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Russian Roulette By: Robert T. McLean
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 11, 2006

Russian President Vladimir Putin is no stranger to high stakes competition. A former Leningrad Seniors champion in judo and KGB agent stationed in East Germany, the Russian president continues to demonstrate his propensity to enter the game where the risks are high and the potential returns even higher. The current nuclear showdown with Iran is no exception. The Kremlin views Tehran’s nuclear ambitions with concern but remains committed to preserving their influence in the Middle East. Thus, Russia – along with China – continues to protect Iran from tangible international pressure and has sailed out of the G8 summit with the winds of global influence at its back.

U.S.-Russian Divergence

The Bush Administration approached the G8 summit in St. Petersburg appropriately.  Contrary to the wishes and expectations of many of those in the West, Washington decided that Russia has become exceedingly important in resolving a series of pressing issues and that now is not the time to strongly pressure Moscow on its internal affairs.  Iran, North Korea, and the situation in the Middle East are all at the forefront of contemporary concerns of the United States, and without a cooperative Russia little progress should be expected.  Yet, despite the Bush Administration’s determined efforts and noteworthy concessions in St. Petersburg, Russia appears uninterested in strengthening ties with the United States.

The Kremlin’s most enduring concern with the United States is the encroachment of pro-Western governments and institutions in Russia’s near-abroad.   American deployments in Central Asia following the 9/11 attacks and colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan coinciding with NATO’s eastward march have instilled a sense of strategic encirclement at the hands of a United States determined to keep Russia from reemerging as a global power.  Consternation over a unipolar world has intensified under Vladimir Putin and Russia remains committed to checking American power.


This has taken shape in a wide range of initiatives and policy positions.  One aspect that was never completely abandoned with the end of the Cold War was Moscow’s provision of arms and diplomatic support for rogue regimes.  Friendly neighboring states such as Belarus and Uzbekistan, and anti-Western regimes such as Syria and Iran continue to receive assistance – in fact, the support has increased under Putin – in various forms from Russia.  China has become an increasingly important ally, and organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have been established to form a counterweight to American led institutions and initiatives such as NATO and democracy promotion.


The Kremlin Pushes Back


Putin has started to push back against American influence in the former Soviet Union. In addition to helping form the SCO’s July 2005 statement demanding the United States establish a timetable for the withdrawal of its forces from Central Asia, the Russian president is beginning a rollback effort in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.  Coinciding with his relatively successful hosting of the G8, Putin received another victory from events in Ukraine. 


Recently referring to the United States, the emboldened Russian president explained: “They pushed these people into mass disturbances, it’s very dangerous. They pushed Ukraine into a confrontation between different regions, between east and west,” The validity of this conception was unquestionably established with the August 1 decision by Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko to recommend his Moscow aligned former opponent Viktor Yanukovych to become the country’s prime minister.  The move was driven largely by the understanding that the country was indeed highly polarized.  Yet, the Orange Revolution that followed the fall 2004 presidential elections was caused not by Western encouragement, but by the preexisting polarization that may have encouraged the West to eventually become increasingly involved. 


While the Kremlin has benefited from political developments in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has also capitalized on Russia’s traditional and current position in the Caucasus.  The Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 substantially decreased Moscow’s influence in the country as new president Mikheil Saakashvili instantly drew Tblisi closer to Washington.  With more that 1,600 Russian peacekeepers in Georgia and recent military exercises by the border, however, the Kremlin has not forfeited its status as a principal player throughout much of the country.  One such region is that of Abkhazia where central authority is weak and Moscow has fueled separatist ambitions.  Late July witnessed the deployment 1,000 Georgian troops to the region to restore some semblance of Tblisi’s authority, but Saakashvili’s freedom of action has been greatly limited by Russian persistence in maintaining and expanding its role in the former Soviet Union.


What Putin views as Washington’s interference in Russia’s near abroad, the Bush Administration sees as essentially an extension of its foreign policy of promoting both American interests and political reform.  But the G8 summit witnessed something different.  President Bush spoke about internal developments in Russia, yet maintained a balanced approach that sought to avoid alienating the Kremlin.  This was illustrated in the president’s following remarks to the press in St. Petersburg.


I fully understand that, however, that there will be a Russian-style democracy.  I don’t expect Russia to look like the United States.  As Vladimir pointedly reminded me last night, we have a different history, different traditions.  And I will let him describe to you his way forward … He’s a strong man.  Look, he is willing to listen, but he also explains to me, he doesn’t want anybody telling him how to run his government.  He was elected.


