European Affairs

While Peters saw that the Caucuses would be at the center of reviving Russian interests in that troubled region is only part of the game. Within Russia, Peters found a deteriorating society and a weariness that can only emanate from those whose dreams have been taken away one empire at-a-time but still invest faith and hope in the near future. Peters, too, believes in the Russian soul and shares the hope that one day it will be a more open and democratic society. As far as he could see then and even now, the reality is much starker.

During his travels in the 1990’s, it seemed evident to Peters that after the collapse of the USSR, the former KGB agents who inherited a state within the state were not going to let go of the past easily and were not going to let any more power slip away than they could prevent. Indeed, now the “new” Russia is again seeking to redraw the “red lines” through means of unilateral invasion and endless media releases regarding the latest accomplishment of Russian leaders.

But perhaps Peters’s optimism, shared by many, of a tempered Russia are best illustrated in the characters he meets, one in particular, a former princess (he has reason to believe) with Russian bloodlines with whom he and others dined while traveling through Georgia:

I met no end of sad cases in the Soviet Union and its chaotic aftermath. But the memory of that “princess” stays with me. It’s not that I was drawn to her myself – some women reach you, others don’t, and why remains a mystery. Rather, I liked her, although we had said little to each other. There are some fellow human beings you wish well upon a brief encounter. She seemed good. And lost. I hope her handsome prince arrived – they sometimes do. I hope she’s happy and thriving, with a healthy brood, in belatedly democratic Georgia. But so many dreams vanished into the Soviet twilight and its savage aftermath that it’s hard to have confidence.

He has strong opinions about U.S. and European reactions to what happened at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse. His warnings of trouble ahead were ignored as alarmist, he reports, because so many U.S. and European intelligence analysts were lulled by naïve hopes that “one day Russia will come around” to a more democratic system. This lure of promise, so ingrained in the soul of Russia, has also pervaded the perception of many Western leaders, who seem to engage in wishful thinking that Russia will assume a stable place in the international community. This is premature, according to Peters, who says that beneath the veneer of Russian diplomatic overtures, the remnants of the KGB remain very powerful and are building momentum for moves to consolidate and extend their power in new guises.

Optimism that Russia would turn over a new leaf prevailed in the 1990s. It was, Peters notes,

… the public line in Washington and Moscow. My personal conviction that Russia would, inevitably, revert to being Russia was unfashionable. We were going to be jolly friends forever, and any attempt to discuss the complexity of Russia’s history and psyche, its ingrained behavior patterns, and its disastrous combination of incurable paranoia and grandiose ambitions met with scorn inside the Beltway. That patsy optimism about the “new” Russia would culminate in the Clinton administration’s appointment of a self-adoring journalist and personal friend of the president to direct the State Department’s Russia policy – which involved seeing no evil during those crucial years when increasing amounts of evil were there to be seen. By excusing every Russian misbehavior, including the slaughter and torture of the country’s own citizens in Chechnya, we guaranteed that we soon would face the antagonistic-on-principle Russia that emerged under Vladimir Putin.

Now, the small states that have re-emerged in the Caucuses and escaped from the “Soviet” status imposed by Stalin have found themselves at the center of a new power play. Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia are new players in a great game in central Asia involving their precious pipeline real estate, which the West wants to use to bypass Russia and ease European dependency on Russian gas and oil. Peters must have a wry smile and be itching to get back to his old stomping grounds. Each of these volatile countries has their own problems that make it hard to choose their future allies in the West – or perhaps revert to their traditional subservience to Moscow. The Georgian conflict has shown us Russia is willing and able to use military means to enforce their former spheres of influence for a greater share of wealth and power. The conflict has also exposed the thin capabilities of the west and NATO if there were to be a “real” conflict with Russia. In Azerbaijan the political maneuvering room has become quite narrow. Recently this regime had seemed to turn to the West, but Russia has now signaled that it intends to play a rougher game in the Caspian. Azerbaijan’s non-response to Russia’s invasion of the Georgian enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, seems to indicate that the stage is set with higher stakes now for the Caspian.

Russia’s power-play in Georgia was a regional success, in theory, casting dark shadows over other nations such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. But it may be the high-water mark of Russian neo-imperialism under Putin. With the world shaken by interconnected financial crises, Moscow’s single natural resource, oil, has never sustained the modernization and stabilization needed in the long term for a country the size of Russia. Even if these warnings sink into the Kremlin, it will take time for there to be any chance of Peters’ “new” Russia making it onto the world scene. Peters acknowledges his good fortune in getting his opportunity to visit Russia when he did as the old structures were crumbling. “We had the run of the house in a golden year,” he says. The implication, of course, is that Russia’s ideal future may remain a closed book.

William Peterson is a Fellow with The European Institute.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 10, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2009.