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Russia's New Recruits

By Evgeny Morozov

While Condoleezza Rice was trying to mend the crisis in the Middle East, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran were doing their bit of shuttle diplomacy by touring the post-Soviet space. Unlike Rice's, their missions succeeded: the global anti-American crusade now boasts of new recruits.

Thus, as part of his tour to solicit support for Venezuela's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, Chavez paid a visit to his authoritarian colleague in Belarus, moving on to Russia to strike yet another US-teasing weaponry deal. Almost simultaneously, Ahmadinejad paid a visit to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, quite a bizarre itinerary given the infernal politics of war in his own backyard.

At the moment, the US is too preoccupied with Iraq, Lebanon, and North Korea to counter the destructive influence of the anti-American rhetoric promulgated by Chavez and Ahmadinejad in Eurasia. But this precariousness is risky: the poignant anti-Americanism of Chavez and Ahmadinejad will not just weaken the US position in the region, it will also cement the Russian influence.

Having lost Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan to the White House, Kremlin has honed a new geopolitical strategy: instead of acting overtly (like it did in the Orange Revolution), it will rely on ambassadors like Ahmadinejad and Chavez to do the dirty work.

After six years in office, Putin has mastered the art of sophistication, both in domestic and international affairs. When in his recent rebuke to Cheney's Vilnius speech, Putin talked about the Comrade Wolf, that "knows whom to eat, he eats without listening and he's clearly not going to listen to anyone", he was not really referring to the White House; it was more of a covert narcissistic self-reference.

In reality, for Kremlin the White House is more of a wild elephant: clumsy, noisy, and hard to miss. Kremlin was an elephant too--in the Orange Revolution--but it has since then graduated. The White House is still in the elephant league.

So, while Dick Cheney has nobody but himself to dispatch to Kazakhstan to praise their dismal record on democracy and human rights, Putin can now count on his friends in Tehran and Caracas to go to Minsk and Ashgabat and remind the local dictators that US-style democracy should be left to Tbilisi and Kiev.

Thus, Putin comes out clean all around and can continue chairing the club of the eight leading democracies. He is not to be blamed for masterminding the new anti-American axis, as his alibi is impeccable: he was never there and never talked to anybody.

What can the US do? First of all, be less open and more cunning about its interference in the region. Having the US vice-president travel around the region extolling the murky achievements of its authoritarian regimes is a recipe for disaster. Better dispatch Saakashvili, Yuschenko, or the Romanian Basescu--those three make a strong pro-US alternative to the trio of Ahmadinejad, Chavez, and Lukashenko.

Second, provide unconditional support and guarantees for assistance for the countries, whose alignment is not yet firmly delineated (Armenia, Moldova, Turkey). The US should exert more pressure upon the EU to secure fast-track memberships for Ukraine and Turkey, where the popularity of the integration into European and North Atlantic structures is falling.

Thirdly, work more actively with the Russian civil society. It is only with its help that Russia can reclaim some of the democratic freedoms it has lost in the last six years. Although Kremlin has succeeded in marginalizing all domestic political opposition, the US shouldn't give up on Russia: if a credible opposition movement managed to emerge 20 years ago in the suppressing communist environment, it can as well come back in the more liberal environment of today.

Above all, the United States should recognize that the days of the blunt and irrational Russian foreign policy--when Yeltsin was banging his fists on the table--are gone. KGB Inc that is running Russia now is truly smart and sophisticated. Yet, their skills and mindset date back to the 1980s. The new recalibrated US policy towards Eurasia should take note of that--and behave more like a wolf and less like an elephant.

The author is a columnist for the Russian newspaper Akzia. He blogs at www.sharpandsound.com.

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