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ANALYSIS-Russia's Putin rides high ahead of U.S. summit
By Richard Balmforth

MOSCOW, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin's U.S. trip this week will turn the spotlight on his new closeness to Washington -- a seemingly high-risk gamble for any Kremlin leader, especially one with no clear power base at home.

In just two months, the Russian president has thrown his political weight behind U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, and it has done anything but harm to his domestic standing.

He has turned a blind eye as the Pentagon strikes deals in former Soviet Central Asia that could bring thousands of U.S. soldiers pouring into a region of strategic interest for Moscow.

He has ridden roughshod over his generals by announcing the closure of Russia's biggest spy centre in Cuba. He has softened his line on NATO expansion, traditional bugbear of the Kremlin.

His summit talks with George Bush, which start in Washington on Tuesday and end up down in Texas on the U.S. president's ranch, follow a string of apparent one-way concessions to Washington, unimaginable under his mentor, Boris Yeltsin.

But, as he packs his bags for his first official U.S. trip that could result in a deal on strategic arms, ratings show a remarkable 70 percent approval for his policies among Russians.

Internal criticism is muted with the once-fractious State Duma (lower house of parliament) barely raising a murmur at his policies.

"The main thing that keeps him afloat is that...there is no opponent, even hypothetically," said Boris Makarenko, deputy director of Moscow's Centre for Political Technologies.


The 49-year-old former KGB spy has had a few breaks -- principally on the economy -- since he gate-crashed the political scene as Yeltsin's hand-picked successor and went on to win the presidential election in March 2000.

The economy is undergoing enviable annual growth of about 5.5 percent. Only a sharp fall in oil prices could hurt him.

The pragmatic Putin was quick to see the capital to be gained from publicly backing Bush's war on terrorism launched after the September 11 airliner attacks in the United States.

He made a link with Russia's fight against separatists in Chechnya. That was rewarded by softened criticism in the West.

Even his liberal opponents have closed ranks behind him -- for the time being at least -- as he tacitly gives Bush "carte blanche" to send troops into Russia's Central Asian backyard.

Veteran liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, who has criticised Putin in the past over Chechnya, curbs on press freedom and reform of the armed forces, reacted sharply to suggestions that Putin was conceding too much to Washington and getting back too little.

Yavlinsky said Putin had recognised that Russia had a vital interest in the United States successfully suppressing terrorist centres in Afghanistan that also threatened Russia.

"Talk of credits and political payback in this particular circumstance are all on the distant periphery because they do not address the main issue," he said in an interview.


Since vaulting to power from being the obscure head of the FSB domestic security service, the short, wiry Putin has cultivated the image of an energetic leader fond of skiing and judo. Efficiency and control are the hallmarks of his rule.

He wants no repeat of his mistakes of August 2000 when the Kursk nuclear submarine sank after two unexplained onboard explosions, killing the 118-member crew. His initial, offhand reaction seriously damaged his tough, man-of-action image.

A day rarely passes without him commenting publicly -- often laconically -- on a key issue, be it pensions and pay policy or a denunciation of racist attacks on non-Russian market traders.

Outwardly cool, he often loses his composure when he turns to Chechnya, where lives -- of Russian soldiers, rebels and civilians -- are lost daily.

While he has drawn on old colleagues from his home base of St Petersburg and former KGB comrades such as Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov to form his team, he has eschewed the overt cronyism that marked Yeltsin's last years in power.

Because of this and his non-political, bureaucratic background in KGB intelligence network, he still lacks a power base in the political and military elite -- an awkward situation in Russian politics. But he takes care to look, at least, as if he is building a political consensus on sensitive issues.

Though among the first foreign leaders to send a sympathy message to Bush on September 11, it took him 17 days to work out a policy line on U.S. plans for the campaign in Afghanistan.

Commentators say Putin may have given moral support to Bush for U.S. operations but has offered little in concrete terms.

Crucially for his own people, scarred by the memory of Russia's own nine-year military debacle in Afghanistan, he has made it clear that no Russian troops will be sent there again.

Many see his pro-West shift as based on a pragmatic acceptance of political reality in which he avoids battles that he knows he cannot win, such as over NATO enlargement.

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