Putin the Peacemaker?

Russia's once and future president, Vladimir Putin, likes to talk tough. But what he really wants is to be America's partner -- and Washington isn't listening.

Never one to mince words, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has laid down his views on national security policy. Like all his other articles in the Russian press of late -- articles that have to substitute for the absent presidential debates -- his recent piece in the newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta (and excerpted on Foreign was, above all, a campaign statement. Like any leader facing an election (and one need only to look to the U.S. Republican presidential nominees for confirmation), he sought to portray himself as a staunch patriot ready to defend his country's national interest. Appearing on the eve of Defender of the Fatherland Day, his long piece also made a pitch for the votes of military members and workers in the defense industry. "There is always a temptation to solve one's problems at somebody else's expense," Putin wrote. But, he continued, "We should not tempt anyone by our weakness." Yet, Putin's article is more than electoral rhetoric; it is a plan that is already being implemented. The problem with it is that it rests on the pessimistic conclusion that, in the 21st century, Russia's national security will need to be protected, above all, from the United States.

There is no question that, in today's Russia, official anti-Americanism serves a useful domestic purpose. It seeks to discredit not just a few Russian liberals but the much more numerous anti-government protesters by portraying them as America's fifth column. There is no doubt either that the view of the United States as Russia's adversary reflects the legacy of the Cold War and, perhaps even more than that, the disappointment that followed the end of the 40-year confrontation, when Russia, having withdrawn its forces from a score of countries and slashed its military equipment purchases by 68 times in just one year (1992), turned itself into an international supplicant, living from one International Monetary Fund tranche to another. But there is also the fact that, at the beginning of each post-Soviet Russian presidency, the Kremlin leader reached out to his counterpart at the White House in an effort to strike an alliance with the United States, only to be brushed off.

Boris Yeltsin, in 1992, sought a formal alliance with Washington, only to be told, by George H.W. Bush, that with the Cold War over there was no need for new alliances anymore. When, however, the existing alliance, NATO, started to expand eastward, under Bill Clinton, Russia was only told not to worry. Rhetorically, the door was left open for Russia, but in reality Moscow's accession was never seriously considered. No wonder that Yeltsin's parting message to Clinton, in late 1999, was "never to forget, not for a minute," that Russia was still a nuclear superpower.

It is little mentioned these days that when Putin became president in 2000, he was determined to do what had eluded Yeltsin. Privately but very directly, he aspired to Russia's membership in NATO -- not to destroy it from the inside, as many readily suspected, but to cement the relationship with the United States, whose primacy Putin then was prepared to implicitly recognize. In the crucial first stage of the Afghanistan operation, Russia de facto became an ally of the United States. In an effort to build a strong security relationship with Washington, Putin chose not to respond to George W. Bush's unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that Moscow had always regarded as a bedrock of strategic stability, and he tolerated a U.S. military presence in the former Soviet Central Asia and Georgia. From mid-2002, however, the Bush White House became focused on Iraq, and Russia was left lying by the wayside. Putin gave vent to his pent-up frustration five years later in his famous Munich speech in which he denounced the United States, whose power refused to "recognize any borders in this world."

As he was picking up the pieces from the 2008 Georgia war, President Dmitry Medvedev, still overseen by Putin (now the prime minister), was positive, but initially cautious, in his response to Barack Obama's reset of the U.S. policy toward Russia. By the fall of 2009, however, he became very engaged, and by the time of the NATO-Russia summit in Lisbon a year later, Medvedev was positively enthusiastic about the U.S. relationship. The New START treaty was not enough. Medvedev started talking about missile defense cooperation in Europe as a means of placing the entire Euro-Atlantic area within a common security and defense perimeter. The Russian president's enthusiasm was short-lived. Following the failure in May 2011 to reach even a basic agreement on principles of cooperation, he issued a statement last November warning darkly about Russia's countermeasures against future U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe.

True, each Russian attempt at engaging the United States has been awkward in its own way. In 1992, there was no common enemy around which to justify forming a U.S.-Russia alliance. Deng Xiaoping's China, busy with its four modernizations, did not replace the Soviet Union as a global challenger to the United States. In 2001, had Russia been admitted to NATO, the alliance would have turned into something like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. A few years later, the United States and Russia narrowly escaped a head-on collision in the Georgia war. In 2011, a joint missile defense in Europe would have either de facto placed Russian assets under U.S./NATO authority or, more likely, made the system totally dysfunctional. But the issue here is not how the United States responded to specific Russian ideas, but rather that Washington wasn't really interested in engaging Moscow strategically at all.

The reset, as the name itself suggests, is essentially a means to do away with policy glitches; it does not equal a policy, much less a long-term strategy. The U.S. rationale for having the reset in the first place had little or nothing to do with Russia. Instead, it allowed the United States to acquire Russia's logistical cooperation on the transit routes leading to Afghanistan, revive a modicum of nuclear arms control, and finalize Russia's 18-year quest to join the World Trade Organization. Beyond these relatively low-hanging fruits there was a void.

