For Putin, little but a lobster dinner

By M K Bhadrakumar

During his visit to Moscow last week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez revealed that when he and Cuban leader Fidel Castro last met in Havana, they had drunk a toast to Russian President Vladimir Putin for his famous speech at the Munich security conference in February that attacked Washington for imposing its will on the world community.

"The empire must understand that it cannot dominate the world," Chavez said. But Moscow wouldn't take the bait. It kept the Chavez visit low key. Kremlin spokesmen insisted the visit was about economic cooperation, not politics - not quite incorrect as Moscow is hoping to do brisk business in weaponry worth billions of dollars and to gain entry into Venezuela's oil sector in a big way.

The Kremlin's real priority, though, was to avoid irritating Washington on the eve of Putin's "lobster summit" with President George W Bush in Maine on July 1-2, which was to commence within 48 hours of Chavez's departure from Moscow for Tehran.

Somehow the paradoxes of the post-modern cold war sailed into view. Russia must continue to press ahead for a partnership with the US. The bulk of the Russian strategic community consider there is no option for their country but to pursue integration within a Greater Europe. They estimate that ideally, Moscow should draw close to Brussels and act jointly to influence Washington.

A prominent political analyst, academician Alexei Arbatov, said recently, "The only reason Russia wants to move to the East is that Asian countries don't criticize us for our domestic political problems and our behavior in the former Soviet republics. Things are easier for us in the East, so we are drifting in that direction.

"If Russia wants to remain dependent on energy exports, it should indeed look to the East. There's demand for our resources in the East. There are the fast-growing economies of China and India. But, then, these countries will set prices in the form of ultimatums. And their prices will be much lower than what the West might pay."

Duality of the Russian mind
Russian strategic thinkers often warn against their country ending up as a "raw material appendage" of China or India. Indeed, Russia's trade and economic relations with China have come under strain. (Russian-Indian economic ties remain stagnant with no apparent will on either side to energize them.)

Russia is tightening the screws on Chinese businessmen. Moscow's decision to disallow the assembling of Chinese cars in Russia jeopardizes around US$400 million worth Chinese investment. Addressing Chinese parliamentarians recently, the speaker of the Duma (Russia's parlaiment), Boris Gryzlov, pointed out that Russian exports to China "not only mostly contain, but continue to increasingly include, raw materials and primary conversion products, such as crude oil, round timber, fish, chemicals, and non-ferrous metals". Moscow is taking a tough stance on energy cooperation.

The Altai gas pipeline project might be postponed. Gazprom blocked the TNK-BP project to build a gas pipeline from the Kovytka gas fields to China. China had hoped to receive up to 10 bcm gas from Sakhalin-1 but talks have run into difficulty.

Russian energy experts have voiced the opinion that instead of simply exporting the massive energy reserves of Siberia and the Russian far east to China and Asia, Russia should focus on setting up gas processing and gas chemical production units and aspire to export helium, propane and butane, as well as to manufacture products like polypropylene and various kinds of plastics.

But at the same time, solidarity with the East becomes important for Moscow when the West steps up pressure. In the Eastern theater, Russia puts a spin on its mounting differences with the West. That appeals to Chavez. He said, "They [the US] don't want Russia to keep rising, but Russia has risen again as a center of power and we, the people of the world, need Russia and China to become stronger every day."

"History is moving, and it's moving at a gallop," Chavez observed. The rhetoric embarrassed his Russian hosts, but it suited them, too. To quote the Russian daily, Vedomosti, "On the one hand, the Kremlin is demonstrating the independence of its foreign policy. On the other hand, it is keeping some distance from the fiery revolutionary."

Thus, the Communist Party members in the Duma demanded that Chavez address the full House in a plenary session, but the ruling party patronized by the Kremlin quashed the move. Chavez finally addressed the Russian parliamentarians in an ornate side room that could seat only 40 people.

