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Rethinking Russia

Reuben F. Johnson is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard

President Barack Obama has had his first meetings with the leadership of Russia, and the question now is how the relationship between Moscow and Washington will move forward after this "reset" summit. A lot was wrong with the relationship between the U.S. and Russia over the past decade, and--contrary to popular opinion--the wrongs did not begin under the previous administration of George W. Bush; nor did they end when he left office early this year. It should also be said that the infamous Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission of the 1990s was not the answer to a maiden's prayer that it is frequently characterized as.

The long-term problems of Washington's relations with Moscow can be traced to two very simple acts of self-delusion. The first is that the current Russian government refuses to accept that they are not in the same position of world dominance that the then-Soviet Union was some four decades ago. The second is that the U.S. and other western nations continue to refuse to acknowledge the depth and severity of Russia's internal decline. This results in the rest of the world extending to Russia trappings of a great power (i.e. membership in the G8 and World Trade Organization) for which they are neither eligible nor deserve.

Moscow's illusions can be seen in much of the regime's current foreign policy, which bears a strong resemblance to the actions of the Soviet government in the second half of the 1970s. At the beginning of that decade, then-Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko spoke to the 24th Party Congress and told the assembled delegates "there is not a single important issue that today can be solved without or in spite of the Soviet Union." At the time he was correct. Moscow was either a major partner or impediment to most of the world's international dilemmas. For all intents and purposes there were no other players on the world stage in the league of the U.S. and USSR.

By the middle of the 1970s Russia was so awash in petrodollars that it began a military spending binge, started funding every anti-western revolutionary movement or terrorist band abroad that it could make friends with, and was subsidizing allies like Cuba so they could make mischief in Angola and elsewhere. With recent record-high oil prices and the temporary windfall that it has brought to Russia's economy, it is no small wonder that Russian PM Vladimir Putin and Co. felt a 30-plus years-on sense of "Happy Days Are Here Again" nostalgia.

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The truth is that today's Russia is a shambles and has none of the influence that the Soviet Union enjoyed on the international stage. Years of neglect or just plain refusing to face reality has produced a country that the Wilson Centre's famous Russian population trends expert, Murray Feshbach, describes as "not just sick but dying." Aside from an infrastructure that sometimes makes one wonder why the Upper Volga region of Russia was not renamed "Upper Volta" (before that country was renamed Burkino Faso) a long time ago, population trends are noting short of apocalyptic.

Life expectancy in Russian males is falling, and its disparity with female life expectancy is unprecedented for a nation that calls itself a modern, industrialized state. Infant mortality is rising, female fertility (and hence birth rates) is dropping, and the level of both HIV/AIDs and TB is climbing towards epidemic proportions. Deaths due to cancer, heart disease and alcoholism are also off the charts. Average alcohol consumption in Russia, Feshbach points out, is double what the WHO considers to be a level that is hazardous to health.

There is, however, little evidence that the leadership in the Kremlin is even remotely aware of the demographic disaster in the making.

Alcoholism's impact on society is Exhibit A of how far out of touch the present leadership is with the man on the street. Just one week ago Russian president Dmitri Medvedev held a meeting with his Minister for Health and Social Development and stated, "I was astonished to learn that we now drink more than we did in the 1990s, although those were very tough times."

Memo to Medvedev: Inflation is out of control, unemployment is climbing by the day, banks are failing and people's savings are being stolen, entire cities are in danger of becoming ghost towns due to the failure of the community's one major industrial enterprise, and thanks to artificially inflated and out-of-control real estate prices most people have no hope of ever owning their own apartment. Yet you are "astonished" that people are drinking more? With such atrocious detachment from the plight of the average citizen it is no small wonder Russia's leaders can still live in denial and believe they are the same military and political colossus of the 1970s USSR.

But if the Russian leadership is living in a fool's paradise, western nations have been the worst sort of enablers. Collectively they have outdone themselves in obsequiousness by granting Russia membership in international organizations and seats on major multinational bodies that it has no business even being considered for.

