Putin masterstroke puts U.S. in check


By Alexandros Petersen
Originally published June 24, 2007

In the past two months, Russian diplomacy threw a wrench into transatlantic relations, jeopardized U.S. and European energy security plans, put a dent in America's relations with NATO ally Poland, decreased Western influence in the strategic Caucasus region, and significantly increased Moscow's global profile vis-^-vis Brussels and Washington. President Bush's response was to invite Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, for talks on July 1, making Mr. Putin the first head of state to ever receive the honor.

This is not to say that dialogue at the highest level is not necessary at this point. In fact, dialogue - and a firm U.S. response - is long overdue.

In threatening to aim Russian missiles at European capitals in response to U.S. missile defense plans involving Poland and the Czech Republic, President Putin forced Europe to think twice about committing to the program. By publicly insisting that European countries had not been consulted on the plans, he drove the wedge deeper. But at this month's Group of Eight summit, Mr. Putin's suggestion that Washington drop plans for missile defense facilities in Europe, and instead cooperate with Russia by sharing a leased radar station in Azerbaijan, was a diplomatic masterstroke.

The suggestion puts the United States in a lose-lose situation. Should Mr. Bush refuse Mr. Putin's offer, he would risk further provoking Moscow. Russian lawmakers have said a refusal would reveal Washington's true intentions: to target not possible missiles from Iran - the American rational for the program - but missiles from Russia. On the other hand, should Mr. Bush accept Mr. Putin's offer, it will appear that Moscow can dictate terms to Washington and Brussels.

Merely mentioning the prospect at a global forum such as the G-8 has increased Russian influence in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus, and set back Western integration and U.S. influence there. The Russian lease on the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan ends in 2012 and, until now, was not going to be renewed. Not only does Mr. Putin's suggestion make renewal possible (a preliminary deal was reached Tuesday), but a joint venture with the United States would greatly increase Russia's influence over Iran, just to the south. Plus, in May, Moscow signed exclusive energy export deals with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan that put into question the viability of developing a trans-Caspian pipeline, seriously threatening Western energy diversification plans. With these moves, Mr. Putin has deftly outplayed Washington and Brussels in the region.

Finally, Mr. Putin's suggestion provides a plausible alternative to a Polish parliament not keen on authorizing U.S. plans to base missile defense interceptors on its soil. Growing frustration about Washington's perceived ungratefulness to Poland for support in Iraq and Afghanistan is compounded by Russian missile threats amid distraught relations with Moscow.

Never mind that interceptors in Poland to guard against Iran make sense. A quick study of potential flight paths for missiles launched from Iran toward the United States reveals that almost all traverse Poland. Never mind that use of the Gabala radar station does not make sense. The facility can only track missiles, not coordinate interceptors to take them down.

But what is Mr. Putin's motivation to outwit the United States and Europe? Part of the answer lies in the prevailing view of international affairs among Russian decision-makers: a struggle for power that is zero-sum and consists of spheres of influence. But the reasons that Mr. Putin has stepped up his efforts of late mostly have to do with domestic politics.

Just like the United States, Russia is heading into a presidential election next year. But unlike the American circus of candidates and potential candidates, debate in Moscow has crystallized around Mr. Putin's possibly remaining in power, despite the constitution's two-term limit. Whether the constitution is amended, a caretaker president warms the seat for Mr. Putin's return in two or four years, or Mr. Putin anoints a true successor, his primary concern is to ensure a controlled transition, facilitated by a foreign policy pursued from a position of strength.

Mr. Putin's diplomatic successes are very popular in Russia. A sense that Russia does not get the respect it deserves on the world stage is widespread, and nostalgia for great power status runs high. Popular approval, the Kremlin's control of Russia's and neighboring energy sectors, and bolstered international prestige mean that growing authoritarianism in Moscow can comfortably continue.

The West is not completely out of options, however. Washington can throw strong support behind NATO plans to provide short-range missile defense for all of Europe. U.S. relations with Poland could quickly be repaired if Warsaw's vulnerability were addressed with the drafting of a bilateral executive agreement on defense, such as those afforded to Britain and Turkey. Commitments to Western-backed energy projects in the Caucasus and Central Asia could be reaffirmed in conjunction with a European Union strategy for the region launched this month.

And how best to respond to Mr. Putin's G-8 masterstroke? Call his bluff and have it both ways. Accept cooperation with Russia in Azerbaijan, but continue plans for facilities in Eastern Europe, while countering Russian rhetoric with compelling presentations of the technical argument for the plan.

Given the black hole that is the debate over Iraq in Washington, however, it remains to be seen whether U.S. diplomacy can accomplish these objectives, much less do so in two months.