May 24, 2007

May 24, 2007 | Commentary on

Russia's threatening ways

If the shoe fits, wear it, as the saying goes. Maybe the same could be said about the jackboot.

At the anniversary ceremonies for the end of World War II on May 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared the supposedly expansionist behavior of the United States to that of Nazi Germany. In reality, however, it is Russia that's acting out at the moment, targeting countries previously under Soviet dominance with increasingly threatening behavior.

The most recent case of Russian bullying is little Estonia, which has been on the receiving end of major intimidation. The alleged cause was the removal on April 27 of an unprepossessing bronze statue of a giant Soviet bronze soldier, located in central Talinn. It was yet one of those provocative imperial monuments that Russians liked to leave all over their former empire, and the decision to move it to a military cemetery seems an eminently reasonable one.

On the same day, however, Russian-inspired demonstrations, allegedly in outrage against this putative disrespect of the Soviet heroes of World War II, broke out across Talinn, resulting in 153 persons being injured and one death. The following day, the Estonian embassy in Moscow was attacked by an angry mob. Other Estonian embassies were also targeted, in Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm, Riga, Prague, Kiev and Minsk, as well as the Estonian consulate in St. Petersburg.

At the same time, Russia shut down the rail traffic between Estonia and Russia, supposedly for repairs on the lines. And a series of cyber attacks were launched against Internet servers in Estonia from Russia, which are now being investigated by NATO experts. Also, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov has advocated a boycott of Estonian goods.

A sense of the Senate resolution in support of Estonia introduced by Sen. George Voinovich aptly characterizes Russia's behavior: "... the Senate... condemns any and all efforts to callously exploit the memory of the victims of the Second World War for political gain," which is exactly what is happening.

All of this is only too reminiscent of Russian threats against the Baltic states prior to joining NATO and the European Union, as well as reminiscent of Russia's attempts to bully Poland and Czech Republic into going back on their commitment to host a U.S. missile-defense radar and interceptor site. To their credit, both the Polish and Czech governments have stood firm, recognizing no doubt that Russia's recent behavior is the very best argument for their alliance with the United States.

Does this mean that we are headed for a new Cold War, a question that is the subject of much debate among nervous Nellies in Europe. (Disappointingly, at the EU-Russian summit on May 18, German Chancellor Angela Merkel failed to effectively confront Russia with its behavior.) Clearly, we have entered a period of Russian aspiration to dominate its former sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as a period of competition for international energy resources, of which Russia possesses a great many.

This represents a strategic challenge to the United States and its allies. The new member states of NATO and the EU joined those institutions of their own free will, indeed with a great sense of urgency precisely because they feared Russian revanchism. The United States remains the guarantor of their new-found freedoms, and has acquired a new set of valuable, loyal allies as a consequence.

The Russians, for their part, love the fact that Mr. Putin is making Russia an international player again. They also like his authoritarian style. In Russia, business is booming, the government is flush with oil revenue and the economy is growing at 8 percent a year. Mr. Putin is domestically more popular than any recent Russian leader.

A complicating factor is that the United States and Russia also now have extensive business and investment ties. We also have certain common interests in the fight against international terrorism. And beyond that, the international system is not binary in nature today, but far more complex with Europe, China and India being more assertive players.

For U.S. and European policy toward Russia, it means that we should not be spooked by the specter of the Cold War and not be afraid to push back when faced with Russian bullying or attempts to interfere in U.S. relations with independent allied countries. The Russian government knows only too well how to play on the fears of Europe, and we should not let them get away with it.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times