Russia and the pitfalls of realism

My article on Russia and the “realists,” partly a rejoinder to Anatol Lieven’s broadside against pro-Western Russian liberals in opposition to the current regime, appears in The Weekly Standard online.

The target of Lieven’s vitriolic screed, published in The National Interest online, is this Washington Post op-ed by four leading liberal Russian policy analysts — Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center (Russia’s leading independent polling firm), Igor Klyamkin of the Liberal Mission Foundation, Georgy Satarov of the Indem Foundation, and Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.  Actually, Lieven’s piece is not so much a screed as a smear.  He outrageously distorts Shevtsova’s record with out-of-context quotes to suggest that she is callously oblivious to the welfare of common Russians and devoutly supportive of U.S. policy.  In another passage I did not have the space to address in my article, he writes that “‘democracy’ as it was practiced under the Yeltsin administration [was] praised by some of the authors, and adds:

Georgy Satarov was, in fact, a top official in Yeltin’s political machine with direct responsibility for some of the undemocratic practices of that administration.

Satarov was an advisor to Yeltsin in 1994-97 and served as the President’s liaison to political parties.   I have no idea whether he was personally involved in any “undemocratic practices”, but this sounds a lot like guilt by association.  Particularly since Lieven does not see fit to mention that his main target, Shevtsova, has repeatedly said that the dismantling of Russia’s newborn democracy began under Yeltsin.

“Money quote” from my article:

Lieven finds something “a bit nauseating” in the allegedly knee-jerk pro-Western sympathies of Russian liberals. But that seems a much more fitting description for the actions of a Western pundit who, in the heat of debate, brands his Russian opponents enemies of their country–in a country where such a label poses real risks, not of prosecution but of “unofficial” harassment and even violence. (A Russian translation of Lieven’s article was promptly posted online.)

Read the article for more.  Here are links to the two “realist” policy briefs discussed in the article: The Right Direction for U.S. Policy Toward Russia (from the Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, co-chaired by former Senators Chuck Hagel and Gary Hart), and Resurgent Russia and U.S. Purpose (from the Century Foundation, written by Kissinger Associates director Thomas Graham).

A final word.  No, realpolitik doesn’t have to equal sycophancy toward thugs in power.  But quite often, it seems to devolve into exactly that.  For an example, see Lieven’s September 2008 article (linked on the page where his slam against “Russia’s limousine liberals” appears), Gracious Grozny.  In it, Lieven paints an admiring portrait of Chechnya’s pro-Russian president Ramzan Kadyrov (“His remarks, though urbane, contained the occasional flash of the old Chechen spirit”).  This is a man who has reportedly personally presided over torture sessions and organized the assassination of opponents.  As a Russian friend quipped when I mentioned Lieven’s visit with Kadyrov, “Did he see any severed heads?”  Presumably not; but one shouldn’t let realism get to the point where severed heads are just another part of a “reality” that one pragmatically accepts.

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