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Washington Times
November 11, 2001
Putin builds a Western Russia
By Peter Zeihan


Mr. Zeihan is an analyst with Stratfor in Austin, Texas, a provider of global intelligence to private companies and subscribers. Its Web site is Stratfor.com.

In the aftermath of September 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is due in Washington tomorrow, is taking advantage of shifting political alliances to reposition Russia as a Western power.

To the consternation of many Russian oligarchs, politicians and bureaucrats, he has drastically altered many of the underlying precepts of Russian foreign policy in recent weeks.

Although it appears he is giving away quite a lot to the West, many so-called concessions can be easily recouped. Russia will benefit from Mr. Putin's quest for Westernization no matter how the United States fares in its war in Afghanistan.

The events of September 11 reduced the existing political structure to rubble. Relations the world over are being reworked in reaction to the United States' new world view, and Russia, perhaps more than any other country, has the opportunity to reshape its international image.

After all, Russia had direct experience fighting in Afghanistan, its intelligence agencies remain world-class and Moscow retains its contacts with nations such as Iraq, Iran and Syria. It seemed obvious Moscow could hand Washington a long list of demands ranging from rapid World Trade Organization membership to halting NATO expansion as the price for its help. In fact, much of Russia's foreign policy during the past decade has focused on stymieing the United States.

Mr. Putin apparently sees the world a bit differently. Although Russia-U.S. relations for the past several years could best be described as acrimonious, Mr. Putin grabbed the telephone as soon as word was issued of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., becoming the first world leader to send his condolences to President Bush.

With the simple statement, "America, we are with you," Mr. Putin seized the diplomatic initiative. In the emerging world order, he sees an opportunity to join the West that will not come again and he is grabbing it with both hands.

Russia needs the West

Many factors brought him to this point. Russia's infrastructure is crumbling, its demographic outlook is among the worst in the world, its borders are porous and the average standard of living is only half its 1992 level. Russia needs technology, managerial skills, access to markets and cash. Only the West has all of these in abundance.

As a manager, Mr. Putin has proven adept at reinventing Russia's government. His choice of Andrei Illarionov, a textbook liberal reformer, as presidential adviser and not as a minister has allowed Mr. Illarionov to ceaselessly pressure the government for changes without fear of old-guard bureaucratic backlash.

This has helped Mr. Putin alter the world's view of Russia. Under his administration, Russia has updated many laws and practices, slowly bringing them up to international norms. Russia now has new tax codes, revised labor laws and even allows land sales all changes that were politically impossible two years ago.

Russia is still far from perfect, and it may take decades to reach anything Europe would consider acceptable, but its progress is undeniable. Many, including Horst Koehler, director of the International Monetary Fund, have taken notice.

Although an outsider may see all of these changes as positive, they are anathema to many in Russia, where anti-Western feelings run close to the surface. More than one Russian politician has suffered the public's disdain for appearing to be America's lapdog, and the humiliation and pain of Westernization attempts during the early 1990s are still fresh.

The result is a clash between Mr. Putin's desire to prove his sincerity and a crisis of expectations back home. In order to keep the new policy humming, the Russian president needs something to show for his efforts. Meanwhile although his changes to date are impressive he will need to stay the course if he is to convince Washington, Berlin, London, Paris and Rome they are for real.

So far he's making quite a run of it.

Moscow makes sacrifices

The Kremlin's first and most obvious sacrifice has been allowing U.S. military forces into its back yard. Previously, Russia fumed when any power showed interest in Central Asia. But although Moscow could not have prevented Washington from setting up shop in independent-minded Uzbekistan, it could have complicated matters. And Moscow has allowed even encouraged the United States to operate out of Tajikistan.

Mr. Putin's tactical shift is equally dramatic in the Caucasus, which Moscow also sees as its exclusive sphere of influence. For example, in early October a force of Chechen and Georgian militants sparked the worst fighting the region had seen for years in the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia. Moscow regularly uses support for Abkhazia as a stick to beat Georgia into submission.

The attacks, combined with Russia's less-than-benign history of intervention in the region, would normally mark the resumption of diplomatic salvos between Moscow and Washington, Georgia's primary supporter.

Instead, altering 300 years of policy, Mr. Putin personally announced he would consider removing 1,600 peacekeepers Russia keeps posted on the Abkhaz-Georgian border and said Georgia should consider approaching the United Nations to handle the separatist issue. That's quite an about face: Russia has frequently threatened to use its U.N. Security Council veto to prevent a U.N. peackeeping force from being formed.

In Ukraine, Russia's third region of pre-eminence, Mr. Putin has been equally keen to break with the past. Over the past two years, his team has forced Ukraine to admit stealing natural gas from Russian export pipelines. Most industry analysts expected Moscow to get everything it wanted out of gas-debt negotiations.

As recently as August, public statements from Moscow made it clear that Ukraine was over a barrel. But Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov stunned the Ukrainians with a completely new deal on Oct. 4. Ukraine's interest rate on the $3 billion debt was reduced to one-10th what was expected, the total debt was whittled to $1.4 billion and Ukraine has a three-year grace period before payments must begin.

