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Financial Times (UK)
April 1, 2003
Strong leader strikes cool note in US relationship: For now, the public approval rating of Russia's president is so high as to seem indestructible
By Robert Cottrell

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has enjoyed playing "Mr Nice Guy" in his dealings with the US. But not, evidently, "Mr Pushover".

His decision to oppose the US invasion of Iraq surprised many in Washington, who had expected Russian support in exchange for the promise of economic gains once Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Analysts say Russia had wanted oilfield contacts with Iraq honoured and Iraqi sovereign debt repaid.

The opportunity cost to Russia has been much bigger in diplomatic terms than in economic ones. By openly backing the US on Iraq, Russia could easily have been declared the best friend and ally the US had in the whole world, along with Britain. That would have marked a complete triumph for the policy of bold pro-US alignment that Mr Putin launched in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

Instead, Russia lined up with France and Germany in opposing quick military action.

The factors dictating that decision were probably the ones listed by the US ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, when he addressed the Carnegie Endowment in Washington in January. Mr Vershbow said many people in the Russian political and military establishment thought Mr Putin had "not received enough in return for his post-9/11 co-operation". They saw the US presence in central Asia and the Caucasus, Nato's enlargement into the Baltics, "and our recently- announced missile defence deployment plans, as posing not just long-term but immediate threats to Russian security," he said.

That led to "xenophobic, anti-western feelings in the security services, the military and parts of the bureaucracy - and slanted, even tendentious analysis and policy advice to Putin and other leaders", Mr Vershbow continued. Although Mr Putin retained "substantial freedom of manoeuvre on foreign policy", Mr Vershbow said, "he certainly must watch his back, especially in an election year".

Watching his back appears to be exactly what Mr Putin has been doing, with parliamentary elections approaching in December and a presidential election in March 2004.

His public approval rating has been so high for so long in Russia that it has come to seem indestructible. A recent poll found 39 per cent of the public rated his performance "excellent" or "good", another 42 per cent called it "satisfactory", and only 12 per cent said Mr Putin worked "badly".

This capacity to unite most of the country behind him sets the otherwise unremarkable Mr Putin apart from all of his predecessors and all of his rivals. It makes him undislodgeable - so long as it lasts, and so long as Russians vote for their leader. It is an asset so valuable that Mr Putin may well feel he has already taken enough calculated risks with it for one presidential term.

Last year, he courted bitter opposition from farm workers and local governments by backing a law allowing the free private sale of agricultural land. Critics say the law, which came into force this year, will mean more industrialised farming and far fewer jobs on the land.

This year, he is upsetting urban residents by encouraging local governments to cut subsidies for domestic power, heating and building maintenance. This leaves households with sharply higher monthly bills as they pay more of the full economic cost of these services. For ordinary Russians this "communal reform" is the biggest political issue of the day, far outstripping the recent constitutional referendum in Chechnya or the invasion of Iraq.

On Iraq, Mr Putin may have been swayed by the striking findings of Russian opinion polls. One poll in early March suggested only 2 per cent of Russians would support a war to dislodge Mr Hussein. Almost 90 per cent wanted a diplomatic "solution" in Iraq - or, indeed, no solution at all, since half of them saw Iraq, under Mr Hussein, as a "friendly" country. Mr Putin may also have decided the time had indeed come to strike a new note in relations with the US - that conservative voices were right to say Russia should give a little less and ask a little more.

There were seemingly straightforward things Russia wanted from the relationship, especially in the economic sphere, that it was just not receiving.

The US Congress refused to lift the Jackson-Vanik amendment, limiting normal trade relations with the US. The US administration was not helping Russia get the terms it wanted to enter the World Trade Organisation. And as large-scale foreign direct investment finally began arriving in Russia, it proved to come much more from Europe than from the US.

This year's big deals have included moves by Britain's BP, Scotland's Fleming family and France's Renault to invest in Russia's oil, metals and car industries respectively. The biggest US investment in manufacturing to date, by General Motors, is a joint venture involving the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

But even if Mr Putin wanted to pause and take stock of relations with the US, he has too much of his own political capital invested in the relationship to let it fall apart. Nor can he take any pleasure in arguments between the US, France and Germany, over Iraq or anything else.

It has been difficult enough for Russia to build close relations with the West, at a time when the West has been generally united in its goodwill towards Russia. It will be much more difficult to build close relations if the West's own countries are squabbling among themselves and insisting that Russia take sides.

One modest consolation for Mr Putin is that things could easily have gone worse for him in the final days of UN diplomacy before the Iraq invasion. The collapse of US-British attempts to bring a final resolution before the Security Council spared him the agony of deciding whether to use Russia's veto. He was able to leave the talking mainly to his long-serving but expendable foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, who can easily be replaced later by a more unambiguously pro-western figure if that becomes the signal Mr Putin wants to send.

It must be Mr Putin's hope that the disagreement on Iraq need not fatally damage relations with the US. And there are signs the US feels the same way, despite a public warning from Mr Vershbow in March that co-operation with Russia could be "postponed or reversed" in a "very extensive" range of areas, including energy, security, missile defence and anti-terrorism, if the two countries had "serious differences on Iraq". Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, claimed soon afterwards that he did not expect "even short-term damage" to US- Russia relations.

Yet, all things considered, a slightly more critical relationship between the US and Russia might be good for both sides. A critical Russia would help keep the US attentive to the views of other countries as it sets about remaking the world. And Russia deserves constructive criticism from the US and others, for as long as it remains a country where democracy exists more in form than in substance, where an atrociously fought civil war in Chechnya testifies to the existence of an army at least partly outside civilian control, and where a vast state bureaucracy oppresses and exploits the public. Pressure on Mr Putin to improve the way his country works can only serve the interest of Russia, of the west, and - if he does indeed want to make Russia a better place - of Mr Putin himself.

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