Dealing With Putin

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 27/05/07):

“Murder is murder.”

— a spokesman for British Prime Minister

Tony Blair

Russia’s refusal to extradite the prime suspect in the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London last November reveals the essential amorality of the Putin regime and its false narrative of recent history. That narrative increasingly undermines the Kremlin’s relations with Europe and the United States.

Stalin is credited with the view that one man’s death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. President Vladimir Putin seems not to grasp his predecessor’s point. Britain drives it home by focusing on Litvinenko’s death as a straightforward murder investigation driven by rules of evidence and elemental police work rather than an international casus belli.

Mysteries still surround the elimination of Litvinenko, a former KGB security officer and Putin critic who existed on the fringes of London’s shadowy world of spies, ex-spies and dissidents. Where did the radioactive poison that he ingested originate? How was it administered? What were the exact motives in his killing? These questions remain publicly unanswered.

But a murder case, especially when it is investigated by Scotland Yard, rivets and illuminates public attention. The brazenness demonstrated in the Litvinenko affair means that Russia “has again become unpredictable, controlled by a narrow clique with a false view of the world and of Russia,” writes French strategist Thérèse Delpech in the new English-language edition of “Savage Century,” her penetrating look at the ideological and political confusion that has followed the Cold War.

Much of the grief in transatlantic relations of the past decade has stemmed from the conflicting narratives that the United States and Europe wove about the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a new Russia.

Triumphal Americans — the Bush administration has been overstocked with them — celebrated Ronald Reagan’s defense spending and confrontational strategy as the keys to Western “victory.” European leaders, led by Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder and France’s Jacques Chirac, gave all the credit to the Helsinki peace process and other diplomatic maneuvers that allegedly enshrined reason as the arbiter of Russian and international politics.

Both narratives obscured the reality of the internal collapse of an overextended empire — and left Russian reformers and gangsters to battle each other for control of a wildly lurching ship of state. In the confusion, the personalization of power replaced consistent policy prescriptions for the Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 administrations.

“As long as they got along” with Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin or Putin, Western leaders “saw no reason to worry,” Delpech writes. “We can now observe the results of that policy. Western influence on Russia is nonexistent.”

Putin offers his own narrative to muddy the waters even more. It is a narrative of his regime rescuing the country from a chaos that was deliberately injected, like a virus, into Mother Russia by the West. His regime has turned its oil and gas reserves and its role as a monopoly energy supplier for much of Europe into real power that makes Russia invulnerable and gives it commanding status over a weakening West. It is in the name of Russia that his regime treats with open contempt Britain’s extradition demands or Germany’s attempts to negotiate a “strategic framework.”

But that harsh narrative is beginning to backfire, as Blair’s firm stand on the Litvinenko case suggests. So does the surprisingly sharp direct criticism of Putin at the May 18 European Union-Russia summit, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly dressed down Putin for suppressing dissent at home.

Merkel comes to her suspicion of Putin naturally. She grew up in the communist East German state, where the Russian leader served as a spy. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian aristocrat who fled communist rule, has replaced Chirac as president. Gordon Brown will inherit Blair’s concern and resentment about the Litvinenko affair. Personal relations and experiences pull Europe’s big three countries away from — not toward — Moscow now.

This presents an opportunity to close the transatlantic narrative gap and for Europe and North America to deal with Russia on a new, more realistic basis. We should work with Putin where possible and necessary, without ever paying the price of soft-pedaling his excesses or abuses at home and abroad.

“Americans have had a tendency to rely too much on hard power, and Europeans too much on soft power,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said during a visit to Washington last week. “It is time for each of us to borrow from the other and for both to become more effective, working together.”