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    Central Asia
     Jul 20, 2006
The rise and rise of Russia
By M K Bhadrakumar

Ever since the famous "fireplace discussion" at the Chateau de Ramouillet outside Paris in 1975, where the club currently called Group of Eight took form, the world has come to expect a certain predictability in the outcome of its annual summits.

The summits were largely of symbolic nature - formalizing the drafts painstakingly worked out by "sherpas" scaling summit slopes in the preceding weeks and months in full public gaze. No earth-shaking decisions were to be expected. Yet the world kept looking on in the belief that the G8 flashed the alignments in international politics.

This year's summit in St Petersburg was no exception. Three things became apparent. First, Russia has unmistakably re-

emerged as one of the geopolitical poles in the world.

No matter the daunting problems besetting Russia - large-scale poverty, derelict infrastructure, neglected social sectors, regional imbalances, nascent political institutions - Moscow is determined to play a significant role in international affairs.

This was starkly evident in an article by Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, titled "The triad of national values", featured in Izvestia on Friday, coinciding with the arrival of US President George W Bush in St Petersburg.

In hard-hitting language, Ivanov declared that the days were gone when Russia could be pushed around, and that the Kremlin was fed up with the West's double standards on democracy whereby "a hysterical atmosphere was being artificially created and a political environment that was favorable for launching a process of overthrowing legally constituted governments was being formed".

What was extraordinary was that Ivanov offered no explanations for what Russia was about - no apologies, no long-winded justifications. He came straight to the point: "The practice of interstate relations where Russia incurred substantial economic losses as quid pro quo for gaining the friendliness of the leaders of certain foreign countries is a thing of the past."

Ivanov continued, "Today we not only have the means to defend ourselves but also - and this is far more important - something to defend. To an increasing degree, we are beginning to understand that Russia can only be a sovereign democracy; otherwise, we will be left with neither democracy nor Russia."

It was significant that the Kremlin resorted to such blunt talk on the eve of the G8 summit. It was deliberate. In the preceding weeks already, a certain "hardening" of the Kremlin stance was perceptible. To be sure, the Kremlin carefully weighed the factors at work, while setting the tone for the G8 summit.

The US campaign over President Vladimir Putin's "authoritarianism" reached such a high pitch that the Kremlin had no choice but to call the bluff. In retrospect, Washington overreached when US diplomats participated in the theatrical show in Moscow, "Another Russia", parodying Putin's leadership.

Putin told the Canadian Television (CTV) network, "These issues [democracy] are being used as an instrument to intervene in our domestic and foreign policy in order to have an influence on it ... Only those who themselves have a spotless human-rights record have the right to point finger at others."

Putin told the US National Broadcasting Co (NBC) network that Washington manipulated the US media except that it was a "lot more sophisticated". If the US intention behind the calibrated propaganda barrage against Moscow was aimed at pressuring the latter into making concessions on other issues, especially economic matters (a familiar US ploy against Russia), this time it didn't work.

The Russian position, in fact, toughened on the Iran nuclear issue and on energy security. Putin also revived the sharp criticism of the invasion of Iraq.

Washington miscalculated by hosting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili - expressing solidarity with Saakashvili at a time of rising tensions over South Ossetia and supporting Georgia's bid for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It was crude meddling - awkwardly timed.

The result was the Russian position visibly hardened on the question of "frozen conflicts". Moscow suggested that Abkhazia, a breakaway region in Georgia, should be given the floor at the United Nations Security Council to present its case against Tbilisi. It warned Tbilisi against attempting to resolve the South Ossetian problem through force. Moldova's separatist region of Transdniester announced a referendum on September 17 to decide whether the pro-Moscow enclave should "freely unite" with Russia. Abkhazia began mulling over a similar referendum.

At the same time, Moscow correctly assessed its factors of advantage. The political crisis in Ukraine and conclusive collapse of the "orange alliance" constituted a serious setback to US strategies.

Other factors that worked in Moscow' favor were: the dramatic turnaround of the security situation in Chechnya after the killing of Shamil Besayev; the successful launch of Rosneft's initial public offering; and the overall boom in the Russian economy - as evident in the decision to clear all debts with the Paris Club by August 21 and full convertibility of ruble and the follow-up decision to trade energy and other strategic goods in rubles. Most important, Putin was riding a phenomenal wave of popular support over 70 % (as against Bush's 30% popularity rating).

