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The Sunday Times: Putin: How worried should the West be?

EXTRACT: In a world of $70-a-barrel oil, Russia’s vast reserves give it international clout: Putin temporarily cut off supplies of oil and gas to former Soviet satellites until they agreed to pay market prices. He is now rewriting oil deals with western giants such as Shell and BP.

THE ARTICLE

June 10, 2007

Angered by western ‘imperialism’ and emboldened by soaring oil riches, the Russian bear is growling again. Sunday Times reporters analyse the new threat from the east and explain why it cannot be ignored Mark Franchetti in Moscow, Nicola Smith in Heiligendamm, Sarah Baxter in Washington and Richard Woods, Michael Smith and Isabel Oakeshott in London

At the Russian embassy in London on Friday, the greeting to visitors was sub-zero. “What is your question?” barked an official through the intercom; he softened only when told that an appointment with the ambassador himself had been arranged.

Inside the building the reception rooms are magnificently grand with high ceilings, mahogany doors and antique furniture. On a coffee table stood a plate of Jammie Dodger biscuits, meticulously arranged in the shape of a rose. Next to them was a bowl of Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

Yuri Fedotov, the ambassador, had little time for pleasantries. He dismissed notions of a new “cold war” but firmly accused Britain and the West of riding roughshod over Russian sensibilities.

“We expect more respect for our national interests,” Fedotov said. “The very notion of friendship in international relations is very subjective. If it is about partnership, it should be on an equal footing, not the partnership of the horseman and the horse.”

Russia, he added, was threatened by a new American missile interception system – involving the siting of radar stations and rockets in eastern Europe – and would take whatever measures it saw fit to counter it: “This radar station will cover part of Russia, or potentially could cover a part of Russia, which is now not covered by any surveillance systems . . . That is something which is going to change military and strategic balance.”

The ambassador rejected the idea that the US system was purely defensive: “In military and strategic doctrine, the shield is always accompanied by the sword. You cannot divide them. That’s why Russia, if this happens, would be obliged to take necessary measures.”

Not since the days of communist rule has such a chill struck East-West relations. The cold snap started when Putin accused the United States two weeks ago of “imperialism” and threatened to target Russian nuclear weapons at Europe if the “star wars” system went ahead.

Last week at the G8 summit in Germany Putin appeared more conciliatory, offering a deal to President George W Bush to host part of the missile system’s radar network at a site in Azerbaijan instead of Europe.

Bush and Putin emerged from their meeting putting on a show of friendship. Bush enthused: “I told Vladimir we’re looking forward to having him up to my folks’ place in Maine the beginning of July.”

Tony Blair, less than three weeks from quitting No 10, had no need for such play-acting. He made no secret of having a “frank and honest” discussion with the Russian leader. As one senior aide said: “He’s got to the stage now where he doesn’t need to have a good relationship with Putin, he can tell it like it is.”

He and Putin had barely shaken hands before Blair ordered the pool press photographers out of the room. “That’s enough, you can go now,” he said.

The Russian president began by telling Blair he was sick of the West’s recent treatment of his country. He said he was not just annoyed by the missile defence system planned near his borders, he was also upset at American and British support for the Orange revolution in Ukraine.

Blair gave as good as he got, telling Putin that western businesses would pull out of a regime that was not open and democratic. Blair also went on to demand that Russia extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the former KGB man charged with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian exile who was poisoned with polonium210 in London last year.

Afterwards Blair admitted: “The atmosphere on a personal level was perfectly cordial, but there are real issues there and I don’t think they will be resolved any time soon.”

Is Putin bent on flexing the power of a revitalised Russia? Is this the prelude to a new cold war and a world beset once again by nuclear threats? Or does the Russian hardman, who is grappling with numerous domestic and international pressures, have another agenda? MOST people in the West expected the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to usher in a new Russia, one that would become free, democratic and capitalist, just like them.

Instead, robber oligarchs seized assets and power without much care for democracy’s foundation, the rule of law. The result has been deep disillusion and suspicion of the West, reflected last week in the views of Maxim Andreyev, 59, who lives in a tiny, crowded flat in St Petersburg. “When communism fell there was a sense of euphoria,” said Andreyev, a former factory manager who now survives on odd jobs and a pension of £50 a month.

“Fifteen years ago we thought democracy meant that soon we’d live better. And we looked at the West in awe.

“But for people like me life only became harder. I don’t crave the repression of the Soviet Union, but democracy and freedom are luxuries when you have to worry about surviving amid rampant corruption, crime and injustice.”

