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Financial Times: Cold front

By Washington
Published: June 8 2007 03:00 | Last updated: June 8 2007 03:00

As an intercontinental ballistic missile soared on a test flight from Russia’s Plesetsk cosmodrome last week, the ghosts of the cold war seemed to stir. Within days, President Vladimir Putin was calling the test a direct response to US plans to build a missile “shield” in central Europe – and warning foreign reporters that if the US went ahead, Russia would once again target nuclear missiles at Europe.

At yesterday’s G8 meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany, the two countries took a step back from the brink. Mr Putin proposed an alternative site for the missile defence system’s radar in Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, while US President GeorgeW. Bush offered “strategic dialogue” with Russia on the issue.

But repairing broader relations between the two sides will require delicate and imaginative diplomacy. On a range of issues, the most serious rift in two decades has opened between the west and Russia, stoked by Moscow’s aggressive rhetoric of recent months. The question is whether the apparent slide towards a new nuclear stand-off can be reversed, and how.

Part of the answer may lie in understanding what is behind Russia’s sabre-rattling and what it wants to achieve. In his combative, acerbic interview with western journalists last week, Mr Putin left a hefty clue. “We want to be heard,” he said. “We want our position to be understood. We do not exclude that our American partners might reconsider their decision [on missile defence].”

The desire to be heeded is a message voiced with surprising unanimity by senior Russian officials. As Russia enjoys an oil-fuelled economic recovery, Moscow seethes that the west still treats it as a vanquished power. Rightly or wrongly, Russia believes it has been forced for 15 years to swallow western foreign policy actions, its objections simply trampled on.

Above all, it believes the west broke an early 1990s promise that Nato would not expand eastwards. Instead, the military alliance now encompasses not just former Soviet satellites but the three former Soviet Baltic republics. Moscow ignores that these new democracies asked to join Nato, motivated largely by residual distrust of Russia. Instead, it sees attempts to encircle it.

“The stones of the Berlin Wall have long been distributed as souvenirs,” Mr Putin said in a speech in Munich in February that marked a turning point in Russia’s attitude to the west. “And now they are trying to impose new dividing lines and walls on us.”

A second focus of Russian resentment is the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo. Russia has always seen Nato’s 1999 bombing of Serbia as unjustified aggression that ripped away a chunk of a fellow Slavic nation. It sees today’s western moves to grant Kosovo independence as just trying to finish the job.

Russia also believes Mr Putin was snubbed in endeavours to build a new relationship with the west after September 11 2001. The Russian president was famously the first foreign leader to telephone Mr Bush after the terror attacks. He later supported US bases in former Soviet central Asia to aid action in Afghanistan, gambling on a pro-western shift in foreign policy in the face of domestic opposition.

Instead of winning the partnership of equals it craved, just months later Russia saw the US pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, paving the way for today’s missile defence plans. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq against objections from Moscow and others. Then came what Russia views as unacceptable meddling in its back yard, with western-backed pro-democracy revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. Once again, Moscow overlooks the electoral fraud that sparked both events, blaming instead what it sees as a dubious alliance of opposition groups with foreign-funded non-governmental organisations, diplomats and exiled Russian “oligarchs”.

The determination to prevent any possibility of a Ukrainian-style revolution in Russia may be a big factor in the Kremlin’s stepped-up campaign since 2005 against independent media and opposition. That, in turn, has fuelled western censure of Mr Putin’s anti-democratic tendencies – and Russian bitterness over that lecturing.

Mr Putin’s Munich speech saw that pent-up exasperation released. The Russian president railed against US “unilateralism”, accusing America of “overstepping its borders in every way”. But Moscow officials insist Mr Putin’s speech was not a declaration of conflict. “We are no longer in ideological conflict with the west,” Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a presidential aide, said afterwards. “Russia is now a totally different country.”

Anyone who has driven recently through Hummer-driving, Gucci-wearing Moscow may agree. Russia has embraced a cut-throat capitalism. And while the west accuses it of using energy as a political weapon, there is something to Moscow’s claims that hard-nosed business logic drove its move to raise the subsidised natural gas prices it charged former Soviet republics to market levels – even if some got longer transition periods than others.

Yet if Russia is no longer committed to exporting socialist revolution, it still insists on its right to maintain a sphere of influence in former Soviet states, which the west rejects. It also opposes the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” and insists attempts to impose western democracy such as in Iraq are imperialistic and doomed to failure.

Officials and analysts say Mr Putin’s Munich speech was a signal that Russia is no longer prepared to be pushed around. Missile defence is the issue on which it has decided to take its strongest stand – even though Washington contends that the system is aimed not at Russia but at Iran.

