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Changing course

Print edition : Jun 08, 2002

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The visit of U.S. President George W. Bush to Russia saw the Kremlin's acquiescence to U.S. interests.

EVEN before President George W. Bush landed in Moscow in the last week of May, there were enough indications that President Vladimir Putin had radically altered Russia's course. The events of September 11 had provided him an opportunity for the dramatic reversal of Russia's traditional foreign policy. Putin, who had threatened to launch a new arms race if the Bush administration went ahead with its National Missile Defence (NMD) programme and also abrogate the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signed exactly 30 years ago in May, said that the new arms accord he signed with Bush in Moscow, which theoretically slashes the nuclear arsenal of the two countries by two-thirds, is a step forward for disarmament. President Bush too had said that the main theme of his Europe tour was "the war against terror".

During the U.S. President's visit to Germany and France in the last week of May, he was greeted by big crowds of protesters who labelled him a "warmonger". There were protesters in Russia too, but their numbers were limited in comparison to those seen in Paris and Berlin. Interestingly, a poll conducted just before President Bush's visit to Russia showed that most Russians see the U.S. as an "unfriendly state", despite statements made by Russian leaders about the "strategic partnership" and "common interests" of Russia and the U.S. According to the results published in Izvestia, 57 per cent of the respondents said the U.S. is "unfriendly" towards Russia. Most of the respondents identified President Bush with "aggressiveness", "primitiveness" and "hypocrisy".

Even countries like France and Germany were surprised by Kremlin's quick backtracking on key issues such as the NMD and the ABM treaty. Paris and Berlin were till the other day appealing to the U.S. to desist from going ahead with its NMD programme, arguing that it would trigger another arms race. Now Moscow's decisions have made them look sheepish. Russia, in fact, is bidding for contracts to build interceptors to the NMD system. But then there were signs aplenty of Moscow's impending climbdown.

Putin had announced last year that Russia was shutting down its strategic military base in Lourdes, Cuba, and also that it was not renewing its lease of the Cam Ranh Bay Base in Vietnam. The base in Cuba was crucial to Russian intelligence gathering. The Kremlin has also not objected to the string of U.S. military bases that have sprung up all over Central Asia and the Caucasus. Russian Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov was strongly opposed to any cooperation with the U.S. in Central Asia, but he was overruled by Putin.

The highlight of the U.S. President's four-day visit to Russia was the signing of "The Treaty of Moscow". The treaty commits both sides to steep cuts in ready-to-use nuclear warheads. By the year 2012, 1,700 to 2,200 warheads deployed by both sides will be removed. Russian analysts however note that this reduction still allows the U.S. to maintain strategic forces at a level sufficient to wage a nuclear war against their country. They point out that the U.S. has always had a considerable number of warheads in reserve.

This is the first important treaty signed between the two nuclear powers since 1993. Many analysts have interpreted its signing as a tacit acknowledgement by the Kremlin of the erosion of Russia's "Greatness Syndrome" in world affairs. The warheads constitute a legacy of the Cold War.

Russia was for the dismantling or destruction of the nukes. Russian experts assert that the U.S. will double the number of its warheads if it once again wants to adopt an offensive posture against Russia. According to the new American doctrine, they say, nuclear weapons no longer play a dominant role as they did during the Cold War period; instead the new American strategic triad consists of ABM systems, conventional precision weapons and strategic offensive weapons. In the past the triad had consisted of three kinds of nuclear delivery vehicles - Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers.

The new treaty on arms reduction is itself full of loopholes. There is no fixed timetable for the reduction of warheads - only a grandiose promise that the job will be completed by 2012. The Left in Russia has said that Putin has once again bowed to the U.S. and characterised the treaty "as a new stage in the betrayal of the country's national interests".

In mid-May, before Bush's arrival in Moscow, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Foreign Ministers had, at a meeting in Reykjavik, formally agreed to give Moscow a small say in the NATO alliance. This was a sop provided by Washington to Moscow to mute the latter's protests about the rapid eastward expansion of NATO. It also helped Putin to project to the Russian public his new-found closeness with the West.

The formal agreement bestowing Russia the status of a junior partner in NATO was signed on May 28. President Putin along with the leaders of NATO nations were present at Pratica Di Mare, a military base just outside the Italian capital, to sign the new "Rome Declaration". Only three months ago, Russia's Chief of General Staff was complaining about NATO exercises in Poland and Norway, and accusing NATO of preparing for "extensive warfare" on Russia's border. And just after Bush took over the American Presidency, his close advisers were talking about the need to "quarantine" Russia.

The Rome Declaration establishes a NATO-Russia joint council that gives Moscow a say on issues relating to terrorism, arms proliferation and military reform. President Bush said that the accord puts Russia on the "path of forming an alliance" with NATO. Putin described the Rome pact as "historic" and said that it was a "valuable" tool to confront the "the common enemy of terrorism". At the same time, Putin pointed out that Russia and NATO have differing views on certain security-related issues, but added that "what unites us is far more serious and far outweighs what divides us". Putin's calculation is that NATO membership will give Russia greater credibility in organisations and groupings dominated by Western countries.