Thus the first striking thing about the G8 summit was that the Kremlin put on display the unquestionable and rapid strengthening of Russia's independence and its return to the international scene and in the global economy. Those who were scornful about the weak sides, small sins and oddities of Putin's Russia were reduced to stunned silence.

The Economist weekly, a consistent critic of Putin's Russia, poignantly asked: "So, what can the West do? The short answer is, not a lot. In the 1990s, an economically enfeebled Russia needed help from abroad. Unless the oil price unexpectedly collapses, no such leverage will be available in the near future.

"Politically, too, pressure from outside is likely to rebound. With the Kremlin once again firmly in control, Russia will almost certainly change only from within - or not at all ... The best policy now is not containment but 'wary engagement'."

Indeed, Bush echoed the same thought, though in colloquial idiom, in the northern German town of Stralsund, en route to St Petersburg: "My own view of dealing with President Putin is that nobody likes to be lectured a lot, and if you want to be an effective person, what you don't do is to scold the person publicly all the time; that you remind him where he may have a difference of opinion, but you do so in a respectful way, so you can then sit down and have a constructive dialogue. And that's exactly how I'm going to continue my relations with President Putin."

Despite Washington's "wary engagement" of Russia within the G8, a contradiction exists culturally, politically and strategically, which will be difficult to overcome in the near future. Curiously, it was left to a Chinese scholar to dwell on this paradigm.

People's Daily front-paged on Monday an article by Ruan Zongze of the China Institute of International Studies exploring an answer to the question as to how China should "get along" with the G8.

Ruan concluded, "Judging from current conditions, it is in Chinese interests to keep a convenient distance from the G8. It is quite unlikely that China will join this group in the short term. China is a developing country for which G8 as a club of the rich hasn't apparently kept reserved a comfortable seat. Moreover, G8 has its own set of political and economic standards, which China finds unacceptable at least for the present stage.

"Russia, for example, does not mix well with the group. It joined the club in 1998 out of political needs, but was reduced to a second-class citizen, and has had little say on economic questions. So Russia is eager to establish itself as an equal member of the group by taking the role of a host." [1]

An unresolved riddle, therefore, remains as the residue of the St Petersburg summit. Russia on its part would appear to anticipate the problem and to signal that it got its priorities all right. No sooner had the G8 summit ended than Putin meaningfully invited the heads of state of the Commonwealth of Independent States [2] countries for an "informal summit" in Moscow this Friday and Saturday.

But in any discussions over Russia's partnership with the West, it may be improper to club all Western nations together in the same breath. Actually, this also happens to be the second conspicuous vector to emerge out of the St Petersburg summit. Its significance is no less important than Russia's resurgence on the world stage.
While the focus understandably is on the resurgence of Russia and on the cooling of relations between the United States on the one side and Russia on the other, the primary reason the US dealt from such a patently weak hand at St Petersburg was the disunity within the trans-Atlantic camp.

Europe does not lack ambition, but it is in disarray - unable even to give itself a constitution. Certainly, it lacks a common foreign policy. With the exception of Britain, Europe views with uneasiness the US attempts to establish dominance over the Middle East and Central Asia. And despite Washington's recent charm diplomacy in the European capitals, the European public regards US policies with distaste. And with Bush's attempt to revive the US-German axis, France is once again edging toward an independent opinion.

And finally, the US has failed to establish commonality of interests with its Western partners (including Japan) in the policy of "tough love" toward Putin's Russia. Many European countries feel troubled about the ever-expanding balloon of hot air that NATO has become.

Europe feels dismay over the destabilization of Ukraine thanks to Bush's "color revolution". An economy with the highest growth rate in the post-Soviet space just two years ago is today crawling on its knees.

On the vital question of energy security, Europe's interests cannot be harmonized with the US strategies toward Russia. Russia quietly made a point by timing two energy mega-deals with Japan and Germany just ahead of the G8 summit.

On July 12, Sakhalin Energy, which operates the Sakhalin-II energy project and is developing two vast fields in Russia's Far East with estimated recoverable reserves of 150 million tonnes of oil and 500 billion cubic meters of gas, signed a deal to supply half a million tonnes of liquefied natural gas annually to Japan for a 15-year period.

