/ 25 September 2008

‘Dangerous gulf’ opens between Russia and West

The West’s pillorying of Moscow over last month’s invasion of Georgia has kindled a fierce Russian resentment that poses dangers for security in Europe and in trouble spots beyond.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lectured Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov during a United Nations gathering in New York, telling him Russia was now isolated. Lavrov countered that his appointment book for the meeting had never been fuller.

Behind the studiedly gentle riposte lay a sense, echoed on the streets in Russia, that the West was not granting resurgent Russia the respect it feels it merits. Animosities ascribed in earlier times to ideological schism between communism and capitalism are proving hardier than many might have expected.

Russia’s sense of grievance over the Georgian war stems from Western governments’ unwillingness to acknowledge publicly what many say privately — that Tbilisi started the conflict.

Adding insult to injury for the Russians is strong Western support for Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili — loathed by Moscow — and Western media coverage which has overwhelmingly favoured Georgia during the conflict.

”Never in the past quarter century have Russia and the West differed so much over the interpretation of the same event,” wrote political commentator Georgy Bovt in an opinion piece entitled ”Divorce with the West” on the gazeta.ru website.

”Never before has the behaviour of Russia been presented in Western media in such a diametrically opposite way to the way that behaviour is perceived in Russian public opinion.”

Further stoking resentment is a string of recent Western moves seen as hostile by Moscow.

In Russian eyes, the West snubbed it by recognising the independence of Kosovo, ignored its objections to a US anti-missile system in eastern Europe, didn’t listen to its criticism of the US-led invasion of Iraq and broke a promise made to Moscow in the 1990s not to expand Nato to its borders.

Now Russia’s patience has snapped.

Russia lost
Top diplomats stationed in Moscow privately despair over how, as one put it, ”we have lost Russia completely over Georgia”. Even normally pro-Western intellectuals and their own Russian embassy employees had turned against them.

”There’s no one in this society who sees things our way,” one senior Western diplomat commented.

”Russians are reacting to 18 years of condescension and being ignored by the West. They have had enough.”

President Dmitry Medvedev summarised the changed public mood in his remarks at a meeting with Western analysts on September 12.

”I think for a vast majority of our citizens the events in the Caucasus means the loss of the remaining illusions of the period when Russia emerged as an independent state,” he said referring to Russia’s 1990s honeymoon with the West.

Russia’s loss of trust in the West over Georgia could have serious consequences for peace in Europe, with neighbouring Ukraine looming as the next potential battleground between a fearful and mistrustful West and an angry, emboldened Russia.

Former US ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock criticised moves to draw Georgia and Ukraine into Nato, a policy that he said could split Ukraine. As long as the West followed this course, true strategic cooperation with Moscow was impossible.

”We are in a deep crisis,” a second senior Moscow diplomat said. ”We have embarked on a confrontation course which it is very difficult to pull back from.”

The West seeks Russian cooperation in a host of security problems from Iran’s nuclear programme to Islamist militancy from the Caucasus to Afghanistan.

In an echo of Cold War posturing, Moscow has dispatched a flotilla of warships to America’s backyard for joint manoeuvres proposed by Venezuela’s anti-American President Hugo Chávez. On a weightier issue, Moscow signalled it would not back any move for major powers to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme at the UN.

Opinion polls show overwhelming popular support for President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to send troops into Georgia and a dramatic hardening of attitudes towards the West.

Kremlin media control
A regular survey by the independent Levada Centre published this week showed Russians’ views of relations with the United States plummeting by 40 points between July and September to their most negative level since polling began in 1997. There was a 29-point drop in support for relations with Europe.

”It’s quite difficult to be pro-Western in the current situation,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal.

”The consensus is there in Russia that the West cannot be trusted.”

At the same time, some Western media, drawing on Cold War stereotypes, have painted a picture of an aggressive and dangerous Russian bear on the prowl.

”I understand the value of investing in this place but my biggest problem is that back home, a lot of people watching CNN think this place is one notch above North Korea,” said one frustrated US fund manager visiting Moscow last week.

Andrew Somers, president of the American-Russian Chamber of Commerce, said a number of large U.S. corporations already active in Russia were putting big future investment projects on hold, partly because of the hostile media coverage.

”The image of Russia is very bad and some of the press coverage is way out of context,” he said.

President Vladimir Putin, renown for his acid comments about the West, took a swipe at Western media coverage of the Georgian war at a meeting with the Western analysts on September 11.

”I was surprised by the power of the Western propaganda machine,” he said. ”I congratulate all who were involved in it. This was a wonderful job. But the result was bad and will always be bad because this was a dishonest and immoral work.”

To be fair, the public mood over the war in Russia is not totally spontaneous. Russia’s Kremlin-controlled television channels have worked hard to keep popular wrath high.

Images of destroyed houses and dead civilians in South Ossetia dominated television screens. Newsmakers denounced ”Georgian Nazism” and condemned the West which backed Tbilisi.

One unintended result of the media war: Western criticism of Russia’s generally Kremlin-friendly media will now fall on deaf ears. Many feel the Western press is as biased as their own.

”Discussion about freedom of the press is over here,” the second diplomat said.

”Our Russian colleagues tell us how they have seen how Western television channels manipulate and distort the truth over Georgia so they need no lessons from us on press freedom.” – Reuters