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The Guardian: Leader: Standing up to the west

EXTRACT: Gazprom can earn its reputation as an honourable and secure energy supplier by acting as such. Enforcing the rule of business law and honouring contracts with Shell over Sakhalin and BP over Kovykta would also help.


Thursday April 12, 2007

It should come as no surprise that Russia is preparing its own military response to US plans to build a missile defence system in eastern Europe. As the Guardian reports this week, missile defence is emerging as one of the big issues driving Russia and America apart once more. Behind both the missile issue and the use of Gazprom as a tool of foreign policy, is a nagging question: what is Russia’s relationship with the west?

It should astonish no one that there is total disagreement about the function, and therefore the potential strategic threat, of an interceptor missile base in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. The Americans claim the interceptors could only work against Iranian intercontinental missiles. The Russians say the Iranians are nowhere near acquiring them. The US insists the interceptors have a kinetic warhead, designed to knock out Iranian missiles midway through their flight. Geography would suggest that they would be no use against missiles launched closer to the western border.

The Russians counter that the radar would not only to detect any missile within a range of 4,500 kilometres (that covers all of European Russia) but also direct any western missile, whether it has a warhead or not, on to a target in that range. The existence of an “attack” radar on Russia’s border changes the strategic balance of nuclear forces negotiated since the Soviet Union signed the now defunct ABM treaty in 1972. Mikhail Gorbachev dismantled a Russian radar of this nature in Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia, for the same reason.

Whoever is right on detail, the outline is clear. The west, through Nato, has stepped into the vacuum created by the withdrawal of Russian forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the countries of eastern Europe and the Baltic states, membership of Nato is the gold standard of independence – and an insurance policy against Russian occupation. But Russia’s retreat has not been rewarded by a new era of international cooperation. The west won the cold War and advanced eastwards in time honoured fashion. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia had 2,400 missiles. In five year’s time, it will have reduced this to 300. A Russian rocket force of this size is vulnerable to a defence shield which runs from one border to another, given the installation of a radar off the coast of Alaska. Russia is right to think the balance of strategic nuclear forces is changing, and a new arms race has already started.

The challenge posed by the state energy company Gazprom to relations with western Europe should be easier to solve. Not everything that happens to Russia is a western plot. If Gazprom wants to change its image (and its chairman Dmitry Medvedev expresses frustration in an interview with the Guardian today about its business being viewed in the context of a new cold war ) then it is within its power to do so. With size – Gazprom owns more gas and oil reserves than anyone barring Saudi Arabia and Iran – comes responsibility. Gazprom can earn its reputation as an honourable and secure energy supplier by acting as such. Enforcing the rule of business law and honouring contracts with Shell over Sakhalin and BP over Kovykta would also help.

In the end both issues come down to the question of Russia’s political system. It should not be blithely accepted that Russia is doomed to autocracy, just because its history is dominated by it. It is surely not in the country’s own interests to maintain a system where real political parties are run out of town and sham ones created to give a pretence of competition in an election year. Next year Vladimir Putin will hand over power, but it will be to one of his own men. The anointed one will be slavishly promoted by state television and voted in by a grateful electorate. The new tsar will surround himself with a fresh group of boyars. This system does not befit a modern nation.,,2054878,00.html

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