By M K Bhadrakumar
From an apparently impromptu remark on Monday, the United States has elevated the Russian parliamentary election held on December 5 to a core issue of US-Russia ties. The dramatic escalation of rhetoric scatters the continued pretences over the Barack Obama administration’s “reset” of relations.
In a swift move, Beijing has also stepped forward to express understanding for Moscow. The faultlines will impact on the regional and international situation on a host of issues in the coming period.
To recap, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost no time to offer comment on the Russian parliamentary election when speaking on the sidelines of the Bonn Conference II in Germany on Monday, she aimed barbs at the Kremlin claiming she was “worried” about the conduct of the ballot and “Russian people, like people everywhere deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted”.
Clinton spoke out even before the results of the election were fully available. In fact, a complete vote count was available from the vast regions of Russia only on Wednesday. It revealed that the ruling party United Russia (UR) suffered a severe jolt by losing as many as 77 seats they held in the outgoing 450-member parliament. The UR scraped through with a simple majority of 238 seats.
Clinton made it out to be that the Kremlin orchestrated a Soviet-style 98% victory for the UR. While Western media have gone to town interpreting the result as a big “defeat” for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (who is making a bid for presidency in the election on March 4), Clinton argued in a diametrically opposite direction as if the Kremlin leadership trampled the popular opinion and consolidated its grip on power.
Curiously, Clinton didn’t let go the topic after her remarks in Bonn, but revisited it the very next day to give a further stinging rebuke to the Russian leadership from a high-profile podium right in Russia’s doorstep – Vilnius, Lithuania – in the presence of the entire community of the post-Soviet states and Old and New Europe. Her choice of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) forum was particularly symbolic since the regional body is the inheritor of the Cold War legacy of the famous Helsinki Accords of 1975.
What prompted the US onslaught? A simple explanation could be that Clinton grabbed a chance to throw mud at Putin and make his bid for the presidency in the Kremlin in the Russian presidential election on March 4 as difficult and as controversial as possible.
A spring in mid-winter
Indeed, enough indications were available in recent weeks that Washington felt annoyed at the high probability of Putin’s return as Russia’s president at a formative period in world politics. Putin means an assertive Russia – a Russia that will negotiate hard to influence world events, a Russia that will cement its cooperation and coordination with China, a Russia that will forcefully counter the US’s crucial Middle East project to re-establish its hegemony over the region in the new conditions of “democracy”.
The Russian Foreign Ministry routinely ridiculed Clinton’s remark, but Moscow’s reaction finally came when Putin spoke on Wednesday after letting the US secretary of state say all she had to say. Putin tore into Clinton. He said:
I looked at the first reaction of our US colleagues. The [US] secretary of state was quick to evaluate the elections, saying that they are unfair and unjust, even before she received materials from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights [OSCE] observers. She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal. They heard the signal, and with the support of the US State Department, began active work.
Putin then went on to allege that “hundreds of millions” of foreign money have been used to influence the outcome of Russia’s elections and Russia must protect its sovereignty:
When money from abroad is invested in political activities inside another country, this concerns us … We are not against foreign observers monitoring our election process. But when they begin motivating some organizations inside the country, which claim to be domestic but in fact are funded from abroad … this is unacceptable. We will have to think about improving our laws in order to make those fulfilling the tasks of a foreign state aimed at influencing our domestic [political] process more responsible.
The response is strongly worded, no doubt, and four things must be noted. One, this has been a rare personal accusation of Clinton herself for inciting instability in Russia. Two, Putin segregated the US State Department within the Barack Obama administration as working according to a plan of action. Three, Putin hinted at hard evidence of US meddling in the hands of the Russian intelligence. Finally, he indicated that Moscow won’t take this lying low.
Clinton can hardly complain that Putin took a personal tone. The US State Department’s campaign against Putin had of late assumed a vicious tone even by the standards of the tumultuous Russian-American relations. A fortnight ago Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL) featured a report over Putin’s personal life, with the seeming intent of animating an anti-Putin tsunami in the social media network in Russia.
One cannot recall Russian official media descending to such abysmally poor taste to attack Bill Clinton even at the peak of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. In retrospect, the US seems to have anticipated that the Russian intelligence had come in possession of hard evidence pointing toward the American meddling in Russian politics. The RFE/RL commentary would appear to have been a diversionary measure to get the eagle out of the trap that was actually intended for the bear.
Clinton’s attempt seems to have been broadly in the same direction when she took to the high ground and made Russia’s election an epochal issue of the progress of democracy in the 21st century. From this point, actually, Obama administration is left with no alternative but the ridiculous one of kindling a Tahrir Square-like eruption in Moscow.
