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Moscow Times
February 22, 2008
In Like a Dove, Out Like a Hawk
By Nikolaus von Twickel
Staff Writer
Editor's note: This article, the fourth in a series about President Vladimir Putin's legacy, examines his foreign policy.

Remembering the headlines that Vladimir Putin made in his early days as president can be saccharine sweet.

During an ice-breaking summit in Slovenia in the summer of 2001, Putin agreed with U.S. President George W. Bush to start a dialogue to build a new framework for global security.

In Berlin that fall, he told the Bundestag that Russia was a friendly European country and received a standing ovation.

On a state visit to Poland in early 2002, he made a grand gesture of reconciliation by laying flowers at the monument to the Home Army, a resistance force persecuted and discredited by the Soviets.

Contrast this with the events during Putin's last year in office.

In February 2007, he told a Munich security conference that the United States was returning to the Cold War era with its plans for a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

In May, he indirectly compared the United States to the Third Reich during a Victory Day address on Red Square.

Later that month, he got into a public argument with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about a crackdown on protesters, and he scolded Estonia for moving a Soviet war memorial.

In July, he announced Moscow's withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and ordered the resumption of Soviet-era bomber flights.

Also last summer, simmering tensions with Britain escalated, with both sides expelling diplomats in a dispute over the poisoning death of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko. Several months later, the Foreign Ministry ordered the British Council, the cultural arm of the British Embassy, to close its offices outside Moscow.

Kosovo has proven a conflict zone for the Kremlin for months, and the Serbian province's declaration of independence last Sunday is exacerbating Russia's already strained ties with the United States and the European Union.

As Putin prepares to leave office, his legacy on foreign policy looks likely to be tarnished by a host of seemingly unsolvable international disputes that have created the worst crisis since the Cold War.

So why did the president take off like a dove and touch down like a hawk?

The answer, diplomats, analysts and the Kremlin itself said, is not linked to a change in foreign policy but to a change in how the Kremlin expresses itself.

"There is a real distinction between Putin's two terms as president," said Nikolas Gvosdev, a senior fellow at the Nixon Center in Washington.

"During the first term," he said, "there was a lingering sentiment that Russia would be welcomed as a major player by the Western community."

By the second term, however, the economy was powering ahead thanks to high oil prices -- a development that Gvosdev called "quite unexpected." As a result, Moscow gained new leverage and changed its expectations from becoming a junior partner to a more independent player on the world stage.

"Russia is in a different position than in 2001. We all know that its coffers are full to the brink and that is has paid off all its debt," said Andrej Benedejcic, who was a foreign policy adviser to Slovenia's prime minister during Putin's first meeting with Bush in June 2001.

Global oil prices have quintupled in the period from 2002 to 2008, rising from under $20 per barrel to a record $100 in January and again this week.

Benedejcic, now Slovenia's ambassador to Moscow, said the oil wealth had allowed the Kremlin to act more assertively, but its overall foreign policy has not changed in eight years. "There was no salto mortale," he said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia's foreign policy has become more "proactive" in recent years and that Russia has found it easier to pursue its economic interests abroad. However, he said, "Our foreign policy has [followed] a single line."

Benedejcic, who has met Putin several times, said the president always struck him as a credible and knowledgeable interlocutor who made his points very clear.

"Putin's arrival was refreshingly pragmatic and a change from what we had seen from Moscow in the decade before," he said. Boris Yeltsin "was not that interested in a complex approach to foreign policy."

The Shift Starts

The shift in rhetoric started in 2004. That year brought not only Putin's re-election, but a series of political upheavals close to Russia's borders.

In January, Mikheil Saakashvili took the presidency in Georgia following a peaceful uprising that unseated a Moscow-leaning administration. In May, the European Union accepted 10 new members, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the first former Soviet republics to enter the bloc. In November, a fraudulent presidential election in Ukraine prompted mass protests that ushered in the Western-leaning leadership of Viktor Yushchenko.

Georgia and Ukraine proved to be the turning point.

"This laid the basis for a siege mentality and a sense of paranoia among some Russian rulers, who say the CIA and Americans were totally behind these events," said Charles Grant, director of Centre for European Reform, a London think tank.

The Kremlin has accused Western countries of helping bankroll both uprisings through nongovernmental organizations and has warned against similar attempts in Russia.

"There will undoubtedly be attempts to overthrow the government. But they will fail," Putin's deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov told the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2005.

