Monday, February 28, 2005

Russia Snubs the US ... Again

Just days after President Bush publicly chastised President Putin over Russia's slide toward authoritarianism, and lectured the Russian President on democracy, Russia has - rather predictably - defied the US and signed an agreement to provide nuclear fuel to Iran for its Russian-built nuclear reactor. Washington greeted news of the deal with icy diplomatic disapproval, but could do little more than glower in irritation.
The agreement was signed at the Bushehr atomic plant in southern Iran. Alexander Rumyantsev, head of Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency, said the first batch of enriched uranium fuel was in Siberia ready to be shipped.

"This is a very important incident in the ties between the two countries and in the near future a number of Russian experts will be sent to Bushehr to equip the power station," he said.
The US has warned that Iran plans to use the fuel from its new nuclear facility to process weapons grade plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. In a small gesture toward US concerns, Russia included an almost meaningless provision in the agreement.

Iran will have to repatriate all spent nuclear fuel to Russia. Moscow hopes this will allay American worries that Iran may use the spent fuel, which could be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium, to develop arms.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been probing Iran's nuclear programme for more than two years, said it would keep a careful eye on Teheran's use of the fuel.

Given Russia's infamous inability to properly account for its own military assets, is anyone willing to believe that it will be able to adequately monitor the exact amounts of material being returned from Tehran - assuming the Iranians even bother to comply? The IAEA can only observe Tehran's compliance if the Iranians permit inspections, and inform the IAEA which facilities it should inspect. Iran wouldn't be the first country to pull the wool over the eyes of IAEA inspectors.
Sustained American pressure on Moscow - and the discovery that Iran had lied to UN inspectors about its nuclear programme for nearly two decades - delayed the deal between Iran and Russia for more than a year.
That pressure might have succeeded had Moscow believed that its cooperation with the US was providing some sort of valuable return. Instead, Washington has continued to expand NATO toward Russia's borders, helped Ukranian voters turn out Moscow's designated (and fraudulently elected) leader for Ukraine, and heavily criticized Putin's consolidation of power. What, Mr. Putin's advisors have been asking, does he get for helping the US? Their answer: nothing. Many Russians see the US as trying to surround and isolate Russia and deprive it of its traditional allies and hegemony. This perception is beginning to infuse Russian popular thought and entertainment.
Russia believes it is facing multiple threats and the Kremlin needs heroes. Chechen separatist rebels appear irritatingly indomitable, radical Islam is making inroads into the volatile south of the country and a shadowy third force allegedly intent on weakening and even dismembering Russia continues to hover in the smog above Moscow. And many Russians believe the Chinese are intent on swallowing up large parts of Siberia. Someone has to stop the rot: someone such as Major Pronin, for example. The fictional creation of writer Lev Ovalov, Major Pronin appeared in print in 1939 as a masterful counter-intelligence operative with a similarity to Ian Fleming's James Bond and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. With his faithful sidekick Viktor Jeleznov, he protects the Soviet Union from numerous sinister plots which often see him face an evil British spy known as "Rogers". The last Major Pronin novel was penned in 1962 but in the past year, five Pronin tales have been republished and reportedly sold extremely well.
Not surprisingly, Major Pronin's fans include Vladamir Putin, who credits the stories with motivating him to join the KGB years ago.
In First Person, a book of conversations with Mr Putin, he specifically mentions the tale. "My notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories," he is quoted as saying. "Books and spy movies ... took hold of my imagination. What amazed me most of all was how one man's effort could achieve what whole armies could not."

Today the country's cinemas are doing their bit too. FSB Major Smolin, star of the recent blockbuster Dog Tag or Lichny Nomer, typifies the new breed of spy the Kremlin wants the young generation to lionise. Stoic, courageous and a man of few words, the film shows him escaping from separatist rebels in war-torn Chechnya. He quickly goes on to free hundreds of innocent civilian hostages from a Moscow circus that has been seized by Chechen terrorists and prevents detonation of a nuclear bomb above a Nato summit in Rome. Not bad for one man armed only with a pistol. The $7m film, a huge box-office hit in Russia, was made with the help of the FSB and the government. Planes, attack helicopters, armoured personnel carriers and real-life special forces troops were deployed to lend it authenticity. Up and down the country, adolescents are cramming into internet cafes to while away hours playing shoot-'em-up games where the targets are always Russia's number one enemy of the moment: terrorists.

FSB agents are sprinkled with hero dust in TV series such as National Security Agent, Liquidator and The Motherland Is Waiting. Valentin Velichko, head of the Veterans of Foreign Intelligence and a former KGB spy, in his airy office on the southern outskirts of Moscow, is among many who feel Russia can be saved only by its spooks. Surrounded by daggers, bullets, a bust of Peter the Great, a sinister-looking safe, and a special Russian intelligence service flag, Mr Velichko says: "We see our task as ... introducing law and order in the country with a view to establishing a dictatorship of law where everyone is equal before the law. We are [society's] ballast. When the waters get choppy we bring stability. But nobody needs to see our work." What is lacking in Russia, he says, is a strong sense of spirituality. "There is prostitution, corruption and thievery. The Russian Orthodox Church is weak."

With the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany looming on 9 May, the armed forces and the country's elite special forces units are also getting the stardust treatment.

This month a "military-patriotic" TV channel - Zvezda or Star - aired in Moscow for the first time. It will soon be rolled out across the rest of the country with the backing of the Defence Ministry and will devote at least 10 per cent of its output to military matters. Its purpose is to reawaken dormant Russian pride in the armed forces.

Andrei Piontkovsky, a well-known political scientist, says KGB chic and glorification of the armed forces is going down well among Russians. "In Russia's political consciousness, the idea of strong power and order is quite popular ... and this propaganda is quite effective. It's not just about Chekhists [spies] but about the general militarisation of society. If you think you are encircled by enemies and some kind of fifth column then it's quite a natural process."

Mr Piontkovsky adds: "Nobody is going to restore Communism because the Chekhists have become millionaires. The idea of private property has won. But in Nazi Germany totalitarianism existed alongside private property and it had a different name. It was called fascism."

The danger of Russia reverting to an authoritarian government should worry Washington. But lecturing Moscow does little to prevent it. Russian can feel their country's weakness, its vulnerability to an American-dominated NATO in the west and a rising China in the East. That sense of threat breeds paranoia and reduces political opposition to the rise of a strong Russian leadership among Russian voters Understanding Russian security worries - like the proximity of NATO to its borders (even if unjustified in America's view) - and showing appropriate foreign policy restraint might ease Russia's sense that it is being surrounded, thus mitigating the popular anxiety that makes Putin's power grab possible.

This is not to argue that Washington is morally wrong to help Ukranians install a freely and fairly elected leader, or admit the formerly Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe to NATO, or to rightly point out that centralization of power - especially givin Russia's history - usually leads to dictatorship and misery. But Washington needs to admit that the cost of these actions will be to alienate Moscow and prompt the Kremlin to act against American interests when it has the chance. Putin's new deal with Tehran has all smells suspiciously like something done to spite the US. So too, the recent Russian arms sales to Venuzuala, which the US vigorously, indignantly and quite futilely opposed. Moscow can't confront the US directly, but it can wage passive-aggressive foreign policy, deliberately undermining US policy objectives. If the US wants Moscow to cooperate on such issues, it needs to give Russia something it values in return. This is the choice between neoconservative idealism and realpolitik. During the Cold War the US became an expert at the latter, ultimately outmaneuvering the USSR. The Bush administration, obsessed with the rhetoric of democratic idealism, can't seem to remember that geopolitics more resembles a chess game than Sunday School.


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