Officials in Moscow admit the system poses little short-term threat to Russia but fear the interceptor missile stations the US wants to site in Poland and the radar station planned in the Czech Republic could later house upgraded equipment able to hit Russian missiles. After Nato enlargement and the agreement to establish US bases in Bulgaria and Romania, Moscow sees the latest project as a step too far.

As Mr Putin has ratcheted up the pressure, he has put other issues on the table – including two central planks of the post-cold war security architecture. He questions the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty: why, he asks, should Russia and the US be the only countries banned from having medium-range missiles by this bilateral treaty when lots of other countries now have them? Mr Putin has also threatened to pull out of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which capped levels of tanks and combat aircraft in Europe. No one else complies, he contends, so why should Russia?

Cliff Kupchan, a former State department official and now an analyst at Eurasia Group, a New York consultancy, says the Kremlin is trying to reverse cases where it believes others took advantage of Russia’s 1900s weakness. That has included its efforts to tame over-mighty “oligarchs” and renegotiate energy deals with Royal Dutch Shell and BP’s Russian venture. “Russia is revisiting its Time of Troubles,” says Mr Kupchan, using a term for a 17th-century political crisis that Russians now often use for the 1990s, “whether that means oil privatisations or foreign policy deals.”

Yet domestic considerations are almost certainly adding to the anti-western tirades. Andrei Illarionov, Mr Putin’s former economic adviser turned outspoken critic, points to elections next year, when the president is due to stand down.

The Kremlin learnt to “mobilise” voters to support first Mr Yeltsin and thenMr Putin by building up a supposed foe or threat. In 1996, it was a Communist return; in 2000, Chechen terrorism; in 2004, a resurgence of the oligarchs. This time it is the west. Russia, suggests Mr Illarionov, is deliberately aggravating relations “to provoke [the west] to resort to harsh statements or even actions which could be presented as meddling in internal affairs”.

So how should the west respond? Moscow analysts and Russia-watchers in Washington sayMr Putin clearly wants a concession from the US.

“The US just once has to support Russia on some issue, or take at least one Russian concern seriously. That has not been the case for 15 years,” says Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political consultant with links to the Kremlin. Ivan Safranchuk, an analyst at the World Security Institute think-tank in Moscow, agrees that for Russia, “it is no longer enough to agree to disagree”.

At the same time, people familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking say Mr Putin, while trying to split the US and European Union on the missile defence issue, may have blundered by uniting them instead. Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French leader. and Germany’s Angela Merkel are determined to take a tougher line with Mr Putin than their predecessors. That may make him open to a face-saving compromise short of cancelling missile defence.

Moving the planned radar station to an existing Russian base in Azerbaijan, as Mr Putin suggested yesterday, could be one way out. Another answer that has been mooted is to locate the interceptor missiles in the UK rather than Poland, a solution US officials call viable if not ideal and say Russia has hinted it might accept.

But it is not clear how much ground the Bush administration is prepared to give on a system to which it is heavily committed, and may be determined to present as afait accompli to the next US president. Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest in Washington, says “realists” in the administration are weaker because they have little to show for their policy of engagement with Russia. “Condoleezza Rice could defuse the situation if she were to guarantee that the missile defence station would only have a limited number of interceptors, would never increase, and/or the station would be dismantled if there is no longer a threat from Iran – but she won’t and she can’t,” he says.

Even if the two sides can resolve their differences over missile defence, however, other painful issues lurk around the corner – including the future of Kosovo. Solving those may require a rethink of the way the west deals with Russia.

One approach would be to focus first on issues where agreement seems possible. Western officials see signs that joint progress can be made on Iran’s nuclear programme after Russia ceased construction work on Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor – even though Moscow insists this is only because Iran stopped paying.

A new approach could also include recognising that, for all the west’s concerns over Russia’s reliability as an energy supplier, the two sides have a totally interdependent energy relationship, far bigger than in Soviet times. Despite the flood of money high energy prices are bringing into Russia, moreover, the country remains dependent on foreign investment to achieve ambitious plans now being drawn up to modernise its industry and infrastructure.

Mr Kupchan of Eurasia Group says the west needs to acknowledge that Russia is back as a leading power – but emphasise that this comes with a responsibility to play a constructive global role. “The reality of today’s international system is that Russia is rapidly becoming a major non-aligned power,” he says, “more along the lines of China or India than a junior partner or disciple of the west.”

Additional reporting by Guy Dinmore and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

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