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Financial Times (UK)
February 11, 2002
Putin the pragmatic
By Stefan Wagstyl and Andrew Jack

When Vladimir Putin flew to Paris on an official visit on Monday, Jacques Chirac un-expectedly rushed to the airport to meet his Russian guest. This exaggerated courtesy speaks volumes for the French president's energy in pursuing a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis. But Mr Putin would almost certainly have preferred it if his long-planned trip had attracted rather less attention. For on the Iraq crisis, the Kremlin is keeping uncharacteristically quiet.

Mr Putin has so far declined to support American efforts to secure United Nations agreement for a possible military attack on Baghdad. But rather than challenge Washington head-on, he has allowed France and Germany to make the running. And he has dropped hints that he may yet back the use of force.

Not for the first time, the Russian president is leaving his options open. Or, as Sergei Karaganov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, says: "Putin is simply manoeuvring. As a natural politician, he gives the line his hosts want to hear."

It is a far cry from when Soviet leaders routinely blocked the US at the United Nations or even when Boris Yeltsin tried to thwart the US over bombing Yugoslavia, as recently as 1999.

In the three years since he took office, Mr Putin has played a weak hand with skill. He has accepted that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia is no longer a superpower and has instead sought co-operation with the US. Most notably, in September 2001 he dramatically declared support for the global war against terrorism. As one White House official says: "Putin has realised that Russia needs a long-term relationship with the west. He realises he must not side with history's losers."

The Iraq crisis presents this approach with its toughest test so far. If Mr Putin throws in his lot too easily with George W. Bush, he will alienate conservatives in Moscow who already think he has gone too far in accommodating Washington. Also, by abandoning one traditional ally in Baghdad, he might lose the trust of others, especially elsewhere in the Middle East.

However, if Mr Putin opposes Washington - or even withholds his support for too long - he risks being sidelined in a crisis that could define global relations for years to come. Mr Bush has made clear that the US will remember who its friends were. Closer ties with France and Germany would be a poor substitute.

A vital aim for Mr Putin is to make Russia appear more important than it is. Many Russians believe their country remains a great power. So Mr Putin must appear to stand up to Mr Bush on Iraq - but compromise before his bluff is called. Above all, he must avoid the humiliation of over-playing his hand, as happened to Mr Yeltsin over Kosovo. After the US ignored Russian efforts to prevent the bombing of Yugoslavia, the then president surprised the world by ordering Russian troops to pre-empt the US-led intervention in Kosovo and seize Pristina airport. The isolated unit ended up having to beg water and supplies from the surrounding western troops. Bronislaw Sienkiewicz, head of Otago, a Polish think-tank on the former Soviet Union, says: "Russia is doing everything to avoid another Kosovo."

Russian pride aside, economic considerations matter hugely to Mr Putin. Big objectives in his west-oriented policy are increased trade and investment and closer integration in economic structures such as the World Trade Organisation. But he wants to achieve these without weakening commercial relations with Soviet-era allies, such as Iran, which remain important purchasers of arms and nuclear technology.

So far, the softly, softly policies have yielded considerable dividends. From his earliest summit with Mr Bush in 2000 in Slovenia, Mr Putin has established good personal relations with the American president. As one former White House official says: "Bush likes to look someone in the eyes and decide straightaway whether he trusts them. He trusts Putin."

With this trust has come a regular flow of summits and full-fledged membership of the Group of Eight - the seven leading industrialised states plus Russia - at which Mr Putin can play the world leader. Bob Nurick, head of the Moscow Carnegie Centre, an independent think-tank, says "a seat at the table" may be Russia's most valuable dividend, although there are other more tangible benefits such as western support for WTO membership.

In return, Mr Putin has accepted Mr Bush's unilateral decision to scrap the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty, the cornerstone of bilateral arms control, and the expansion of Nato to Russia's borders. But while he was powerless to stop Mr Bush, he succeeded in extracting favours, including a written guarantee of further reductions in nuclear warheads and a position of influence at Nato through the "19 plus one" arrangement, which gives Russia a say on some issues.

Mr Putin's critics in the military establishment condemn such concessions, and the decision to give the US military access to the former Soviet states of Central Asia, as allowing the old enemy into Russia's backyard. They also worry that American influence could spread deeper into the Caucasus, in the guise of fighting terrorism in trouble-torn Georgia.

But Mr Putin argues the US attack on Afghanistan has brought Moscow big benefits, notably the destruction of a source of terrorism that threatened Russia at least as much as other states. It has allowed Russia to present its own struggle against militants in Chechnya as part of the global anti- terrorism war - and capitalise on the consequent decline in international criticism of alleged human rights abuses. Also, far from reducing its own military presence in Central Asia, Russia is expanding operations with plans to open a new air base this year in Kyrgyzstan.

Elsewhere, the new ties with the US have not prevented Russia from protecting what it sees as its vital interests. While it has shut Soviet-era bases in Vietnam and Cuba, it has maintained or even enhanced its position closer to home, notably within the former Soviet Union. Moscow's political influence has grown in line with the recent recovery of the Russian economy, especially in Ukraine, where Russia's voice is probably stronger than at any time since its independence. In Armenia, Russian companies this week took control of the only nuclear power station following non-payment of debts.