It is this duality in Russian thinking that accounts for the keen interest all over Eurasia and in Russia's neighboring regions regarding the outcome of Putin's summit with Bush last weekend. How is Russia to cope with the rising disagreements in its relations with the US?

In the run-up to the summit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, "Russia is trying to be as flexible as possible. Russia is trying to be as constructive as possible to avoid any tensions. Actually, our main goal is to avoid any tensions, but at the same time not to let anyone neglect our interest in our security … This is not a return to the Cold War. The Cold War, if you remember, was a war of ideologies, whereas, it is now the same ideology. So, it is just attempts to ensure that we all respect each other's interests in not making unilateral steps."

No shared Iran strategy
In the event, Washington was in no mood to accord to the Russian-American dialogue any "strategic and global" attribute (to quote Peskov). What came through, beneath Bush's charm offensive, was that Washington intended to continue with its policy of "selective engagement" of Russia. This primarily means nudging Moscow on the Iran nuclear issue.

Washington still thinks it can do without Russia on Iraq and Afghanistan, or on Palestine and Lebanon. Even Kosovo didn't figure substantively at the summit. No doubt, Washington rejects the need of an overarching understanding with Moscow while expanding its influence in the former Soviet republics.

Bush told reporters that Iran was a major focus of his discussions with Putin. "When Russia and America speak with, you know, along the same lines, it tends to have an effect. I have been counting on the Russians' support to send a clear message to the Iranians, and that support and that message is a strong message … We are close on recognizing that we've got to work together to send a common message", Bush said. Putin didn't dispute Bush, but he deflected the thrust of what Bush said, hinting at a greater receptivity to the Iranian position.

Putin referred to recent signals from Tehran indicative of possible "interaction, cooperation" with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and European Union chief Javier Solana's "positive data and information". This fell far short of a robust endorsement of what Bush said. Neither claimed any shared Iran strategy either.

Also, Putin didn't seem to share Bush's sense of urgency. Russia would have assessed that the EU doesn't want to impose sanctions against Iran, especially all-round punitive measures covering petroleum, trade and financial dealings. As for China, Russia is also for focusing on the diplomatic track and has openly stated its skepticism about whether "this is the right moment forthe Security Council to take more measures in the sanctions area".

All in all, as Putin would see it, the challenge at the moment boils down to avoiding misconceptions that could lead to sanctions or, worse still, result in military confrontation. Iran is also careful not to precipitate an all-round confrontation with the West. It has reiterated readiness to receive the International Atomic Energy Agency deputy director general and head of safeguards department, Olli Heinonen, in Tehran this coming Wednesday and to draw up a "modality plan" to resolve the pending issues within a two-month period.

Thus, Putin allowed Bush to keep the momentum of the Security Council alive. But differences on strategy remain. Knowing that the Americans are desperate for Russian help, Putin has allowed the impression to be propagated that the US is keeping Russia on board. Having said that, Russia seems in actuality to be coming closer to sharing US apprehensions regarding Iran. On Tuesday, Moscow stated that "a number of additional months" would be required to complete the Bushehr nuclear plant, and, therefore, "the issue of sending fuel to Iran is not something that we’ll have to resolve tomorrow".

From this angle, a substantial outcome of the Maine summit meeting that hasn't received due media attention concerns the signing of the "1-2-3" agreement between the US and Russia. It looks like the two countries are taking a major step ahead in civilian nuclear cooperation. The agreement, along with the declaration by the two presidents on cooperation in nuclear energy and nuclear non-proliferation, cannot but incrementally influence the Russian stance on the Iran nuclear issue.

In essence, the US made a concession to Russia. The new legal framework would enable Russia to import spent nuclear fuel that originally came from the US and to reprocess it on a commercial basis. (Unlike the US, Russian law allows reprocessing work to be undertaken on Russian soil.) Taiwan and South Korea are potential clients.

