Russia-U.S. relations show few signs of improvement in the last days before the eye-to-eye meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush in the informal atmosphere of the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Greeting the delegates at a conference of social sciences teachers last Thursday, President Vladimir Putin abandoned his script to remind them that the history of the Soviet Union is no worse than any other country’s past and that the USSR never used nuclear weapons against a civilian population or chemical weapons against the Vietnamese (Kommersant, June 22). This emotional anti-American diatribe did not go as far as comparing present-day imperialism with Nazi Germany in Putin’s Victory Day speech, but it clearly followed the same line drawn in his Munich speech last February (see EDM, February 14). It is sadly ironic that this attempt to defy the historic “guilt complex” came on the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s bloodiest purges of the top brass (Vedomosti, June 22; Grani.ru, June 9).
Bush’s invitation to spend a weekend together at the coastal retreat is clearly part of the effort to rescue the bilateral dialogue from these bitter accusations and counter-accusations, but it remains unclear whether Putin is ready to take a step forward. Discussions on the Kosovo settlement are firmly deadlocked, since Moscow insists on Serbia’s consent as a precondition to any agreement (Gazeta.ru, June 21). There is hardly any point in discussing the unfolding crisis in the Middle East, since Russia’s experiment with engaging Hamas has not brought any promising results (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 20). It is hard to expect that Putin would have much to say about Iraq, Afghanistan, or North Korea, and it is no secret that he is sincerely not interested in climate change or aid to Africa.
That leaves two interconnected themes for in-depth consideration: U.S. plans for deployment elements of a strategic defense system in Central Europe, and Iran’s nuclear program. Disagreements on the first theme had escalated to a dangerously high level, but Putin has skillfully defused them by advancing the initiative on joint use of Russian early-warning radar station in Gabala, Azerbaijan. That smart PR move secured for Putin a positive spin at the Heiligendamm G-8 summit, but its real content has shrunk in the course of practical assessment. Yuri Baluyevsky, the chief of the General Staff, confirmed that the initiative was conditional on “freezing” work on constructing a radar in the Czech Republic and an interceptor-missile base in Poland (Vremya novostei, June 22). He accused Washington of sabotaging the “constructive work,” but even if Putin would suggest sharing access to another Russian radar, such as the one in Balkhash, Kazakhstan, the need to deploy U.S. strategic assets in Europe would not disappear.
One hopeful feature of Putin’s initiative was the apparent shift regarding the threat assessment of Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, but Moscow has taken pains to reassure Tehran that the “sprit of partnership” remains intact. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asserted that Russia saw no threats from Iran and would continue cooperation, including the construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant (Newsru.com, June 20). That means that the basis for resolving the “ballistic” disagreements in Kennebunkport is rather narrow, so Putin could instead place the emphasis more on the second theme.
International consensus on checking Iran’s nuclear program has apparently dissipated as the May 23 deadline established by UN Resolution 1747 passed without any proposals for tightening the punitive sanctions. Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, met with Mohammed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, last Friday, June 22, and with Javier Solana, the EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, the next day — but his compromise offers fall far short of what the United States seeks to achieve (Lenta.ru, June 23). In this deadlocked situation, Putin might suggest personally delivering a new joint initiative to Ahmadinejad during his visit to Tehran later this year.
This long-discussed visit has been invariably postponed, but now a summit of the Caspian states appears to be on track, creating a convenient occasion for Putin to play the coveted role of mediator/savior (Gazeta.ru, June 20). The agreement on dividing the Caspian Sea among Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan that they failed to reach at the previous summit in mid-2002 is still elusive. That suits Putin just fine, since the prolongation of this dispute leaves Russia in the dominant position in this hydrocarbon zone. Without a deal on maritime borders, no Trans-Caspian pipeline could be built, so the gas from Turkmenistan and the oil from Kazakhstan can only be transported northwards by Russian pipelines.
Putin is dead serious about this business of managing energy flows, unlike the virtual arms control games where bluffs could be attempted or abandoned as political expediency dictates. A position of strength in the Caspian is a sine qua non in negotiations with the United States and the recent trilateral oil-and-gas deal with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan is seen as a major breakthrough (see EDM, May 14). There might be, however, more than one devil in the details of that deal. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev does not fancy putting all his energy eggs in the Russian basket — and he confirmed that when meeting with Bush senior at Kennebunkport last September. Turkmenistan also intends to continue hard bargaining, demonstratively canceling a meeting with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin, who was instructed by Putin to secure a practical step forward (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 20).
Putin assumes that the unfolding disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan weaken U.S. positions and expand Russia’s space for maneuvering. He is eager to fan anti-Americanism and play on U.S. vulnerabilities, but this game could lead to a risky confrontation. Missiles are a far less interesting topic for him than pipelines, so at Kennebunkport he might flash an arms control “joker” in order to strengthen his Caspian hand. Iran, however, is playing a different game with far higher stakes — and Putin has to get serious about the meaning of the word “threat.”