As a gesture of goodwill, although it didn't meet the qualifications at the time, in 1998 the G7 group of industrialized nations was made the G8 in order to include Russia. Eight years later in 2006, the G8 examined Russia's qualifications for membership. The resulting audit reads like Delta Fraternity brother John Blutarsky's (played by the late John Belushi) mid-term grade points in the National Lampoon film "Animal House."

The report gives scores from 1 to "broad compliance with G8 norms," to the failing mark of 5, which means "total failure to comply with G8 norms." Ratings are given not just for economic performance, but also for "openness and freedom of speech, political governance, rule of law, social capital, economic weight in the world, inflation, economic stability and solvency, unemployment, trade volume, level of protectionism, energy market conditions, and discernible stance on key international issues."

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with today's Russia will not be shocked to learn that the nation did not score above 3, which rates as "sporadic compliance with G8 norms," in any category. The report's key findings stated that "the size of Russia's economy does not merit its inclusion in the G8; Russia is neither politically nor economically free; Russia's presidency of the G8 is correspondingly anomalous; the other G8 nations must develop a concentrated policy to force [then-President] Putin to live up to his international obligations." None of these indicators have changed since 2006, except possibly for the worse, so why is Russia still a G8 member?

Russia was equally unqualified to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), which may explain why PM Putin appeared to overrule his own president and decided that the whole WTO effort should be abandoned in favor of a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. This is perhaps the clearest signal that Moscow has no real interest in being a partner with the West--and that on more than one issue Medvedev's authority as president is little more than ceremonial.

Plus--once again--the needs of the already-driven-to-drink ordinary population are being subjugated to the interests of a few in the Kremlin. The Russian people might do well by joining the WTO, but this carries no weight when those around Putin and Medvedev see little personal gain for themselves in the process. They have turned away from the WTO for the simple reason that they can instead earn a cornucopia of kickbacks by forming an economic bloc with the kleptocracies of their former Soviet brethren.

Such a bespredel, which is Russian for "lawless disorder," is completely at odds with the status that Russia enjoys in the international community. This façade of a civilized nation of laws that Russian diplomats, politicians and oligarchs arrogantly thrust in your face has all the true substance of a Hollywood plywood set.

What raises the question if the central goal that Obama took great pains to emphasise during his address to the Moscows New Economic School on Tuesday--Russia's assistance in preventing nuclear proliferation--has not come a cropper from the outset.

Investigative journalist Ron Suskind reported that in 2003, a Georgian source working with the CIA intercepted a delivery of 170 grams of 93 percent enriched uranium (65 percent is considered good enough for weapons grade) that had originated at nuclear production facilities in Novosibirsk. The package was intercepted while being smuggled from Russia to Georgia, but the ultimate customer was "a Moslem man."

The Russian government was informed of the incident--then-President Bush spoke to then-Russian President Putin about the matter personally. Putin gave his unequivocal assurances that the smuggling ring had been rounded up and that there would be no more such incidents.

Except that Putin turned out to be completely wrong. In February 2006 another illegal shipment was seized--again coming from Russia to Georgia and from the same smuggling ring that originated in Novosibirsk. Clearly, even dictates from the highest levels of the Russian government mean nothing, and any promises they make to Obama about being equally committed to the goal of non-proliferation mean even less.

Even more alarming is a recent report from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that assesses the design of the Unha-2 ballistic missile that North Korea launched on April 5. The majority of the critical components of this missile are now believed to have not have been developed in North Korea, but instead come from Russia "although likely without the involvement of the Russian government." Parts of the North Korean design appear to also have been derived from the Russian R-27 (SS-N-6) submarine-launched ballistic missile.

In most nations illegal exporting of nuclear materials and missile technology are among the most serious crimes, but in Russia they appear to take place with alarming regularity. If any Russian president assures his American counterpart in the present day that he can be a reliable partner in containing attempts by Iran and others to acquire nuclear weapons it has to be looked at with healthy skepticism. Any occupant of the White House has to face the unpleasant fact that Russia is falling apart and is headed for more--rather than less--disorder.

In the meantime, Obama has to try and solve the puzzle of on whose authority--Medvedev's or Putin's--he can rely on any given issue. Considering both men's delusions about the true situation inside their own country, it is hard to say if discerning the answer to this riddle really matters.

By Reuben F. Johnson
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard

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