Putin the Puppet Master
Vladimir Putin is on a roll. Last month he made it clear that he intends to become Prime Minister -- and keep the reigns of power in the Kremlin -- when his second presidential term ends in March of 2008. Last week in the midst of a bravura “mini-summit” with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr. Putin wowed the fawning European press by shrugging off a carefully-leaked rumor of an alleged assassination attempt and by speaking fluent German -- a language he mastered as a KGB officer in Dresden during the Cold War. All this apparently took U.S. diplomats and intelligence agencies by surprise. But wait, there’s more. While in Germany, the macho Mr. Putin baldly told reporters -- and therefore all those who might contemplate military action against Tehran, “threatening someone, in this case the Iranian leadership and the Iranian people, will lead nowhere. They are not afraid, believe me.” And just to make sure everyone got his point, two days later he went to Tehran for a “Caspian littoral” summit and reiterated to the world that Russia would block any moves to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
And to ice Mr. Putin’s cake, reputable polls show that more than 70 percent of Russians approve of his leadership. Officials in Washington, London and Paris don’t seem to be worried – but they should be. Mr. Putin’s Tehran gambit is much more than a rhetorical affront to the Bush Administration’s efforts to keep the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. After meetings with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Russian president said, “Iran and Russia are now cooperating on a wide range of issues such as aviation industry and Russia will continue its contribution to Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.” Most of the U.S. and European media “sound-bites” focused on the “nuclear” issue. Some news reports cogently noted that the Russian-built Bushehr light water nuclear reactor is capable of producing weapon’s grade plutonium -- but ignored the arrays of gas centrifuges Iran is using to assure a dual-track approach to building nuclear weapons. Almost no one noticed that the new strategic synergy between Moscow and Tehran goes well beyond Bushehr. First, with petroleum soon to be at $100 per barrel or higher, both Iran and Russia have a financial interest in controlling how Caspian Sea oil makes its way to market. Messer's Putin and Ahmadinejad have now made it clear that they will dictate the terms by which Caspian crude will flow to the highest bidder. Second, Moscow and Tehran share a strategic interest in bad outcomes for the U.S. in Iraq. An American collapse in Mesopotamia gives Iran the kind of regional hegemony that Persians have sought for centuries.
And a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would confirm Moscow’s assertion that the U.S. is an unreliable partner -- thus undermining NATO’s eastward expansion. Finally -- if the joint statement issued after the so-called Caspian littoral summit is to be believed, Tehran and Moscow have now coerced their neighbors into what amounts to a collective security agreement. According to Mr. Putin, “We are saying that no Caspian nation should offer its territory to third powers for use of force or military aggression against any Caspian state.” Just in case anyone missed the point, Mr. Ahmadinejad added, “The Caspian Sea is an inland sea and it only belongs to the Caspian states, therefore only they are entitled to have their ships and military forces here.” So much for any NATO plans to use air bases in Azerbaijan to launch, recover or re-fuel aircraft striking Iranian nuclear weapons facilities. None of this was forecast by U.S. or allied intelligence agencies. Nor do we know what Presidents Putin and Ahmadinejad discussed in private. We can only hope that Mr. Putin’s “aviation industry” reference doesn’t mean that Iran is about to acquire hundreds of Bal-E anti-shipping missiles or that Tehran is planning to replace its ancient F-14s with a fleet of new Russian-built Su-27s. All we know for certain is that Iran, awash in petro-dollars, can easily afford both and that Moscow is in a selling mood. Importantly, Putin the puppet-master timed all of this to coincide with meetings among U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and their Russian counterparts in Moscow.
According to our State Department, the ostensible purpose of these meetings were to “review security issues of mutual concern in Europe.” To underscore how much we have “misunderestimated” Mr. Putin, President Bush, when asked by reporters what all this might mean to U.S. interests, responded, “I’m looking forward to getting President Putin’s read out from the meeting.” So much for U.S. intelligence and diplomacy.
