If the new administration is thinking about relations with Russia, as it should be, a rare personal story of an American scholar’s recent talk with the Russian president offers some substantive insights.
Andrew Kuchins told a small group of us at the Center for Strategic and International Studies fall meeting about how President Dmitry Medvedev described his phone conversation with President Bush last summer during the nasty little war between Georgia and its former imperial power, Moscow.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, and Chief of Russia’s Nanotechnology Agency Anatoly Chubais seen during the 2008 EU-Russia Industrialists’ Round Table Annual Conference in Cannes, southern France, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008.(AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Vladimir Rodionov, Presidential Press Service)
Medvedev told the small group of scholars in the Valdai Discussion Club that Bush had asked him, “You are a young government — what do you need this war for?” And Medvedev told him, “George, you would have done the same thing, only more brutally. … And, remember, if you continue your support of the Georgian regime, you do so at our own risk.”
By Georgie Anne Geyer
Kuchins, a young Eurasian specialist at CSIS, then used this unusual opportunity of hearing what Russians really think to catapult to his deep concerns about American/Russian relations and Russian intentions today. “For years since the Cold War,” he said, “I have believed that the chance of war with Russia was close to zero. Today, that probability seems, while obviously difficult to quantify, between 2 and 3 percent — and rising. I never saw (Russian and American) narratives about the world so diametrically opposed.”
Then he recalled how President Medvedev also told them at the meeting, with unmistakable meaning, “We will not tolerate any more humiliation — and we are not joking!”
Now, I have covered the Soviet Union, and later the Russian Federation, regularly since 1967, and I can say that that one word, “humiliation,” plus the fear of it, are largely behind virtually all Russian actions and statements.
Gen. Brent Scowcroft, respected Russian specialist and co-author of the new book, “America and the World, Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy,” told us at the same CSIS meeting: “The Russians are still searching for their soul. Are they really Europeans, who didn’t enjoy the Enlightenment, or are they Asians? … We’ve never had a strategy for dealing with the Russians after the Cold War … (W)e left the impression that it didn’t matter.”
So, where are we now? Well, when Vice President-elect Joe Biden warned earlier this fall that the world would test the new president, the first to step up to the plate was Moscow. Within mere days of the election, that same Russian president had thrown out the first ball: With bristling words, he warned he would co-opt the Bush administration‘s plan to put missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic by saying that Moscow would respond by placing short-range missiles on Russia’s Western border in Kaliningrad. These were all “forced measures,” he said, in place of the “positive cooperation that Russia wanted to combat common threats.”
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