As is usually the case, the weeks preceding the G-8 summit saw a dramatic escalation in tensions between Russia and other members of this elite club, in particular the United States. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who hosted this year’s summit, had remained noncommittal since the fruitless Russia-EU summit in Samara last month, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy, not yet a month into the job, had no intention of hiding his concerns (Vedomosti, June 6). British Prime Minister Tony Blair, seeking to add a final touch to his political legacy, promised to emphasize that the lack of common values would affect economic ties and discourage British investments to Russia (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 8). Several critical statements from the U.S. administration about Russia’s retreat from democracy were accentuated during President George W. Bush’s stopover in Prague on the way to Germany; he pointed out that reforms in Russia had been “derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development” (Vremya novostei, June 6).
Diplomatic signs were promising a cold and tense summit, but in fact it was all smiles and friendly chat, so it was Bush, not Putin, who had an upset stomach while at the tightly cordoned Heiligendamm resort. Sarkozy launched a real charm offensive on Putin, as if seeking to disprove the Russian leader’s acid joke that for him, as a true democrat, there is nobody to talk to since the death of Gandhi (Grani.ru, June 6). It remains unclear whether Blair raised the issue of Alexander Litvinenko’s murder at the tête-à-tête with Putin, but his economic “ultimatum” fell flat (Vedomosti, June 8). As for Bush, his meeting with Putin failed to live up to the expectations of becoming the central event of the summit, but at least it did deliver one bit of news that was spun to the level of sensation by the massively deployed media. Putin suggested giving Bush full access to the Gabala early-warning radar station that Russia leases in Azerbaijan, insisting that this joint monitoring would make redundant the construction of a U.S. radar in the Czech Republic and the deployment of interceptor-missiles in Poland (according to Putin, those could be more usefully deployed in Iraq).
In the immediate expert debates on the merits of Putin’s proposal, two angles may deserve more attention than they actually receive. The first one is the apparent logical contradiction between Moscow’s readiness to make a serious contribution to U.S. efforts and its denial of any shift in Russia’s policy toward Iran. Indeed, Putin confidently asserted, “We have the same understanding of common threats,” but he was careful not to call Iran a threat, while on many occasions he had described a probable deployment of elements of U.S. strategic defense in Central Europe as a direct threat to Russia’s security. Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the Russian atomic agency, confirmed that Russia would soon complete construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran, providing the financing is secured (RIA-Novosti, June 4).
The second hidden angle is that the initiative is widely portrayed as a “surprise” or an “unexpected move,” while in fact it has been discussed at intense U.S.-Russian working exchanges for at least a month (Kommersant, June 9). That means that Putin’s recent loud protestations against the U.S. plans and his threats to target Russian missiles on the strategic installations in Central Europe were simply PR tactics to “sell” his proposal with maximum effect. Hence the visible frustration of the U.S. counterparts who were loath to see that the test of a prototype Iskander cruise missile (quite possibly in violation of the INF Treaty) was presented as Russia’s “asymmetric response” to the new strategic challenge (Gazeta, June 6). Escalating the rhetoric of confrontation to the Cold War level and then discharging it with one diplomatic stroke, Putin concentrated the international debates and the media attention exactly where he wanted — on a non-existent problem.
Now everybody in Europe (with the possible exception of the pesky Poles and bothersome Balts) is greatly relieved that a new arms race has been checked, missing the point that it is hardly plausible even as a theoretical proposition. Putin has every reason to count the Heiligendamm summit as his personal triumph, since he effectively rearranged the “seven-against-one” format (Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 9). Russia’s stubborn “Nyet” on the Kosovo settlement plan was reduced to a minor disagreement, but most importantly for the Kremlin, the challenge of coordinated Western criticism of its curtailing of democracy and squashing of “discontented” opposition has been averted (Gazeta.ru, June 9). By showing flexibility and usefully reminding about Russia’s stellar economic performance, Putin has reestablished his credentials and gained more space for maneuvering on the one issue that looms larger daily in its vital significance — arranging the transition of power.
Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was not murdered over missiles and radars, and the deadly squabbles between the clans of Kremlin courtiers are not about the hypothetical strategic balance. Politics in Russia today is reduced to one crucial choice that Putin is reluctant but also quite possibly incapable of making, since his system of power resists any replacement of the “monarchic” president. The calculated boosting of anti-Western hysterics is aimed not only at minimizing the “interference” from the United States and key European powers into this delicate decision-making (Ezhednevny zhurnal, June 9). It pursues the larger goal of creating a siege mentality, although nobody is actually laying siege, and mobilizing the electorate against the imagined “external enemies” and their “fifth column.” The problem with this “succession technology” is that domestic mobilization has greater inertia than the virtual confrontation with the United States that can be manipulated up and down. The “patriotic” campaign only accentuates the “foreboding of a catastrophe” that Andrei Illarionov seeks to substantiate by inviting well-organized hacker attacks on his website (Newsru.com, June 7). The quasi-détente after the phony “Cold War” might not last long.