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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 147-160

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Putin's Twelve-Step Program

Stephen J. Blank

It is strange that a regime so adamantly opposed to international terrorism wavered about entering into powerful alliances against this scourge. Beyond providing intelligence support and possibly ceasing its proliferation of arms to rogue states, Russia wants considerable compensation for its new approach, specifically, U.S. and Western endorsement of its war in Chechnya and probably acknowledgment of an exclusive sphere of influence in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Russia's "campaign" against the threat from terrorists allegedly operating from Manila to Sarajevo is almost exclusively limited to Chechnya. The more that one examines Russian policies in that region, the clearer it becomes that approving those policies contradicts the equally large U.S. stake in a democratic and nonrevisionist Russia. That examination also reveals troubling historical parallels between Russian president Vladimir Putin's regime and the regimes of his czarist and Soviet predecessors.

Historically, Russian governments have succumbed to the imperial addiction, what the czarist minister of the interior, Count P. A. Valuev, called "the lure of something erotic in the borderlands." In line with Oscar Wilde's advice, Putin believes that Russia's best hope lies in yielding to that temptation. Putin's methods--enhanced centralization, repression, and intensified reliance on the secret police and the army--conform to those techniques adopted by his czarist and Soviet predecessors, who always used those instruments to preserve both the empire and autocracy.

Putin also continues and intensifies the main efforts of Russian foreign policy since 1992-1993: first, to preserve Russia's integrity, then to restore Russian primacy in an exclusive sphere of influence across the CIS, thus beginning [End Page 147] to revise the status quo. Historically, empire and authoritarianism have always gone together to create a Russia that threatens its neighbors and remains fundamentally undemocratic. Putin's success, as implied by the U.S. endorsement of his policies, entails Russia's regression from democracy to that earlier condition and could represent a permanent challenge to Eurasia's peace and stability.

Like other addicts seeking recovery and rehabilitation, Putin has devised and implemented a 12-step program to achieve his goals. This metaphor is not intended as a parody or satire. Putin's policies are exceedingly grim, cynical, and dangerous for Russia, its neighbors, and its partners. His policies also represent a historic mistake because they put Russia and its neighbors at risk of war and collapse.

The Chechen War:
Military and Domestic Aspects

Putin's decisive first step after coming to power in late 1999 was to launch a total war against Chechnya. The situation in Chechnya is pivotal for Russia because, "[h]owever the second Chechen war ends, it will determine not just Russia's territorial boundaries, but also what kind of Russia it will be." 1 Because this war is being waged against Russian democracy, the decision to launch it represents the deliberate choice of an undemocratic course of action.

The war in Chechnya, Russia's fourth internal war since 1991, underscores its failure to build effective, civilian, and democratic controls over the armed forces and the police--a major, yet often overlooked, impediment to democracy, peace, and prosperity. Chechnya also shows that Russia's defense policy still cannot balance ends and means, or rhetoric and reality. Chechnya connects Russian defense policy with Russia's vexed relations between the center and the periphery. The harsh response to the real threat of the detachment of Russia's Muslim territories in 1999 highlights Russian elites' near-panic and foreign warnings that Russia might conceivably disintegrate. Moreover, because many Russian leaders viewed--and still view--the enlargement of NATO and the West's Kosovo campaign as portending a threat to dismember Russia, paranoid perceptions of threats obviously still abound in Moscow. 2

Moscow's goals in Chechnya go beyond rebuffing an allegedly international Muslim terrorist threat to dismember Russia. The objectives are closely linked in Putin's policies, indicating the connections among domestic and foreign policy and democratization. Examples include smashing the domestic opposition in upcoming elections...


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