But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Rome that though Russia is opposed to any further expansion of NATO, it "does not have a veto over who becomes a member and who doesn't". Seven new states will formally join NATO in November this year. These include states bordering Russia.

Russia is also on the lookout for Western investments, more trade with the West and entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Jackson-Vanik amendment passed by Congress in 1974 restricts the extent of U.S. trade with Russia. The law was passed in order to arm-twist the erstwhile Soviet Union to allow Jewish people of Russian origin to emigrate to Israel. But the Jackson-Vanik Amendment remains, despite recent exertions by the Bush administration to get it removed. Putin also wants the Bush administration to certify that Russia now has a "market economy". During his stay in Russia, Bush informed his counterpart that the U.S. Commerce Department was looking into the matter and would submit its report soon. The Bush administration has given enough indications that the report would be a favourable one. After September 11, in a token gesture for Russia's unquestioning support for the U.S. war against terrorism, the Bush administration did not queer the pitch for the Kremlin as it went about the difficult task of rooting out extremism from Chechnya.

Two other important issues that came up for discussion at the Moscow summit related to Iraq and Iran. The Bush administration has been loudly stating that it wants a "regime change" in Iraq and that Russia should scale down relations with Iran. Washington has been accusing Moscow of providing expertise for Iran's missile and nuclear programmes. There were reports in the Russian media that the Bush administration was even willing to write off the USSR's old debts to the U.S. if Moscow refused to cooperate with Iran. Putin cleared the air on the issue when he addressed the media along with Bush in Moscow. He categorically stated that Russia was only helping Teheran build the same class of nuclear reactor that the U.S. is constructing in North Korea. He went on to add that most of the missile-related technology being supplied to Iran was developed by Western companies. Putin and Bush did not mention Iraq during their interaction with the media but it was obvious that the issue figured prominently in the bilateral discussions held in Moscow.

Most of Bush's Western allies have come out quite strongly against a renewed military offensive against Iraq. The U.S. is, however, confident that its traditional allies will toe the line once an attack is launched. Russia, which has high financial and political stakes in Iraq, has so far opposed any outside intervention in Iraq to overthrow the government in Baghdad. Kremlin's official line is that it wants the U.N. arms inspectors to return to Iraq and once they certify that the country is free of weapons of mass destruction, all sanctions should be lifted. But behind the scenes, the U.S. is assuring the Kremlin that Russia's political and economic interests in Iraq will be safeguarded if and when the U.S. goal of "regime change" is realised. What the U.S. government wants from Russia is only "neutrality", not its support, in case an attack is mounted on Iraq.

The Bush administration is also pushing for a greater share of Russia's oil. Russian oil accounts for around 10 per cent of the world's oil production. The U.S. does not want to be too dependent on oil from West Asia, especially in the wake of the recent events in that region. Russian help is also vital to access and market Caspian Sea oil. Moscow seems to be in a mood to cooperate with the West these days and has indicated that it is about to pump more crude oil to satiate Western demands. Last year members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC countries like Russia had agreed to a certain quota in order also to keep international oil prices stable. To back OPEC's moves to stabilise oil prices, Russia had reduced its oil export by 1,50,000 barrels a day from January 2001. But a few days ahead of the arrival of the U.S. President, Russia terminated its agreement with OPEC even before its term had expired. Russia's "price collusion" with OPEC had upset the Bush administration.

During the Bush-Putin summit, both countries agreed to start an "energy dialogue". A joint statement issued by the two leaders said that "world economic growth depends on the stability and reliability of energy supplies". The statement emphasised that the energy dialogue was initiated keeping in view the fact that Russia is "one of the biggest energy suppliers, and in order to increase international energy security and market stability, we have agreed to launch a bilateral energy dialogue". Major American oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and Texaco have announced plans to invest heavily in Russia's energy sector. Until last year, these energy giants were trying to find ways to side-track Russia from the lucrative gas pipeline projects in Central Asia.

Many Russian analysts refute the allegation that their country is going to play the role of a junior partner in the blossoming relationship with Washington. They say that Russia's real aim is to become an equal member of the European Community. Forty per cent of Russia's trade is with its European neighbours. Besides, they point out, Russia occupies a unique geo-strategic location as a Eurasian nation. It is therefore in Russia's interest to maintain friendly ties with countries such as China, India and Iran and those of the Arab world. They doubt whether Russia will ever be a genuine U.S. ally as Britain, France or Germany are today. In one of his early addresses to the Duma in July 2000, Putin had promised to restore the country to its original position of pre-eminence and to avert the danger "of the systemic challenge to Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity on the part of those forces striving for the geopolitical restructuring of the world".

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