Russian President Vladimir Putin has pursued a rather unconventional strategy preparing for the G-8 summit to be held in Heiligendamm, Germany, later this week.
He held a series of meetings with the leaders of smaller European states that prefer to stay clear of the quarrels between Moscow and troublemakers in the “new Europe” such as Poland or Estonia, but also cherish grudges against the masters of “old Europe,” particularly Germany. He paid quick visits to Austria and Luxembourg on May 23-24, emphasizing positive content in bilateral relations but firmly rejecting criticism as a means “to make Russia more compliant over issues unrelated to democracy and human rights” and insisting that he would tolerate no “lecturing or preaching” (Vremya novostei, Moskovsky novosti, May 25). Then he greeted Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, who is due to assume the rotating EU presidency in the second half of this year. The demonstratively friendly atmosphere at the talks evidently was supposed to take away the bitter aftertaste of the fruitless May 18 Russia-EU summit in Samara (Rossiiskaya gazeta, May 24; Gazeta, May 29). And on May 31, Putin welcomed Greek President Karolos Papoulias and asserted that Russia sought to depoliticize economic relations (Izvestiya, June 1).
One theme played up at these European rendezvous, besides their being incessantly trumpeted for “domestic consumption,” was rejection of U.S. unilateralist designs for a “unipolar world.” The culmination of these verbal attacks happened at the joint press conference with Papoulias, when Putin bluntly asserted that “political expediency” was nothing else than dictatorship and imperialism (Kommersant, June 1). This statement ties nicely with the warning from Putin’s Victory Day speech about “new threats [that], just as under the Third Reich, show the same contempt for human life and the same aspiration to establish an exclusive dictate over the world.” The Russian Foreign Ministry had to issue a special clarification that no comparison between Nazi Germany and the United States was implied, but the Greek president was left in no doubt about the identify of the contemporary “dictatorial imperialists.”
The immediate cause for acrimonious complaints is the U.S. plan to deploy a strategic radar in the Czech Republic and ten interceptor-missiles in Poland, which Moscow portrays as a grave threat to Russia’s security. Many U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have traveled to Moscow to carefully explain the rationale for this plan; the only result was the promise secured by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to tone done mutual criticism (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 15, 25). Putin has not shown much restraint for this promise and the Russian media has commented widely on President George W. Bush’s disappointment about his “harsh rhetoric” (RIA-Novosti, June 1; Kommersant, June 2).
There are few expectations that the scheduled tête-à-tête at the G-8 summit, followed by Putin’s visit to the Bush compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, would clear up this “misunderstanding.” Putin does not need any reassurances about the U.S. strategic defense plan, because he is not really worried about a new “arms race” that remains essentially a virtual exercise. He finds it useful to accuse Washington of “filling Eastern Europe with new weapons” and to brag about new Russian missile tests, knowing that the scale of these military demonstrations is nowhere close to the Cold War era preparations. He seeks to exploit the mixed feelings in Europe about the U.S. “strategic shield” and to tap into the deeper pool of anti-Americanism filled with resentment against the ongoing war in Iraq, a theme that he is careful to avoid. This looming disaster is perceived in Moscow as a drain on U.S. leadership, and the erosion of Western unity is seen as an expansion of Russia’s space for maneuvering.
Putin similarly tries to explain away the setbacks for his European policy as caused by the inertia of the EU bureaucracy and the “egoism” of new member states, while relations with most European countries are just fine. The EU indeed faces a latent internal crisis caused by enlargement without reforms, so it is entirely possible to play on both widespread disgruntlement against sclerotic Brussels and irritation about overly demanding novices (Gazeta.ru, May 31). Energy provides a perfect tool for such “divide-and-prosper” policy, as common European concerns about secure supplies translate into sharply diverging national interests. Putin plays his hand with skill and panache, opening a gas storage facility in Austria and promising that the Burgas-Alexandropolis pipeline will be built “as quickly as possible,” but leaving no doubt that the EU Nabucco pipeline project is dead and buried (see EDM, May 31).
The energy bargaining certainly has more substance than the missile quarrels that uphold the truly ludicrous proposition that some sort of strategic balance exists in Europe and deterrence is still at work. But the heart of all fears in the Kremlin is not in the phony arms race nor even the hydrocarbon exports that are quite overrated as a political tool; it is the survivability of Putin’s regime after his departure some 40 weeks from now. The tough stance against the United States and the diplomatic maneuvering in Europe have one common aim: To secure Western “non-interference” in the escalating squabbles among the clans of courtiers who cannot agree on an acceptable successor (Ezhednevny zhurnal, May 31; Moskovsky novosti, May 25).
The desire to settle the vital matter inside the narrow circle of decision makers is perfectly rational; there is even a certain understanding in the West, since no responsible politician is interested in interfering for the sake of interference. The problem, however, is that Russia’s reliability as energy supplier and predictability as security partner depend quite directly upon the character of this succession. A weak “tsar” installed and controlled by the “boyars” would hardly be able to shoulder the burden of hard choices left by pensioner Putin. It is not the love of democratic procedures but pragmatic self-interest that would prompt the seven Western leaders to try yet again to impress upon Putin that Russia needs a new president with a strong mandate and solid legitimacy. To all appearances, however, Putin is past reasoning; his system is its own master.