And last Thursday, Russia's Gazprom and Germany's E.ON AG signed a framework agreement to swap assets in production, trade and sale of natural gas and relating to power industry. Gazprom will acquire the German company's stakes in gas companies in Hungary as well as in regional electricity and gas companies in return for Russia providing access to E.ON AG to Russia's Yuzhno-Russkoye deposits in the Tyumen region, which holds more than a trillion cubic meters of natural gas and will be the source for the US$10.5 billion North European Gas Pipeline project.

Putin had every reason to express satisfaction over the G8's final document on energy security. He asserted, "Until recently, energy security was understood as meaning stable energy supplies. Now we have convinced our partners that energy security is a far broader notion, including production, transportation and sale on the markets."

The G8 statement shows that the US game plan aimed at establishing its trans-Atlantic leadership in the energy dialogue with Russia lies in tatters.

A third aspect of the St Petersburg summit regards its "take" on the international scene. From this angle, Iran and the Middle East by far stole the show. All other issues previously bandied about as solid pressure points on Russia at St Petersburg - democracy and "frozen conflicts" in the post-Soviet space; Russia's policy toward its smaller neighbors - receded into the background.

Interestingly, Russia was not the only power at the G8 that found it difficult to go along with Bush when he laid full blame for tensions in Lebanon at the feet of Hezbollah - and with Syria and Iran. Other leaders, while condemning the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, also criticized the disproportionate Israeli response.

Putin indirectly drew attention to the US isolation when he said Russia's advantage was that it did not close its doors to any parties to the Middle East conflict. Putin asserted that Russia's "regular contacts" with Hamas and Hezbollah actually helped to work on the G8's Middle East resolution. If this in itself wasn't an extraordinary statement, Putin rubbed it in: "Iran, of course, is an influential country in the region and its interests must be respected so as to prompt it to use its influence to change the situation [in Lebanon] for the better."

Putin also said Israeli military operations were pursuing a larger agenda than obtaining the release of the kidnapped soldiers and that Israel's confidence in its "military capabilities" would prove to be misplaced. The most significant point made by Putin was that the deployment of any international force in Lebanon must be on the basis of a mandate from the UN Security Council and that Russia would participate in any such operations, but "we first need to get the agreement from all the sides involved in the conflict".

Again, the G8 helped clarify the alchemy within the so-called "Iran Six" [3]. The G8 statement on Iran endorsed the Iran Six decisions calling for a halt to Tehran's nuclear-enrichment activities in return for a package of incentives, but at the press conference that followed the summit, Putin cautioned, "It is too early to speak about sanctions against Iran. We have not reached that stage yet ... I would rather not speak about this [sanctions] because raising this issue may create unfavorable conditions for the talks."

All in all, the G8 revealed the erosion in the United States' ability to bend the world to its will. The US exposed itself as having very little leverage in the Middle East situation. It seemed a shadow of what it used to be in that highly strategic region. It failed to get the G8 to fall in line on energy security or the Iran nuclear issue.

In the final analysis, what insight does the St Petersburg summit provide into the world of tomorrow? What comes to mind is an incident narrated by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev during an interview last Friday regarding the summit. He said former US president Bill Clinton asked him when he first visited Moscow what advice he could give.

Gorbachev replied that he would give one important bit of advice, namely, to treat Russia with respect because Russians did not like being patted on the back. Gorbachev said he told Clinton, "Today we have one kind of situation and tomorrow it may be something different. But we will certainly rise, as we have done so many times before. We keep all that in our Russian memory."

1. The G8 comprises the members of the Group of Seven and Russia. The G7 members are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, which together account for about two-thirds of the world's economic output. Russia officially became the eighth member of the grouping at the 1997 Denver, Colorado, "Summit of the Eight". But while Russia is a G8 member, it does not participate in financial and economic discussions, which continue to be conducted by the G7. Russia has the G8's smallest economy.

2. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was created in December 1991. In the adopted declaration the participants of the commonwealth declared their interaction on the basis of sovereign equality. At present, the CIS unites Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.

3. The "Iran Six" comprises the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Russia, China, the UK and France - and Germany.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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