The president was both frank and honest.  He was also being realistic.  Without Russia’s cooperation on a series of pressing international issues, little can be accomplished.  Putin knows this, and combined with his popularity at home – he maintains around a 70 percent approval rating – and high energy prices, the Russian president will refrain from conciliatory measures towards the United States.  Thus, after President Bush offered the example of the new freedoms Iraqis enjoy, President Putin retorted: “We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly.”  The Russians know that they have a degree of leverage not seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union and looking west for direction simply is not in the cards at this time. 


The Old and New World Power


One place where Russia’s leverage has become increasingly crucial is with Iran.  While Moscow has no desire of seeing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs obtain nuclear weapons, it is clear that no one in Tehran believes that Putin will risk losing his key link to the Middle East.  Iran serves as a major market for Russian arms exports and potentially nuclear energy, and the mutual hostility between Washington and Tehran ensures Russia’s continued dominance of influence, although the Chinese are currently making a push. 


Last month Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the possibility of UN sanctions being placed on Iran will have no impact on military cooperation between his country and Iran.  On August 4, the United States announced that two Russian companies, Rosoboronexport and Sukhoi, were among the seven it had placed sanctions on for providing material that could contribute to Tehran’s weapons of mass destruction or missile programs.  Russia’s foreign ministry responded by slamming the sanctions as “unacceptable” and maintained that “Russia always limits its exports to Iran to arms used only for defense and [they are] not capable of destabilizing the situation in the region.”  The foreign ministry here conveniently ignores the fact that were those systems to be used, it would likely be against the United States or its allies either directly or by terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah.  


Boasting of Moscow’s reach into the Middle East and growing role as a global power, the Russian president noted during his July 17 press briefing that “the most vivid example of [Russia’s] influence, without delving into details, is the discussions we had today on the … declaration” on the situation in Lebanon.  Putin then clarified: “If it were not for Russia’s stand, the declaration would have been worded quite differently, not as balanced as it is now.”  In other words, the Kremlin created conditions that were more favorable for Hezbollah than would have been the case heading into United Nations negotiations. 


Three reasons help explain Russia’s seemingly dangerous behavior.  First, is simply Realpolitik.  Providing headaches for the United States in the Middle East distracts the leaders in Washington from internal developments in Russia.  Also, attaining the perception as a fair player with Iran and Hezbollah in their conflicts with Israel and the West helps their position vis-à-vis the United States in the Muslim world.  Second, Vladimir Putin is greatly aware that external actors – namely Muslim states – possess a significant ability to influence events in Chechnya and among separatist elements elsewhere in Russia.  As the Russian president noted in his aforementioned July 17 press briefing when referring to precisely this issue: “Fortunately, these hot spots are gradually cooling down, not least with the support of Muslim countries that are making a constructive contribution to resolving the serious problems in the North Caucasus arising from Chechnya.” Third, and not unrelated to the first two, is the nearly twenty million Muslims who currently live in the Russian Federation.  To preserve a stable and unified Russia, the Kremlin believes, Moscow must be viewed as a comrade of both internal and external Muslims. 


It is also worth noting that the Western Hemisphere has not escaped Moscow’s reach.  Venezuela – a natural partner for Russia as it similarly seeks to curtail Washington’s global influence, is a major energy exporter, and provides a substantial market for Russian arms – saw its trade with Russia increase by 61.8 percent last year.  A senior Kremlin official recently told Itar-Tass, Russia’s main government news agency: “Russia and Venezuela’s positions on most international problems are similar or identical.”  All of the evidence indicates that this is true, and although David J. Kramer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, expressed hope last month that “Russia will define its role in the world in a way that allows us the possibility of genuine partnership, and not retreat into a world view defined by balance of power strategies and checking U.S. moves wherever possible,” the signs are not encouraging.


Following the G8 Summit, Vladimir Putin hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an effort to enhance a trilateral strategic partnership.  While New Delhi may not be as enthused as Moscow and Beijing in establishing an anti-American bloc in the East, Russia’s intentions are clear: reestablish itself as a world power and look to Asia to help balance the United States.  In achieving these ends, the means may sometimes appear hazardous.  Yet, protecting Iran and Hezbollah are risks Putin is not afraid to take in order to achieve that which he desires most.


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Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.

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