Thursday, October 18, 2007

What's going on with Putin?

A mechanic from Siberia asks Russia's president Putin about Madeleine Albright's complaint that Siberia has too many resources to belong only to Russia.

A 'Sort of Political Erotica'

The most internationally resonating remarks might have come when a mechanic from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk asked Mr. Putin about comments he said were made some years ago by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who suggested that Siberia had too many natural resources to belong to one country.

"I know that some politicians play with such ideas in their heads. This, in my view, is the sort of political erotica that might satisfy a person but hardly leads to a positive result," Mr. Putin responded. "The best example of that are the events in Iraq -- a small country that can hardly defend itself and which possesses huge oil reserves. And we see what's going on there. They've learned to shoot there, but they are not managing to bring order."

"One can wipe off a political map some tyrannical regime … but it's absolutely pointless to fight with a people," he said. "Russia, thank God, isn't Iraq. It has enough strength and power to defend itself and its interests, both on its territory and in other parts of the world."

Mr. Putin went on to say he believes one of the U.S. "goals is to establish control of the country's oil reserves," and that a concrete date must be set for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Unless such a date is set, he added in an echo of some U.S. war critics, "the Iraqi leadership, feeling [safe] under the reliable American umbrella, will not hurry to develop its own armed and law enforcement forces."

Since we're here, the claim that the US wants to control Iraq's oil is not a claim that the US wants to confiscate the oil with proceeds from the sales going to the US treasury. It is also not primarily that the US want to ensure US oil companies have privileged access. The US wants to ensure that Iraq's oil is not under the control of people who would use the money from oil sales to oppose US priorities in the Middle East. Generally, every population group in the Middle East outside of Israel's Jews opposes US priorities in the Middle East.

I understand Putin to be making the correct assertion that the US works to deny control of oil to any government that is popularly accountable and capable of an independent foreign policy. The US can tolerate a somewhat democratic Iraq controlling its own oil as long as this Iraq has no independent way to project military power beyond its borders or defend its airspace or land independently of the US. In other words, unlike under Hussein, Iraq can have popular anti-Zionist leaders because the US occupation ensures that Iraq is no threat to Israel. If that was not the case, the US would not tolerate independent Iraqi control of Iraqi oil. OK, that's out of the way.

This is a very striking exchange with Putin. The first thing that strikes me is this statement attributed to Albright is one I've never read until today. But it is spoken of as if it is common knowledge in Russia. The question was asked by a mechanic, and the premise, as far as I can tell, was not corrected by Putin. I assume Putin would have made note of the fact that he was not familiar with the claim if that had been the case.

I've found a link from 2005 to the claim in an English translation of a Russian source.

Meanwhile, ex-secretary of state, Madeline Albright, recently called Siberia too vast and wealthy a region to belong to Russia alone. Albright said it was not fair. It stands to reason to assume that Albright was of the same mind when she had held a senior position in civil service and had merely been too diplomatic to speak her mind. It certainly seems that all US leaders are of the same frame of mind. No wonder the White House is out to secure its positions in the Persian Gulf, in the Caspian region, and other strategic oil and gas bearing areas. That is why the Western democrats are so worried by ethnic strife in the oil bearing Darfur in Sudan and do not give a damn about genocide in Rwanda or Burundi.

The weakness of Russia immediately following the fall of the USSR seems to be a painful memory for many Russians, including Putin. Putin's response seems angry. In this atmosphere, it looks like a statement by Albright that was not noted at all in the US has spread though Russia's informed popular culture.

In this spirit of anger Putin mocks the US effort in Iraq, which had nothing to do with the original question. Putin steered his answer there to, in his own mind, compensate for the reminder of Russia's weakness relative to the US in the early 1990s.

Then the "wipe a political regime off the map" statement. Putin has come across the Ahmadinejad statement and the controversy around that. I can't imagine this statement had any direct meaning, that Putin was sending a message by using those words. But the statement does relate Bush to the charges made against Ahmadinejad. My take is it is just what came to mind when Putin experienced a little anger.

The anger at the US for making Russians feel weak when the USSR felt seems from here to be substantial and pervasive in the segments of Russian society that care about foreign policy. I don't have a transcript, even translated, of the entire session but from the clues available, it seems that this anger will influence Russian decision making at least to some degree.


Jimmy B said...

Hi. Actually, I would like to correct you here - while the jist of the translation may be correct, but the first portion is missed. Putin answered "I am not familiar with such comment from Ms. Albright, but..." and here is where your translation starts "I know that some politicians play with such ideas in their heads. This, in my view, is the sort of political erotica that might satisfy a person but hardly leads to a positive result,"

Dmitri said...

I second that. According to the transcript in russian that I've been reading, he did note that he is not familiar with this particular stametent by Ms Allbright.

Arnold Evans said...

Putin is unaware of the statement so it is not common knowledge in Russia. I've only found one reference to it in English, from an article written in 2005, which said she had recently made the statement - after her term was Secretary of State was over.

Maybe a search of the internet in Russian would turn up better sources for the story. Maybe the Siberian mechanic read the same article I found. I'm curious about how widely believed it is in Russia that Albright made the statement. I'm also curious about whether there is a story about the statement from Albright's side. Maybe she was misinterpreted or taken out of context.

I don't have any information other than the Wall Street Journal whose reprint I link in the post and the article from Defense and Security/Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye. I'm not familiar with that publication and cannot tell how trustworthy it is as a source.

Anonymous said...

Good point. And what do you think of, for example, Shoher's attitude like here ?

Jesse Heath said...

Nezavisimaya Gazeta is pretty well-respected among Russian newspapers. The original link to the article is here: