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#3 - JRL 7064
New York Times
February 16, 2003
Putin's Daunting Choice: Which West to Join

MOSCOW -- One has to wonder whether Vladimir V. Putin finds this moment bittersweet, or simply sweet.

As a young foreign operative of the K.G.B. in the 1980's, Mr. Putin labored in East Germany for an organization whose raison d'être was to sow discord in the Western alliance, to scrutinize every nuclear-winter protest and anti-American march for cracks in the democratic wall. It failed utterly.

Fast-forward 20 years. Mr. Putin is Russia's president, a junior member of that alliance, trying doggedly for full entry to the club. But instead of sealing friendships, he must choose sides in a feud that appears to be splitting the West at the seams.

This is the simple explanation for Russia's labored back and forth in the global debate over war against Iraq: it is waiting to see whether the West can stitch itself back together. For most of a month the Kremlin has finessed its approach to disarming Saddam Hussein, joining France and Germany in a dovish call for more inspections and negotiations; joining Washington in a hawkish warning that if jawboning fails, it may back the use of force.

But while the Iraq crisis will presumably pass, Russia's dilemma may not. Under Mr. Putin's whip, Russia has opted for the West's vaunted security and shared values. What it has gotten is a place sandwiched between a globally pre-eminent but increasingly despised United States and a Europe with vast economic potential and a worldview troublingly centered on its umbilicus.

For Mr. Putin, the question now is whether he can keep the Atlantic rift from swallowing his dream of a Russia anchored in the West — or, better yet, exploit the schism to speed up the process.

"They're going to be forced to choose," said Michael McFaul, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. "But they're going to be forced by both sides. I'd say that gives them more flexibility."

Mr. Putin surely cannot afford to permanently alienate either side in what could become a fundamental split between trans-Atlantic powers. Russia's economic and political future is bound to Europe: the bulk of trade and foreign investment comes from there, and cultural ties are strong.

But Russia needs the United States -- not only for trade, but because the two nations are often reluctant political partners in the Koreas, Central and South Asia, the Middle East and virtually everywhere else Moscow claims a strategic interest. An American partnership gives Russia much of its global effectiveness.

Russian-American relations have been strained in recent months by anxiety in Russia over American aims in Iraq, where Russian oil companies have a huge stake, and by the Kremlin's open concern that a war in the Arab world will only worsen terrorism, an obsession here.

For their part, American officials have privately said they are disappointed by Mr. Putin's public show of solidarity with Germany and France against the use of force in Iraq, especially given President Bush's long courtship of the Russian leader.

But while the Americans have been brutally critical of Germany and France, they have been publicly silent on Russia. In part, that may be because the United States has placed a long-term bet on a Russian alliance. In part, it is because Mr. Putin has conspicuously left open the prospect that Russia will change its mind on Iraq. And it is partly because Moscow is waiting to see which position on an Iraqi invasion is most advantageous for the Russian government.

"I think that for now, Mr. Putin tries maneuvering," said Sergei Markov, a political analyst who heads the Civic Council of International Affairs, based in Moscow. "His problem, as is the problem with all Russian diplomacy, is specifics. What, specifically, does Russia get from this alliance?"

Mr. Putin has ridiculed the idea that Russia's assent for an Iraq war rests on guarantees of oil rights in Iraq or equally crass trade-offs, and American officials agree. But Russia has to place its bets — and in supporting or opposing an invasion of Iraq, the calculus is surely whether alliance with an American colossus is outweighed by the bad blood spawned by endorsing war.

In the first years of Mr. Putin's presidency, France barely acknowledged Russia except to castigate its disregard for atrocities against civilians in Chechnya. In the last three months, French diplomats have all but run a shuttle to Moscow, and French officials have made media spectacles of alleged Chechen-led plots to attack Russian interests in Paris.

In Washington, the United States is preparing to label several Chechen militant groups as terrorist organizations, and has pointedly accused Iraq of ties to Chechen rebels involved in terrorism.

American officials express confidence that, sooner or later, Mr. Putin will come around to the White House's view, and many experts abroad agree.

"He's on the American track," said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. Still, Mr. Rahr added, Mr. Putin also "wants to leave the door open so that if something happens to the United States, he can return to cooperating with Europe."

It is a vintage Putin ploy -- keeping all options open until the final moment. In the case of Iraq, it has spawned unrestrained speculation as to whether Russia will prove to be anti-European or anti-American. The answer is neither: first and foremost, Mr. Putin is pro-Russian.

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