Leadership: Who Takes the Blame in Russia

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April 26, 2006: Russian President Vladimir Putin has come in for a lot of criticism. He has deserved criticism for his actions with regards to putting more state control on the Russian press, as well interfering with the governments in  neighboring states like the Ukraine and Belarus. But at the same time, it needs to be noted that Russia's problems pre-dated Putin, and in a large part, he has been left holding the bag.

 

For instance, let's look at a lot of the Russian deals with Iran. Iran's done a lot of shopping with Russia, including Kilo-class submarines, MiG-29 fighters, and T-72 main battle tanks, most of which were purchased in the mid-to-late 1990s. At the time, Vladimir Putin was not even in office. The Russian President at the time was Boris Yeltsin, who  was also in charge when Russia and Iran agreed to work together on the reactor at Bushehr (now one of the sources of concern in the current nuclear crisis). China's purchase of Su-27 and Su-30 Flankers, Sovremenny-class destroyers, and Kilo-class submarines also largely occurred during Yeltsin's term in office. It was called the "yard sale at the end of history" for good reason.

 

This is something important to keep in mind. It is well-known that Boris Yeltsin had a severe drinking problem during his tenure as Russian President. It was something that gravely concerned the Clinton Administration, to the point that they made efforts to keep Yeltsin from having access to alcohol during summit meetings. There is no telling how much control Boris Yeltsin had in Russia, and it is certain that his diminished capacity due to his drinking (and resulting health problems) allowed things to deteriorate a great deal. It is clear that there was a huge mess that precipitated his departure at the end of 1999, and that his successor, Vladimir Putin, was left holding the bag for it.

 

The next thing to consider is the times that Vladimir Putin has cooperated with the United States. In 2001, when George W. Bush made the decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in order to build a national missile defense, Putin cooperated when he could very easily have made the withdrawal an ugly affair. When American forces increased their alert status after the attacks on September 11, 2001, Putin's response was to lower the state of alert on Russia's forces. We have also learned that Putin warned the Bush Administration that Saddam's regime was planning terrorist attacks.

 

These are not the actions of someone who seeks harm for the United States of America. Yes, Putin's policies have led Russia to disagree with the United States on some issues (like the liberation of Iraq). Putin has tried to interfere with elections in the Ukraine as well, and has squeezed the Ukraine over various mineral rights (although the Ukraine has admitted to stealing Russian natural gas bound for Europe). Putin, as President of Russia, has to look after Russian interests, and that is the major influence on his worldview.

 

Finally, there is the matter of some allegations surrounding Iraq. There has been no evidence pointing to any official Russian involvement in a number of these efforts. For instance it is already known through recovered Iraqi documents that the Russian ambassador was paid as much as $1.5 million (in oil vouchers) - which got Iraq a copy of American war plans. Somehow, the notion that taking the money and providing Saddam's regime with a copy of American war plans was authorized seems very unlikely. The presence of two retired generals in Iraq prior to the liberation (Igor Maltsev and Vladimir Achalov) doesn't say much, either - these were private citizens, who probably got a fair bit of money for their efforts. Furthermore, given their involvement in the "gang that couldn't plot straight" during the 1991 coup, one has to wonder about the quality of the advice Iraq got.

 

Looking at the evidence, it is clear that to a degree, Vladimir Putin has been getting a bad rap that is not entirely deserved. Russia and the United States are not enemies, but there are going to be times when their interests do not coincide. Putin is also left with the task of cleaning up a mess that was left by his predecessor. It is probably best for America and Russia to work together when the interests coincide, and to agree to disagree when they do not. With the war on terror going on, re-starting the Cold War is not a good idea. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)