May 16 2003
FROM MOSCOW TO ST. PETERSBURG
Towards a new mini-summit with Bush
By Stanislav Menshikov
In two weeks, George W. Bush will be flying into Saint Petersburg for another mini-summit with Vladimir Putin. Most of their time will be taken up by festivities linked to the city's 300th birthday. However, ongoing preparations, including visits to Moscow by Colin Powell and two of his top aides, look like an effort to mend fences in the so called US-Russian partnership.
The US president has been receiving contradictory advice - from punishing Putin for his stance on Iraq to letting him feel forgiven and getting something in return. The Russian president is likewise torn apart between repeating his recent rebuff to Blair and the more pragmatic line of declaring principles while yielding on substance.
What Bush wants most of all today and fast is Russia's agreement to a new UN resolution legitimising full US control of Iraq and its oil. He also wants Moscow to drop its assistance in building a nuclear power plant in Iran and agree to Washington's free hand in dealing with North Korea. These points are the substance of pressure brought to bear on Russia in recent days by the US emissaries.
The US could probably resolve the "rogue states" issue without asking Moscow for help. After all, it ignored Russia in Iraq and got away with it. Yet, it looks like Bush does need Putin as an ally. It would effectively break down the potential bloc opposing US policies in the UN and turn it into a handy rubber stamp for global decisions unilaterally made in Washington. With Britain automatically on the US side and China keeping aloof, France would be left in the cold and powerless to continue together with Germany its anti-American games.
This, of course, is the US preferred unipolar model of the world. However, it does not look like Vladimir Putin is prepared to embrace that model. Only the other day, Igor Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister, explained that a more natural model for our times is a multilateral world with at least a few centres of attraction. Democratic consensus of nations, not the rule of the fist is the foundation of international law that makes the difference between barbarism and modern civilisation.
Sure enough, the Bush-Putin encounter will not be an academic seminar on models. However, if US-Russian partnership is to have a future it has to be, among other things, about joining forces against terrorism, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The trouble is that the two sides do not exactly see eye to eye on what these challenges are and how to deal with them.
For instance, it took Washington a long time to recognise that terrorism in Chechnya is not too different from terrorism in Israel, Saudi Arabia or New York. Even so, double standards like references to "Putin's dirty war in Chechnya" still appear from time to time in Western statements.
The case made by the US for war against Iraq as a state supporting terrorism and developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has never been supported by hard evidence. Even today, after weeks of fruitless attempts by the US military to find such evidence Colin Powell repeats the same formula that he unsuccessfully used in the UN Security Council before the war started. It is good that Powell now claims that the US is not about to use the "Iraq model" in Iran, North Korea or Syria and prefers diplomacy instead. But just how credible are these assurances?
Recently it has been suggested by a US expert that terrorism should be treated as a political and ideological phenomenon rather than criminal activity. In this view, the war against terrorism is about ideologies that threaten to destroy the values of civilisation as the US sees them.
This is a dangerous concept. It substitutes very concrete and professional joint action against the terrorist danger to human life with crusades against ideologies that, while supporting different sets of values, may not necessarily present a threat to peace and security. The real need though is to concentrate on co-operation to prevent and make impossible outrageous acts of mass murder such as those committed the other day in Riyadh and Znamenskoye. The impression left by these acts is that such co-operation is still largely inadequate.
The other issue is joint work against WMD proliferation. Russia certainly does not need new nuclear powers on its borders. Nor does it want US to take military action against Iran or North Korea that might lead to new Chernobyls. In the past, the US and Russia successfully prevented South Africa from acquiring nukes. They did nothing, however, to stop Israel, India and Pakistan from developing the same potential. It is not clear how any country can be stopped in that pursuit short of war and stiff international sanctions. US insistence on resolving the issue at the expense of Russia's commercial interests is not an acceptable route.
If no substance is agreed upon on all these points in the remaining weeks, we are probably in for another hollow mini-summit.