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Press Review November 1, 2001
 
The Great Game Redux
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
 
 

Almost from the start, in the first hours after the 9/11 attack, even as the entire world focused its anger on the perpetrators, you could sense a strange kind of secondary, or even parenthetical, hostility toward Russia building in the arena of Western Public Opinion. There was no reason for it; in fact, it was completely counter-intuitive. It was almost as if America was upset that Russia was not guilty in some way or another for the attack, and that its vampirical President, Vladimir Putin, was being, not a monster, but perfectly reasonable in his public behavior in the wake of the incident.

Though only us Russia-watchers were paying attention, the hostility seemed to grow as America prepared its counterattack. First and foremost, there was the embarrassing revelation that the United States would effectively need Russia's help in securing the air routes it needed to conduct the war. Normally we like to launch our death-missions from bases extracted by force from subject states like Saudi Arabia and trivia-question locations like Diego Garcia island—we don't like to have to ask for help, particularly not from a country like Russia. But here we were, at our most desperate hour, calling up Putin in the middle of the night to beg for a favor.

Then there was the next problem: Putin himself. While George Bush was being excoriated in the international press (never mind those frequently published approval rating polls; they doth protesteth too much) for his seemingly cowardly zig-zag across the States in the hours after the attack, Putin was quietly gaining high marks around the world for his "brilliant" foreign policy maneuverings. Not only had Russia secured tacit support for its brutal campaign in Chechnya (the obvious quid that went with the pro quo in the air corridor issue), and not only had Putin bullied Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer into publicly linking bin Laden to the Chechen separatist movement, but Russia had succeeded in getting the United States to shoulder the entire military risk of attacking a Taliban enemy that Russia herself wanted removed—a major coup.

Worse still—worst of all, in fact—Putin traveled to Germany shortly after the attacks and addressed the parliament there in fluent German, drawing a very sincere standing ovation for his thoroughly convincing imitation of a scary, jackbooted Rhone valley dictator. Meanwhile, our own President Bush continued to have difficulty constructing complete sentences in English in his public statements, as both his and Tony Blair's addresses to their respective nations during this time went down as some of the most uninspired oratory in the history of the human race.

All of this can only partially explain the vicious treatment of Russia in the Western press of late, however. In recent weeks there has been an extraordinary amount of peevish anti-Russian commentary in Western newspapers, extraordinary in the sense that such a thing is normally unheard of when the subject is one's coalition partner in a shooting war. Take this offering by Rob Cottrell of the Financial Times, from his irritably titled "Russia's False Promise" of October 23:

"The attack on Afghanistan serves Russia's interests because Russia fears the rise of militant Islam in central Asia more than any other foreign threat. It blames the Taliban for helping Chechen rebels, its worst domestic threat. By attacking the Taliban, the US is doing what Russia would like to have done itself.

"There is a risk that fighting may spill over into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. If it does, Russia will feel bound to intervene. There is also a risk that the US, having traded favours with the governments of central Asia to win air corridors and forward bases, may raise its profile permanently in the region and challenge Russian influence there. But those things are outside Russia's control. For Russia, this has been the easy bit."


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