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#15 - JRL 7135
Financial Times (UK)
April 8, 2003
Putin delivers a lesson in survival
By Quentin Peel

For a superannuated superpower, Russia can still play a mean hand on the international stage, even if it cannot stop a civil war in its own back yard. Just look at Iraq.

Jacques Chirac, the French president, is ostracised in Washington as the chief architect of international opposition to the US-led invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He may be popular in France but he will not be getting any invitations to dinner in the White House for a while.

It is the opposite for Tony Blair. The British prime minister can walk on water in Washington but his unwavering support for the US in Iraq has severely dented his reputation on the European continent, as well as in his own Labour party.

Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, has once again played a lousy hand of cards with extraordinary skill. He has managed to oppose the war in Iraq, by openly threatening to veto any United Nations Security Council resolution alongside Mr Chirac. That has won him admiration in Europe, especially in Germany and France. It has caused irritation in the White House, to be sure, but there is also a willingness to try to understand. There is a desire to mend fences. He is a tolerated trouble-maker.

So how does he do it? Is it luck or judgment? And is there a coherent strategy behind it, or is Mr Putin just a clever pragmatist who exploits every short-term opportunity?

The fact is that the Russian leader is seldom the master of his own destiny. But his lack of ideology, combined with a shrewd exploitation of the national interest and a clear focus on strategic goals, has regularly helped him to wrong-foot his opponents.

Right now the primary focus of his attention is almost certainly not on Iraq: it is on the next elections in Russia. It is a wonderful thing to be able to say about a country where elections did not matter a jot for 70 years. Today they do. Even though the poll for the state Duma is not being held until December, the campaign is already well under way.

Mr Putin is not himself threatened. His re-election as president in 2004 looks pretty certain, with the personal support of some 70 per cent in the polls. But before then he has to win a majority for his supporters in the Duma and that is far less assured.

The big challenge is from the still effective Communist party, which could win anything from 25 to 40 per cent of the seats. The president's supporters in "United Russia" are a motley selection without a platform, united only in their support of the presidential power structure.

As in any other democracy, these elections will be determined mainly on domestic policies. But Mr Putin cannot afford to give the communists any more ammunition than they have already, with millions of ordinary Russians living in miserable social and economic conditions. That is why he cannot be seen as a yes-man for President Bush. Fewer than 5 per cent of Russians supported military intervention in Iraq, so it was a no-brainer for the Kremlin.

But that was not all. The second factor behind Mr Putin's decision was that he and his closest advisers share Mr Chirac's analysis of what was wrong with the war. They believe it will be profoundly destabilising for the Middle East region. They share the view of many Arab leaders that it will stir up more Islamist-inspired terrorism, not damp it down.

They also share the French view that a multipolar world is safer than a unipolar world in which the US lays down the law. They were determined that the UN Security Council should not rubber-stamp US determination on "regime change" in Baghdad. They saw that as opening the way to all sorts of US "unilateralism" in the future.

A third factor may well have been Mr Putin's calculation that he had nothing to show for his previous loyal support for the US. That is the analysis of Alexander Vershbow, the US ambassador in Moscow. All the concessions had been made by Russia - saying Yes to Nato enlargement and to US bases in central Asia, for example - with nothing in return.

Mr Putin has demonstrated his independence of US policy on Iraq; but does it mean he is rethinking his long-term strategy of co-operation with Washington? Almost certainly not. He wants to have it both ways. He wants a good working relationship with the US and Europe at the same time. But they matter for very different reasons.

If the state of the Russian economy is what will decide Mr Putin's political future, then Europe matters most. Of some $126bn in foreign trade outside the former Soviet Union in 2002, the US accounted for just $7bn - less than half the total for Germany alone. Of the $19bn of foreign direct investment in Russia since 1996, US companies provided $4bn against Europe's $7bn. Europe is, and will remain, the main market for Russia's oil and gas exports.

The US is more important symbolically, and strategically. They share a view of the threat of global terrorism. If Mr Putin wants to be seen to count on the world stage, a summit with Mr Bush is far better than one with Mr Chirac.

So Mr Putin is playing it both ways - Europe for business, and the US for profile. So far, he has been remarkably successful. There is a lesson in there somewhere for Mr Blair.

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