Barking up the Wrong Alley: West’s Russia Policy Misguided


The latest news from Russia reads like a political thriller. Ex-KGB agent Vladimir Litvinenko dies from apparent exposure to radioactive polonium-210, a rare and deadly poison. On his deathbed, Litvinenko, a frequent and harsh critic of Vladimir Putin, accuses the Russian president of personally masterminding his murder. Nearly a dozen sites across London test positive for radiation, and the search for Litvinenko’s killers continues.

Imagine a Canadian candidate for Prime Minister, highly critical of U.S. policy and the U.S. President personally, being poisoned at the height of the political campaign. Suppose this occurs just a few months after a leading U.S. magazine publisher, also critical of the government, is murdered outside his office. Pretend then that over the next two years, a string of assassinations of prominent politicians, journalists, and human rights activists periodically plagues America’s streets. Finally, suppose that in recent weeks, a famous journalist investigating government abuses in Iraq is killed; and shortly thereafter, an ex-CIA agent looking into the journalist’s murder is poisoned while exiled in London. While this scenario sounds like a B-movie in the making, it is a rough analogy of the current Russian political climate. Americans are finally starting to question the efficacy of Washington’s Russia policy; unfortunately, though, many are offering misguided answers.

U.S. and European news outlets, human rights organizations, and politicians have once again cast Putin as a shadow suspect in a scandalous and politically charged murder, drawing comparisons to last month’s assassination of U.S. citizen and Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya as well as the 2004 poisoning of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. The Ukrainian President’s poisoning, while not fatal, occurred during a hotly contested race with an opponent solidly backed by the Kremlin. Litvinenko’s poisoning is thought to have occurred while he dined with an Italian journalist who possessed information about the murder of Politkovskaya, coincidentally, another outspoken critic of Putin.

But the efforts to link President Putin directly with Litvinenko or Politkovskaya’s murders, or any other acts of thuggery in Russia are misguided. Whatever the truth, such attempts are pragmatic and political non-starters because the West lacks the political will to confront Putin. And in many ways, such a policy is far too late. The supposedly warm personal relationship between Presidents Bush and Putin is well publicized and Washington’s recent acquiescence to Russian WTO membership is merely the latest evidence that Western leaders remain unlikely to challenge Moscow on its democratic record. Nevertheless, the United States must rethink its foreign policy and recognize that Russia’s future ultimately depends on building a civil society that transcends and outlives Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s time as Russian President is running out. Barring a major constitutional coup, he will leave office in 2008. And though he has made significant progress in the Russian economy, Putin has also contributed to a considerable decay of democratic institutions in his country.

But make no mistake. Despite the West’s view of the murders or other political chicanery, Putin’s popularity in Russia is irrefutable. For example, while many in the West wonder what, if any, connection Putin has with Litvinenko’s murder, the central question posed by the Russian state media (and consequently most Russians) is who is trying to damage their country’s reputation? The United States cannot break Putin’s control over his country, and any attempt to do so would result in enormous political and economic fallout for U.S.-Russian relations.

Thus, rather than focusing on Putin and igniting a diplomatic confrontation that cannot be won, the U.S. must address the long-term prospects of the country he has molded. The Russia we see today is a country that desperately lacks the elements of a civil society. Regardless of who is behind these latest killings, Russia’s greatest challenge is changing a society where assassinations solve problems and bribery opens doors for opportunity.

The U.S. can play a supportive role in helping combat Russia’s culture of corruption, disregard for the rule of law and political apathy by increasing student exchanges, scholarships, and low-level governmental collaboration. History will be the final arbiter of Vladimir Putin’s tenure as the Russian president; but the more important question for now is who will pick up the pieces of the country he leaves behind?

Joe Wolpin, 1L, from Atlanta, is a former Fulbright scholar in Russia.

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