The west may yet come to regret its bullying of Russia - 2007

The west may yet come to regret its bullying of Russia


Putin has no interest in a new cold war and is struggling to modernise his economy. Yet he is rebuffed and insulted. Countries too have feelings. So I am told by a Russian explaining the recent collapse in relations between Vladimir Putin and his one-time western admirers. "We have done well in the past 15 years, yet we get nothing but rebuffs and insults. Russia's rulers have their pride, you know." The truth is that Putin, like George Bush and Tony Blair, has an urgent date with history. He can plead two terms as president in which he has stabilised, if not deepened, Russian democracy, forced the pace of economic modernisation, suppressed Chechen separatism and yet been remarkably popular. But leaders who dismiss domestic critics crave international opinion, and are unaccustomed to brickbats. Hence Putin's outburst at the Munich security conference this month, when he announced he would "avoid extra politesse" and speak his mind. Putin's apologists ask that he be viewed as victim of an epic miscalculation by the west. Here is a hard man avidly courted at first by Bush, Blair and other western leaders. After 9/11 he tolerated US intervention along his southern border with bases north of Afghanistan. Yet when he had similar trouble in Chechnya, he was roundly abused. When he induced Milosevic to leave Kosovo (which he and not "the bombing" did), he got no thanks. When Putin sought to join Nato in the 1990s he was rebuffed. Then Nato broke its post-cold-war promise and advanced its frontier through the Baltics and Poland to the Black Sea. It is now planning missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic and is flirting with Ukraine and Georgia. Against whom is this directed, asks Putin.

The west grovels before Opec, but when Putin proposes a gas Opec it cries foul. America seizes Iraq's oil, but when Putin nationalises Russia's oil that, too, is a foul. Meanwhile, every crook, every murdered Russian, every army scandal is blazoned across the western press. True, Russia is still a klepto-oligarchy that steps back as often as forward, but what of America's pet Asian democracies, Afghanistan and Iraq? In his Munich speech Putin asked why America constantly goes on about its "unipolar world". Does Washington really seek a second cold war? Russia is withdrawing from Georgia and Moldova. Why is Nato advancing bases in Bulgaria and Romania? The west is handling Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran with the arrogance and ineptitude of 19th-century imperialists. Is it surprising Russia is seeking allies where it can, in China, India, Iran and the Gulf? At an Anglo-Russian conference in Moscow last weekend I was bemused by the talk of a return to "east-west" confrontation. Diplomats have a habit of listing complaints like marriage counsellors inviting couples to catalogue what most irritates them about each other. The list seems endless, but it surely points to a proper talk rather than a divorce. Don't they really need each other after all? Having visited Russia three times since the demise of the Soviet Union, I remain impressed by its progress. Debate and comment are open. Russia is not squandering its energy wealth but setting $100bn aside in an infrastructure fund. The links between Russia and western business are worth $30bn in inward investment. Cultural and educational contacts are strengthening. Moscow and St Petersburg are booming world cities, their skylines thick with cranes.

The west views pluralist democracy as so superior that any state coming to it fresh must surely welcome it with open arms. When there is backsliding, as in former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Russia and parts of Africa, let alone the Arab world, the west behaves like a peevish car salesman whose client has not obeyed the repair manual. If the west can do fair elections, market capitalism, press freedom and regional secession - after a mere two centuries of trial and error - why can newly free states not do them overnight? The tough response to Putin is easy. It is the one he has from Washington and Nato. We won the cold war. You lost. Shut up. If, as Russia's top general said last week, you want to withdraw from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, then withdraw. If you think gas and oil enables you to play the superpower again, see what happens. Bush and Blair may be screwing up "Islamistan", but their successors will be more canny. Our defence budget is bigger than yours and we have you surrounded. All this makes for good realpolitik. But what Putin actually said in Munich reflected not belligerence but puzzlement at the aggressive course of western diplomacy. In the old days, he said, "there was an equilibrium and a fear of mutual destruction. In those days one party was afraid to make an extra step without consulting the others. This was certainly a fragile peace and a frightening one, but seen from today it was reliable enough. Today it seems that peace is not so reliable."

