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The Real Russia

And realist illusions.

12:00 AM, Jul 1, 2009 • By CATHY YOUNG
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In the past decade, American commentary on Russia has been sharply divided between "idealists," who deplore the rise of neo-authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin and urge a tough stance toward the Kremlin, and "realists," who argue that U.S. policy should emphasize practical cooperation rather than democratic ideals which ignore the specifics of Russian culture. This debate has acquired new urgency as the Obama administration seeks to craft its Russia policy and prepares for Barack Obama's trip to Moscow July 5. The realist approach is advocated in two reports presented as expert recommendations to Obama, from the Century Foundation and from the Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia (co-chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel). Recently, these reports have sparked heated polemics that illustrate the pitfalls of realism--including some of its proponents' tendency to effectively side with repressive regimes against dissenters.

On June 9, the Washington Post published a critique of the two reports by Russian policy analysts Lev Gudkov, Igor Klyamkin, Georgy Satarov, and Lilia Shevtsova. While crediting the experts with some constructive ideas, Shevtsova and her co-authors chided them for confusing the interests of Russia's leadership with those of the people and serving as de facto enablers of Russia's "authoritarian traditionalism."

A vitriolic rejoinder from British journalist and scholar Anatol Lieven, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, appeared on National Interest Online under the title "Russia's Limousine Liberals." Blasting the authors' views as "bizarre" and "twisted," Lieven portrayed them as self-centered intellectuals who do not know their country and "do not really give a damn what ordinary Russians think or feel."

Yet, while Lieven accuses his opponents of "intellectual sleight of hand," he egregiously distorts their records--specifically, that of his main target, Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Thus, his caricature of Shevtsova as determined "to agree with the United States and condemn her own country on every single issue on which they have disagreed" is belied by her actual works. In the 2007 book Russia: Lost in Transition Shevtsova is often critical of U.S. policy, arguing, for instance, that the ham-fisted American approach to missile defense needlessly exacerbated tensions with Russia. In an article in The American Interest the same year, she defends democracy promotion efforts but urges the United States to reconsider unilateralism and the doctrine of preemption.

Lieven also excoriates Shevtsova for ignoring the hardships of Russians in the 1990s and the betterments that boosted Putin's popularity, such as timely payment of salaries and pensions. As proof of her callous indifference to anyone but the urban elites, he quotes a line from her 2005 book Putin's Russia: "For the intelligentsia, people who lived in large cities, and the politicized section of society, 2000 was much harder than 1999." Yet the book's previous paragraph notes that 2000 was a relatively good year for many Russians who led "simple lives," primarily because "these people had begun getting their salaries and pension payments regularly under Putin."

What provokes Lieven to such harsh criticism is his conviction that Russian liberals who insist that U.S. policy toward Russia must include a moral commitment to freedom are aiding "liberal interventionists and neocons" with their dangerous agendas. He also believes they are giving Western journalists a skewed view of Russia and its people.

The Russian liberals may be overly optimistic about their countrymen's support for democratic values. But how realistic are the "realists"?

The Hart-Hagel report is chock-full of meaningless platitudes: recognize Russia's "legitimate interests" in ex-Soviet territories but without allowing Russian dominance; remind Russian leaders of their commitments on human rights "while respecting Russia's sovereignty, history, and traditions and recognizing that Russian society will evolve at its own pace."