Almost 20 years ago, as the Soviet Union tottered, I chatted with Boris Yeltsin and came to two odd conclusions: he liked to drink vodka in the mornings and had lost all his faith in communism. I never learned whether alcohol, contrary to what usually happens, cleared his mind, but it may have. He was more brilliant in his cups than sober. At that time, his main fear was that the KGB might kill him by paralyzing his heart with some special waves emitted by a secret weapon. I insisted on talking about perestroika and he went on about his fear of being assassinated. Perhaps it was understandable.
Shortly thereafter -- by then Yeltsin ruled the Kremlin -- I interviewed Andrei Kozyrev, his foreign minister. Kozyrev, a career diplomat, impressed me as someone more sensible, educated and intelligent than his boss. He had surrounded himself with a splendid team and shared a conviction that was then widespread in the country: Russia had to be relieved from the awful weight of the Soviet Union. The international crusade to conquer new territories, within a Cold War scenario, had stifled Russia's chances for development.
Moscow's budget was burdened by adventurous and inept leaders who were uncontrollably beggarly and ruinous administrators, such as Fidel Castro, the Ethiopian Mengistu and the Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega which, to a great extent, provoked the financial collapse of the Soviet empire. At that time Moscow's deficit amounted to some $80 billion. Cuba's subsidy alone, through 30 years of sponsorship, had exceeded $100 billion. It was the first time that the colonies sacked and ruined the metropolis.
Among the reformists close to Kozyrev there was a certainty that the conquest of the world had been too costly and counterproductive an enterprise. And another key idea had blossomed: the West should not be fought but embraced, imitated and invited to invest. Russia should compete within the rules of the game of market capitalism. Those diplomats understood that Russia did not have to become anybody else's counterweight, or play into a bipolarity that could only bring the nation conflict and poverty. After all, Russia was the largest nation in the West, the third Rome (the second had been Constantinople) and it made no sense to adopt an attitude of hostility toward a world that was as much theirs as it was France's or England's.
All this is apropos Russia's attitude in the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia. It is very probable that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili acted rashly when he attacked South Ossetia in an effort to reconquer that territory, but it seems evident that Moscow had been waiting for an opportunity to strike. The attack on Georgia began on Aug. 8. On July 20, 19 days earlier, the Russians already knew Saakashvili's plans and had unleashed a cyberwar intended to dismantle the communications of their ill-tempered neighbor via the Internet. It was a magnificent moment to teach a lesson to the Georgians and the rest of the world, most especially the United States, who were sponsoring Georgia's admission to NATO.
My impression is that the United States and Europe (due to ineptness and a woeful shortsightedness) missed an excellent opportunity to foster Russia's westbound spasm after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. That was a magic moment to bet on one of the two opposite forces that, since the 18th Century, have clashed in Russian society. One, perhaps the weaker, leans toward the West and subscribes to a passion for progress and modernity. The other, a darker force, is perniciously nationalistic, has a dangerous tinge of paranoia, is suspicious of any foreign influence and treats other countries as if they were potential enemies. That seems to be the Russia that prevails today, guided by the Medvedev-Putin team, and is supported by a majority of the population.
Can Western diplomacy try to reverse this trend? I don't know. I fear that President Bush lacks the refined vision that an effort of that kind would require, while the Europeans, very divided and without a visible leader, try to pacify Russia, but not seat her at the table or invite her share in the feast. Down this road we go again, to a new and absurd version of the Cold War.
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