According to the US special envoy for nuclear non-proliferation, Robert Joseph, there is huge scope for business in reprocessing spent fuel of US origin, since nuclear energy is expanding "not just in countries like India and China but a wide range potentially of other countries".

A line in the sand
In the ultimate analysis, though, the outcome of the Maine summit needs to be judged in terms of the most contentious issue in US-Russia relations at present, namely, the anti-ballistic missile systems that the US is planning to deploy in central Europe.

Putin put forth new ideas in the nature of broadening the consultations by including Europe, through NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the Russia-NATO Council. But the thrust of his proposals was to make sure that "there would be no need to place any more facilities in Europe … facilities in the Czech Republic and the missile base in Poland".

The elimination of the Polish and Czech programs, however, is not in Washington's consideration zone. Bush said, "I think it's [Putin's proposal on broad-based dialogue] innovative, I think it's strategic … But, as I told Vladimir, I think that the Czech Republic and Poland need to be an integral part of the system."

The hardliners within the Bush administration are bound to interpret Putin's proposal to involve Europe and NATO as a tactic to create and exploit differences within the trans-Atlantic alliance. They are of course justified in anticipating discord within the alliance, since the US's larger continental allies and most of the "old" EU members are averse to confrontation with Russia. Equally, their fear, not without basis, is that a wider European involvement may run counter to Washington's insistence on securing uncontested control over the missile shield.

Washington will have to balance these considerations against overall relations with Russia. Bush most certainly gave some sort of commitment to Putin regarding a much-expanded dialogue that included the Europeans. But this may well turn out to be a line in the sand. Neither he nor Putin has enough time left to follow through on any major breakthrough dialogue.

Meanwhile, Washington is indeed pressing ahead with the programs in Poland and the Czech Republic. Bush is scheduled to meet Polish President Lech Kaczynski within the fortnight. On Tuesday, the Czech government gave the go-ahead to the US to deploy missile-defense radar near a military base in the town of Misov, 90 kilometers from Prague.

In short, Putin hasn't taken back to Moscow anything very substantial out of the summit. The Russian commentators probably did a good job in keeping the publics' expectations low, and in forewarning that no breakthrough should be expected on any of the contentious issues.

That is to say, a tricky phase of US-Russia relations is about to begin. The missile defense issue (and Kosovo) remain wide open just as the presidential election campaigns in Russia and the US get under way and politicians resort to grandstanding.

Two profoundly experienced "wise men" - Henry Kissinger and Yevgeniy Primakov - will meet in Moscow in mid-July for their first session within the framework of the newly created forum set up by Bush and Putin, aimed at putting US-Russia relations back on track. The best hope will be that the two great "realists" kickstart a strategic dialogue and commence a renewed partnership between the two countries. That is the irreducible minimum that Moscow will expect at this juncture.

But Russian strategic analyst Ivan Safranchuk had a point when he said, "Russia has thrown the ball to the American side and given it to understand that if the ball is thrown back, it will be treated as a grenade." The high probability is that while Washington may appear to discuss Russia's proposals on missile defense, it will be implementing the project in Central Europe.

But would this satisfy Moscow? Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov made it clear on Tuesday that Russia "will have no reason" to target Europe with its missiles or to look back at the Cold War, provided Washington keeps its missile defense systems out of Europe. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described NATO's expansion as "a relapse into the Cold War".

Meanwhile, Yomiuri newspaper reported on Thursday that Japan and the US are planning to conduct their first missile defense drill in January 2008 in the Sea of Japan. According to the daily, the exercise will be the "practical part of the Japan-US missile defense system" and will involve SM-3 missiles capable of intercepting incoming ballistic missiles in mid-trajectory at altitudes of up to 300 kilometers. By 2011, Japan plans to deploy a two-tier missile shield combining sea and land-based systems.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi will be paying a three-day visit to Moscow next week. Russia and China find themselves in the same boat as they prepare for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s annual summit meeting in Bishkek on August 16.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).