In related news:
Putin goes live on TV phone-in to escalate nuclear war of words
President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that Russia was developing a new generation of nuclear weapons as part of a "big, grandiose" plan to boost the country's defences against the US. Speaking during his annual live question-and-answer session, Mr Putin said Russia was upgrading its nuclear arsenal, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. It was also developing "completely new strategic [nuclear] complexes", he said. "Our plans are not simply considerable, but huge. At the same time they are absolutely realistic. I have no doubts we will accomplish them," Mr Putin said, during a three-hour phone-in programme shown across Russia on state-run TV. Mr Putin said Russia would defend itself if the US goes ahead with its plan to install elements of its missile shield in central Europe. "I can assure you that such steps are being prepared and we will take them," he said. His comments follow unsuccessful talks last week with the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the defence secretary, Robert Gates. Mr Putin began their meeting in Moscow by signalling that Russia might dump the intermediate-range nuclear missiles treaty. Mr Putin fielded 68 questions yesterday from ordinary Russians living in nine time zones across the world's biggest country. Beginning in Vladivostok, where it was dark, he discussed the price of milk, IVF treatment, and the fate of Russia's provincial towns. One caller was so stunned to speak directly to the president she forgot her question. "Is it you?" she said. "Yes," Mr Putin said. "Is it really you?" she asked. "Yes," he repeated. "Thank you very much for everything, Vladimir Vladimirovich," she gasped. She then hung up. Mr Putin also congratulated Russia's football team for its 2-1 win against England in Moscow on Wednesday. Mr Putin said he had been too busy to watch the game in person but had followed Russia's second-half comeback on TV. Nobody appeared to ask about Mr Putin's personal intentions. Mr Putin is obliged to step down as president next year. He has hinted he may carry on running the country as prime minister. He confirmed merely: "In 2008, in the Kremlin there will be a different person." Analysts said Mr Putin's latest remarks were designed to reassure his public that Russia still had an effective nuclear deterrent. But they were also a message to Washington: that its new and costly missile shield was effectively useless against the latest Russian technology. Mr Putin did not spell out details of his new weapons, which he hinted at in 2004. They are believed to be equipped with manoeuvrable warheads, which detach from the main missile during the final stage of descent. Predictably, Mr Putin took several swipes at US foreign policy. The US-led invasion of Iraq had been a failure, he said, as was its strategy of confrontation with Iran over its alleged nuclear programme. Mr Putin, who met Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on Tuesday in Tehran, declared: "Direct dialogue with the leaders of states ... is the shortest path to success, rather than a policy of threats, sanctions, and a resolution to use force." Yesterday's annual Q&A session is Mr Putin's sixth since becoming president in 2000. More than a million people sent questions by email, text or phone - all of them screened by the Kremlin. The newspaper Novaya Gazeta published its own list of questions, which the president failed to answer. It wanted to know who had killed its star columnist Anna Politkovskaya. It also asked about corruption, the Beslan massacre, and why politicians from the pro-presidential United Russia party kept appearing on state TV.
Russia to appoint firebrand politician to NATO: source
President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree appointing a nationalist politician as Russia's permanent representative to NATO, a source close to the situation told Reuters on Wednesday. Putin signed a decree on Tuesday appointing Dmitry Rogozin, the flamboyant former head of Russia's Motherland party, to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said the source, who asked not to be named. "Rogozin has been appointed permanent representative to NATO," the source said. "The decree was signed by Putin yesterday." Rogozin, who calls himself parliament's "chief diplomat", has called for Russia to rearm to counter the threat from the Western military alliance, whose expansion he said placed a foreign army at Russia's borders. A Kremlin spokesman declined to comment. The decree only becomes effective on its official publication. Russia's three main news agencies said the Kremlin had not confirmed the Reuters report, but they quoted an unnamed source in the Foreign Ministry as saying Rogozin could be appointed as a diplomat, possibly dealing with NATO affairs. When asked by Reuters whether he had been appointed, Rogozin said: "I do not have any official information about this, so I can say nothing at the moment." He was quoted in 2004 by local news agencies as saying that NATO was a U.S.-dominated body that carried out "the rather aggressive interests of the United States." NATO is viewed with great suspicion in Russia, where officials say expansion eastwards shows the alliance is being used by the United States and top European powers to counter Russian influence. Rogozin made his Motherland party highly popular with attacks on the West and calls to curb illegal immigration. He resigned as leader of his party last year under what activists said was pressure from the Kremlin, disturbed by his popularity. And he was featured in election campaign advertisements in 2005 that a Moscow court said incited racism. Rogozin, 43, was born into a Moscow military family and studied journalism at Moscow University. He worked as Putin's representative in negotiations with the European Union over the status of Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave, after EU expansion. Konstantin Totsky, the current permanent representative, was appointed by Putin in March 2003. He is 57.