Putin's formal return to the Kremlin is just days away. And with his tough campaign rhetoric and military modernization plans, on the one hand, and, on the other, the continuing protests in Russia against the existing political system, which challenge Putin's own legitimacy, the environment is even less propitious for an effort to improve strategic relations between Washington and Moscow. The more interesting issue is that, in the current U.S. foreign-policy debate, Russia has become a marginal quantity. A discussion of U.S. policy toward China can go on for hours without ever mentioning Russia; the Sturm und Drang over Iran's nuclear weapons program barely takes account of how U.S. moves might be perceived in Moscow; and though they loudly decry it with reference to Syria, hardly anyone in Washington loses sleep over the long-term implications of the ever-closer Sino-Russian alignment at the U.N. Security Council.

The view of Russia as a power in permanent and unstoppable decline may be right, or it may not. If anything, Moscow should be even more interested in finding realistic ways to improve its relations with Washington. Russia's modernization agenda risks being scuttled in the event of a serious deterioration of its relations with the United States. What is striking, however, is that Washington, while focused intently on particular global issues -- from promoting the fledgling democracies of the Arab Spring to handing off Afghanistan to pivoting toward Asia -- thinks it can afford having no general strategic vision of relations with a country that, despite all its weaknesses and failings, can make a huge difference in the emerging global balance. Conventional wisdom in Washington declares that if there is no problem, there is no policy. This may have been just fine in the years of clear U.S. dominance in the world. It is hardly affordable now.

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Save the Middle East's Christians

France will remain by the side of the Arab world's embattled minority.

Christians in the Middle East are worried. Worried about their survival in a region where they have lived for 2,000 years. Worried about their rights being respected at a time of major upheaval. Worried about heightened religious tensions. I want to tell them that I understand them, that I understand their fears.

For centuries, France has had a special mission with respect to Eastern Christians. It will not shy from it. That is why, in January 2011, President Nicolas Sarkozy established the framework of our policy, emphasizing that the fate of Eastern Christians symbolizes "the challenges of the globalized world we have irrevocably entered."

Our vision is clear: There can be no true democratic revolution without the protection of minorities. Eastern Christians are destined to remain in their region. They are destined to help build their future, as they have always done in the past.

This is not a new issue. It has existed for centuries. But it has become more and more dramatic in recent years.

France has demonstrated its vigilance, first by sending clear messages to the countries in the Middle East, which bear primary responsibility for the security of their citizens. France has also mobilized its efforts in support of the EU Foreign Affairs Council's Feb. 21, 2011, condemnation of violence against Christians and a U.N. Security Council statement addressed to them on Nov. 10, 2010, following terrorist attacks in Baghdad.

Iraqi Christians have paid an especially heavy price in recent years. We have expressed our solidarity by welcoming more than 1,300 of them on French soil since 2008 and by evacuating the injured following the attack on Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad on Oct. 31, 2010.

The Copts also occupy a special place in Egypt, rooted in the long history of their country. They have suffered increasing violence, abuses, and discrimination, as exemplified by the horrific 2011 attack on a church in Alexandria.

But the Copts are also engaged in the political life of their country like never before. Since the revolution, they have participated in elections -- they want to be heard and to contribute, along with their fellow citizens, to the country's democratic transition. The newly elected Egyptian parliament has expressed its commitment to guaranteeing the rights of the Copts, and we are counting on its decisive action.

In Lebanon, coexistence among minorities is a reality. But this model must be guarded constantly against the various attempts to undermine it. All actors in Lebanese society and political life are responsible for this task.

As President Sarkozy told Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rahi during his official visit to Paris last December, the best protection for Eastern Christians and the true guarantee of their survival in the region is the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in Arab countries.

That is why we urge the Christians of the Middle East not to be taken in by the manipulative measures implemented by authoritarian regimes alienated from their own people. I remain very concerned about the tragic situation in Syria -- about the fierce crackdown by a doomed regime that uses military force against its own people. I deeply hope that Christians, like all of Syria's other communities, will participate in creating a new, democratic government in which all citizens will have the same rights and the same duties.

We are not naive. We know that the road will be long and chaotic. But beyond the undeniable risks and dangers, the Arab Spring offers a historic opportunity for Eastern Christians. Can anyone really believe that minority rights are better protected by bloody dictatorships than by democratic regimes? Who can deny that Christians, Kurds, Druze, Alawites, and Assyrians, too, are murdered, tortured, and imprisoned in Syria?

The Arab Spring offers signs of hope. I want to pay tribute to the initiative of the grand imam of al-Azhar Mosque, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, who in January drafted and published a document on religious freedoms in Egypt. This text stresses the importance of freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of scientific research, and freedom of creation -- including artistic creation. Such initiatives, which strengthen interfaith dialogue, show that it is possible to rally diverse societies around universal principles, enabling all to coexist harmoniously.

While there are many lingering questions about the future, I want to tell Eastern Christians that France will not abandon them. Our faith in the revolutions of the past year is accompanied by absolute vigilance with regard to the respect of human rights, particularly those of minorities. I myself strongly stressed this issue during my discussions with the Syrian National Council, which is designed to rally the Syrian opposition and has pledged to guarantee these rights.

In Syria and across the Middle East, it is in Eastern Christians' interest to embrace changes that are both ineluctable and positive. It is by resolutely engaging in building a new region that they will protect their future. As President Sarkozy told religious leaders in his New Year's wishes on Jan. 25, "Christians are part of the history of the East; there can be no question of tearing them from this land. The Arab Spring will keep its promises if minorities are respected."

The message I want to send them is simple: France was and will remain by your side.

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