G.W. and the Bear

Bush pushes Putin in Russia's Near Abroad


"It is a miracle of history," President George Bush said Saturday, "that this young century finds us speaking about the consolidation of freedom throughout Europe."

Bush uttered those words in the capitol of Latvia, a country that 15 years ago didn't even exist—its residents lived at the whims of the Kremlin. In attendance that day were the presidents of the other two new Baltic democracies, Estonia and Lithuania, which, like the host country, were erased from the map by the Soviet Union between 1940 and 1991.

All three young countries, despite living on Russia's northwestern doorstep and nursing unresolved disputes involving Russian ethnic minorities and national borders, are now full members of both the European Union and NATO.

Bush's words about the march of global freedom, worth reading in their own right, were doubly stirring because of the context. The American president was on his way to Moscow to participate in Russia's most important diplomatic event in years—the 60th anniversary celebration of the end of World War II. But rather than let a perturbed Russian President Vladimir Putin influence his itinerary, Bush chose to sandwich the ceremonies between two morale-boosting visits to democracy-hungry reformers in Russia's "Near Abroad."

"The Latvian, Estonian, and Lithuanian people showed that the love of liberty is stronger than the will of an empire," Bush said in Riga, before launching into a direct apology for America's acquiescence to the Baltics' subjugation. "For much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of another empire. V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history."

These remarks were widely misinterpreted by a historically ignorant press as being some kind of "new" U.S. interpretation of the European divisions created at the February, 1945 Yalta conference, where the allied powers carved Europe into Soviet and Western spheres of influence. In fact, American diplomats have been apologizing for Franklin Roosevelt's handiwork for more than a decade now, and Bush himself has emphasized the phrase "No more Yaltas" in first-term visits to both Poland and the Czech Republic.

Like Munich, "Yalta" has become a dirty word for American diplomats, and for that even isolationists should take heart. If fear of repeating Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler has given Washington an itchy trigger-finger when dealing with dictators who can't approach Hitler's evil or power, fear of Yalta forms a natural counter-balance—a stated reluctance to make expedient deals with the devil even in the name of preventing future Munichs.

Bush famously (and creepily) looked into Vladimir Putin's soul soon after taking office, and declared he could do business with the freedom-averse autocrat. When the Russian leader tried to dovetail his Chechen repression with America's new War on Terror, there was reason to worry that Bush would look the other way, not only in breakaway Russian republics, but in the largely wretched and weak independent states of the Near Abroad—Moldova, Georgia, Belarus.

Because most of these countries are so grim, distant, and usually tiny in population, few Westerners have cared much about how Russia has consistently trampled on their sovereignty, fomenting civil wars and otherwise playing kingmaker in their domestic politics. Who the hell cares about post-Soviet wickedness in Moldova's Trans-Dniestr region, or the killing fields in Georgia's own breakaway republic of Abkhazia, anyway?

But Bush, to his credit, has rejected most of Putin's linkage between the War on Terror and the civil war in Chechnya, and he has stood firmly on the side of liberal reformers most everywhere they have appeared along Russia's borders. (Uzbekistan, which played a key role in the Afghan War, is a notable exception.) He exudes a convincing belief that, in Europe at least, democracy promotion is the foundation of security.

"All the nations that border Russia will benefit from the spread of democratic values—and so will Russia, itself," he said in Riga. "Stable, prosperous democracies are good neighbors, trading in freedom, and posing no threat to anyone….Together we have set a firm and confident standard: Repression has no place on this continent."

Which is a message Bush has taken to his friend Putin directly, regarding Russia's internal affairs.

There are plenty of potentially unpleasant after-effects when American presidents get drunk on the fumes of faraway freedom, not least of which is their inevitably increasing suspicion that they themselves control the potential salvation for all the world's poor and huddled billions. For a sole superpower that has shown little interest in devolving responsibility for the world's affairs, this is a real and present temptation.

But behind the rejection of Yalta is an embrace of real self-determination for micro-powers like Latvia, Georgia, and even communist Moldova. In championing their causes right under the nose of Vladimir Putin, Bush has sided with the angels, given some needed nourishment to fledgling democracy movements, and put his Russian counterpart on notice that being a respectful friend doesn't mean ignoring the aspirations of tiny neighbors in the name of a greater struggle.

For nearly 15 years, anxious Russologists like Thomas L. Friedman have urged Washington to ignore the security pleadings of the "buffer states," treat Moscow with the deference it craves, and above all else avoid waking up the sleeping bear. Bush has decisively thrown that advice into the dustbin of history. For the moment, at least, it looks like Bush was right.