In the midst of the brouhaha over the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, which provided a platform for Russian push-back over America’s democracy agenda, and following closely upon the release of U.S. diplomatic cables revealing NATO’s recent approval of an operational plan to repel a Russian invasion of the Baltics, which contradicts the official identification of Russia as a friendly power posing no threat to the Alliance, Vladimir Putin has chosen to drop the mask and call openly for Russian accession to NATO. Read on….
More on Russia in NATO: Mr Putin Tips His Hand?
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
dateline: St Petersburg
As seen from the West, Russian reaction to the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Asange is summed up by yesterday’s sound bites from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.at a joint press conference in Moscow with his French counterpart François Fillon. Putin used a reporter’s question to push back against America’s democracy agenda and past support for total internet freedom.
Speaking of the arrest of Julian Assange for possible extradition to Sweden to face sex charges, Putin said: "If it is full democracy, then why have they hidden Mr. Assange in prison? Is that democracy?"
Moreover, he used the opportunity to respond more candidly, with less restraint than the week before to the substance of one of the released cables which Larry King had raised in a CNN interview, namely U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ assertion that Russia under Putin has ceased to be a democracy and was now a country ruled by the security forces. In characteristically colorful language, Putin remarked: “as they say in the countryside, some people's cows can moo, but yours should keep quiet. So I would like to shoot the puck back at our American colleagues." He was giving the Russian equivalent of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’
Perhaps less noticed in Western media, the presidential administration told the news agency Interfax that Dmitry Medvedev had taken a keen interest in the arrest of Assange and assault on the Wikileaks operation: “The public and NGOs must consider how to help [Assange]. Perhaps he should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Meanwhile, here on the ground in St Petersburg the reaction to the unfolding drama surrounding Julian Assange is vastly bigger than what a few political leaders have had to say. The local media has taken up the Wikileaks case with enthusiasm and sympathy for the heroic figure at its center.
In its latest issue on the newsstands, one of the most popular national tabloids, the weekly Argumenty i Fakty features a photo of Assange on its cover page under the heading “The Most Enigmatic Person in the World is Arrested for Sex Without a Condom.” The editorial position is clear from this factual statement of the charges brought against Assange in Sweden, where the ultra-nanny state law on consensual sex categorizes failure to use a condom as statutory rape punishable by several years in prison. In Western media, this nuance is dispensed with and we read that Assange is an accused rapist under arrest warrant of Interpol, full stop.
The arrest of Assange in England is also the talk of the town in Petersburg. Typically, during a visit yesterday to the offices of my property insurer to collect an updated policy, my Russian broker, who never talks politics with me, asked directly what I thought of the Wikileaks case and then proceeded with relish to tell me what, in his view, it said about press freedom and democracy in the West. Similarly, in phone conversations yesterday and today, Russian friends and acquaintances had this question foremost in their minds. People who since the 1990s have been devotedly pro-American were now trying to come to grips with an America that looks very much like the rogue state, the aggressive imperial power their more nationalist-minded compatriots have long claimed it to be. I would say this is the first time since the war with Georgia in August 2008 that those of my liberal Russian friends who oppose the Kremlin and friends who are Kremlin supporters see eye to eye in their negative appraisal of America. Out of nowhere, memories of American official vindictiveness in the past have linked up in their minds to form an image of a country with values which are deemed unacceptable to Russians: specifically, the decades-long persecution of film director Roman Polanski and chess champion Bobby Fischer.
These views by most Russians with whom I have spoken are well in line with the media reaction to the Wikileaks drama and arrest of Assange across the Continent as reported by Steven Erlanger in a an article published 9 December in the New York Times entitled “Europeans Criticize Fierce U.S. Response to Leaks.”
Erlanger examines how the newspapers of record in the U.K., Germany and France have reacted with shock and disappointment, seeing a ‘derangement’ in the States not only in overheated statements of the lynch-law variety coming from former Arkansas Governor and 2008 Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee or present Republican front runner Sarah Palin but also in the immoderate words on the case coming from top personalities of the Obama administration: these include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s calling Wikileaks ‘an attack on the international community’ and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ reported expression of satisfaction over the arrest of Assange on rape charges. Moreover, the severance of web hosting or financial services to Wikileaks by American corporations has been interpreted within Europe as evidence of vengeful, comprehensive extralegal measures by the U.S. administration to silence the internet whistle-blower and as contrary to the long-trumpeted U.S. celebration of media freedom.
