that will be required to defeat the global jihad has been achieved. Washington, it seems, is too distracted by other things to focus on this twilight struggle.

Indeed, when it comes to the war against jihadism and the Arab ‘Spring,’ Putin has gotten it more right than the Obama administration. As Putin and many in the West warned, the Western intervention in both Iraq and the Libyan civil war against the old regimes threw those countries into chaos and opened the door to jihadism in both countries. The same in all probability is true in Syria and the Sinai.

The Arab Winter is really part of a revolutionary situation across much of the Islamic world in which a global Islamist revolutionary movement and a global jihadi revolutionary alliance are growing. For all his occasional boorishness and heavy-handedness, Putin has a better handle on the nature of the ‘Arab Spring’ than do present US policymakers, who are still blinded by our cult of revolutionism and the chimera of democratic revolution in a region completely lacking in democracy prerequisites.

The Arab Winter is properly of grave concern to Putin. In December amirs controlling as many as 80 percent of the Caucasus Emirate (CE)  mujahedin based in Russia’s North Caucasus declared their loyalty to the Islamic State (IS or ISIL) and its ‘caliph’ Abubakr al-Baghdadi. IS now has a presence in Russia in the form of the Caucasus Emirate of the Islamic State (CE IS). Like Al Qa`ida and the leading jihadi philosopher Abu Muhammed Asem al-Maqdisi, IS likely sees CE IS as its doorstep to Europe.

All this demonstrates again the utter futility in expanding NATO into Russia’s sphere of influence. It undermines Western security in two respects. It has alienated Russia and is transforming it into the West’s ‘greatest geopolitical foe’ that 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney misconceptualizes Russia as. Second, it runs directly contrary to the requirements of an effective global fight in the war against jihadism, which must include all major powers, and then some, in a robustly institutionalized alliance.


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