Acquiescence to NMD

Perhaps the most conspicuous about-face, however, has been Russia's near-silence since September 11 on U.S. plans for a national missile defense. Normally, Russian officials can be expected to emphatically naysay the proposal whenever a U.S. official comments on the virtues of NMD.

At NATO headquarters on Oct. 3, Mr. Putin continued the series of surprises: He said Russia would no longer oppose NATO expansion if the West can prove the alliance is becoming more of a political and less of a military organization.

In a single speech, he revived what the world had thought was a moot issue and indicated Russian acquiescence to NATO expansion in former Soviet republics. Mr. Putin also said that regardless of NATO's future shape, Russia very much wants to tighten Russian-NATO relations at every level.

In another effective PR move, Russia has offered expertise, antibiotics and vaccines to help the United States counter a growing anthrax scare. Russia inherited the Soviet Union's deep bioweapons program and traditionally has been hostile to sharing any of the fruits its high-tech military programs with the United States.

But the most startling change in foreign policy came Oct. 17, when Mr. Putin announced the closure of Russia's Lourdes signals intelligence base in Cuba. From the American viewpoint, the Lourdes base and its 1,500 Russian intelligence personnel capable of monitoring nearly all communications in the southeastern United States have been one of the thorniest obstacles to friendly bilateral relations.

Taken together these events are the most consistent reversal of Russian foreign policy since the Soviet breakup. Selling those changes to the Russians requires Mr. Putin to navigate a complicated political maze.

But he enters the maze with several factors in his favor.

First, any effective challenge to partnership between Russia and the West would need to be countered from within, not without. Externally, only China could offer much resistance, and its room to maneuver is restricted. Russia shares China's longest border; the United States is China's largest investor and trading partner. China's foreign policy is too sophisticated to risk infuriating both countries at the same time.

No grounds for coup

A move against Mr. Putin within Russia would have to be some sort of coup, and public sentiment offers no grounds for that. He has achieved what was unthinkable under former President Boris Yeltsin: more or less timely payment of pensions and salaries. So long as Mr. Putin can keep that up and Russia carried over from 2000 a $6 billion budget surplus the populace should remain quiescent.

A coup from within the intelligence services one of Mr. Putin's core constituencies is extremely unlikely. Not only has the Russian president re-elevated the FSB, the KGB's successor, to a position of power, but it was the KGB that first realized the Soviet Union couldn't compete with the West.

The new catch phrase in Russian intelligence is a reference to the U.S. presence in Central Asia: "Better to have the Americans in Uzbekistan than to have [Chechen militant leader] Shamil Basayev in Moscow."

Mr. Putin has thoroughly isolated, weakened and neutered key political opponents.

Finally, thanks to Mr. Yeltsin's 1993 constitutional revisions, the Duma can do little to directly challenge the presidency.

Elsewhere in government, Mr. Putin is equally secure for now. His own constitutional revisions have stripped power from Russia's frequently rebellious 89 regional leaders.

Oligarchs could present more focused opposition. Yet Mr. Putin's ongoing battles against the top dogs of Russian industry have already severely, if not fatally, injured the careers of three of the most powerful: Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and Rem Vyakhirev.

At this point, the oligarchs can threaten Mr. Putin only if they band together. But they are busy covering their tracks so they cannot be prosecuted for appropriating the remnants of the Soviet industrial base. The Russian public views them all as crooks, which helps Mr. Putin keep them divided and isolated.

Some discord is expected

Mr. Putin has been too meticulous and methodical to allow the various threads of opposition to weave themselves together. His opponents remain, for now, fractured and disoriented, but his westward shift will stir up some discord in Russia.

As with many Putin schemes, this one has a certain inherent duality. The September 11 attacks and Washington's subsequent war on terrorism ushered in the now-cozy Russian-American relationship. Therein lies Russia's opportunity. But Americans are often fickle, and Mr. Putin would be foolish to gamble Russia's future on the success of the United States' Afghan campaign.

If the U.S. war results in the quick decapitation of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, Russia stands to be the outside power that did the least to take advantage of the situation and the most to help. That alone should engender gratitude in both the United States and Europe.

Conversely, if U.S. efforts in Afghanistan fail, only Russia is well-placed and able to bail out the United States militarily. At that point, Mr. Putin will be able to present with confidence a list of demands that Washington will have little choice but to fill.

Although his desire to anchor Russia firmly in the West is genuine, the true beauty of Mr. Putin's strategy of change is not its depth but its reversibility. If Russia's efforts to aid the West fail, Moscow can quickly and easily snatch back nearly all of the olive branches it has extended.

It is clear that Mr. Putin's moves to date clearly have gone over exceedingly well throughout the West. The United States is relying on Russian intelligence and assets to carry out many of its operations in northern Afghanistan. The IMF is openly singing Russia's praises. The World Bank is stepping up loan disbursement.

The presidents of Poland and the Czech Republic two European states most frightened of a resurgent Russia are musing about the possibility of Russia's joining NATO. Mr. Bush was obviously pleased by the Lourdes base closure and genuinely looks forward to hosting his Russian counterpart in Washington and Texas this week.

There is much more to be done on both sides if this new relationship is going to stick, but Mr. Putin should be able to stay the course.

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