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#5 - JRL 7067
Bangkok Post
February 19, 2003
Russia finds itself between old Europe and new America
Dmitri Trenin is the deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
Copyright: Project Syndicate

President Vladimir Putin's hints that Russia may change its position on Iraq are a key sign that Moscow is emerging from its post-Soviet hubris and is increasingly capable of seeing where its true interests lie. But hints do not make a policy.

Since the start of the Iraq crisis, Russia has let France lead the charge within the United Nations Security Council against American ``unilateralism''. President Putin also has refrained from joining German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's public opposition to any military action against Baghdad.

Mr Putin shrewdly sees the difference in the way Americans perceive France and Germany, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other. The lingering empathy for France and Germany born of the Cold War alliance stands in stark contrast to the American foreign policy community's wariness towards post-Soviet Russia. If Mr Putin thoughtlessly joined the Franco-German chorus of doubters, he would squander much of the goodwill and reputation for reliability that he has painstakingly accumulated.

The difference between Paris/Berlin and Moscow, however, is deeper. France is not merely interested in Iraqi oil, nor is Germany's chancellor simply taking notice of opinion polls (on his own government's performance, not just Iraq). For both France and Germany, the Iraq issue is a crucible for forging an autonomous foreign/security policy for the European Union.

That is a serious goal, but it is also a challenge to America, and Mr Putin knows it. Washington identifies it as such, and has welcomed the help of ``new Europe'' (which includes large chunks of the ``old'' communist eastern Europe) in tilting the balance on the continent back in America's favour.

At this remarkable point in Europe's history, some in Russia may be tempted to revive the old policy of fueling transatlantic divisions. It is a defunct and anachronistic policy, but one that is nonetheless remembered fondly by many in Russia's foreign policy elite. Others may view siding with France and Germany as a means for Russia to ``join Europe'' on more equal terms than what is now on offer. Both views are delusions.

In today's world, Russia's business is Russia. Its paramount interest is to modernise its economy, political system and society. To achieve that goal, Russia requires not just the absence of confrontation with the US but a genuinely strong and deep relationship with the world's sole superpower. Until Russia becomes a magnet for US investment and a proper economic foundation is built to support this relationship, it will have to rest on two principal pillars: security cooperation and energy partnership.

It is in Russia's direct national interest to craft a special relationship with America, both to underpin its modernisation strategy and to deal with the countless security problems facing Eurasia. These include proliferation of weapons of mass destruction around Russia's borders; international terrorism and drug trafficking, which benefit from social and economic dislocations, especially across the Greater Middle East; and the challenge of Islamic militancy. As in Afghanistan and Central Asia, America and Russia could be valuable partners in pursuit of common objectives.

Mr Putin has said, rightly, that there are matters in the world more important than Iraq, among them the role and authority of the UN Security Council. Traditionally, Moscow regarded the Council from the perspective of its seat in one of the five veto-wielding permanent chairs. This gave Russia a guarantee of ``international political immunity''.

Great power status on the Security Council remains a valuable hedge, but in the post-bipolar world the informal rules of the game have changed. To raise the effectiveness of the Council now, one needs to learn to work with (not against) the newly dominant US through UN mechanisms. Here, there is much (besides the special relationship) that Russians can learn from Britain.

Russia has financial and economic interests in Iraq. But as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power, Moscow will not see its Iraqi debts repaid. That carrot will continue to be dangled in front of Russia, but just out of its reach. Oil contracts will be granted and withdrawn at will, as recently happened to Lukoil, Russia's largest oil company. In a post-Saddam Iraq, those debts and potential contracts may be simply repudiated if Russia plays no role in securing Iraq's liberation from Mr Saddam.

With its current (and much lamented) dependence on global oil prices, Russia should be intensely interested in playing such a role, especially as Iraqi oil starts to flow freely to world markets. But oil is not the only issue. Under the UN programme, Iraq has been importing more than a billion dollars' worth of Russian goods annually. This is a market worth saving. As with oil, to maintain influence, one needs to be talking to those who will shape the future of Iraq, not to those who have led it into disaster.

In addition to the new Europe, a ``new West'' is taking shape, one extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Of course, while Russia is of Europe, its situation and some of its interests are markedly different from those of the EU core (as west Europeans regularly point out). To this extent, economic integration with the European Union and security partnership with the US is a winning formula for Russian modernisation. On Iraq, Mr. Putin must decide in Russia's national interest.

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