Saturday, September 30, 2006

[usa] putin’s message should at least be privately mulled over

Putin continued that while he valued his ties with the US and President George W Bush, and wanted to enhance those ties, the relationship was bogged down with "many peripheral problems". Specifically, Putin charged the State Department with discouraging US legislators from meeting with Russian officials.

In short, while Putin is clearly eager to work with the United States, he is prepared to do so only on terms that do not damage what he views as Russian interests. Putin also has his eye on Russia's other options - China - and even the capacity to play a central role in alternative institutions outside the West. Putin may well be miscalculating the utility of those "other options" and Russia's ability to play this role - but any attempt to do so could nevertheless be a significant threat to US interests.

Putin's longest comment about US-Russian relations came when he was asked why the Russian media often appear anti-American. He said, "The press reflects the sentiments of society and the reality of life - otherwise it is not interesting." He added that he was disappointed that some Americans did not see the difference between official Russian policy and what appeared in the media. The clear implication was that the US should appreciate the fact that his government was defying public opinion in seeking to work with Washington and that whatever Americans may think, the relationship could be worse.

Putin then complained that the Bush administration was often unwilling to look for compromises and, rather, insists on what US leaders think is best. As a result, he said, the two countries only succeed sometimes in working together. On the US side, Putin said the "presumption of guilt" that the United States applied to the Soviet Union has been "mechanically transferred" to Russia and impeded an improvement of relations.

Putin's comments on China reveal just as much about his calculus regarding Washington as they do his vision for Beijing. Today the relationship is at its "best ever", he said, adding that while he tried not to "use such words", Russia's relations with Beijing had reached a "historic level".

In fact, he referred twice to the unprecedented development of bilateral ties between Moscow and Beijing. He attributed this in part to a border agreement signed two years ago that ended 40 years of negotiations and established the first settled Russian-Chinese border in history. He added that "political forces and trends in the world will dictate the best relations with China".

Importantly, Putin said he saw "economic activity shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific" and said that Russia had an advantage in this environment because of its location between the two.

Specifically, the Kremlin leader cited plans to increase the share of Russia's energy exports directed to Asia from 3% today to 30% in 10-15 years, and noted that Russia had already constructed the first 250 kilometers of an oil pipeline from Skovorodino, Siberia, into China. (Another senior Russian official, speaking on background the previous day, said China was financing the entire cost of this effort.)

Putin also said that Rosneft and Surgutneftegaz were conducting more exploration to establish when the second phase of construction - to the Pacific - should begin. Until that point, as Putin and other Russian officials have said before, oil exports destined for a Pacific coast terminal will be sent by rail.

Putin went further in this direction in assessing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a body that many in the West have dismissed and of which the US is not a member. He said (again, twice) that he himself had been surprised at the development of the group, which he said originated as an effort to resolve "trivial matters" - technical cross-border issues among Russia, newly independent Central Asian countries and China.

However, he continued, the SCO was so successful with these issues that it started to grow. Though Putin insisted that the group had no ulterior motives and would not become a political-military bloc - some in Washington see it as directed against US involvement in Central Asia - he (somewhat contradictorily) added that there was "a demand for the organization" after the end of the Cold War because of "a need for new centers of power".

On Iran, Putin signaled a stiffening of the Kremlin's position vis-a-vis Tehran. When asked whether Russia supported Iran's proposal to continue nuclear enrichment on a limited scale - and whether Moscow could support mild sanctions - the president laid out three positions.

First, Putin said that Russia had called on Iran to "abandon enrichment", and in the context of the question this clearly implied all enrichment. Second, he said that while Iran did have a right to develop nuclear energy, like other signatories of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including Brazil, none of the other countries' constitutions referred to "eliminating other states", and he added that this was "not good" - clear disapproval of Iran's position on Israel.

Putin also said that because Iran was in a dangerous neighborhood, it should limit its own activities. Finally, Putin explained that Russia should spend time talking and thinking with the informal group of six countries working on the issue - Russia, the European Three (Britain, France and Germany), China and the US - and consult again with Iran, and only thereafter consider whether to proceed with sanctions.

One final note: no small share of the group - which included American, British, German, French, Italian, Japanese and (for the first time at this annual event) Chinese experts, academics and journalists - seemed star-struck, with commentators who are often quite critical of Putin in their own countries mobbed around him after the session, seeking autographs on printed menus.

Some went even further, using an opportunity for comments beforehand to make transparently obsequious statements, including one American who compared Putin favorably to Bush in his ability to answer substantive questions during long events.

Only one questioner directly challenged the Kremlin, asking why it was not a conflict of interest for senior officials to serve simultaneously in the presidential administration and as the heads of major state-controlled companies.

Putin may be surprised to note the contrast between what some foreign commentators expressed during the lunch and what they regularly write at home - not to mention what they might publish on their return.

Paul J Saunders is the publisher of National Interest Online and executive director of the Nixon Center.

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