Putin is hardly seeking a return to the certainties of the cold war. He has no more interest than the west in stirring the hornet's nest of Islamic nationalism, stretching as it does deep into Russian territory. His desire for "ever closer union" with Europe and Nato after 1997 was sincere and was surely welcome. While Putin appears to have been conducting his diplomacy over the past decade from weakness and the west from strength, the reverse has been nearer the truth. Britain and America have been led by essentially reactive politicians with no grasp of history. A terrorist outrage or a bombastic speech and they change policy on the hop. When Bush and Blair go, they will leave a world less secure and more divided in its leadership than when they arrived. Their dismissive treatment of Russia's recovery from cold war defeat has been the rhetoric of natural bullies. Russia and the west have everything to gain from good relations. Putin has struggled to modernise his economy while holding together a traumatised and shrunken Russian federation. The west may feel he errs towards authoritarianism, but second-guessing Russian leaders is seldom a profitable exercise. This is a huge country, rich in natural and human resources. It is hard to think of somewhere the west would be better advised to "hug close". Instead, Putin will hand his successor an isolated and bruised nation. Under a less confident president, it could retreat into protectionism and alliances the west will hate. To have encouraged that retreat is truly stupid.


Dealing With A Newly Assertive Russia

Moscow's foreign policy is increasingly driven by the belief that major world powers are seeking to constrain the rise of its influence around the world. The West is concerned that a newly assertive Russia undermines many of its conflict resolution and energy security efforts, particularly in the Commonwealth of Independent States. These conflicting fears have led to a stalemate in many areas of Russia's relations with the U.S. and European Union. On three notable occasions since May, President Vladimir Putin harshly criticized the U.S. for "hegemonic behavior," "neo-imperialism" and provoking an arms race. These accusations stand in sharp contrast with Putin's overtures to the West in the first two years of his presidency. In fact, they are reminiscent of the assertive approach Russia pursued in relation to the U.S. under Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the late 1990s. Russia's doctrine of multipolarity, as developed by Primakov, argues that other centers of power should check U.S. global influence.

Several factors explain the return to this line of thinking at the end of Putin's second term. Russia believes the U.S. is overstretched internationally and hobbled domestically by the invasion of Iraq, the standoff with Iran and the need to counter the rise of China. It also believes the dollar's prospects of remaining the world's main reserve currency are uncertain. The Kremlin assesses the overall level of anti-Americanism around the world as high and rising. On present evidence, Putin appears to believe that anti-U.S. sentiment is increasing even in Western Europe. The Kremlin's ruling elites assume they can harness this sentiment to advance Moscow's foreign policy goals, making Russia a leader among the states that feel threatened by U.S. behavior. Moscow sees its international influence as stemming from its nuclear weapons, civil technologies and exports of hydrocarbons. Russia's "nuclear triad" of strategic bombers and land- and submarine-launched ballistic missiles remains the most combat-ready part of its armed forces. Russia also bases its international position on its vast hydrocarbons reserves and pursues a twin-track energy policy to serve its foreign policy goals. By tightening the government's grip on oil and gas assets within the country, Moscow has come to exert more pressure on its customers in Europe and Asia. It has become increasingly able to manipulate pipeline routes, membership of project consortia and the amount of oil and gas that is "earmarked" for each particular buyer.

Russia's nuclear status and its position as a major energy exporter create a number of policy challenges. Concerns have been expressed about a possible depreciation of Russia's nuclear deterrent, especially in light of U.S. plans to station missile shield infrastructure in Eastern Europe. Moscow will be tempted to invest in countermeasures if security tensions continue. The image of an "energy superpower" is also problematic. Putin has argued that the tag creates negative connotations, reminiscent of the Cold War. Tensions are rising within Russia over the uneven distribution of oil wealth. And any emerging opposition could exploit the theme of "oil injustice," which would complicate the Kremlin's ability to manage elections in 2007-08. The notion escalates the "war of words" between Russia and the U.S., which rejects the political fungibility of oil and gas exports. The U.S. and E.U. insist that energy trade is a form of business and does not make Russia automatically eligible for the political privileges it demands. The Kremlin's continued reliance on the nuclear arsenal and energy exports as pillars of its international prestige will perpetuate tensions with Washington, whoever wins the presidency in 2008.


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