Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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The Independent (UK)
May 15, 2003
As she did 300 years ago, Russia is turning once again to Europe

A TERRIBLE symmetry attended Colin Powell's visit to Moscow yesterday. The American Secretary of State had arrived from Riyadh, where he had toured the compounds that were devastated in synchronised suicide attacks. As he landed in Moscow, news broke of a suicide bombing - the second this week - in the Russian rebel region of Chechnya.

The carnage in Saudi Arabia and Chechnya guaranteed that President Bush's continuing war on terrorism would top the agenda for Mr Powell's talks, which were designed as a fence-mending exercise after the rift over Iraq and before next month's Russian-US summit in St Petersburg. Russia's opening gambit was an olive branch in the form of the Duma's vote to ratify the latest nuclear weapons-cutting treaty. The Russian Foreign Minister also pledged Russia to "constructing a long-term friendly partnership with the United States".

Yet Washington - and London - would do well to review assumptions about Russia in the light of the conflict over Iraq. As they prepared for war, both the US and Britain calculated, quite wrongly, that Russia would in the end agree to vote in the UN Security Council for military action, or at very least abstain. In the event, Russia did no such thing, making common cause with France and Germany instead and dooming the so-called "second" UN resolution. Failure to anticipate Russia's response was by no means the only miscalculation made by the transatlantic Allies - their failure to read the French mind was as damaging - but it was revealing.

The US administration appeared to believe that Russia was grateful enough for promised economic support and sufficiently keen to demonstrate its pro-Western, anti-terrorist and anti-proliferation credentials to line up with the US not only against its old ally (and debtor), Iraq, but against at least half of Europe as well. Here, the Prime Minister flattered himself that his amicable personal relationship with Vladimir Putin would translate into support in the Security Council. Mr Blair's reward was to be openly ridiculed by the Russian President at successive Moscow press conferences. Mr Blair was thoroughly outmanoeuvred.

Deft diplomacy is not something we have traditionally associated with Russia, still less with the flat-footed, dogma-bound Soviet Union. But it is high time we grew used to the idea, as it is to the notion that Mr Putin has a domestic constituency that he must play to; Russia has real politics, too. It is crucial to realise that Russia, militarily weak as it may be, has a well-developed sense of its own national dignity. Nor is the Russia of 2003 the economic basketcase that it was years ago. It currently has one of the best growth rates of any industrialised country and is confident of sustaining that growth, even if oil prices decline.

For all its superficial reasonableness, Russia deeply resented Mr Bush's abrogation of the landmark ABM treaty. Moscow also believes that the US made financial promises it did not honour and flouted the rules of international behaviour in attacking Iraq. As it reconciles itself to not being a superpower, Russia is looking increasingly to Europe. The turn of the month will see not only the Russia-US summit, but a G8 preliminary gathering, framed by celebrations for the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg. Peter the Great saw his city, built on marshes against all natural odds, as signifying Russia's opening to Europe. Mr Putin wants the city, which is also his home town, to convey that message again.

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