Of course, in the case of Russia official interest in Wikileaks goes well beyond the revelations of negative and demeaning assessments of its leadership in U.S. diplomatic cables. Last week’s batch of released documents carried material of much greater importance: the confirmation that NATO had recently approved an operational plan to repel any Russian invasion of the Baltic States in line with pre-existing plans to defend Poland against Russian attack.
The American initiative for this démarche goes back to the alarm of the petty NATO member states on Russia’s northwest border at seeing the ease with which Putin’s armed forces invaded Georgia in their August 2008 war. Readying procedures for a military response to attacks on their territory was, in that context, fairly logical not only for Washington but for others in the Alliance. By way of explanation for the acceptance of this policy by countries like Germany which have traditionally been more Russophile, it was put in place under the guidance of America’s Cold Warrior ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder to smooth the way among doubting member states while the U.S. pursued its ‘re-set’ policy with Russia for the sake of global issues like nuclear disarmament and cooperation over Afghanistan.
Until the Wikileaks disclosures, this operational plan to repel a Russian invasion had been kept under wraps because it is in flagrant contradiction with the oft-repeated statements by the U.S. and NATO that Russia is a friendly power with whom closer cooperation is sought and is not perceived as a threat. In turn this fiction was useful to put the onus on Russia for its opposition to the U.S. missile defense program in Europe and further NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia. How can you see NATO as anything but a friend, the Russians were being told publicly.
In conclusion, the overall situation of the brouhaha surrounding leaked U.S. diplomatic cables and the ongoing U.S.-directed attack on Wikileaks and its founder constitute a remarkable context for the appearance yesterday on the Opinion page of The Moscow Times of an article entitled ‘5 Reasons Why Russia Could Join Nato’ by Alexander Kramarenko, who is identified as the director of the policy planning department at the Russian Foreign Ministry.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Russian press, it bears mentioning that The Moscow Times is a Finnish owned, independent English-language daily which has links to the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. The Opinion page regularly publishes anti-Kremlin pieces by Yulia Latynina of the liberal-democratic Ekho Moskvy as well as negative assessments of Putin’s Russia coming from a stable of writers supported by the Soros organization (Project Syndicate).
It also has to be said that it is the standing policy of The Moscow Times not to publish articles which are written in response to the op-ed pieces of others. The essay by Kramarenko is, as it states, a reply to ‘5 Reasons Why Russia Will Never Join NATO’ submitted by the editor of the Opinion page, Michael Bohm and published in the November 19th issue.
This constitutes a significant departure for the newspaper. It is a still greater departure for the spokesmen of Russian foreign policy. As Kramarenko says: ‘I disagree with [Bohm’s] statement that Russia’s membership in NATO is “wishful thinking.”
I have written several times both in this Libre Belgique blog portal and in The Moscow Times itself (“Saving the World Over a Goblet of Bordeaux’, August 2009) that Vladimir Putin and the governing elite over which he presides have long sought NATO membership. I have seen, regretfully, that this position has been denied publicly by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and privately denied to me in an emailed message from a Ministry official. Therefore I find it all the more remarkable that the RF Ministry of Foreign Affairs allowed Mr Kramarenko to publish yesterday this very well argued, thinly-veiled call for Russian accession to NATO
The timing of the release of this ballon d’essai of Russian foreign policy could not have been more astutely chosen: at the very moment when U.S. foreign policy is ‘on the ropes’ in world capitals as a result of its ham-fisted treatment of Wikileaks. This betrays ultimate authorization by Russia’s consummate politician, Vladimir Putin, who is the final arbiter of national policy. Any question of who is in charge in Moscow has been long superseded by events.
I heartily recommend Kramarenko’s article to all those interested in reading the moderate, lapidary prose of Russia’s best educated policy formulators:
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2010
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.