The physical hardships have had a deep psychological impact, says Vladimir Pozner, one of Russia’s most respected political commentators. “Many people lost everything and they thought the West would help,” he said. “But there was much talk and little action.”

Putin became president in 2000 and responded to the chaos by centralising power, both economic and political.

High commodity prices, especially for oil and gas, rebuilt the shattered finances of the state, if not those of the people. Under Putin, Russia has gone from economic basket-case to energy powerbroker. Economic growth has averaged 6.7% a year and foreign reserves have surged from $12 billion in 1999 to $315 billion at the end of 2006.

In a world of $70-a-barrel oil, Russia’s vast reserves give it international clout: Putin temporarily cut off supplies of oil and gas to former Soviet satellites until they agreed to pay market prices. He is now rewriting oil deals with western giants such as Shell and BP.

This posturing has revived national pride. “In Soviet times things were far from perfect but the rest of the world respected and feared us,” said Galina Saliyeva, 51, a nurse.

“Then when everything collapsed after perestroika, we became the butt of jokes – things which had been our pride and joy like the space programme, the army, our scientists, our nuclear arsenal.

“Now, once again we can be proud of ourselves and frankly we are getting fed up listening to the West’s constant criticism and preaching.”

It is easy for people in the West to forget that Russia is the world’s biggest country by landmass – nearly twice the size of the United States or China. Although economically weakened, it retains the mentality of a giant.

Such is the mood of national revival that even old ogres are enjoying rehabilitation. In Dom Knigi, the largest bookshop in Moscow, the shelves are once again full of adulatory books about Soviet war heroes – including Stalin, the dictator who presided over the murder of millions.

Although some in the West see Putin as a dangerous autocrat with echoes of the past, the Russian people appear to back him (even allowing for state control of most media): opinion polls put his support at 80%.

“Most Russians are with Putin when he hits back at the West,” said a Kremlin aide. “They like to see that Russia is once again standing up to America, that it has its own interests which it will pursue and protect.”

Among Russia’s neighbours the view of Putin and his country is very different. Indeed, the changing nature of the states around Russia that were once part of the Soviet empire are important to understanding Putin’s new aggressive stance. AFTER the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still saw itself as wielding influence in its former satellites, from Estonia through Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and beyond. After September 11, 2001 Putin saw himself as aiding the West by allowing US forces to operate out of bases in Russia’s former southern region.

“There was a meeting between the Russian military commanders and major political forces to decide what to do about 9/11, what support to give,” said Dr Alena Ledeneva, an academic now based in Britain who knows Putin. “Out of 21 people at that meeting only two thought that the president of Russia should support the president of the United States. One was Putin himself.”

Putin was the first foreign leader to telephone Bush after the attacks and offer help. But Russia got little in return. Later the United States pulled out of the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty as it prepared to develop its new defence system.

Worse, the “colour revolutions” of Ukraine and Georgia saw popular protest, encouraged by the West, overthrow leaders sympathetic to Russia. Georgia even applied to Nato and the European Union for forces to replace Russian peace-keepers in the region. Russia began to feel encircled.

A vicious spiral was developing. The more Putin exerted order and control in Russia and attempted to maintain its influence in the former Soviet states, the more vocal became the outside opponents.

Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch who sought asylum in Britain, called for the overthrow of Putin. So did Garry Kasparov, the chess champion who has homes in Russia and the United States. Even Yegor Gaidar, the former Russian prime minister, said: “Sometimes Russia seems to be heading towards fascism.”

Certainly Putin’s administration has actively encouraged the spread of patriotism and nationalism among ordinary Russians, in particular among the young.

The Kremlin founded Nashi, a youth group reminiscent of Komsomol, the communist youth organisation. Nashi members like to march in T-shirts emblazoned with Putin’s portrait. Their antiwestern actions have included harassing the British ambassador in Moscow, disrupting meetings organised by Russia’s beleaguered opposition, burning literature considered too liberal and protesting against attempts last month to stage the country’s first gay parade in Moscow.

In April tiny Estonia, a country of 1.4m people of whom 400,000 are Russians, decided to move a statue of a Russian soldier, erected in 1947, from the centre of Tallinn, its capital, regarding it as an unwelcome reminder of 50 years of Soviet occupation.

The plan sparked riots, apparently orchestrated by the Russian embassy in Tallinn, and a “cyber-attack” from the east. The internet servers for Estonian government departments, media organisations, banks and businesses suffered a mass “denial of service” by computers based in Russia.

