To Russia, With Love

E-mail Jennifer Griffin

Monday, April 23, 2007

Moscow — We boarded a plane from Andrews Air Force base that was right out of the movie, “Dr. Strangelove.”

It was my first trip with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The former spy chief — Gates headed the CIA under President Bush’s father — hadn’t been back to Moscow in 15 years. It had been eight years for me.

The 747 that we flew on is filled with old fashioned phones that can connect you to anywhere in the world. In fact, we were wired the whole flight. We were told that the back of the aircraft, which we could see through a Plexiglas divider, was all “classified.” We were supposed to stay in our seats until the briefers came back to tell us about the real reason for the trip to Moscow.

You’ll remember that the last time that Robert Gates was in the same room with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was earlier this year in Munich. That’s when Putin went ballistic, shocking Gates and the world, using his speech at a European security conference to chastise the U.S., saying America’s “uncontained militarism” had created a world where no one feels safe anymore (his words) and “everyone wants nuclear weapons to protect themselves” — a thinly clad reference to Russia’s trading partner, Iran.

Gates was caught off guard and attempted a return stab at humor. Attempting to lighten the atmosphere, he joked in essence that he longed for the Cold War days when it was black and white on who your enemies were. Then he added with some degree of seriousness as he drew a clear line in the sand: “One Cold War was quite enough” — a reference to Putin’s outburst.

The real reason for Putin’s rage was a U.S. anti-missile defense plan — a continuation of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) which Reagan’s critics called Star Wars. That was to stop Soviet missiles. The anti-missile shield seemed like pie in the sky at the time more than 20 years ago — but it helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union in part, because it escalated the arms race to some extent and helped bankrupt the Soviet Union.

President Bush’s anti-missile plan focuses on “rogue” states, such as Iran and North Korea. The U.S. has already set up interceptors in Alaska at Fort Greely and at Vandenberg Air Base in California. The administration says those will stop any North Korean long-range missiles, though it hasn’t really been tested. President Bush now wants to expand that idea to Europe by placing 10 interceptors in Poland and an early warning radar system in the Czech Republic. Russia considers this its backyard, and that is what Putin is really angry about — though Russia could also in part be protected. Iran at this stage only has the Shahab 3 — its longest ballistic missile, which now only has a range to strike Israel, Turkey and part of Europe.

When Putin left the hall in Munich that day, he walked up to Gates and in a strange move of diplomacy, invited him to Moscow. A few weeks ago in a private conversation with Putin by phone, President Bush accepted the offer.

The two cold warriors were now meeting on Putin’s turf.

When we arrived at the Ministry of Defense this morning, it took me back to my time as a correspondent in the 90s, My husband and I had just moved to Moscow; he was a news editor for the Associated Press. I tagged along and began working for FOX when the network was just a few months old. We arrived in November 1996. Just days later, Boris Yeltsin was undergoing quintuple bypass surgery. It was all still hush hush and secretive at the time — still very Soviet in many ways.

For the next three years, we spent all of our time in Moscow and most vacations on what we in the press crassly referred to as “the Yeltsin death watch.” Some nights we couldn’t even leave the office because it seemed imminent. We updated the obit over and over and over again. Then as we were preparing to move to Jerusalem, my husband and I joked that he would outlive us all, perhaps his organs were so pickled from too much vodka that he really would live forever.

I remember Yeltsin rising from the ashes like a Phoenix time and time again. Just when you thought he was out, he would always come back. He bounced back from heart surgery. He ran for president again, even as his popularity had started to ebb, dancing his way on stage back into people’s hearts, running the first real Western style campaign. Kissing babies was not something the Communists ever felt comfortable doing. I remember how inappropriate he was —snapping a female legislator’s bra as the cameras rolled, or drinking until he was inebriated on a state visit to Germany. I remembered how every Monday I came to work, and more often than not, Yeltsin had fired his cabinet, or the Mir Space station was in a tailspin.

All of these memories rushed back over me as we drove towards the Kremlin today. I remembered when we moved to Jerusalem in October 1999 — we were gearing up for the millennium. All the talk was Y2K. I was standing out in Manger Square preparing to do live shots to cover the New Year. Suddenly the news broke, and it wasn't the news we were expecting as 2000 rolled in, of potential terror attacks or mayhem as computers worldwide just got overwhelmed.

Instead the news was out of Moscow …Yeltsin had just resigned and Vladimir Putin was set to take over. On New Year’s Eve, before the new millennium began, Yeltsin again had stolen the show. All the world’s eyes were back on him.

Today, shortly after Robert Gates left the Kremlin after meeting Vladimir Putin (making little progress in convincing him that he had nothing to worry about the anti-missile defense system the U.S. wants to man in Europe) the news broke again. Yeltsin had died. I had not stepped foot in Russia since I left in 1999, and on my return, the words I had dreaded for those three years as a correspondent were here, once again. It was all over the news, forcing everyone to stop what they were doing.

The reaction here was muted — there were the usual discussions, mostly among Westerners about how Yeltsin will be remembered. For most Russians, he will be remembered for allowing the oligarchs and robber barons to steal Russia’s riches. Most never got over his economic “shock therapy.” His finest moment was in August 1991, when he stood atop atank outside the White House in Moscow and halted a coup of Communist hardliners seeking to stop Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and reforms. Robert Gates recalled that moment today when he paid tribute to Yeltsin, as a historic Russian figure who played a large role in the Soviet Union’s end and the transition to democracy.

The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had this to say about Yeltsin: he described him as one on whose shoulders rested “great deeds for the country and serious errors”.

The man who benefited most from Yeltsin stepping aside was Vladimir Putin, who didn’t make a public statement about Yeltsin’s death for six hours. It was a throwback to another time — he only called Yeltsin’s wife and family three hours after the news had been announced by the Kremlin that he had died.

The Cold War may be over … then again maybe it’s not.

E-mail Jennifer Griffin

Jennifer Griffin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in October 1999 as a correspondent for the Jerusalem bureau. After more than seven years, Griffin left her foreign posting to tackle the national security beat at the Pentagon. Click over to read her complete bio.

Jennifer Griffin currently serves as a national security correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) and is based out of the Washington D.C. bureau. She joined the networkin October 1999 as a Jerusalem-based correspondent.You can follow her on Twitter at @JenGriffinFNC.