Mending fences: Russia eyes a key trans-Atlantic role


Risto E.J. Penttila International Herald Tribune

TUESDAY, MAY 16, 2006
President Vladimir Putin of Russia seems intent on playing a significant role in the rebuilding of trans-Atlantic relations after the war in Iraq. If he plays his cards right he has a good chance of succeeding.

When the war is over, Russia will be faced with three choices. It can concentrate on rebuilding U.S.-Russian relations, team up with the European Union against the United States, or forget the United States and concentrate on securing its position as one of the European great powers alongside France, Germany and Britain.

At a recent meeting of top Russian foreign policy experts, one of them said: ”As always Russia will pursue all three policies at the same time.” On a more serious note, it became evident that from the Russian point of view, relations with Europe are not the key – good relations with Washington are.

The Russian foreign policy elite is proud of the way Putin has dealt with the Iraqi crisis. Russia has struck an independent stance but has not alienated the United States. The fact that Washington and London identify France, and not Russia, as the great spoiler is important for Moscow. It is seen as a vindication of Russia’s policy so far.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has played the bad cop while Putin has been, if not the good cop, at least an honest but tough sheriff. The dual act has worked well – even if Putin came dangerously close to slipping into the bad cop category by calling the U.S. military attack a ”big political mistake.”

We will never know whether Russia would have cast a veto in the UN Security Council if the proposed second resolution on Iraq had come to a vote. But talking to Russian experts it is abundantly clear that they are happy voting was avoided.

Russia had good reasons for opposing the war. The country has 20 millions Muslim citizens. There is a popular belief that unless U.S. interventionism is checked, America may target one of Russia’s neighbors next. But the most important reason was that going along with Bush and Blair would have pushed Putin’s pro-Western policies too far.

Opponents of Putin’s ”controlled democracy” and his nationalist and communist critics would have found common cause. The opposition would have gathered momentum before parliamentary elections at the end of the year, and could even have amassed enough seats to make the Duma relevant again – an unpleasant prospect for a president who is used to not having to think about Parliament at all. As it turned out, the opposition got no mileage out of the Iraqi crisis.

Right now Russia is sitting pretty. It sees itself as the only great power with working relations with all major Western capitals. It has no internal divisions over the present crisis. Its economy is stable. As a result it has a historic chance of becoming a key player in the reconstruction of trans-Atlantic relations after the war in Iraq.

Britain, France and Russia are all rushing to give the United Nations a major role in the reconstruction of Iraq. Since France’s proposals may be rejected by the United States and Britain’s proposals by France, Russia could become by default the key player in the Security Council when postwar arrangements are negotiated.

More importantly, Russia may find itself playing a instrumental role in rebuilding trans-Atlantic relations. If Russia creates conditions that allow the United States and the EU to mend fences it will have done a great service to the trans-Atlantic community. It will also have helped its own international standing considerably.

Article was published in International Herald Tribune
Saturday, March 29, 2003


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