Monday, June 04, 2007

Russian - US relations: more room to manouver than it seems

The upcoming summit of the G8 countries in Heiligendamm promises to be another in a line of "successful" summits such as the recent EU-Russia summit in Samara in May. Up until last week, the main cause for this was the radically contrasting view of the US and Germany on the issue of global warning and carbon emission reduction programs. But now, it is the Russian president (pictured) who has added to the headaches for Angela Merkel. And maybe even built up headaches for the other G8 members, who as the International Herald Tribune states are now looking for the answer to the billion dollar question: "What (if anything) to do with Putin?"

As Andrei Kolesnikov of Kommersant, the Russian representative to the conference that made the top headlines on Monday notes, by the end Vladimir Putin relaxed a little bit and "started to issue statements that were to be marked with an "extremely urgent" notation in the world's newsreels". Although none of the news was really that new and unexpected, the presence of it in a "package" of aggressive diplomatic rhetoric made every one issue by itself seem dramatic. See for yourself: Russian missiles will target Poland and the Czech Republic; the US is blamed for starting a new "cold war" and for continuing its "imperialist" intentions; Russia will withdraw in frustration from a number of European and global security arrangements; the presidential terms in Russia could be expanded to 5-7 years.

The Russian president is pursuing the only possible and effective strategy to maintain face and come dry out of the water, something resembling rhetoric bombardment of the opposing side. His advantage for now is that the opposing side has no clear idea on how to approach the issue. After the Russian missile launches, the Russian president was personally invited to the Bush family compound in Maine in July for a close round of talks with his US counterpart. If you contrast the sparks and threats (or warnings) coming form Russia to the confusing statements, mostly coming from unidentified sources in US and European administrations, it appears that the US sees Russia's goal - to negotiate on the multitude of issues that are stumbling blocks in the relations and for the US to affirm again and again that Russia's interests will be recognized. The International Herald Tribune reports Russia's top current critic as saying the following:

"I think there must have been peals of delirious laughter echoing around the ornate chambers of the Kremlin when the invitation to go to Kennebunkport arrived," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. "Putin has been spitting at the United States for the last year, and what is the reaction? An invitation to a family gathering."

Yet another very important event, which has largely stayed off the radar screens shadowed by the missile targeting warnings issued by Russia, concerns Putin's plans for the future.

Four years, of course, is a very short time period (for a president). I think, for today's Russia, five, six, or seven years is a very acceptable number. But the number of terms should be limited. I will certainly work after 2008. But where, and in what area I cannot yet tell. I have certain thoughts on this issue (the issue of Vladimir Putin's post-2008 career path). Even under current Russian law, I have not reached the retirement age; so sitting at home, doing nothing would be just absurd. We will see, much will depend on how the political process in Russia will evolve at the end of this and the beginning of the next year. There are many options

This should be a very affirmative signal to the West that Vladimir Putin's Russia and its current diplomatic stance on issues from Kosovo and Iran to the ABM shield should not be put on the backburner until Putin leaves in less than a year, when a new dialog can be established with the next president. Vladimir Putin confirmed that he will stick around, and with him his probable influence, if "the political process" goes not as planned. Russia's position will not change and will have to be dealt with. This is the main signal that President Putin sent at his press-conference and will probably communicate to his colleagues in Germany on Wednesday.

Although most Western publications admit the Russian's president's success in his aggressive diplomatic battles which have caused wide rifts in public opinion in Europe and US Congress itself, in particular over US ABM deployment, the Financial Times cites a number of difficulties:

Mr Putin should beware. His tactical mastery may help him outmanoeuvre the west on a day-to-day basis, but the enduring legacy of his cunning is likely to be a Europe and US that deeply distrust Russia.

Yet, it is Mr. Bush's administration which will leave the White House in 2009, and whose influence on US policy-making will be dwarfed by Mr. Putin's probable influence on Russian policy-making no matter what role he pursues. Many refer to Russia as only one of many factors influencing US foreign policy, and rid it of the ultimate superpower status with the ability to participate in all issues. Yet, as the US has much more important issues to think about, will not it then be forced to find quick compromises with the less "important" countries of the world (Russia), to mend the broken bridges with countries on the center of the US foreign policy screen - Iraq, Syria, and Iran? The array of possible deals reached between the current US administration engaged in last-ditch attempts to mend its world-wide image and the "barking" Russia may indeed be worth considering for the US in 2008 and 2009. This topic will dominate the Maine meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin.

No comments: