Putin Speaks

The New York Times has an interesting interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin on subjects ranging from US-Russian relations to the war on Iraq. On the latter subject Putin compares the US war in Iraq to the Soviet Union’s disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

However, this comparison simply doesn’t work. Afghanistan was a war of occupation in which the Russians wished to place Afghanistan as just another Soviet client state. The Soviets were trying to supress Islam and had little concern for the welfare of the Afghani people. Moreover, the Soviets were winning the war until the United States armed the Afghanis (but not the "Afghan Arabs" such as Osama bin Laden and those who later founded the Taliban) with Stinger missiles which negated the Russian’s ability to use helicopters for infantry support. With the help of the US, Afghanistan was able to fight a war of attrition with the Soviets.

Iraq is a different situation as the goal of the US to grant the Iraqis complete sovereignty as soon as is possible, to restore the Iraqis infrastructure, and to promote the kind of democratic life that the Iraqi people have consistantly said that they want. The fundamental difference between the Soviets in Afghanistan and the US in Iraq is that the Soviets came to conquer, and the US came to liberate.

However, Putin also sees that the situation in Iraq is in fact getting better:

As to the postwar looting and chaos in Iraq, Mr. Putin said Russia had not been surprised by the collapse of Iraqi institutions. But, like the Bush administration, Russia believed before the war that unconventional weapons might be found. "The question is what has happened" to the weapons, he said.

Although Russia seeks a rapid return of sovereignty to Iraq, it would accept a dominant role for the American military in providing security, he said, as well as a gradual rather than a rapid transfer of actual power to the Iraqi authorities. Given the money it has spent and is spending there, America has to play a leading role in Iraq, he suggested.

This position – calling for a greater United Nations role in Iraq but apparently acknowledging American primacy – puts Russia at odds with some countries, like France, that have been more critical of the United States. Mr. Putin described the Russian position as "very pragmatic and flexible."

Indeed the Russian position is both. Pragmatically a rapid return to sovereignty for Iraq would be disasterous – however, if the UN would choose to play a role in Iraq it would be helpful to have at least the UN seal of approval on the operation if not significant new sources of troops. While Russia will not send troops to Iraq, they will not interfere with Iraqi reconstruction.

Putin also has much to say about Russia’s transition to a market democracy. Putin argues that Russia is on an unalterable course towards increasing freedom, which is true. However, Putin’s increasing embrace of authoritarian policies is worrying, and Putin skirts this issue.

President Putin is correct, the United States and Russia are now allies in the war on terror. Chechnya is one of the areas in which al-Qaeda is waging jihad, and Russia’s experience with urban warfare in Chechnya helped other nations learn what to do and what not to do in such situations.

Russia’s future is still troubled, but it is improving. While Putin has enacted some disturbing policies, he has also tried to fight corruption, increase transparency, and embrace open markets. These policies will invariably create a tide towards more political freedom. The decades-long animosity between the United States and Russia is finally at and end, and now is a time to create a new and more constructive relationship with Russia and other former members of the Soviet bloc.

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