Given how our media have covered Russia’s March 4 presidential election, it is understandable that many Americans believe Vladimir Putin stole the presidency. The reality, however, is very different. From all the reading I have done, it appears that there was some electoral fraud, but that Putin would have won by a significant margin in any event. Aside from being wrong, the disconnect between American perception and Russian reality adds a needless component to the risk of a nuclear confrontation.
As an example of mainstream American reporting, here is a March 10 Wall Street Journal report:
Thousands of opponents of President-elect Vladimir Putin gathered in downtown Moscow Saturday afternoon, their ranks thinning compared to earlier protests, as they sought to keep up pressure on the Kremlin. Saturday’s was the seventh opposition rally in Moscow since the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, when the public outrage at what many see as rigged voting triggered the biggest anti-government protests of Mr. Putin’s 12-year rule.
Opposition leaders alleged that fraud was also widespread in Sunday’s presidential election, in which official results gave Mr. Putin 64% of the vote. But the Kremlin continued to ignore the demonstrators’ demands for new elections.
Contrast that with a different March 10 article, written by Nicolai Petro, who served as the State Department’s special assistant for policy on the Soviet Union under President George H. W. Bush:
After Vladimir Putin’s decisive electoral victory in Russia’s presidential election many are asking whether the “reset” in United States-Russian relations will continue. I believe the answer to this question hinges on America’s official reaction to Putin’s re-election. …
A good place to start would be with a more balanced assessment of the Russian presidential elections. Secretary Clinton now has a rare opportunity to undo the damage that she did in her hasty condemnation of last December’s Duma elections. A few simple words of praise for the enormous efforts undertaken by the Russian government in the past two months would place Russian-American relations on a new and much more positive trajectory.
Here are just a few things she could cite: … The only candidate of any note who was denied registration – social-democrat Grigory Yavlinsky – failed when more than a quarter of his registration signatures were revealed to be forgeries. … Each candidate received nine hours of free prime time television and radio space … in an effort at transparency as yet unmatched in any other country, the election process in all 91,400 polling stations was carried live on the Internet. …
The opportunity exists for a truly equal partnership to emerge, but it would require the current administration to set aside its propensity for moralism and respect the choice of the Russian people. The risk in not doing so is that the US, and the West in general, will become increasingly irrelevant to Russia and its long-term global strategy.
Reputable polls taken in Russia in the month before the election all predicted a Putin victory by a significant margin, supporting Petro’s allegations.
Before we self-righteously judge another nation’s elections, it would be well to remember the controversy over our own 2000 presidential election, which went to George W. Bush as a result of a contested Florida recount, a state governed by his brother Jeb, and whose Secretary of State Katherine Harris had served as his state campaign co-chair.
If all that were at stake were Russian hurt feelings, our hubris would be a minor issue. Unfortunately, our mud slinging feeds into an often unstated, but deep Russian fear of American interventionism. We tend to forget, but Russians well remember, that in 1918 American troops interceded in their revolution.
Literally adding fuel to the fire, when Moscow demonstrations protesting last December’s parliamentary elections didn’t portray Russia as heading toward another revolution, Fox News substituted video footage of violent demonstrations in Athens, complete with scenes of streets ablaze. A major clue was the surprising appearance of palm trees in Moscow. This blatant propaganda – dismissed by Fox News as an accident – is particularly dangerous in light of John McCain’s incendiary warnings that Vladimir Putin could end up meeting Gaddafi’s fate. While Gaddafi was killed by Libyan rebels, Western airpower was essential in allowing that to happen, making Russian fears about the West’s intentions seem less paranoid.
It’s high time we recognized both the error of our ways and its danger to our continued existence. It’s not smart to sling death threats at a nuclear-armed rival.