The Fight Over Russia’s Soul

A conversation between Sir Harold Evans and Condoleezza Rice published by the Reuters. 

Let’s go back to that famous first 2001 encounter with Putin in Slovenia when President Bush said, “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” What shall we make of Mr. Putin’s soul now?

I don’t know what his soul is, but his behavior is appalling. Things were different at the time of Slovenia. It was a different Russia, he was a less confident figure, and frankly they were very helpful to us immediately after 9/11. But this is a regime that has gotten more authoritarian in the last 10 years, that has trampled on independent institutions and freedoms, and think it’s coming back to haunt them.

The British historian Niall Ferguson argues that Russia has been horribly and perhaps incurably deformed by 70 years of Communist rule. We shouldn’t worry about it as we used to, he says, because twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, it’s headed to global irrelevance with a declining population and per capita GDP ten times smaller than the US.

Post-Soviet Russia is a mixed picture. People have more personal freedom than at any other time in their history, prosperity is more widespread than ever. There is a viable middle class, which is one of the explanations for the reaction to Putin’s attempt to come back. All that is for the better. But the underlying power structures are not really transformed. It is still essentially an oil and gas economy that does not take advantage of its tremendous human potential. So it is absolutely true that their influence is waning but I wouldn’t say it’s irrelevant. It’s a permanent member of the Security Council with a veto, it has tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, a large army still, a network of world relationships and important regional influence in Central Asia. It’s no longer one of the two most powerful states but it’s still a powerful state.

Is Putin on Mubarak’s track? John McCain tweeted him, “Vlad, the Arab spring is coming soon to a neighborhood near you.”

I hesitate to say that it’s an Arab Spring because the regime in Moscow is more resilient, but Putinism won’t ever be the same. Now that people are not so fearful, I think it’s going to be very difficult for Putin to rule Russia. The Russians are rising up against what, I think from their point of view, was a tremendous affront in the way that he tried to simply trade jobs with Medvedev. It was a terrible mistake on his part.

How serious is Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric? Is it just fodder for the nationalist masses? Was Secretary Clinton wise to feed the Kremlin paranoia by criticizing fraud and ballot rigging. Secretary, you’ve been in that position many times. How does one balance encouraging democracy and preserving good relations?

She was absolutely right to speak up for our values. I’ve many times criticized them, and they don’t like it. I think the anti-western rhetoric is part desperation on Putin’s part; but also I do believe that suspicion of the west is deeply ingrained in him

Do the disturbances make the former parts of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine and Georgia, more vulnerable or less?

Less vulnerable because the Georgian war showed that the Russians can’t simply behave like the Soviet Union. They’re too integrated into the international system to do that. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the disturbances Moscow makes them try to be more aggressive against the neighbors. I just don’t think they can pull it off.

We know the Internet and Twitter helped trigger the Middle East spring but how far are bloggers like Alexei Navalny – whom they jailed for15 days last year – influential in the vast land mass of Russia. Is tweet talk really a Moscow/Petersburg thing?

Oh, I don’t think it’s just Moscow and Petersburg. There was a very interesting development, which many people didn’t notice: when the Russian Orthodox Church –through its most prominent spokesman, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin – said people were clearly upset, and there had to be answers about the election. It’s the first time the Church been so critical. It has tentacles all over Russia, and I suspect they’re hearing from priests throughout the country that there is considerable unhappiness. And remember, while the action may be in the cities, poverty in the rural areas is still quite dire. So you have several elements to the revolt, not one. Yes, in the cities demands for civil liberties come from young people who don’t have a memory, really, of the repression of communism, and therefore are not fearful. But it’s not clear to me that liberal forces would be popular in the rural areas. We have to be a little careful not to assume that this revolution is all a liberal revolution. In fact, the discontent in the rural areas could take the form of more support for Mother Russia nationalism – and remember the Communist party still has significant support there and could gain from a kind of anti-Putin revolt.

 Middle East

In your last month in office, you came very close to an Israeli-PLO secret land agreement that could have led to a Palestinian state. It’s all deadlock again. What’s the single most potent step that could be taken 1) by the Israelis and 2) by the PLO?

It was a mistake [by President Obama] to demand the settlement freeze from the Israelis; no Israeli prime minister can really do that no matter where they are on the political spectrum. It put pressure on the Palestinians then to demand a settlement freeze. So both sides need to get back to the table and negotiate unconditionally, Frankly, I’m not optimistic that this is going to happen in the next several months in light of the Arab spring. If the Palestinians are indeed going to go to elections, they won’t be able to negotiate prior to that.

What I had in mind were gestures from the Israelis on the settlement side, and on the Palestinians an end to their campaigns inciting hatred.

I would hope that the Quartet would use that as a starting point. The two sides agreed to take some steps, and they could both start by carrying them out. Incitement needs to stop, absolutely. Look, both parties signed on to the road map. Rather than try to get some major breakthrough at this point, perhaps going back to steady implementation of that would help.


You urged Mubarak to relax his authoritarian rule for a gradual transition to democracy, and he missed his chance. Now Egypt is in play. In the last pages of your book, you note that the most organized forces are extremists who gather in radical mosques and madrassas. But you express a faith that having to win open elections will make them more tolerant of other faiths, and of women. Is your optimism level unchanged?

Yes, because I see this as a process, not as a snapshot. Islamists did well in both elections in Tunisia and in Egypt but now they’re going to have to figure out how to govern. And the people who were in the streets in Egypt and Tunisia were, yes, in the streets about freedom, but were also in the streets about jobs and economic benefits. Islamists aren’t going to be able to deliver jobs and economic benefits through Sharia law and making people’s kids suicide bombers. And so the question is, will they now, if they are to govern, start to moderate their positions in order to fully access the benefits of the international system. It may take some time, but they’ll have to.