Russian espionage activities are also as strong as ever, intelligence officials from several western countries said last week. A Canadian intelligence study said that espionage had “reached a level of prominence . . . that has not been witnessed since the cold war”.

Do these domestic and international tensions really compare with the days when the two superpowers faced each other with their fingers on the nuclear button? To the Russian defector Oleg Gordievsky, it is all very simple: yes, Putin is stuck in a time warp. “He is an old-fashioned KGB apparatchik,” said Gordievsky. “He doesn’t know any other way to deal with the West. He views it like the 1970s.”

OTHERS believe it is more complicated. Professor Robert Service, the author of a new history of communism, said: “It is a gross misuse of language to call [the present tensions] a new cold war. There aren’t great allies lining up behind Russia to take on the United States. What is in process is a new world order, or even disorder, coming into being, with regional powers asserting themselves in the aftermath of the debacle in Iraq.”

That new order might include a Russia-China axis. In 2005 Russia and China held their first joint military exercise and are discussing new energy pipelines. Domestic politics is another important factor in Putin’s stance. His second four-year term as president ends in March and under the Russian constitution he cannot stand for a third consecutive term.

However, many Russians would like him to continue and some observers see his tough stance against the West as a ploy to engineer sufficient popular support to allow him to remain in power. “There’s a lot of talk about it,” said Evgeny Lebedev, a Russian living in London whose father owns one of the last independent newspapers in Russia. “Prominent politicians have been suggesting he should stay on. Russians have this idea: why replace something that is kind of good? What might come afterwards might be much worse.”

Other observers believe that Russia’s belligerence has more to do with its desire to retain influence in regions that it still regards as its own and that the West has simply taken its eye off the ball.

Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said: “We have been taken up with the Americans on the war on terror while rather glibly assuming that postcold war settlement in eastern Europe remained in place. We have rather forgotten that Russia has never accepted that settlement.”

So far the Russian bear is doing no more than gnawing and growling. It remains relatively weak. It needs the West as customers. And, as one Russian expert pointed out last week, many of the Russian elite now send their children to school in Britain.

However, flashpoints are looming. America seems determined to press ahead with its missile system and on Friday Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, implied that it was unlikely to accept Putin’s offer of siting radar in Azerbaijan. “One does not choose sites for missile defence out of the blue,” she said.

Even Russians admit that their country, still laden with nuclear weapons, remains highly unpredictable. “Nobody is totally in control in Russia,” said Ledeneva. “It’s impossible to be in control of that country. In a way I think even Putin himself doesn’t know what will come out of this.”

POTENTIAL FLASHPOINTS

Kosovo

The Balkan region remains legally part of Serbia, though since 1999 it has had semi-independent status under United Nations protection. A recent UN report said “the only viable option” for the territory was to move to full independence. Yesterday US president George Bush said independence should go ahead.

But Russia, an old ally of Serbia, has long been opposed. Last week Putin said that Russia would veto any UN resolution for Kosovan independence.

One European official said: “We have not made progress. In fact we saw a hardening of the Russian position there.”

Oil and gas

The Kremlin is threatening to exert further control over Russia’s gas and oil supplies by removing a licence from TNK-BP, a joint venture half-owned by Britain’s biggest company, to exploit a giant Siberian gasfield.

Analysts predict that by 2020 up to 70% of Britain’s electricity will come from power stations fired by imported gas, much of it from Russia. Putin has already temporarily cut off supplies to some states in rows over price rises.

Extradition

Last week Tony Blair again pressed for the extradition from Russia of Andrei Lugovoi, the former Russian agent accused of murdering the dissident Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London. Russia has refused. It, on the other hand, is demanding to extradite Boris Berezovsky, a former Kremlin insider who fled to Britain.

Georgia and Ukraine

The former members of the Soviet Union have grown increasingly independent and now want to join Nato, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have already done. But Russia sees such moves as creeping encirclement by the West and a threat to its security.

Alena Ledeneva, a Russian academic at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies in London, said: “[President] Putin put a lot of effort into trying to work within the Nato frame. But what Nato has done is start what we now call the encirclement of Russia.

“The outcome is that Nato becomes larger and closer to Russia, which Russians find very difficult to accept. There is a public perception of Nato as something that has a cold war mentality.”

Iran

The Kremlin has been helping Iran build its first nuclear power station, though work stopped earlier this year after a row over unpaid bills. Russia is also helping Burma, Bulgaria, China and India build nuclear plants.

The Kremlin argues that all countries have the right to nuclear technology for energy supply, but the West fears that states such as Iran might use it to develop weapons.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article1909829.ece

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