Although Western analysts like Grant argue that Western NGOs probably had less effect on the events in Georgia and Ukraine than Russia credits them with, the government passed strict restrictions on NGOs in 2006 and fostered anti-Western youth movements like Nashi.

In Ukraine, then-Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski emerged as a key figure in mediations to end the election turmoil in 2004.

"Putin was very furious and personally offended because of the Polish involvement," said Marek Menkiszak, director of the Russia program at the Polish Institute of Eastern Studies.

The winter after Ukraine's election, state-controlled Gazprom cut gas supplies to Ukraine and, consequently, to Europe amid a politically tinged price dispute. After that, relations rapidly soured with a number of countries, particularly in the EU and some of its new member states.

Moscow imposed economic sanctions on Poland and Georgia that have been described as politically motivated. It banned Georgian wine and mineral water, the country's key exports to Russia, and Polish meat and agricultural products.

Washington also shoulders much of the blame for the Kremlin's hawkish stance, said Horst Teltschik, a former foreign policy aide to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the organizer of the security conference where Putin delivered his Munich speech.

"He built a very constructive relationship with George W. Bush ... but sadly, the U.S. has not always shown enough respect for Russia's interests," Teltschik said.

In particular, he said, Moscow was angered by the missile defense plans and NATO's eastward expansion.

Putin has responded by cultivating stronger ties with China and India. He has also actively developed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an intergovernmental body comprising China and the Central Asian states that focuses on streamlining security and economic policy.

Teltschik said the organization aimed to bolster security on Russia's southern and eastern flank, not to counter NATO.

"Moscow already has one foot in NATO," he said, pointing to the NATO-Russia Council, a cooperative body set up in 2002.

Part of the reason Russia's clout has increased on the world stage is due to the diminished role of the United States, with its weakened dollar and war in Iraq, and the appearance of new, rising economic players.

"The U.S. no longer holds that position as the undisputed global power," said Gvosdev, the Nixon Center analyst.

Putin's legacy for now looks likely to be one of competition rather than cooperation, with Georgia and Ukraine serving as prime examples of an ongoing struggle for influence with the United States and Europe.

While Russia continues to cooperate with some countries, like Iran, it "has not been a promoter of much progress," said Jan Marinus Wiersma, the Dutch vice chairman of the Socialist group in the European Parliament.

Wiersma said Moscow's assertiveness had "an enormous impact" on the international atmosphere and had made cooperation more complicated. Yet he conceded that the EU had also changed after its eastward expansion. Former Soviet allies like Estonia and Poland have lobbied the EU to be more critical of Russia.

Wiersma suggested that this might be counterproductive. "We must become more pragmatic," he said.

But Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian parliament's European Affairs Committee, defended his country's stance and argued that Putin would be remembered as a leader who turned back the clock.

"Russia's vision of the world and of its role in it seems to be through the eyes of the Cold War," he said, singling out the renewed bomber flights and the British Council closure. "These are the tools of the 1970s," he said.

He accused Putin of creating a widening gap with the West. "Never before in history has the Western world provided such a friendly environment for Russia," he said.

Putin the Chameleon

A senior Georgian lawmaker described Putin as a chameleon.

"His swinging between cooperation and confrontation is quite schizophrenic, especially in his first years as he tried to show that he could work well with the international community," said Konstantin Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee.

As an example, he mentioned Putin's speech in the Bundestag in the fall of 2001. "People were very enthusiastic because he spoke German and seemed very open," said Gabashvili, who was serving as his country's ambassador to Berlin at the time.

But Gabashvili said he had not been impressed. "I knew back then that it was all rhetoric. It takes more than just speaking the language to be a Germanophile," he said.

The real Putin, he said, had not spoken in Berlin, but in Munich in February 2007.

The same could be said about Putin's real feelings about Poland, said Menkiszak, the analyst with the Polish Institute of Eastern Studies. When Putin made the historic gesture at Warsaw's Home Army memorial in January 2002, "he wanted to get something," Menkiszak said. Putin's visit coincided with his efforts to get Poland to consider an alternative transit route for the existing Yamal-Europe pipeline that would cross Poland to the West.

"Putin's policy is pragmatic only in the sense that is not driven by ideology," Menkiszak said. "His only ideology is the revival of Russia."