Russia warns against meddling
The Kremlin warned foreign organisations on Wednesday against trying to interfere in Russia's December parliamentary elections, as Moscow cut sharply the number of Western observers permitted to view the polls. "No country will accept any attempts from abroad to try to influence it," Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a news conference. "It's a matter of sovereignty of the country." Peskov was speaking after Europe's main democracy watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said Moscow had imposed "unprecedented" restrictions on its observation mission to the December 2 elections. The vote is widely viewed as a referendum on President Vladimir Putin's almost eight years in power. Polls suggest his United Russia bloc will win an overwhelming majority of seats but the opposition has complained that Putin's backing gives the party an unfair advantage. OSCE spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir said Russia had invited a maximum of 70 observers for a short-term mission to December's vote -- less than a quarter of the number sent for the last such elections in 2003, and for a shorter period. "We now need to consider the implications of those restrictions, as they may seriously limit the possibility for a meaningful observation according to our standard methodology for full-scale election observation missions," she said. Asked about the restrictions on observers, Peskov said the Kremlin was complying fully with its OSCE obligations but wanted to address certain unsatisfactory issues which had arisen with previous observation missions. "So without jeopardising our obligations, of course we are free to apply a system...that would in our view fit the whole procedure of elections in Russia and in no way it leads to violations of our obligations," he said, speaking in English. Asked what was unsatisfactory about previous observation missions, Peskov replied: "Please ask the Central Elections Committee." The country's top electoral body, which will oversee December's polls, is headed by a former work colleague of Putin's from St. Petersburg, Vladimir Churov. December's vote comes just three months before presidential elections, in which Putin is not eligible to stand because he will have served two consecutive terms in office, the maximum permitted by the constitution. Russia has seen a wave of rallies, public letters and appeals by loyal politicians in recent weeks begging Putin, who enjoys approval ratings of around 70 percent, to stay on in power and change the constitution. "I am sure the president respects those who support his course," Peskov said. "I am also sure that he intends to continue respecting the principle of immutability of the constitution." Some political experts have suggested that Putin may seek to find a way to secure another term in office without changing the constitution. This, they say, could be done by declaring a national emergency or by letting a successor into the Kremlin for a brief period before the new president resigned or fell sick, prompting fresh elections in which Putin could stand again. The constitution bans three consecutive presidential terms but allows incumbents to return to power after a break of unspecified duration. An alternative scenario would be for Putin to use his expected parliamentary majority to exercise influence over whoever succeeds him as president.
Soaring number of Russian and Chinese spies diverting MI5 attention from terror fight
Federal'naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti
The head of MI5 has sensationally accused Russia and China of undermining the fight against terrorism by running Cold War espionage operations in Britain. Jonathan Evans voiced "disappointment" that his agents are having to track spies from major countries that are diplomatic allies when they should be taking on Islamist extremists. His decision to single out two of the world's most powerful nations caused anger at the Foreign Office and is likely to trigger outrage in Moscow and Beijing. Relations with Russia are in the deep freeze following last summer's diplomatic row that saw London expel four suspected spies after Moscow refused to extradite the chief suspect in the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. Tit for tat expulsions, followed by threats from Moscow politicians and shows of strength near British airspace by Russian bombers, have cast a pall over the Government's relations with the regime of president Vladimir Putin. The decision by the head of the MI5 to single out Russia and China is understood to have caused consternation at the Foreign Office. It could deal a blow to Gordon Brown's hopes to visit Beijing in the New Year. But Mr Evans, who took over as director general of Security Service earlier this year, is frustrated by the way his overstretched resources are being diverted by the volume of spy activity by Russian and Chinese agents. He is also concerned by the potential "reputational hit" to Britain if allies such as the United States come to believe the UK is unable to protect high-value economic secrets.
The Russian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office in the summer for a diplomatic "carpeting" over the networks being run out of his office. Four of his diplomats were expelled, all said by sources to be agents of the FSB - the successor to the KGB. More than 30 intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover in London are blamed for what Mr Evans said was a level of activity that had not diminished since the end of the Cold War nearly 20 years ago. In his first public speech since taking over the job earlier this year, Mr Evans said: "This year, yet again, there have been high levels of covert activity by foreign intelligence organisations in our country. "Since the end of the Cold War we have seen no decrease in the numbers of undeclared Russian intelligence officers in the UK - at the Russian Embassy and associated organisations conducting covert activity in this country. "So despite the Cold War ending nearly two decades ago, my Service is still expending resources to defend the UK against unreconstructed attempts by Russia, China and others, to spy on us. "A number of countries continue to devote considerable time and energy trying to steal our sensitive technology on civilian and military projects, and trying to obtain political and economic intelligence at our expense. "They do not only use traditional methods to collect intelligence but increasingly deploy sophisticated technical attacks, using the internet to penetrate computer networks. "It is a matter of some disappointment to me that I still have to devote significant amounts of equipment, money and staff to countering this threat. They are resources which I would far rather devote to countering the threat from international terrorism - a threat to the whole international community, not just the UK."
Mr Evans is said to be personally frustrated that money, personnel and equipment is being "wasted" pursuing foreign spies when it should be devoted to tracking al-Qaeda. Russian spies are known to be focused on acquiring military and industrial secrets, with a particular focus on science and technology. They specifically target major companies in the defence field such as Rolls Royce, BAe and other companies at the cutting edge of technology, as well as Whitehall departments. Using techniques that have little changed since the days of the Cold War, they seek to cultivate executives and officials using money and other inducements. hereas Russia often relies on undercover spies stationed in London as diplomats who are immune from prosecution, it is understood the Chinese operate differently, prefering agents who come to the UK under cover as businessmen, academics and students. They "hoover up" any information they can get hold of, and then analyse it back in China for any intelligence it may offer. "The Chinese have a lower threshhold for what qualifies as intelligence and don't target in the same way," one source said.