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Fri. March 01, 2024
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IA-Forum Interview: William C. Potter

International Affairs Forum discusses current and future Russian political issues with William C. Potter, Director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies.

International Affairs Forum: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a very combative speech in Munich a few weeks back in Munich. Why now?

Mr. William C. Potter: The timing of the combative Putin speech in Munich can be explained by a variety of factors. These include: a clear signal to the United States that it should not count upon Russian assistance at the UN Security Council in taking tough action toward Iran; deep anger about plans to deploy anti-missile defenses on the territory of former Warsaw Pact states; and an effort to shape the agenda in the forthcoming domestic elections.

Although Russia itself has been frustrated repeatedly in its dealings with Iran, and is not sanguine about its nuclear intentions, it apparently has decided that it is even more concerned with U.S. led efforts to escalate the crisis with Iran. The emphasis in Putin's speech about the risks of imposing one's economic, political, cultural, and educational policies on other nations and the dangers associated with politically expedient action can be read as a marker not to proceed in such fashion toward Iran.

Russia has long resented NATO enlargement far more so than is appreciated by policy-makers in Washington. The recent flurry of activity surrounding U.S. efforts to build new anti-missile sites in Eastern Europe was the last straw for Putin and his top advisors. He made it clear in his speech that Russia will no longer remain silent on issues that it regards as vital to national security--a stance that not only plays well politically in Russian but is deeply felt by all parties across the political spectrum as fair and just.

Perhaps less well understood in the West, Putin's speech should be seen as an effort to shape the contours of the debate in the forthcoming Russian parliamentary (and presidential) elections. In addition to de-limiting the "respectable center stage for debate" on foreign policy issues, Putin's speech sought to promote those forces favoring a more assertive Russia at the expense of those who prefer greater accommodation with the West.

Putin was especially comfortable in expressing these forceful perspectives at the Munich conference as he feels very much at home in Germany and also had reason to expect support for many of the points in his speech from a predominantly German/European audience.

IA-Forum:. Many commentators have suggested that the speech was more than anything aimed at a domestic audience. Do you agree? And what was he trying to achieve?

Mr. Potter: I believe my comments above also address the fact that the Munich speech was to a large degree (but not exclusively) aimed at a Russian domestic audience for the reasons I noted related to forthcoming elections. The speech was a watershed in that it demonstrated to a domestic audience that Russia was strong and self-confident enough to tell the West openly what it thinks.

IA-Forum:. What has led to the apparent deterioration in relations between the U.S.and Russia?

Mr. Potter: A variety of factors have led to the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations. NATO expansion and the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 were major precipitants, but at a deeper, psychological level, their is a profound sense of betrayal and exploitation by the West at a time when Russia was very weak. This sense of betrayal in the early 90s is magnified among Russians who attach great importance to notions of fairness and justice. Now that Russia has experienced a surge in its wealth and self-confidence it is no longer prepared to silently incur these grievances.

IA-Forum: Can you see them improving with the current leaders in power?

Mr. Potter: I believe relations between the United States and Russia are unlikely to improve during the remaining tenure of Presidents Bush and Putin because in both countries there will be increasing pressures to denigrate the other. In the United States this pressure will take the form of promoting democratic values, which Putin is accused of undermining; in Russia, the corresponding pressure will be to emphasize patriotism, Russian messianism, and the superiority of Russian culture and values.

IA-Forum: Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov was recently promoted to join Dmitri Medvedev as first deputy prime minister. Are there any early indications how either of these two might differ from Putin if elected, or would they likely follow closely in his footsteps?

Mr. Potter: The promotion of Sergei Ivanov should be seen as further evidence of the continuing growth in the power of the Siloviki. Ivanov shares a similar professional background with Putin and is more assertive and hawkish than Medvedev on "hard security" issues. Medvedev, in contrast, has the reputation as a person focused on issues involving human security, such as health, education, and public welfare.

IA-Forum: What do you expect the focus of Putin's remaining year or so in office to be?

Mr. Potter: I suspect that the focus of Putin's remaining time in office will be shaping the elections in order that the next parliament and president continue his current policies. In this regard, it is important to note that although Putin's popularity is exceptionally high (over 70 percent positive rating), the Russian government is very low (20-25 percent positive) due to largely accurate perceptions about government corruption and the failure to resolve many other societal ills. Putin wants to ensure continuity and stability and to avoid turmoil as much as possible. He is especially fearful that the gap between his popularity and that of the government could lead to a political vacuum filled by extremists who exploit the public's malaise for their own political purposes.

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