According to the tabulation by the New York Times, by Thursday evening more than 32,000 people had clicked a Facebook page to say they would gather near the Kremlin. The daily carefully assessed, “Even if half that number showed up, that would make it the largest political protest since the fall of the Soviet Union.”
But the advent of the Arab Spring in the middle of the Russian winter in Moscow can only have predictable consequences. Beijing is also watching the unnatural phenomenon. If the New York Times senses that Putin “struggled to regain his footing after his party, United Russia, suffered big losses in the elections on Sunday”, attentive observers in Beijing have concluded otherwise.
It’s Putin, stupid!
Even as Clinton in spoke in Bonn on Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei drew just the opposite conclusions. He said, “We [China] believe that the election will be beneficial for Russia’s social unity, national stability and economic development.” He said China respected the choice of the Russian people, and would work with the Russians to push forward the “comprehensive partnership of coordination” between the two countries.
China made a deliberate decision to take a clear-cut stance as early as Monday although the reverse suffered by UR in the poll was known in Beijing. The Xinhua news agency in a pithy comment with Beijing dateline on Monday had even added a note of caution:
Despite looking very likely to win the parliamentary election, many challenges lie ahead for Vladimir Putin’s United Russia, as it comes to terms with a severely reduced majority. Some analysts are citing the poor state of Russia’s economy for the drop in support. The party is also seen by many as having failed to reduce corruption, and not carrying out promises to improve government efficiency. There has also been a large amount of criticism of Putin’s government on Internet chat rooms and online forums.
By Tuesday, however, Xinhua carried a full commentary strongly rebutting the US allegations and the “caricature-like description” of the “forgone conclusion that Russia’s ruling party United Russia, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has won the State Duma elections”.
The nuanced commentary estimated that the core issue was not ‘democracy’ in Russia, but Putin:
Putin’s world-view is said to be ‘anti-western’ … American politicians have no interest in seeing the ‘tough guy’ at the apex of Russian power … the White House will not be delighted at the prospect of dealing with ‘prickly’ President Putin again … Russia’s election is just in line with its own interest, far from echoing the need of Western countries. Mrs Clinton’s reaction seems understandable.
Xinhua noted that Russia’s policies did not always concord with its own self-interest and at times Moscow preferred to act on issues in line with the “Western practice”, but even then, such acts “could not be a precise docking” with the western agenda and therefore, Western pressures on Russia continue. The commentary, by the way, was attributed to the People’s Daily columnist Li Hongmei.
Quite obviously, China is keeping in view the big picture of the power dynamic on the world scene. Beijing never quite concealed its high regard for Putin as a consistent advocate of the imperatives of Sino-Russian strategic ties. But the current acrimony in the US-Russia relations also comes at a crucial juncture for China.
On a range of fronts, coordination with Russia has become a very vital aspect of the Chinese regional policy. Not less than four times, top Chinese foreign ministry officials traveled to Moscow for consultations through the month of November.
The Russian-Chinese coordination is at an all-time high level. Their “joint” veto in the United Nations Security Council over the resolution regarding Syria has no parallel. They followed up blocking a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Commission at Geneva from being transferred to the Security Council in New York. Beijing helped Moscow to get the BRICS adopt Russia’s stance on Syria as its common position.
On Iran, too, the two countries are thwarting the US moves to impose additional sanctions. (Russian envoy to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin recently suggested that it is time the UN Security Council rolls back even the existing sanctions regime.) On Asia-Pacific, Russia stands by China in accordance with the two countries’ joint statement adopted last year in September.
Russia and China both oppose the establishment of US-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military bases in Afghanistan. They are both interested in enhancing Pakistan’s strategic autonomy. They worked together at the recent Istanbul conference (November 2) to derail Clinton’s pet New Silk Road project. A high water mark will probably be reached when Russia’s NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin travels to Beijing (and Tehran) to discuss the US’s missile defense (ABM) program, which is posing a major hurdle in the US-Russia relations.
Beijing has been closely but silently viewing the US-Russia shadow play over ABM and Rogozin’s consultations must be on the basis of quiet signals that Beijing wants to talk things over. Russia and China have specific interests on the ABM issue, but any degree of coordination, however tentative, would still form a new template in international security.
Above all, Beijing counts on Putin to somehow ensure that the pending negotiations over a trillion-dollar gas deal are concluded at an early date. With the US establishing a military base in Australia and strengthening its presence in Singapore and also rallying the Asian countries to help revitalize its leadership role, China’s energy security concerns are becoming acute.
In sum, the trajectory of the current US-Russia acrimony and Putin’s success in weathering the furious American onslaught on his political career are of the highest importance to China. If the eagle has actually ended up in a trap it thought it had set up for the bear, that becomes a matter of joy for the dragon.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.