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Mosnews: Russia’s Putin Heads to France for Talks

President Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin (above) arrives in Paris on Friday on a visit that will test Western responses to Moscow’s push to use its booming oil and gas revenues to gain a foothold in some of Europe’s key industries, Reuters reports.

Putin meets French President Jacques Chirac before the two leaders join German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a three-way meeting on Saturday where Moscow’s ambition to join the core of European aerospace group EADS will be a top issue. That will add an extra twist to the familiar themes of energy policy and Iran’s nuclear program that have dominated recent diplomacy between Russia and the West.

The meetings come as Moscow has sparked concern by flexing its financial muscles, most recently in a standoff with firms such as Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil over huge oil and gas projects in the eastern Sakhalin region. Part of the aim of the meeting will be to defuse tensions over oil and gas, which have been simmering since Russia sparked a scare last winter by cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine.

“They want to tie Russia in far enough to make it difficult for Moscow to make a political issue out of energy policy,” said Josef Janning, of the German Bertelsmann Foundation.

But the world’s second biggest oil exporter and holder of the largest reserves of natural gas appears determined to use its assets to back its claims as a global economic power.

“Russia today considers itself a financial power capable of making very significant acquisitions in the European Union and not just in the energy sector,” said Thomas Gomart, head of the Russia program at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.“The European Union has still not understood how completely that has changed their attitude,” he said.

Gas giant Gazprom, the world’s biggest producer, has already made clear its ambitions to expand in Europe, Asia and the United States but Moscow’s goals plainly go beyond energy into strategic industrial sectors, a development that has been greeted with unease elsewhere.

An attempt by Russian steel group Severstal to buy European steel giant Arcelor failed earlier this year after it lost out to a rival bid by Mittal Steel, which some Russian politicians took as a sign of anti-Russian bias. That was followed this month by Russia’s acquisition of a 5 percent stake in EADS, topped by comments by the Kremlin that it would consider raising its stake to a blocking minority.

EADS rebuffed the approach last week but the move has major strategic implications and has set alarm bells ringing. A European government official who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter said Russia’s entry into EADS and its push to gain more say in the company was a source of “major concern”.

He said there was a fear any increase in Russian influence in the group could torpedo the aerospace group’s long-standing drive to gain a foothold in the U.S. defense market.

The sensitivity of the energy and economic issues has overshadowed the Iran question which remains a key dossier but Merkel, a close U.S. ally, will be keen to ensure that the symbolism of the encounter does not reawaken past tensions the other two leaders have had with Washington.

“She’ll want to avoid anything that gives the impression that there is a special Chirac-Merkel-Putin way of looking at developments in Iran,” said Janning. “And she will certainly be against any attempt, when they appear in public together, to be seen to be handing out marks on U.S. foreign policy.”

Related Article

Russia’s Putin Faces Growing Chorus of Criticism in U.S.

Created: 09.08.2006 11:32 MSK (GMT +3), Updated: 12:25 MSK

Alison Espach

CNSNews.com

The “solid friendship” that President Bush cited last month in describing his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is now stacked against growing criticism for Putin’s alleged attempts to revert Russia to a “police state.”

“Information is now being closed again in the Russian Federation of Mr. Putin,” Paul Goble, a professor at the University of Tartu in Estonia, said recently during a discussion at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Goble and other scholars criticized Putin for exerting control over most of the national broadcasting and radio stations, for allegedly bullying nearby countries, including the cutting off of natural gas to Ukraine earlier this year, and for the recent crackdown on U.S. non-governmental organizations.

Russia went from the designation of “partly free” in 2004 to “not free” in 2005, according to a Freedom House report, and Russia’s freedom of the press is now ranked only slightly better (a total score of 68) than that of Iran (score of 80) and China (score of 82). The United States was given a score of 17 for press freedoms in the same report.

Goble said Russia’s re-traced steps towards communism are powered by the desire for money. “One of the scary things is that in Stalin’s time and Lenin’s time you saw people fighting over political power and ideas, and now you see them fighting over money,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily bode well for the people living under them.”

According to Goble, Russia is on Iran’s, not America’s, side, when it comes to the controversy involving Iran’s nuclear program. “The Russians have built the Iranian nuclear capacity. The Russians have provided the Iranian government with the most advanced anti-aircraft system available to them in order to prevent an American-Israeli strike against those people who, among other things, call for the elimination of the State of Israel from the map of the world,” said Goble.

In May the United States placed an embargo on the sale of all weapons containing U.S. components to Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela and urged Russia to reconsider its policies on weapons sales to that country. However, in July Russia sold 24 aircraft and 53 helicopters to Chavez as part of a larger arms deal totalling $3 billion.

Lee Edwards, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation said this type of Russian military sponsorship is what led to the Middle East crisis we face today. “It is a fact that Soviet sponsorship of Yasser Arafat and PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) allowed Moscow to gain influence on the terrorist groups like Hezbollah,” Edwards said.

“If communist-coordinated terrorists had been squashed or never existed … the world would not be plagued with the present day terrorists Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda and the other violent organizations that commit mass murder in the name of God,” he added.

Goble suspects that Putin will violate the Russian Constitution and serve longer that the allotted two terms. Putin was previously criticized for changing the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation in order to do away with the election of governors so that he could personally appoint them.

“I guarantee you there will be large numbers of American experts that tell you this is perfectly approvable,” said Goble. “But I promise you, Mr. Putin, or at least the people around him, are going to push very hard to violate the constitution. It will be tragic if it happens because it will be one more failure in the movement in freedom and the movement away from totalitarian authoritarianism.”

Clifford Gaddy, senior fellow from the Brookings Institution, said Russia’s role as a world player is now owed partly to its connections with oil and gas producers like Venezuela and Iran.

“What Russia’s done under Putin is very consistently use this windfall wealth to reduce any leverage that the outside world, especially maybe the U.S., has on Russia,” Gaddy said.

Russia has huge foreign currency reserves, a large trade balance, a large budget surplus, and no debt whatsoever to the International Monetary Fund, Gaddy added. As a result, he said, Russia now feels much more independent than it did in the mid-1990s after its economy had crashed.

“There is resentment against the U.S., because of the feeling that the U.S. took advantage of Russia during this period,” Gaddy said.
A possible Russian threat to U.S. interests could be a matter of a “temporary, almost adolescent rebellion” or a “defining new fundamental strategic trajectory of Russia,” he added. “It’s both a question of intentions and capabilities,” said Gaddy. “I am not really sure about the intentions, but I think the capabilities need to be questioned, because it’s all contingent on this windfall on high oil and gas prices internationally.”

Goble said the U.S. is not paying attention to the threat posed by Russia, “just because someone has learned that in polite society that even if you were a KGB officer and a member of the communist party, it doesn’t do to say that.” Putin served with the Russian secret service for 16 years. “It is far more important to proclaim that you are now a democratic and a convinced free market capitalist,” Goble continued, referring to Putin’s motives. “It’s a huge mistake on our part to assume that those words alone constitute the end of the threat that these people represented to the past and the tragedy they continue to visit on the populations that are all too often under their control and now neglected because some people have decided that victory has already been achieved,” Goble said.

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