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September 15, 2008—“I don’t think we’re in a new Cold War, despite what’s being aired on the cable channels,” Peter Baker, former Washington Post Moscow Bureau Chief, told a standing room only crowd Monday, Sept. 15, at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference. He continued, “I don’t think Russia is our enemy, but neither are they the partner we hoped they’d be.”

Baker, who is now a contributing editor to the New York Times, began his coverage on the scene in Russia with the election of Vladimir Putin to power in March 2000, and covered all of the former Soviet Republics, including the Republic of Georgia.

He wrote about the decay in the Eduard Shevardnadze regime, and the hunger of Georgians for change. In talks with Mikheil Saakashvili, before he became President of Georgia, Baker said he thought Saakashvili's talk of making reforms and tackling corruption was crazy, "but he turned out to be crazy like a fox." Baker called his election “an exhilarating moment,” but added that he exhibited, even then, signs of his ruling from his gut.

Georgia is “dirt poor” with four million people and, despite a weak democracy, is a place “where people were trying to do something better,” Baker said.

In his view, “it should not have come as a surprise when the Russian tanks rolled in to Georgia,” Baker said. He said tensions had been building for months between Saakashvili and the Russians, with the US warning Saakashvili not to provoke Moscow.

Baker noted that Putin has called the breakup of the Soviet Union the greatest political disaster of the 20th century. “So, he wanted to reassert authority: He moved into Chechnya, tightened his grip on the press, and got rid of those oligarchs.”

Putin has tapped into the Russian longing for stability and greatness. The Russians see themselves better off economically under Putin. There are more cars on the streets now. Baker noted that in March of 2000, Ikea opened its first store in Moscow, and it was swamped the first day with 40,000 customers, all hungry for consumer goods. One retired woman told Baker that her pension used to be $70 per month, now it is $200.

Baker called it an “imitation democracy" in which "opposition parties are those created by, or sanctioned by, the Kremlin. The Russian mentality needs a boss—that’s what they got,” said Baker.

However, as a county, he said: “What they want is to be respected again, to be a player again. They want us to see them as they see themselves.”   

The two current Russian leaders present a point-counterpoint visage, according to Baker. Dmitry Medvedev, now President, is quieter, calmer and more affable. His body language differs from that of Putin, now Prime Minister, but he is not a “closet liberal," asserted Baker, adding, “Just because [Medvedev] uses nicer words, the events of the past month undercut that.”

Under Putin and Medvedev, the Russians seek to reassert themselves in the “near abroad,” those countries and regions near their borders. Three of those countries are in NATO, and the US has overwhelming presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, so they feel surrounded, explained Baker.

The recent flight of Russian bombers to Venezuela, a fellow oil-exporting country, was an attempt to “jab us in the eye,” said Baker. He characterized their relationship as “a marriage of convenience, but it has consequences: they sell them [the Venezuelans] arms.”

In view of all this, the US faces a tough dilemma, said Baker. A more hostile Russia is not in the US interest, but neither is papering over a belligerent Russia.

He noted that Russia is facing internal difficulties that complicate its way forward. For instance, it has troubling demographics and health care challenges. He said that if current trends continue, the Russian population will fall to just 102 million by 2050. Russian men have a current lifespan of just 58 years. Russians drinking, smoking, and high suicides rates all take their toll, as does its battle with HIV, with numbers affected among the highest in the world. And, the quality of hospitals is so poor that patients bring their own syringes and drugs.

Baker added, “I feel for whatever Administration comes in and has to find ways to deal with them.”