Putin's Double Standards

By Stephen Sestanovich

Los Angeles Times

October 17, 2004

With terrorist attacks against Russia on the rise, President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denounced what he calls Western "double standards." Americans and Europeans hit back hard when they're attacked, he says. He's doing the same thing -- and he expects our support.

Putin is right that we should want others to fight terrorism as single-mindedly as we do. But he's wrong that Russia is a victim of double standards. It's a beneficiary. Putin's counterterrorism efforts are judged more leniently than those of other countries, and as a result his own citizens, and ours, are less secure.

If this seems implausible, try a simple thought experiment. Suppose that the two aircraft that exploded after taking off from Moscow in late August had instead departed from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. And imagine the international uproar when we learned that the suicide bombers had bribed their way on board. Azerbaijan would be under intense pressure to correct this gross institutional failure and to prove that it wasn't a failed state.

Or suppose that schoolchildren had been held hostage by terrorists in a small town in Ukraine, and that after days of official lying, the incident ended in a melee between the terrorists and half-trained local police, irregulars and vigilantes, leaving hundreds of children dead. Suppose also that Ukraine had (as Russia has) badly botched rescue attempts in earlier terrorist incidents. Other governments would naturally feel deep sympathy, but they would also insist that the fiasco was bound to repeat itself unless Ukraine's corrupt, brutal and incompetent law enforcement agencies were reformed. Wouldn't it be obvious that a state that handles its own problems so poorly puts the whole neighborhood at risk?

Of course, demanding that another government reform itself is a challenge to its sovereignty, and like us Russia resists this sort of thing. Its view is: We handle lawlessness in our country, and you handle it in yours. Yet two states of the former Soviet Union, Georgia and Moldova, accuse Russia of a far more basic violation of their sovereignty: keeping its troops on their territory against their wishes and providing military protection for separatist groups that rule entire provinces of each country. Georgia and Moldova complain that these areas have become centers of smuggling, illicit arms trading, human trafficking and drug dealing -- lawless zones that we now recognize as potential havens for terrorism, too. Yet, despite years of trying, neither country has been able to get the Russians to leave.

To see how strange Russia's position is, try another thought experiment. Suppose that separatists in Moldova and Georgia were supported by two other neighbors, Romania and Turkey. These allies of the United States might argue (with some justice) that they had historical and ethnic ties to the area, or perhaps that they couldn't find suitable housing for their troops back home, or that a pullback would injure their national pride. Would any of these seem to be convincing reasons?

Neither Romania nor Turkey could infringe a neighbor's rights in this way without deep damage to its international standing. Had it done so, Romania would never have been admitted to NATO last year, nor would Turkey have been invited earlier this month to begin talks on joining the European Union. Putin must marvel that he alone can support separatism in neighboring states, pay no price for doing so -- and still complain about double standards.

The fact that Russia benefits from double standards does not mean that Putin is wrong about the case that troubles him most: his unsuccessful effort to subdue the Chechen resistance, which now seems able to strike at will inside Russia. All states have a right to control their own territory, and during a decade of violence in Chechnya neither the United States nor any European government has ever questioned this Russian right.

Yet here too a thought experiment can help us. Suppose that another government had waged the same unrelenting, scorched-earth warfare against militants wanting their own state and still had to admit, despite tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands of refugees and the total devastation of countless towns and villages, that terrorist attacks were actually on the rise. How would other countries react then?

Many might worry that this failing effort would eventually begin to threaten them. Some would surely consider drawing up an international "road map" to resolve the conflict. They would doubtless demand a credible plan for local reconstruction and call for outside monitoring of its implementation. They might begin to question the argument that there was nobody on the other side to negotiate with. Some would explore contacts with elements of the resistance not implicated in terrorism -- and might even consider offering them limited technical aid.

These would not necessarily be useful or prudent steps with Chechnya. But prudence has to guide us -- not fear that we are unfairly applying double standards to a friend in trouble.

Russia is a friend in trouble and too great a nation to depend on special favors. Yet we treat it with what President Bush, in another context, has called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." It does not serve us well, and helps Russia even less.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He was U.S. ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.