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Who’s who in resetting U.S.-Russia relations

by Andrei Piontkovsky

MOSCOW — Germany’s ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is a legend in Russia. He serves Gazprom’s interests for a measly couple of million euros a year, sits in on sessions of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and writes books about his staunch friendship with “Genosse Wladimir,” who, in the not-so-distant past, earned himself the well-deserved nickname of “Stasi” among business circles in gangster-ridden St. Petersburg.

But it is not immediately obvious whether it is Schroeder licking Vladimir Putin’s boots nowadays or vice versa. The two are building, or trying to build, the Nord Stream gas pipeline, an exceptionally costly project that satisfies twin strategic objectives. Demonstratively hostile to the interests of both Belarus and Ukraine, the pipeline is intended to ensure that these countries are under Russia’s energy thumb, regardless of who is in power.

As a bonus, the pipeline will also consolidate the Russian economy’s status as an appendage of Germany’s — its supplier of natural resources. Some of Schroeder’s predecessors as German chancellor sought to attain the same objective by rather different means.

The Kremlin’s achievements in securing the help of Americans willing to offer their influence are equally impressive. Indeed, the Obama administration’s Russia policy is being nurtured with advice from people who have no official position in the administration but who do have close business ties to Russia and the Kremlin: Henry Kissinger, James A. Baker, Thomas Graham and Dimitri Simes.

The first two are major geo-politicians; Graham and Simes are respected as outstanding Russia specialists. They write key reports for the administration, and shuttle between Moscow and Washington, coordinating the parameters of the Obama administration’s effort to “reset” the bilateral relationship.

Like Schroeder, all these people are not economically disinterested. Baker is a consultant for the two companies at the commanding heights of the Russian economy, Gazprom and Rosneft. The Kissinger Associates lobbying group, whose Russian section is headed by Graham, feeds into the Kissinger- Primakov working group, a quasi- private sector effort, blessed by Putin, to deepen ties between Russia and the United States.

It is highly instructive to read the recommendations of these people and groups, as they unobtrusively render the objectives of their Kremlin clients into a language familiar to American leaders.

Graham’s latest contribution, “Resurgent Russia and U.S. Purposes,” is most revealing in this respect. The author finds the government of a “Russia getting up off its knees” to consist of progressive modernizers fully aware of the challenges facing their country as it attempts to “return to the great powers club.”

To become a genuinely developed and “modern country,” Graham continues, “in the coming decade Russia will need to invest at least one trillion dollars in modernizing its infrastructure. America and the West in general have a vital interest in seeing the modernization of Russia succeed. The lion’s share of the technologies, knowhow, and a substantial proportion of the investment, needs to come from Europe and the U.S.”

In addition to the technology and investments, Graham quietly slips in a foreign policy suggestion for the Obama administration that is sure to please the Kremlin: “Finlandizing” Ukraine. Unless that sort of appeasement is pursued, he warns, Russia will continue to oppose the U.S. “wherever and whenever it can.”

According to Graham, “At the extreme, a weak Russia, with its vast resources and sparse population east of the Urals, could become the object of competition among the great powers, notably China and the U.S.”

That unspoken help-us-develop-or- we’ll-let-the-Chinese-do-it threat is a logical development of Putin’s homily at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, where he advocated decisive action to end the world economic crisis. His recipe? Western countries should write off half a trillion dollars’ worth of debt owed to them by the Russian state corporations run by his pals from the Dresden KGB and the Ozero dacha cooperative. But no amount of money will succeed in modernizing Putin’s kleptocratic regime, which has already squandered trillions in oil wealth.

Simply put, the Putin system is institutionally and intellectually antithetical to the task of modernization.

Graham’s only error in his presentation is his attempt to frighten the administration with a hypothetical confrontation between the U.S. and China over Russian resources. This is not his area of specialization. Kissinger works personally with the Chinese account, jointly propounding with his longtime rival Zbigniew Brzezinski the notion, so seductive for an America growing weary of its imperial burden, of a global Big Two.

Here is a recent sample of Kissinger’s geopolitical arts: “The role of China in a new world order is crucial. A relationship that started on both sides as essentially a strategic design to constrain a common adversary has evolved over the decades into a pillar of the international system . . . The Sino-American relationship needs to be taken to a new level. This generation of leaders has the opportunity to shape relations into a design for a common destiny, much as was done with trans-Atlantic relations” after the war.

No doubt Kissinger believes every word he wrote, but his ideas also honestly articulate the aspirations of his customers. It’s just that not all customers have the same motives.

One wants to get his hooks into a further trillion dollars that it can pick away at, while the other wants to become “a central construct of the system of international relations.” In both cases, the customers are getting the influence for which they are paying.

Andrei Piontkovsky is a Russian political scientist and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)