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Putin’s Russia Stakes Its Ground

Author: Michael Moran
October 24, 2007


For U.S. and European policymakers who had consigned Kremlinology to the history shelf of research libraries, the past two years have brought cause for regret. Since December 2005, when Russian muscle flexing in a dispute with Ukraine showed the European Union how vulnerable (BBC) its energy supplies had become, President Vladimir Putin has made no bones about the fact that he deeply resents the status quo he inherited from Boris Yeltsin when he took power on the eve of the millennium. In 2005, he told (AP) Russians in a nationally televised speech that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century."

Time and again since he’s moved to reassert Moscow’s power. Domestically, Putin sharply curtailed the civil liberties that briefly blossomed in the last year's of the Soviet Union, as this CFR Task Force report chronicled in 2006. While significant security cooperation with Washington followed the 9/11 attacks, Russia continues to bully former Soviet states (RIA-Novosti) like Georgia and Ukraine, redefining its “rights” to intervene in their domestic politics. More recently, Putin announced his intention to abrogate the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty signed by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, resumed (Telegraph) long-range bomber patrols not seen since the Cold War, and threatened to pull out of the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty if the United States goes ahead with plans to base a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. As a result, those plans look increasingly tentative (LA Times).

“A stronger Russia now regrets such conciliatory policies because they have left the country feeling encircled,” writes Russia analyst Ivan Eland. As Dmitri K. Simes, head of the Nixon Center, puts it in the new issue of Foreign Affairs: “Washington's crucial error lay in its propensity to treat post-Soviet Russia as a defeated enemy.”

That propensity, he and others argue, has created a backlash. Russia’s economy grew by 7 percent last year. Some experts question the vitality of Russia’s economic boom—for instance, Eugene Rumer, a fellow at the U.S. National Defense University, sees signs that Russia’s oil-fueled spending spree may soon run dry (IHT). But, as a Telegraph of London editorial puts it: “Now that Russia can not only pay its bills but also invest heavily abroad, and is able to use its energy reserves to blackmail its neighbours, we are paying the price for the coolness” of the 1990s.

If U.S. policymakers had hoped Russia’s next leader might turn a friendlier face westward, Putin’s announcement earlier this month that he’ll stand for parliament when his second term ends dashed any illusions. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen R. Sestanovich tells that Putin seems to enjoy the guessing game he's playing with the world. Russia expert Masha Lipman writes in the Washington Post that nothing about Putin emerging as prime minister would be illegal. Indeed, “this simultaneous concern for appearance and contempt for substance is a pattern deeply rooted in Soviet history.”

Meanwhile, Russia has given the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) a December deadline to open talks on CFE treaty restrictions to allow Russia to keep its bases in Georgia—bases Georgia would like to see dismantled. The CFE is regarded by many on both sides as obsolete. But some fear a dress rehearsal for more serious moves, for instance, making good on a threat to pull out of the INF treaty if Washington goes ahead with European missile defense, as President Bush insisted he would on October 23. One way or another, Putin has made clear he will chart his own path for Russia, whether that means a diplomatic feud with Britain (BBC), ambiguity on Iran's nuclear policies (Moscow Times), or joint military exercises with China (IHT). As the Economist notes: "Certainly Russia's foreign policy has not been helpful to America. But it was never meant to be." That's worth remembering.

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