Despite frequent US criticism, arms exports are flourishing, headed by sales to traditional customers led by China and India and followed by Middle East states - among them, countries such as Iran that are on Washington's blacklist. In Iran, Moscow has also refused to abandon the construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant.

These commercial ties have been supported by the whirl of summits with traditional allies, including China, India and North Korea.

For Mr Putin's critics, nothing can compensate for the alleged loss of strategic self-sufficiency. Leonid Ivashov, a former defence ministry official who is now vice-president of the Academy for Geopolitical Problems, a conservative think-tank, says: "Russia has a big Eurasian land mass and can't orient itself in only one direction. The result has been to weaken relations with Europe, China and the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately, Russia is not using its potential."

But for Fyodor Lukanov, editor of the newly launched Russian edition of the journal Foreign Affairs, this is empty rhetoric. "We should choose our priorities because we do not have the resources to do everything . . . Putin's policy is quite pragmatic."

That pragmatism will now be tested over Iraq, where Russia has important economic interests (see below). Even though it supported the US in the 1991 war, Moscow retains influence, notably through Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister and Middle East expert.

The outcome in Iraq could also affect Russia's interests elsewhere in the Middle East, including its economic and political links with Iran and Syria, and its standing as international moderator. Not the least important is its role in the Quartet (with the US, the UN and the European Union) which is working on plans for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Mr Putin is trying to protect these interests by pushing Mr Bush to provide guarantees, particularly over its economic interests in Iraq. He also wants to be sure that whoever succeeds Saddam Hussein does not flood the world market with oil. The Russian economy - and the Kremlin's tax revenues - depend critically on prices staying above $18 a barrel. Boris Nemtsov, a Russian liberal party leader with links to the oil industry, says Mr Putin must press Mr Bush harder on these points. "The oil price is basically crucial to the Russian economy."

However, the Russian president's most urgent focus is on how matters play out in the UN Security Council. The US and the UK are seeking support for a resolution that would authorise the use of force against Baghdad. China, France and Russia - the other three permanent members - argue that the regime of UN inspections must be beefed up and given more time. The key for all three, including Russia, will be to maintain unity. By keeping with the pack - and if possible hiding behind France's lead - Mr Putin will minimise his diplomatic risks.

But Mr Putin must also consider what might follow a military overthrow of Mr Hussein. The US has hinted that those who co-operate in an attack can expect special treatment in the award of postwar favours, including contracts for reconstruction and oil supplies. That said, it is unclear that Washington can provide such rewards when it has also indicated it does not want a long-term US military occupation of Iraq. If it hands over to the UN, it could lose control of the economic benefits.

However events unfold, Mr Putin appears to want to maintain his friendship with the US and Europe. So far, he has managed it by lying low. It is not a position that his predecessors in the Kremlin would have adopted. But, as one US official says: "Putin has so far been very, very smart over Iraq."

Diplomatic checklist


Russia has significant economic interests in Iraq, including trade ties, Soviet-era debts of $9bn and contracts for Russian oil companies to develop Iraqi fields. Moscow has insisted on a diplomatic and political resolution to the current crisis in Iraq. But it has left the door open to supporting the US in demanding armed intervention, if the inspection regime fails


The US condemns Iran as part of the "axis of evil", along with Iraq and North Korea, but Russia continues to maintain commercial and diplomatic ties with Tehran. It is pressing ahead with building a nuclear power station at Bushehr and has proposed a 10-year economic programme that would include the supply of five more nuclear reactors


Under Putin, Russia has been drawing closer to Israel, after decades of following a strongly pro-Arab foreign policy. Sharon in turn has praised Russia, saying Israel views Russia as "a superpower, perhaps with certain problems, but as a superpower."

North Korea

Russia has positioned itself to be an important mediator in the crisis over North Korea's nuclear programme. Putin's first foreign visit after becoming president was to Pyongyang, breathing new life into decades-old ties with a former client state

Nato/ Caucasus/ Central Asia

Last year, Russia acquiesced on Nato's decision to take in seven more east European members, including the three Baltic states that were once part of the Soviet Union. But Russia's generals have expressed concern about the American presence in central Asia and have reacted angrily to the recent dispatch of some US troops to Georgia

Strategic nuclear defence

Russia has reluctantly accepted the US's decision to withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty, the former cornerstone of bilateral nuclear arms control policies. It has expressed concern about American plans to build a missile defence shield

World Trade Organisation

Putin has made membership a central plank of his economic reform programme for Russia, the largest economy still outside the WTO. Many WTO members think Russia could join next year

European Union

Putin made an early priority of relations with Germany and other EU states but has since put more emphasis on ties with Washington. The EU is Russia's biggest trade partner and export market. But economic relations have been dogged by the slow development of European investment in Russia and by specific disputes such as the arguments over access to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad

Human rights

Since Russia joined the war on terrorism, western government have muted attacks on Moscow's human rights record in Chechnya. But its record remains open to future criticism


Russia is seeking support from international oil groups and the governments of the US, Europe, China and Japan for the development of big new pipelines to take Siberian oil and gas to world markets. But private investors are still wary of business conditions in Russia

Arms exports

Russia's arms exports are running more than $4bn a year, providing vital revenues for the country's ailing manufacturing industries. Moscow is ready to risk Washington's wrath by continuing to trade with states blacklisted by the US such as Iran and Syria, as well as supplying China and India

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