Russia and the War

The global crisis that came to a head over the weekend has resulted in defeat and unprecedented humiliation for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. Washington had been sure that France would not veto its proposed UN resolution on launching military action against Iraq. But last Friday it became clear that the U.S. proposal was dead in the water even without a French veto.

The weapons inspectors did not follow the script that Washington had expected, and Security Council members took the floor one after the next to state their opposition to war. An even bigger humiliation for Bush followed in the form of huge anti-war marches around the world, including the United States.

The few West European governments that still support Washington came in for massive street pressure. A consensus is building around the world that Bush is a dangerous man. The leadership in Washington kept stubbornly repeating that Saddam Hussein poses a threat to humanity, but their exhortations had the opposite effect.

Hussein clearly poses a threat to his own people, but millions of people around the world have reached the conclusion that Bush, not Hussein, poses a threat to the planet.

While the U.S. leadership came under attack, Russia once more demonstrated its impotence and insignificance. Over the past decade Russia has been politically dependent on the United States, and economically on Germany.

The United States dictated Russia’s political agenda, while Germany gradually became its most important business partner and source of foreign investment. This system worked quite well so long as Germany kept a low profile in international affairs and at least made a show of solidarity with the United States. When disagreements between the United States and Germany came to the surface, however, the Russian leadership was at a loss.

Moscow behaved like one of Ivan Pavlov’s dogs. So long as the signals come one at a time, the dog’s conditioned reflexes respond properly — it salivates at the sound of the bell. Then the scientist gives it two contradictory signals. The poor beast goes into a panic, spinning around in its cage.

Something similar has happened with the Russian leadership this winter. Only when it became clear that France and Germany would secure a majority in the Security Council, and that no veto would be required, did President Vladimir Putin demonstratively side with the victors.

For 10 years Kremlin ideologues have led the public to believe that Russia must support the United States or risk condemnation from the “entire civilized world.” The events of last Friday revealed, however, that Washington is now isolated. Russian policymakers drew the right conclusion in the end.

As was immediately obvious, however, their actions were driven not by firm principles or concern for the national interest, but sheer opportunism. The sight of Russian leaders mouthing words dictated in Berlin while never taking their eyes off of Washington was nothing short of embarrassing.

Russian society, unfortunately, seized the opportunity to sink to the level of its leaders. On Saturday, when hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Western Europe, the United States and even Australia, Russians preferred to stay at home. This would have made sense if Russians supported Bush or approved of the war, but polls show that opposition to war in Iraq is no less widespread here than in most European countries. Even the Chechen campaign no longer enjoys broad support.

Anti-war sentiment may be quite high, but the public has no plans to tell anyone about it. Local leaders in some provincial towns organized anti-war marches, rounding up participants using the good old Soviet tactic of “compulsory voluntarism.”

In Moscow, where the old tactics no longer work, two demonstrations were held. Leftist and pacifist organizations rallied about 200 young people on Tverskoi Bulvar under the slogan: “No War in Iraq and Chechnya!” The Communists and their nationalist allies barely managed to turn out twice that number.

For the Communists, with their enormous resources, this turnout was humiliating. But the left can hardly be proud of its efforts, either. The politicians may well be pleased with how Russia extricated itself from this crisis. Things could have been worse, of course. But to be honest, the weekend’s events left me feeling deeply ashamed for Russian society.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.

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