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The Economist (UK)
April 5-11, 2003
Russia's foreign policy
Which way, really?
Sidelined by the war on Iraq, Russia could still win the crucial role it seeks

It has been a puzzling couple of weeks for Kremlin-watchers. Until the Iraq war began, many had interpreted the mixed signals from Russia--threats from hardliners like Igor Ivanov, the foreign minister, that Russia would veto any vote in the UN Security Council for war, and soothing assurances from moderates that it would not--as Vladimir Putin's way of letting the differences among the Moscow elite be aired. Surely, once diplomatic channels were exhausted and the assault begun, the ever-pragmatic Mr Putin would shrug and get down to the important business of repairing his friendship with George Bush.

Not so. Since the first strikes, Russia and America have been squaring off like boxers. Mr Putin called the war a "big political mistake". Mr Bush retorted by airing old complaints that Russian companies had broken UN sanctions on sales of military equipment to Iraq. Russia released documents with similar claims about western firms, complained about American spy-planes flying over neighbouring Georgia, and its parliament put off the ratification of an arms-reduction treaty, while the criticisms--and even calls for a halt to hostilities in Iraq--grew ever more shrill.

Why? Foreign-policy splits in Moscow, as in Washington, are nothing new. For Russia's hawks, snubs and slights by the West rankle--whether it be the humiliation of Russian forces in Kosovo in 1999, the expansion of NATO to include former Soviet satellites, or America's withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty last year. In particular, the hawks feel that Mr Putin has conceded too much. Maybe the opportunity to drive a stake into NATO's heart was just too tempting to resist.

Iraq may have been the last straw, forcing the president to take a tough line to appease them. But some think that Mr Putin himself feels frustrated. "He's sincerely concerned that the whole Iraqi debacle will destabilise the region close to Russia's borders," says Lilia Shevtsova, of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow think-tank. "And he's using Iraq to demonstrate that he's unhappy with the partnership with Bush, that it's insulting for Russia."

Mr Putin's trouble is that, however disadvantageous the relationship with America may get, he has little alternative to it. Though the phrase "multipolar world" pops up ever more often in Russia's foreign-policy discourse, its most important strategic and economic ties are with the West. Even its attempts to restore its Middle East relations are floundering again. Having agreed on oil-production quotas with OPEC earlier this year, Russia was furious when the cartel allowed its members to flout them to ensure oil supplies during the war, causing the price of oil, a mainstay of the Russian budget, to fall precipitously.

Above all, ties with the West mean ties with America. For all Mr Putin's frenetic trips to Paris and Berlin before the war and his expressions of solidarity with France and Germany, he is "an American more than a European", says Sergei Karaganov, a foreign-policy pundit close to the Kremlin. Europe may matter more to Russia in trade terms but, strategically, Messrs Putin and Bush think alike. Both want to slim their nuclear arsenals; both believe they face threats from terrorism and Islamic radicalism (in Russia's case, potentially from its own Muslim population, as much as a fifth of the total, and from secessionists in Chechnya and maybe elsewhere). When Russia's army commits new atrocities in Chechnya or when America goes soft on Israel, it is Europe that criticises while the two former super-enemies turn a blind eye to each others' failings. Even during the toughest moments of pre-war diplomacy, it was the French, rather than the Russians, whom the Americans condemned most.

Moderates in Moscow have been urging Mr Putin to stop playing hard-to-get and patch things up. And for all their harsh exchanges of the past two weeks, Russian and American officials have insisted that they will keep co-operating. "The crisis is not going to let us weaken bilateral relations," says Alexander Kuznetsov, the foreign ministry's director of planning. On the other hand, Russia, still trying to prevent the UN (and its role therein) from becoming irrelevant, wants the Iraq issue to return to the Security Council.

On that point, Mr Putin may find an ally in Tony Blair. This, thinks Ms Shevtsova, may be a way for Russia not only to have its own interests in a post-war Iraq considered but also to help the fractured West reunite: "By being a kind of intermediary, joining Blair on certain issues, Putin could gain an invaluable place in the world arena." That--unlike, say, lining up with France--might help restore the global role that wounded Russian pride demands. But will Mr Putin play his cards this way--and would Mr Bush, offered the chance to restore some western unity, take it?

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