During a March 8 press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia’s outgoing President Vladimir Putin expressed his acute annoyance with Western policies over Kosovar independence, NATO expansion, Afghanistan, and Western criticism of internal Russian policies. Merkel sounded a positive note, emphasizing cooperation and dialogue. She “assumed” that the newly Russian President-Elect Dmitry Medvedev will represent Russia (“be physically present”) at the next G-8 summit Japan in June, while Putin, by then prime minister, “will be thinking about us.” Merkel undoubtedly wants to have a good working relationship with Putin in his new capacity.
Putin responded angrily, “Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev is freed from the task of having to prove his liberal views, but I can tell you that he is just as much a Russian nationalist in the good sense as I am. I don’t think our partners will find him any easier to deal with” (www.kremlin.ru, March 8; Kommersant, March 11). In the official English translation of Putin’s statement, “Russian nationalist” was replaced by “Russian patriot.” Putin is fluent in German and speaks good English. He used the term “Russian nationalist” apparently knowing what it means in foreign languages as well as in Russian. Putin was sending a clear message to the Russian public and the West that the election of Medvedev will not begin any pro-Western liberalization.
Putin plans to be present at the NATO summit next month in Bucharest, Romania. In the run-up, the Kremlin is moving from anti-NATO rhetoric to possible anti-NATO action. At the press conference, Putin stated, “The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians do not want their country to join NATO, but their country is being pulled in nonetheless,” a trend the Kremlin considers “undemocratic.” Putin insisted that the Ukrainian and Georgian peoples must decide to be part of NATO, not their ruling elite.
Putin stated that the endless expansion of NATO is “not only unnecessary, but harmful and counterproductive.” Putin accused the West of attempting to replace the UN with NATO. As a result, according to Putin, “The potential for conflict will only grow.” Putin admitted, “These are arguments of a philosophical nature. You can agree or disagree.” Then came the punch line. Putin announced, “NATO is already overstepping its limits today. We have no objection to helping Afghanistan, but it is another matter when it is NATO that is providing the assistance. This is a matter beyond the bounds of North Atlantic, as you are well aware.”
In late 2001, during the U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban regime, Moscow approved the deployment of Western forces and bases in Central Asia, provided military hardware to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and allowed overflights of its territory by Western aircraft. The Germans were later granted the right to transit military supplies to Afghanistan via the Russian railroad system. At present NATO officials are negotiating with Russian diplomats and generals, about using Russian rail lines to send supplies to troops deployed in Afghanistan under the NATO flag. There have been reports of good progress in these negotiations (Kommersant, March 7; Financial Times, March 7).
The NATO security operation in Afghanistan is already troubled by disagreements within the Alliance. Member nations are refusing to deploy their solders in combat zones near the Pakistan border or provide additional troops. If Moscow begins to actively undermine the “beyond the bounds of North Atlantic” operation by denying transit and overflight accesses, the troubled NATO operation may collapse. This would be a major change in Russian foreign policy and Putin made the link with enlargement blunt: Leave Georgia and Ukraine alone, or lose in Afghanistan. A number of West European NATO states seem to have got the message and are apparently ready to freeze moves to accept Georgia and Ukraine (see EDM, March 11).
It is increasingly clear to observers in Moscow that Putin is planning to be a grand prime minister, consolidating all real power in his new post and reducing the newly elected Medvedev to the role of a ceremonial head of state. Most of Putin’s cronies from the KGB (the siloviki) will, apparently, move with him out of the Kremlin to the prime minister’s office, which is known in Moscow as the “White House.” With them will go real power and money. The number of deputy prime ministers in the Russian government will increase to accommodate Putin’s comrades and to give him control over all sections of executive power. This aggregation of power may be accompanied by policies that are more nationalistic. Putin’s latest statements seem to exclude any serious “liberalization” or “thaw” in Russian internal or foreign policies after Medvedev moves into the Kremlin (New Times, March 10).
The only weak spot in the system of power that Putin is building is the fact that the Russian Constitution permits Medvedev to dismiss him and his siloviki at anytime. Certainly Medvedev will not do anything of this sort anytime soon, say, this year, but further down the road no one can guarantee anything. Medvedev may slowly be consolidating support within the bureaucracy. Army generals increasingly disgruntled by Putin and his siloviki may offer an important alternative power base. A possible future power fight may change a lot in Russia, though the contest will most likely be about who is the bigger nationalist, not who is more liberal.