Tuesday, July 17, 2007

With due respect to Mr Putin . . .

With due respect to Mr Putin . . .
By Philip Stephens
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: July 17 2007 03:00 | Last updated: July 17 2007 03:00

Vladimir Putin's Russia is a diminished power that craves to recover superpower status. The Russian president wants to expunge the perceived humiliations of the 1990s and to deploy Russia's energy wealth to restore at least the illusion of superpower parity with the US.

We can speculate as to his motives. Mr Putin's place in history no doubt looms large in the calculated rekindling of Russian nationalism. So too, more immediately, does his anxiety to retain a power base if, as presently announced, he relinquishes the presidency next year. Mr Putin is not the sort of leader to slip quietly into gilded retirement; and Russia anyway is not the sort of place where that is likely to be a safe option.

Motives aside, the strategy has been clear enough. Suppression of demo-cracy in Russia has been followed by the repudiation of just about everything agreed by Boris Yeltsin. Mr Putin's predecessor saw Russia's future as part of the west. Mr Putin rails against such "subservience". Enriched by oil and gas, Russia must return to the front rank of powers.

International agreements concluded in the 1990s are thus deemed to be as void as the arrangements made at the same time with western companies. These were not, in the Kremlin's eyes, bargains between equals, but rather exploitation of Russian weakness. So, just as the state has reappropriated the oil and gas industry, it no longer feels bound by security and co-operation deals with the west.

You can see the attraction for Mr Putin. Authoritarianism has restored order to Russia. Oil and gas receipts have seen the economy grow strongly. If the country can never reclaim the superpower status of the Soviet Union, it can strike the same pose.

By inviting confrontation with the west and, in particular, with the US, Mr Putin seeks to create the impression of equality. Thus the Russian leader shares lobster with George W. Bush at the Bush family compound in Maine one week and suspends Russian participation in the revised Conventional Forces in Europe treaty the next.

Set in this context, the sanctions against Russia announced yesterday by David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, will not cause sleepless nights in the Kremlin. The measures, including the expulsion of four diplomats identified as intelligence agents and a tightening of visa rules, follow the murder in London last year of Alexander Litvinenko, a former operative in the FSB security service turned fierce critic of Mr Putin.

Mr Litvinenko, a naturalised British citizen, was poisoned with the highly radioactive isotope, polonium-210. The Kremlin has refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, another former FSB agent identified by British prosecution authorities as the alleged killer.

Mr Miliband's package is about the minimum the British government could countenance given Moscow's disregard for the evidence amassed against Mr Lugovoi. In the short term, it is likely to attract nothing save Russian retaliation. The chill in Anglo-Russian relations may quite soon harden into a freeze.

This, though, is more than a British problem. Russia's new belligerence demands a response from the west and, above all, from Europe that is both coherent and tough. There is no need for histrionics. There is a pressing one for hard-headed resolve.

A first step would be for the European Union to take off the rose-tinted spectacles that have persuaded some to cling to the idea that Russia is still on the path to democracy. There will be no such transition under Mr Putin or any chosen successor. European governments must abandon the delusion that they can guarantee their energy security by striking bilateral deals. They all end up losers as the Kremlin divides and rules.

Nor can Europe contemplate anything resembling a strategic co-operation agreement while Russia blocks a settlement in Kosovo and seeks to bully the Baltic states.

None of this precludes engagement, or co-operation on issues of mutual interest. Moscow has as much to fear from the nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would be likely to follow Iran's acquisition of a weapon. Russia fears Islamist terrorism as much as does the west. It needs western customers and technology to exploit its energy resources.

The west in general, and the US in particular, should be conscious of Russian sensibilities. I have heard several US officials say that, at the outset, Washington badly mishandled its plans for missile defence sites in eastern Europe. But sensitivity is not the same as granting Moscow a veto.

The word you hear most often from Kremlin officials is "respect". Russia must be afforded its due status. We must accept its place in the pantheon of great powers.

Fair enough. But, with all due respect to Mr Putin, Russia will not gain the recognition it covets by crushing dissent at home and making enemies abroad. In the medium to long term it has much more to lose than to gain. Any objective assessment of the potential strategic threats to Russia locates them to the country's south and east. The west, as Mr Yeltsin seems to have understood, is Russia's natural ally.


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