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Asia Times
April 4, 2003
Putin's new correlation of forces
By Peter Lavelle
Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst and the author of the weekly e-newsletter "Untimely Thoughts". He can be contacted at plavelle@rol.ru.

What is Vladimir Putin doing? What does he want?

Prior to the American-led strike against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Russia was playing the role of a free rider against the war on the backs of France and Germany and threatening to veto any American-sponsored resolution in the United Nations Security Council legitimizing the Bush administration's attempt to topple Saddam.

Two weeks after the start of hostilities, Putin's Russia has become the loudest member in the anti-war camp, with the French and German governments lowering the tone of their dissent. Is Putin having second thoughts about his post-September 11 relationship with United States?

As is almost always the case with Putin, the answer is "yes and no", though everything coming out of the Kremlin over the past two years has pointed to a determination to alter the nature of Russia's relationship with the United States, as well as with the rest of the world. However, this commitment to repositioning Russia on the geopolitical scene is not as unilaterally pro-US (or even pro-Western) as it is often made out to be. Rather, it is a pragmatic move that has brought Russia increased prominence on the international arena in the short term - and certainly helped validate its war in Chechnya in the eyes of the world. Moreover, it is aimed at improving Russia's position in the global order in the near future. However, Russia's long-term interests lie, by and large, elsewhere.

Putin's response to the military campaign dubbed "Iraqi Freedom" has come from a confluence of domestic and international political imperatives. On the home front, Putin may be only slightly ahead of Russian public opinion when it comes to the "invasion and occupation" of Iraq. Some Russia-watchers allege that the current Russian media slant, which portrays the Americans in the worst of colors while displaying Saddam as a victim of aggression, comes direct from the presidential administration. This may be true, but the man on the street does not need to be spoon-fed anti-American sentiment on this particular issue. In any case, most Russians remain pro-Western in general, while being overwhelming against this particular American foreign policy decision.

At present, considering that the start of the election season is only months away, Putin clearly appreciates the public support he is receiving as a result of his anti-war stance, and he has no real reason to behave differently. Moreover, as he is riding the crest of negative public reaction to George W Bush's push into the Middle East, he remains poised to shape domestic public opinion once the "correlation of forces" on the ground in post-bellum Iraq becomes clear.

On the international front, Putin's criticism of the war is most likely a stratagem for ensuring Russia's role as a major player in the post-war settlement. Some might see this interpretation of his political maneuvering as odd. However, on closer consideration, an observer can well conclude that one of Putin's biggest gambits when it comes to expressing his displeasure with "Iraqi Freedom" surrounds the future of the United Nations. Putin is betting it will remain relevant, despite rumors that the US has decided otherwise.

This is an adroit move. After two weeks of war, the US is seen virtually everywhere as an uncompromising aggressor and out of touch with world opinion. The outcome of this war still favors the American goal of totally remaking Iraq. But for winning the peace in a new Iraq and Middle East, the UN remains the only vehicle the Americans could use to recover from their extraordinary loss of face.

This is where Putin sees his opening. Clearly the international order is being transformed, and he is aiming to determine Russia's place in it. America's "coalition" attack on Iraq allows Putin to try to redefine the meaning, terms and conditions of the September 11 legacy. Up until the start of the war, this legacy presented Russia with the opportunity to turn its foreign policy westward. Now the same legacy, with America's war against Iraq, is being turned into an opportunity for Russia to further solidify its place among Western nations.

Putin has invested enormous political capital in aligning Russia with the fate of the West, especially the US. While this move has been greatly praised by President George W Bush, the political dividends have been meager, and Russia-US relations have not really taken off. Good will and a (somewhat) common enemy are not nearly enough to cement a relationship. The new relationship is rooted in a common desire to fight international terrorism (however this obscure term is defined), control access to weapons of mass destruction and establish a very-much-hoped-for energy relationship. This agenda is important enough to enrich the bilateral relationship - but it is hardly enough to make it permanent. And, moreover, Russia's true economic interests lie not across the Pacific, but to the west and southeast.

Putin, the pragmatic, patriotic KGB man, must uphold his country's interests above all others. While he might be criticized for not being more aggressive in developing his country's democracy and civil society, there is no doubt about his plans for Russia's economic and trade future. Russia's economic future lies with Europe and China. Of the $126.4 billion in gross non-Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) foreign trade in 2002, the US accounted for $7 billion, basically equivalent to that of Holland and Belgium ($6.5 billion) and a clear laggard behind Germany ($4.6 billion) and China ($9.2 billion). The European Union accounted for of 44 percent of Russian trade outside of the CIS last year. Of the $19 billion of foreign direct investment in Russia since 1996, American companies have accounted for just $4 billion, as opposed to the European Union's $7 billion.

Putin is so willing to confront Bush's America because he believes Russia's true economic and political interests lie elsewhere. Russia may have little leverage with which to stop the Bush administration from trying to refashion the international political order, but it has every reason to pursue its own economic interests. Russia's bread-and-butter politics are solidly focused on economic performance and not foreign policy concerns. This is Putin's political prime directive.

September 11 has come to mean many different things to many different people, and, for Russia, Bush's understanding of the tragedy is becomingly obviously different from Putin's. Putin's approach to the US attempt to forcefully change the world will pay dividends in the long term. Meaningful international relationships are built on common interests and not on heartfelt sympathy. Bush, or his successor, will surely understand this logic and make the Russia-US partnership more meaningful than a single emotive telephone call.

Ultimately, both sides of the partnership can benefit from this approach. For Russia, the benefit is economic growth that will enhance its security. For the United States, a strong and reliable Russia in a part of the world undergoing so much change might be the single most important partnership America could have in the future. This may be the final geopolitical legacy of September 11.

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