TCS Daily

Weasel, Poodle or Bear?

By Dominic Basulto - April 30, 2003 12:00 AM

The international menagerie seems to grow with each passing day. First there was the appearance of the "poodle" in the form of Tony Blair, who was derided by British skeptics for his support of the U.S. military action in Iraq. Next, there were the weasels - France and Germany. And, of course, there were the surrender monkeys, the hawks, the doves and the sheep. Now, William Safire has decided to recycle the "poodle" tag for Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him the "poodle" of French president Jacques Chirac in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. But is Russia really a poodle of the anti-war coalition - and if it is, how should the U.S. foreign policy establishment treat Russia?

One answer, suggested by Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, is simply to "punish France, ignore Germany, and forgive Russia." This is an idea, too, that has gained currency with the Wall Street Journal, despite the aggressive pro-war stance of its op-ed page. Forgiving Russia, the logic goes, is simply a recognition that the Russian bear still can play a menacing role in international affairs if not treated well. Moreover, Russia has acceded to the unilateral abrogation of various nuclear weapons treaties, the expansion of NATO to its very borders and the garrisoning of American troops and military hardware in the former Soviet client states of Central Asia. Pacify the bear and maybe it will agree to the next round of demands and concessions.

The metaphor of the Russian bear, though, is hardly appropriate - notwithstanding the desire of publications such as the Economist to place the Russian bear (wearing a fur hat, of course) on its front cover whenever possible. While the Russian oil & gas industry is a powerful economic force, and the threat of ICBMs poised menacingly across Russia's borders is a strong deterrent to diplomatic coercion, these are the vestigial characteristics of a Cold War superpower - not those of a nimble, 21st century economic power. Moreover, nuclear weapons offer little or no assurance against the threat of Islamic separatism on its southern flank.

A better understanding of Russia's foreign policy intentions is possible by understanding the background and training of Putin himself. Yes, he is a former KGB spymaster. And, yes, he is a St. Petersburg reformer trying to clear out the detritus of the Moscow-led Kremlin cabal. But he is also a black belt in judo - a fact that has made for fawning photo-ops when Putin travels to the Asian edges of Russia. Surely Putin realizes, at least subconsciously, that the first principle of jujitsu (the weaponless system of self-defense) is to use the opponent's own weight and strength against him.

That is exactly what Russia has attempted to do with the U.S - use judo-like principles to weaken and disorient a far stronger, more forceful rival. In his dealings with the U.S. and the international community over the war in Chechnya, Putin learned how the will of the international community - if left unchecked - can trump the interests of a sovereign nation. He also learned that direct confrontation is not always effective.

When Putin attempted to crush the Chechen resistance, he encountered the hue and cry of the international watchdogs, which refused to consider Chechnya a Russian domestic matter. When he proceeded to smash the Islamic separatists (after promising to "rub them out in their outhouses"), he met a chorus of international concern about the humanitarian conditions of the refugee camps and potential war crimes committed against the peaceful civilians of Grozny. When he attempted to portray the loosely grouped remainders of the Chechen resistance as "terrorists" and "bandits," he was forced to use all the methods of modern PR to press his point.

Realizing these facts, Putin simply countered the threat of U.S. military aggression in Iraq with the very same arguments that had impeded his march into Chechnya. He sided with France in its appeal that the war in Iraq was a matter for the international community, not for a single sovereign state. He followed that up with the argument that war in Iraq could pose a grave humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of a U.S.-led invasion. Finally, Putin quibbled with U.S. insistence that Saddam Hussein harbored international terrorists from Al Qaeda, forcing the U.S. time and time again to present its evidence of a terrorist threat in Iraq.

Thus, Putin is not a "backstabber," as some have conjectured. Nor is he a "weasel," "poodle," or "bear." He is simply a pragmatist attempting to apply the principles of jujitsu to gain political influence on the global stage. One option was to use the very strengths of the U.S. - an emphasis on the rule of law, a humanitarian concern for civilians - against it. Choosing to punish Russia for its role in the anti-coalition, as was suggested by Richard Perle in a recent interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, is certainly not the way to deal with a crafty practitioner of Russian-style jujitsu.

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