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Financial Times (UK)
17 December 2001
Putin under pressure

The president knows what needs to be done to make Russia an attractive partner for the west. Andrew Gowers, Robert Cottrell and Andrew Jack find him patient and pragmatic

Behind the high red Kremlin walls and the barred gates, beyond the domed lobbies and the endless pink-carpeted corridors, it comes down to this: a small waiting room with a television and a kitchenette, a reception desk with a big old-fashioned telephone switchboard, and a pair of double doors leading through to the private office.

The plaque on the wall declares the office belongs to "V. V. Putin, President of the Russian Federation". But few people who get this far can be ignorant of that detail.

Vladimir Putin is courteous, soft-spoken and very tired indeed. His conversation with the Financial Times begins at 9.30 in the evening and ends after 11.00. He talks readily and extensively. But there are few, if any, moments of relaxation or improvisation. He has had a long and difficult day.

In the afternoon, the US had announced it would withdraw unilaterally from the anti-ballistic missile treaty of 1972. In doing so it rode roughshod over months of Russian counter-arguments.

Mr Putin says his response will be "very calm, very constructive". There will be no immediate counter-threats, either to build up Russia's nuclear arsenal or to withdraw from other arms treaties. The US has a legal right to opt out of the ABM treaty, he notes. But at the same time, he is clearly puzzled that US President George W. Bush chose not to find some more accommodating formula.

"We were prepared for certain modifications of the treaty," he says. "We asked to be given the specific parameters that stood in the way of US desires to develop defensive systems. We were fully prepared to discuss [them]. But nothing specific was given to us ... We heard only insistent requests for bilateral withdrawal from the treaty. To this day I fail to understand that insistence."

These are trying times for Mr Putin. He has placed two bets big enough to make or break this first term of his presidency, and he is waiting for the results.

His first bet is that the terrorist attacks on the US have created the conditions for developing new relations of trust and common purpose between Russia and the west.

His second bet is that he can carry the rest of Russia with him in this fundamental shift towards the west.

Mr Putin may well be right on the first one. The US wants Russia as an ally in its war against terrorism. And Europe, always worried about tensions between the US and Russia, welcomes almost anything that draws them together. The conditions for changed relations are there.

The second bet is the riskier. For the past decade Russian policy towards the west, and in particular towards the US and Nato, has been a volatile mix of envy, opportunism, anger and incomprehension.

A cynical, even hostile, view of the west is still widely held within the Russian political and military establishments. For all his popularity with the public, Mr Putin will struggle to impose a durable pro-western shift in foreign policy on his generals and his ministers and his parliament unless he has some concrete gains to show for his efforts. So far he has precious little.

His main gains have come in his personal relations with other world leaders. They include Tony Blair, UK prime minister, whom Mr Putin looks forward to seeing again when he visits Britain this week. Twice in the conversation Mr Putin dwells enthusiastically on Mr Blair's recent support for a new Russia-Nato council where all countries could sit as equals. Given such a council, the "overall question of confrontation [between Russia and Nato] will lose its relevance", he says.

The warmth apparent in Mr Putin's relations with Mr Bush seems to have come as a pleasant surprise to both. "He always does what he says, and in that respect he is a reliable partner," Mr Putin says. But the gains to Russia from such friendships are less clear. The US did still withdraw from the ABM treaty, angering many Russians if not Mr Putin. The US might yet take its war against terrorism into Iraq, horrifying Russia, where Iraq is viewed more as a wayward friend than as an enemy.

As for the idea of a new Nato council, it has been delayed for several months by other countries' reservations. Mr Putin insists he is not dismayed.

"All disappointments and frustrations are born out of undue expectations," he says. "We have to be patient, proceed cautiously, and act in a professional way."

The next big issue on the US-Russian security agenda concerns cuts in offensive nuclear weapons. Russia may not get what it wants here, either.

In principle, Russia and the US already see eye to eye. Each wants to cut back its stocks from about 7,000 strategic warheads to about 1,500-2,200.

But they cannot decide how this should be done. The US wants an informal arrangement. Russia wants a formal one. According to Mr Putin: "We believe the accords we reach should be translated into legal treaty form. They should be transparent, they should be verifiable."

Yet, as with the ABM treaty, Mr Putin seems already to be bracing himself for defeat.

Asked whether confidence between Russia and the US would be damaged if the US refused a legally binding treaty, he replies: "It will depend on the final result we achieve. It will depend on the way we develop our relations across the board. If relations between Russia and the west, Russia and Nato, Russia and the US continue to develop in the spirit of partnership and even of alliance, then no harm will be done."

These are pragmatic, even admirable words. But they are not quite what one expects from the leader of a nuclear power at an early stage in a long and complicated arms negotiation. They add to the impression that Mr Putin is more the hostage than the master of his policy. Having set Russia almost single-handedly on its new pro-western course, he has no choice but to put the best face on any outcome.

There is, of course, another reading of Mr Putin's tactics. It holds that he is offering little more than verbal support for the US "war against terrorism", while manoeuvring to extract concessions from the west in exchange. These would include a free hand for Russia's own much- criticised war in Chechnya, accelerated Russian entry into the World Trade Organisation, and an understanding that Russia's foreign debt could be restructured if necessary.

Mr Putin would be a poor politician if such things were not on his mind. But in practice, he is winding the war in Chechnya down, not up. There are plenty of reservations about WTO membership yet to be overcome within Russia's own industries. And, for the moment, far from needing debt restructuring, Russia is pre-paying some of the debt that it owes.

Besides, these are small issues compared with what Mr Putin really does want from the west. He wants something that is not limited to particular transactions. What he wants, he says, is for the west to start treating Russia as it does any other friendly country. "Deal with us as a partner," he says. "Give us the same standard terms as anybody else."

To make the most of that relationship, Russia must be "more predictable, more transparent, and more manageable", says Mr Putin.

Those qualities will come more easily, he suggests, with increased prosperity - but that, in turn, is coming only slowly. "We cannot be satisfied with the level [of development] we have achieved," Mr Putin says.

The impression is that Mr Putin knows what needs to be done. The question is whether he has the strength and resources to do it.

At best, there is immense work ahead, for a man already burning the candle at both ends.

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