By Richard Holbrooke
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Valdas Adamkus has a problem. The 79-year-old president of Lithuania
has been invited -- personally, persistently, even threateningly -- by
Russian President Vladimir Putin to an event that he really, really doesn't
think he should attend: the May 9 celebrations in Moscow marking the 60th
anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Adolf Hitler. It's a real
A-list affair: President Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder,
Silvio Berlusconi, the presidents of other former Soviet republics, and
a cast of thousands.
But Adamkus does not view May 9, 1945, as a day of liberation for his
tiny country and its Baltic neighbors. "On that day we traded Hitler for
Stalin, and we should not celebrate it," he tells visitors. Most Lithuanians,
proud of their central role in breaking up the Soviet Union in 1991, agree.
But Putin seems almost desperate to have all the former Soviet republics
honor Russia on May 9; he has even used his most potent threat, hinting
that if Adamkus does not go, it could affect Russia's shipments of oil
Of course, as U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Steve Mull has said, it does
not matter to the United States whether Adamkus attends. What makes this
more than a social problem is that it is symptomatic of a disturbing trend
in Russian behavior toward the area where the Soviet Union once reigned
supreme. And it poses to the Bush administration a dilemma far greater
than the one Adamkus faces.
I am neither predicting nor advocating a return to the bad old Cold
War days. Those are, thank God, gone forever. Russia, although much-diminished,
is now an important and legitimate part of the international system. The
new security architecture of Europe, worked out in the Clinton and Bush
administrations with Boris Yeltsin and Putin, is no longer about containing
Russia but about including it, and it has produced some historic achievements
But the continuation of those productive policies is endangered by events
over the past year that the West can no longer ignore. Putin is rattled
by the growing independence of some of the former Soviet republics, most
notably Georgia and Ukraine. But his inept meddling, which failed to prevent
democratic popular uprisings last year in both countries, has only weakened
One of Russia's most serious actions has been ignored by Washington
and the European Union: the continued presence of Russian troops in neighboring
countries without their permission. In 1999 Russia promised to gradually
withdraw troops stationed in parts of Georgia and Moldova -- troops supporting
destabilizing separatist movements.
Six years later Russian troops are still in these "frozen conflict"
zones. At a conference in Munich last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei
Ivanov said that Moscow had never made such a commitment -- a view of recent
history that Clinton and Bush administration officials firmly reject.
Simultaneously, Putin's internal performance has veered toward what
one might call "soft authoritarianism": Provincial governors are now appointed
by the Kremlin, not elected; press restrictions are growing; and the Yukos
Oil affair amounts to state-sponsored theft. Meanwhile, the war in Chechnya
defies solution and Chechnya has become a notorious sanctuary for terrorists.
So one must ask what the United States got for its "blank check" policy
toward Russia in the past four years. Cooperation on terrorism would surely
have happened anyway, and Russian acquiescence on the U.S. missile defense
system has hardly strengthened our homeland security when the primary threat
is from terrorists. In fact, Washington and the European Union have given
Putin the impression that he can do almost anything he wants in his "near
Only George W. Bush knows what he saw when he famously looked into Putin's
soul in 2001, but it was not worth the price. Russia also opposed us on
Iraq, taking the same positions as France and Germany (indeed, openly coordinating
with them). And now it is engaged in a little-noticed charm offensive to
woo our all-important (but deeply alienated) ally Turkey into a new special
relationship that would extend Russia's influence in that volatile region.
Putin has also joined China in calling for the removal of all U.S. troops
from the Central Asian republics. Now Moscow has vetoed the continuation
of a small border monitoring team in Georgia from the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe, and it seems intent on weakening that
The administration must reevaluate its Russian relationship. Ignoring
Putin's behavior would make a mockery of Bush's inaugural rhetoric about
freedom and democracy. But it will not be easy to restructure a relationship
that has been so personal to two powerful and self-confident leaders.
Is Washington's romantic period with Moscow truly over? The first test
comes next week, when Bush and Putin meet in Bratislava, Slovakia. Then,
of course, there is that anniversary party on May 9, which Putin would
like to expand into a NATO-Russia summit the next day -- an unthinkable
event under present circumstances.
Russia suffers from what Strobe Talbott, the former deputy secretary
of state and a Russia expert, calls the "Rodney Dangerfield" effect: It
gets no respect. But Putin's way will not win it back. The United States
and the European Union must set clear markers, starting with a new emphasis
on honoring the 1999 troop withdrawal commitments. If this is not done,
an issue ignored too long will move to the front burner soon. But by then
it will be too late.
Richard Holbrooke, an ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton
administration, writes a monthly column for The Post.
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