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Russia: Richard Pipes Discusses U.S.-Russian Relations

Richard Pipes (official website) Richard Pipes -- one of the world's leading authorities on Russian history -- offers his thoughts on the situation in contemporary Russia. Pipes is a Harvard University professor emeritus and the author of numerous books on Russia. He had a strong influence on U.S. policy on the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s and is a member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. Pipes discusses with RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Jefim Fistein the state of U.S.-Russian relations, Russia's role in the "clash of civilizations," and the possibility of Vladimir Putin running for a third term as president.

RFE/RL: What's your evaluation of Russian domestic and international politics at present? What's your evaluation of U.S.-Russian relations and in which direction are Russian politics actually going?

Richard Pipes: Well, like most Russian observers, I'm not very happy about what is happening. The regime seems to be pushing Russia back towards an authoritarian regime in which it essentially disposes of the country's policies; in which the people have less and less to say; in which the competition is gradually eliminated. It's not anything like the Soviet regime, but it's not the type of regime we hope to have, and I'm very disappointed in what's happening.

RFE/RL: And what about American-Russian relations? Are you satisfied with the present position of the U.S. administration?

Pipes: I am somewhat critical of the way the administration handles Russia now. I think it's not up to the American government -- I mean, particularly somebody as influential as Vice President [Richard Cheney] -- to criticize the restrictions on democracy in Russia. I think that is kind of meddling in the internal affairs of another country. But I think it would be appropriate for someone lower down and perhaps for institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations and so on to do it -- and they are doing it, criticizing it. But the president and the vice president and the secretary of state and so on, I think, should conduct a more even-handed policy and not criticize the political developments in Russia. It bothers me when that's done. Russians are extremely sensitive to any kind of criticism, and that doesn't mean we shouldn't criticize them, but one should be very careful about what one says about what's going on in Russia.

The Russian people, I think, would want Putin to continue, which gives him a strong stimulus to run again.... The Duma, I think, is prepared to vote him powers, or to make an amendment to the constitution to enable him to rule again -- but we will just have to wait and see.

RFE/RL: What about the upcoming G8 summit in Russia? Don't you think that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's recent remarks were somehow connected with the preparation of this event?

Pipes: Well, they may have been. I don't know what was on their minds. I mean, the attitude in America now is very critical. We have, the Council on Foreign Relations, just published a report on Russia which is very, very negative. But it seems to me, you know, once you have accepted Russia into the G8, once you go there, then good manners require that you tone down, mute your criticism. It's just a question of manners more than anything else. And Russians, I'd say, are very sensitive -- often unjustly so -- to criticism. They think it's a sign of hostility. Very often, it's a sign of friendship when you tell people, "You know, you are doing this wrong. It's not that I'm your enemy, I'm your friend, I would like you to do the right thing." But they find this very difficult to conceive. So, I would say, I hope that when the meeting takes place, that the criticism will be muted.

RFE/RL: What about the changes in Russia's international position -- especially in the so-called "clash of civilizations"? Russian President Vladimir Putin a few years ago proclaimed that Russia is on the American side. Now, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov officially pointed out that Russia should not and won't take any special one-sided positions in this conflict.

Pipes: Well, it only underscores what I've said. I think you have to realize that they [the Russians] are in a very confusing situation. They can't make up their minds where they belong -- whether they belong to the West, to the East, whether they are going to conduct an independent policy. So one day they say one thing, and the next they say another thing. And I think that is the result not of deliberate cunning; it is the result of their own confusion. They've persuaded U.S. President George W. Bush that their campaign against the Chechens is part of the war against terrorism, which I think is wrong. I mean, Chechen efforts are part of a -- what one used to call -- a war of national liberation. Whereas our conflict with Islam -- the clash of civilizations -- what is at stakeis that they really want to transform us into Muslims. But one day [Putin] says this, and another day he says something else. They are very unreliable, and I think that is the result of their own confusion.

RFE/RL: In this case, what do you think about the present Polish-Russian relations? They are very, very tense now.

Pipes: They are, and when I was [recently] in Warsaw for two weeks, I was constantly asked about this by newspapers and television [journalists] -- "What should the policy be?" And I tried to explain to them how unsure the Russians are, how they have these aspirations to great-power status and at the same time are aware that they are not a great power. In their hearts they know that. And that, while they are prepared to take criticism, perhaps, from the United States or from Europe, they are not really prepared to take criticism from small countries like Poland. And I suggested that if they criticize them, they should do so either in a very delicate manner or else do it through Europe.

RFE/RL: And what do you think of the so-called 2008 question, the problem of Putin leaving the political scene?

Pipes: Well, you know, he says repeatedly that he doesn't intend to run for a third time. I think it's going to be very difficult for him to leave office, because the pressure is going to be great. Russians are not used to changes in administration. So, he may possibly create a state of emergency, maybe in Chechnya or elsewhere, which will enable him to say to the Russian people: "This is no time to change leadership." He might do that. He might also, possibly, get someone like [First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev appointed the way [former President Boris] Yeltsin appointed Putin -- Putin may appoint Medvedev, and then influence Medvedev and run the country indirectly. Either possibility is in the cards. How things will actually work out, I don't know. But essentially the Russian people, I think, would want Putin to continue, which gives him a strong stimulus to run again. And the argument has been made in Russia -- which is rather funny -- that to restrict a president to two terms is undemocratic, because if people want him for the third and fourth term, they should have the right to do so. The Duma, I think, is prepared to vote him powers, or to make an amendment to the constitution to enable him to rule again. But we will just have to wait and see.

Russia And The West

Russia And The West


COOPERATION, CONFLICT, CONFRONTATION: Relations between Russia and the West are notoriously volatile. "To see the kind of relationship that presidents Bush and Putin have developed and to see Russia firmly anchored in the West, that's really a dream of 300 years, not just of the post-Cold War era," then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said in May 2002.
But observers have increasingly called into question the extent of the shared values between Russia and the West, particularly on issues relating to the transformations going on in other former Soviet countries.


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