Is Egypt’s treaty with Israel secure?

I think it is. No Egyptian government can afford to unravel that peace treaty and it would have huge consequences for Egypt internationally.


No sooner have we departed than Maliki ordered arrests of hundreds of Baathists accused of plotting a coup, and evicted Western companies from the green zone. Should we regard this, is it little more than flexing of nationalist muscles, or is it a road to authoritarian rule, is he being manipulated by Iran?

I don’t believe he’s being manipulated by Iran. Iran will have influence but the Iraqis really hate the Iranians, and they don’t much care for the Persians. I think Iran will find its influence limited in Iraq. Maliki has made some moves that I don’t think are wise, but he is the prime minister of Iraq, and has to burnish his national credentials. In the final analysis, though, he will be constrained by the democratic powers institutions him. So I’m mildly optimistic that Iraq will ultimately be more stable. I know for instance that the Iraqis are very much on a path to buy American military equipment and all the training that comes with that, and they’re still courting western oil companies. It’s an incomplete democratic reform in Iraq, but I think it has promise.

Would you say that one of the achievements of the Bush presidency with you as both national security advisor and secretary of state, was introducing those civil institutions that might be a restraining influence…Do you want to take a bow on Iraqi achievements?

I’m one who believes history will judge this, but if you look at the state of institutions in Iraq and compare them with where Egypt is now, or heaven forbid Syria, I think you have to say the Iraqis are far better off in the ability to transit through or to deal with the upheavals of people deciding they want their freedom. That is probably the best argument for what we did in Iraq: we helped to midwife democratic institutions. Now they will have to preserve them and use them, but at least they have them. And we also don’t have Saddam Hussein and Ahmadinejad in a nuclear arms race.

Compare Iraq to Syria – how do we cope with Syria when they’re murdering thousands of their people?

Syria is the most troubling in many ways, because Syria is Iran’s bridge into the Middle East. It’s a destabilizing force for the Iraqis, destabilizing for Lebanon. We have a strange situation. We used military force to overthrow Gadafi because he threatened his own people. Assad is killing his people, and we seem unable to do anything about it. The good thing is the Turks are putting pressure on him, and the Arabs, too, but when you have the Turks, Arabs and the western world unite and can’t change the circumstances, one wonders. But I don’t think Assad can survive. He is driving his people to civil war.

Could Syria break up? There’s a new film by Angelina Jolie called Blood and Honey which dramatizes the horrible consequences of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Could Syria too descend into that kind of ethnic chaos?

Yes, and with even greater consequences of course, because it’s the hub of the Middle East so I think it’s a real danger.

Syria is bad enough. What about Afghanistan and the fraught state of relations with Pakistan? I was with Benazir Bhutto just before she returned to Islamabad, and I suggested she keep a diary. She said she was too scared of the ISI. And two or three weeks later she was dead. So what about Afghanistan, should we be making this pullout?

I hope we’ll at least keep our presence robust through the 2014 NATO deadline. One, we need to keep training the Afghan forces so the Taliban can’t overthrow the government. That we ought to be able to do. Secondly, we must help the Afghans continue to develop decent governance, particularly in the provinces. I know Kabul and Karzai are difficult, but there’s been progress in the building of clinics and schools, and life is better for the people. Third and the hardest, if Pakistan is unstable it’s going to be difficult to stabilize Afghanistan. I’m more confident of our ability to influence Pakistan than I am with Afghanistan. Sooner or later the Pakistani government has got to realize the extremists are a threat to them, and begin to really deal with them in a way they have not been willing to do. It’s not very stable, but I’m with Bob Gates [Defense Secretary] on this, you have to keep working with Pakistan, you don’t have an option.

If you were now in Foggy Bottom looking across to Paris, Bonn, London, would you despair? Is Europe on the road to disintegration if not the road to serfdom?

It’s obvious that the flaws in the way the European Union was structured are coming back to haunt the framers. I’d hope that we keep strengthening our ties with the European Union, and through NATO, pulling Turkey more toward the west to draw Turkey into the kinds of institutions that we have, even the OSCE and NATO have important roles. There was a time when Turkey wanted to be in the European Union. Now that’s on hold, maybe from both sides. But Turkey is what democracy is going to look like in the Middle East if it gets there. There can’t be a divide between Europe and Islamic Turkey. I believe strongly Turkey’s future is one with the west. We must use all the institutions we can to strengthen the transatlantic ties and to bridge Turkey.

The last word, Condi, should always be with a woman. So I ask , how much energy and time, in your very full life, can you give to furthering the empowerment of women, and combating sexual violence on a global scale through the Women’s Leaders Working Group you established, or by other means?

I continue to work on women’s issues, particularly women’s education in places where they’ve been denied it. I’ve often said, Harry, that if I could wave a magic wand and do one thing, I would empower women. Because if you want to get at a lot of the world’s social ills, if you want to do something about population explosion, then educate women and they’ll not have a first child at 12, and won’t have 12 kids. If you want to do something about trafficking, which is a terrible, terrible set of circumstances, educate women and they won’t end up in brothels in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, and indeed the United States. If you want to do something about poverty, educate women and give them a little micro loan, and they will make their village more prosperous. If you want to do something for society as a whole, give women political rights, and they will exercise them I believe not for just women, but for their sons as well. I think the answer to a lot of social ills is the empowerment of women. It’s something I follow very closely.

Have you ever said anything like this to the people who just recently beheaded a woman for being “a witch?”

Yes, it just shows how barbaric some cultures can be toward women. And I’ll tell you something, if you find a culture or society or state that mistreats women, look out, because it’s an indication of a dangerous society in other ways.

Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State in the administration of President George W Bush, and now a professor of political science at Stanford University


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