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Russia resists

Print edition : Aug 10, 2007 T+T-
President Vladimir Putin. Russia described the U.Ks decision as "pure foolishness".-VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AP

President Vladimir Putin. Russia described the U.Ks decision as "pure foolishness".-VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AP

The diplomatic stand-off with Britain over the Litvinenko issue indicates that Russias relations with the West are going steadily downhill.

RELATIONS between Moscow and the West, marked by mutual suspicion since the late 1990s, further deteriorated in recent months. The British authorities decision to expel four senior Russian diplomats in the third week of July is an illustration. Moscow retaliated in kind by expelling a similar number of British diplomats. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, while describing the British decision as pure foolishness, said that the relationship with the United Kingdom had not been seriously damaged.

Senior Russian officials blamed the new British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, for the precipitate diplomatic step of expelling Russian diplomats. They are of the opinion that this was part of an image-building exercise by Brown to help his ongoing efforts to distance himself from the legacy of his predecessor, Tony Blair. It was the first serious incident of its kind between Moscow and London since the end of the Cold War.

Moscows relations with Washington are also going steadily downhill. The eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the encouragement of colour revolutions by the West in Russias traditional zone of influence have angered Moscow.

The proposed construction of new anti-missile bases in the Czech Republic and Poland near Russias border was the last straw for the Kremlin. In the third week of July, Russia announced that it was suspending participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) in retaliation for the George W. Bush administrations abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Moscow says that it now reserves the right to redeploy tanks and heavy artillery on its western and southern borders. The long-expected Russian response has finally come after the continuous violation of agreements that the United States had signed with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the Two Plus Four Treaty signed between George Bush Sr. and Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1990, the U.S. had pledged not to station foreign troops and nuclear weapons in former East Germany and East Europe. In violation of the treaty, NATO took in 10 members from the former Socialist bloc in Eastern Europe.

Whitehalls reason for the recent action against Russian diplomats was Russias refusal to extradite the main suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko case. Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer, died under mysterious circumstances in the U.K. late last year. The British police claim that they have enough evidence to prove that another ex-KGB (Committee for State Security) agent, Andrei Lugovoi, poisoned Litvinenko. Lugovoi has vehemently denied these accusations. Litvinenko was a close ally of the exiled Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, who also resides in London. Berezovsky has been using London as his base since 2003. The billionaire, wanted for corruption, has been trying to destabilise the Russian government. From London, Berezovsky has been periodically making calls for a bloodless revolution in Russia and admits to spending about $400 million to finance opposition groups within Russia. The British authorities have done nothing to curtail the activities of the shady Russian opposition groups, despite strong protests from Moscow.

Moscow said that it extended all possible cooperation to British authorities during their investigations into the case in Russia. The Russian authorities pointed out that the countrys Constitution prohibited the extradition of its citizens to face trials. They insist the Russian criminal justice system can provide a fair trial. But the British government was insistent on making the Russian government bend to its will. Interestingly, Lugovoi, in his defence, alleged that British intelligence tried to recruit him. The U.K., under Blair and Brown, has become a favourite sanctuary for discredited oligarchs and right-wing Russian opposition leaders.

These leaders hope to sway Russian public opinion by issuing inflammatory statements against Putin from London. Though Putin demits office next year, he has consistently remained popular with the Russian masses. His popularity rating has hovered around the 70 per cent mark.

Both London and Washington are unhappy with Moscow for a variety of reasons. Russia under Putin is determinedly charting an independent foreign policy course. Russia refuses to swallow the Wests prescriptions on a host of international issues, ranging from Iraq to Kosovo. Russia, under Putin, is using its newly reinvigorated economic muscle for nation building. It keeps Western oil companies and its own oligarchs at bay. The Kremlin uses oil diplomacy to leverage influence in many European countries. Russia has the largest reserves of oil and gas in the world. A quarter of Europes gas supplies come from Russia. In the near future, Germany will be dependent on Russia for about 80 per cent of its oil and gas needs. There is a direct gas pipeline to Germany from Russia, bypassing traditional gas pipeline routes through countries such as Poland.

In the second week of July, Russia fired a new, submarine-launched missile, a variant of the Topol-M missile. The missile launched in the White Sea hit a target located in Russias far east travelling a distance of around 8,000 km. Even the USSR could not boast of such a deadly weapon. The new missile, according to military experts, is so fast that the much-vaunted U.S. missile defence system cannot track it. The test was a riposte from Moscow against the U.S. plans to build a missile base on its borders. Some observers have already predicted that a new arms race has begun in earnest.

