Rice scolds Russia. Will anyone care?

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been on a whirlwind press junket scold Russia.  Here is a clip of her rhetorical spanking at the German Marshall Fund:

Unfortunately, the clip cuts off right when she was going to enlighten us on how Russia of the 1990s became Russia of today.  Too bad.  Surprisingly what she said was somewhat sound.  Rice explained,

After all, the 1990s were, in many ways, a period of real hope and promise for Russia. The totalitarian state was dismantled. The scope of liberty for most Russians expanded significantly in what they could read, in what they could say, in what they could buy and sell, and what associations they could form.

New leaders emerged who sought to steer Russia toward political and economic reform at home, toward integration into the global economy, and toward a responsible international role. All of this is true.But many Russians remember things differently about the 1990s. They remember that decade as a time of license and lawlessness, economic uncertainty and social chaos, a time when criminals and gangsters and robber barons plundered the Russian state and preyed on the weakest in Russian society, a time when many Russians, not just elites and former apparatchiks, but ordinary men and women experienced a sense of dishonor and dislocation that we in the West did not fully appreciate.

I remember that Russia, because I saw it firsthand. I remember old women selling their life’s belongings along the Old Arbat, plates and broken teacups, anything to get by.I remember that Russian soldiers returned home from Eastern Europe and lived in tents because the Russian state was just too weak and too poor to house them properly.

I remember talking to my Russian friends, tolerant, open, progressive people, who felt an acute sense of shame during that decade, not at the loss of the Soviet Union, but at the feeling of not recognizing their own country anymore, the Bolshoi Theater falling apart, pensioners unable to pay their bills, the Russian Olympic team in 1992 parading into the games under a flag that no one had ever seen and receiving gold medals to an anthem that no one had ever heard.

There was a humiliating sense that nothing Russian was good enough anymore.

This does not excuse Russian behavior, but it helps to set a context for it. It helps to explain why many ordinary Russians felt relieved and proud when new leaders emerged at the end of the last decade who sought to reconstitute the Russian state and re-assert its power abroad. An imperfect authority was seen as better than no authority at all.

However, this sober telling was somewhat muted by one of her most key scoldings.  Namely, “And our strategic goal now is to make it clear to Russia’s leaders that their choices are putting Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance.” Isolated?  Okay I don’t agree but I can see an argument for it.  But irrelevant?  If Russia was really irrelevant then all the bad things she lists certainly wouldn’t matter.  Clearly, the fact that Madame Secretary is getting her panties in a bunch suggests the opposite.  No?

I also can’t help but note that according to her narrative of the 1990s, irrelevancy at home and abroad was part of the reason why Russians embraced the idea that an imperfect authority was better than no authority at all.  After all what is more symbolic of irrelevancy than the feeling that “nothing Russian was good enough anymore”?

Condi was not done there.  She rushed off for an emergency NATO meeting in Brussels, where she sat down with CBS News for an interview where she harped more on Russia’s “isolation.”  You can read a full transcript or watch what CBS has made available on their site:


My only question is if anyone will take her and the Bush Administration’s rhetorical blustering seriously.  The US leadership has very little right to wag fingers.  Its economy is dragging down the rest of the world, (so much so that the IMF might review the US financial system and one former IMF chief is saying the US needs a $1000 billion to $2000 billion bailout), it has a lame duck President who ducks questions about the economic meltdown for three days, and when he finally speaks up, he provides no specific plan of action, and then scurries back into the Oval Office without answering a single question.    The American government might better be served by putting its own house in order first.

Man, January 20, 2009 just can’t come fast enough.