As Putin's term ends, no fundamental changes are in sight. His preferred successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has advocated a less confrontational tone, but he seemed to backtrack when he accused foreign NGOs in Russia of spying in a recent interview with Itogi magazine.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters last month that the current policy should remain in place because it enjoyed overwhelming public support.

And yet there are clear signs that the country's elite are debating the future course of foreign policy. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Unified Energy System CEO Anatoly Chubais warned recently that the hawkish rhetoric of the past year might hurt the economy. "Of course we can continue to fight the British Council," Chubais said at a business conference last month. "But how much does this foreign policy cost Russia?"

Putin has been left to his own devices to some extent after losing his closest Western allies. German Chancellor Gerhard Schr der was voted out of office in November 2005, while Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stepped down in May 2006 and French President Jacques Chirac left last May.

Putin has avoided major European powers during his recent trips abroad. In May, he took an entourage of businessmen and billionaires to Austria and Luxemburg, two tiny EU countries that have strong economic ties to Russia.

"Putin's last true friend is now [Luxemburg Prime Minister] Jean-Claude Juncker," a Western diplomat said sarcastically about the trip.

Previous reports in the Putin's legacy series can be found online at www.themoscowtimes.com.


Back on the World Stage

Key foreign policy events in Russia's drive to re-establish itself as a global power:

August 2000: After the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine, President Vladimir Putin remains on vacation in Sochi for four days, fueling the perception of a wavering president and a weak nation. This is in stark contrast to the decisive, blunt Prime Minister Putin who promised to "waste" Chechen rebels in September 1999.

January 2001: On his first visit to the Foreign Ministry, Putin criticizes diplomats for a lack of foresight and for their failure to defend Russia's economic interests abroad.

June 2001: Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush meet in Slovenia. After an outdoor walk, Bush says he caught a glimpse of Putin's soul and found him trustworthy.

July 2001: At a meeting in Genoa, Italy, Putin and Bush agree to link U.S. plans to build a missile-defense shield to talks on reducing their nations' nuclear stockpiles.

September 2001: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Putin backs Bush and offers support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

September 2001: Putin addresses the Bundestag and wins a standing ovation for switching into German.

January 2002: Putin lays flowers at a memorial for anti-Soviet fighters during a visit to Poland.

Summer 2002: While the United States and Britain prepare for war, Russia sides with Germany and France in favoring a more cooperative approach in a standoff over weapons inspections in Iraq.

December 2002: Bush orders the Pentagon to build up a missile-defense system. It later emerges that components of the system will be based in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow says this would destabilize the world and lead to a "new, senseless arms race."

March 2003: Putin denounces the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as a "big political mistake" and demands that the troops pull out.

October 2003: Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky is arrested on politically tinged charges, starting a shakeup of the energy sector and sending a powerful message to foreign investors.

November 2003: Georgia's Rose Revolution topples President Eduard Shevardnadze and later brings the staunchly pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili to power.

March 2004: Putin is easily re-elected president with 71.3 percent of the vote.

March 29, 2004: NATO expands eastward and accepts three former Soviet republics, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

May 2004: In its largest expansion to date, the European Union accepts 10 new members, including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

November 2004: Ukraine's Orange Revolution replaces a pro-Moscow government with the pro-Western leadership of Viktor Yushchenko. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski plays a key role in mediations to end the election turmoil.

January 2005: State-controlled Gazprom cuts gas supplies to Ukraine, leading to shortages in Europe. Russia calls the dispute purely commercial, while Ukraine and some Western governments see a political motive.

November 2005: Moscow bans imports of Polish meat and plant products, officially citing quality concerns.

March 2006: Health officials ban all Georgian and Moldovan wines, saying they contain traces of dangerous pesticides. Several months later, Moscow imposes a travel and trade embargo on Georgia amid a spy flap.

February 2007: Putin denounces Washington's foreign policy during a blistering speech at a Munich security conference.

May 2007: Putin warns of "threats" reminiscent of the Third Reich during a Victory Day speech, prompting the Foreign Ministry to issue a denial that he was comparing the United States to Nazi Germany.

May 2007: Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel clash at a Russia-EU summit when Merkel publicly accuses Russia of cracking down on opposition protests.

July 2007: Putin announces Russia's withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. He also orders the restart of Soviet-era long-range bomber flights.

February 2008: Kosovo declares independence and is recognized by major Western powers, drawing sharp protests from Moscow.

-- MT.