After years of cuts in defence expenditure, the Russian government since 2001 has been progressively increasing defence expenditure. In 2006, six new intercontinental missiles along with 12 launch vehicles were added to Russias military arsenal. President Putin warned Washington that if anti-missile interceptors were installed on its borders, then Russia would be justified in retaliating. Putin said in June that if the American interceptors are mobilised, Then we disclaim responsibility for our retaliatory steps because it is not we who are the initiators of the new arms race which is undoubtedly brewing in Europe.

During his recent meeting with Bush at his Texas farm, Putin proposed the setting up of a global integrated missile shield that could protect the whole of Europe and would include both the U.S. and European countries, including neutral ones such as Finland, Austria and Sweden. Russia also proposed the creation of missile data exchange centres in Moscow and the NATO headquarters in Brussels. Moscow also offered to share some of its highly sensitive technologies with the West, so as to build an atmosphere of trust.

Putin earlier made an offer to allow the U.S. to use the existing early warning radar at a Russian military base in Azerbaijan. The Bush administration has been disingenuously arguing that the missile bases in the Czech Republic and Poland are necessary to meet the missile threats from so-called rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. Russia, while playing down the threats from Teheran and Pyongyang, said that the existing missile base in Azerbaijan was ideally located to deal with threat scenarios emerging from nearby Iran. President Bush described Putins offer as an interesting idea, but there is no indication of his administrations having changed its mind about the missile bases in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has bluntly warned his American counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, that the American plan for a missile shield would turn Europe into a powder keg. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov stated that if the U.S. installed a missile defence system in Eastern Europe, then Russia would place medium-range nuclear missiles in Kallingrad. Kallingrad is a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania and situated a few hundred miles from the centre of Europe. Bushs missile defence plan is viewed with suspicion even by American lawmakers. The new, Democrat-dominated Congress is refusing to sanction the large funds demanded by the administration to get the project off the ground.

The majority in both Houses of Congress apparently feel that there have been no proper consultations with the legislature and that the Pentagon was yet to prove that the proposed anti-missile system will actually work. The U.S. Congress has already cut the Bush administrations funding request by half and prohibited the Pentagon from going ahead with construction work. In Poland and the Czech Republic, there are growing protests against the bases approved by the right-wing governments currently in power. Recent opinion surveys have shown that more than 60 per cent of Poles and Czechs disapprove of the programme.

Both the Warsaw and Prague governments are heading shaky coalitions. Radek Sikorski, who resigned as Polands Defence Minister in February, said that the location of the system in Poland would endanger national security. There also has been no explicit NATO endorsement of the anti-missile bases. Important European countries such as Germany and France have expressed serious concern about the U.S. plans.

Moscow seems to have decided that it should no longer remain a mute spectator as the country is slowly but inexorably being ringed with American and NATO bases. According to an American nuclear weapons specialist, Francis A. Boyle, by installing the anti-missile bases on Russias doorsteps, the Bush administration is trying to achieve the long-standing U.S. policy of nuclear first strike against Russia. Sergei Ivanov, widely tipped to succeed Putin as President, stated recently that the expectation that the collapse of the Soviet Union would lead to the end of the Cold War and that NATO would not move to the East had been belied. He said that everyone deceived Russia. Putin in his landmark speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in February stated that the U.S. had overstepped its borders in all spheres and imposed itself on other states. The world, he said, had come under one master, one sovereign. Putin signalled then that such a situation was no longer acceptable to Russia.

Russia has played an important role in keeping countries such as Iran, Sudan and North Korea from coming under draconian international sanctions. But for the Russian governments tough stance, Kosovo would have been declared independent. Bush, during his recent visit to Albania one of the few countries worldwide that have accorded him a warm welcome promised independence for their fellow Albanians in Kosovo. The issue of Kosovo played a key role in the eventual break-up of Yugoslavia. The West intervened militarily in the Balkans on the pretext of helping the Muslim Kosovars escape ethnic cleansing and human rights violations. Kosovo is the historical heartland of Serbs. Though Serbs are today in a minority in the province of Kosovo, none of the political parties in the country are willing to concede independence to Kosovo and witness further disintegration.

Russia is also backing countries opposed to American hegemony in distant Latin America. Russia has emerged as the biggest arms supplier to Venezuela. It is strengthening ties with other Latin American countries that seek to distance themselves from the U.S. There is talk of a petroleum cartel being formed with Russia, Venezuela and Qatar as the chief players.

In Central Asia too, Putin has outflanked Bush in the great game of controlling the areas natural resources. New deals have been signed between Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to work jointly on a pipeline to transport gas to lucrative Western markets. Another deal with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan will allow Russia to pipe natural gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea.