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Putin, Bush and the false dawn of the 'New Cold War'
No doubt in the three days of the summit, many private meetings were held and much was talked about at the round table of all eight heads of state. However, of all the agreements, promises and pledges, from the $60bn for Africa to the ‘new’ climate change deal, what will surely be remembered will be Mr. Putin’s proposal that the US and Russia forget all their very public disagreements over the planned Anti-Missile Systems in Europe and co-operate instead on a joint facility in Azerbaijan.
Until Thursday, Moscow had for months maintained that the proposed systems to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic are singularly a threat to Russia. Where the USA said that they were solely a defensive shield, designed to foil any attack from ‘rogue states’ such as Iran and North Korea, Mr. Putin countered that Iran has no such Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, so there is no threat to defend against – the real target must therefore be Russia. The People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, on the other hand, would hardly attack the USA by sending missiles (if it has them) over Europe – going over the Pacific Ocean or the North Pole would be the route of attack, being a much shorter distance to cover than the longitudinal entirety of Eurasia and the Atlantic. North Korea, Putin claimed, was just as much a threat to Russia anyway – and much closer to home.
He declared the possibility of withdrawing from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty at his annual address to the Federal Assembly on April 26, causing an uproar in the west. The president’s reasoning was that Russia has been engaging in a steady process of disarmament while the EU and the US have done precisely the opposite, building new military bases in Romania and Bulgaria (i.e. on Russia’s doorstep) and threatening the construction of the aforementioned Anti-Missile System. The latter, according to Putin, marked the first time in history that the USA would have nuclear potential positioned in Europe: the balance of military capability was shifting visibly in favour of America and the newly enlarged Europe. Russia postured that it might call a moratorium on the CFE treaty to ensure that their grievances were understood.
The question which now arises is this: why Azerbaijan and not the Czech Republic or Poland? Why has the Russian president been complaining so vociferously about the US plans, bombastically threatening to aim middle range nuclear missiles at Western Europe, if after all that he is prepared to work with the very people he has been vehemently criticising since the Munich Security Policy Conference in February?
Let us not forget that the new Europe which now confronts Russia has swallowed parts of the empire many Russians had until recently considered a natural part of their territorial sovereignty (the Baltic states), while the larger ghost of NATO (originally an anti-Soviet, i.e. anti-Moscow, military union) is also flirting with many strategic ex-Soviet neighbours (e.g. Georgia, Ukraine) and thereby threatening enforced colonial alienation from the Russian sphere of influence. The process of wresting away the likes of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine from cordial relations with Moscow (or rather, the possibility of having cordial relations with Moscow) has already been underway since the collapse of the USSR by means of energy diplomacy, direct diplomacy, foreign investment and the tacit encouragement of, and jubilation at, the triplet of “colour revolutions” between 2003 and 2005.
Now let’s take a step back and look at the developments in US-Russia relations over the last few months. Leaving aside economic disputes of investment transparency in the oil and gas industries, the current diplomatic animosity between the USA and Russia has unfolded with extreme rapidity over the last four months. The row over the Anti-Missile System first came onto the scene in mid-January, when Washington made formal proposals to the Czech Republic and Poland. Meanwhile, the Munich speech was also a watershed, as it marked a new intention of direct verbal confrontation which has continued from then until the present. Previously, hot topics such the situation in Chechnya, questions of energy security, the Yukos and Khodorkovsky affair, the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Aleksandr Litvinenko, etc., were used as platforms on which to frame discussions both within and outside Russia as to the state of democracy and freedom in the country. In Munich, President Putin had no such concrete event to use as a springboard for his criticism of US “unilateralist” foreign policy, which is a significant reason why the backlash has been unrelenting since that speech was delivered.
Of course, that is not to say that the USA and its political allies have not done anything wrong. I hardly need to elaborate on the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the disaster of the Israel-Lebanon War last summer, the legal and humanitarian catastrophe at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and other prisons, and the heightening tensions and tragedy of US-supported autocracies such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan – just to name a few of the recent mistakes that might, arguably at least, have been avoided. The Anti-Missile System in Europe was widely thought to be the next step towards complete military domination of the entire world. So from that perspective, Mr. Putin does have a point. Disputes arise because his own country is not the pure and absolute democracy he seems to think it is. It is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black - the argument has spiraled out of control of late, culminating in the tensions leading up to the G8 summit, and subsequently the spectacular cadence achieved last week by the unexpected preliminary agreement made by the two presidents.
However, the sheer speed with which the diplomatic row was reeled back in at Heiligendamm leaves a somewhat sour taste in the mouth. Messrs Bush and Putin stood practically ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ as did Bush and Blair not so long ago (as the Moscow Times put it: “They stood so close they often touched”) and emitted an air of nonchalant good relations as they declared that they were prepared to work together on a new anti-missile system in Azerbaijan. The political infrastructure is already in place (the proposed site is an existing Russian base and President Aliyev of Azerbaijan has given the green light), we agree that there is a threat to us all, all that remains is for us to go and think it through – we can even do it together at the family retreat in Maine.
Until Thursday morning, the evidence had pointed to a full-scale blowup in international relations. Only a few weeks ago, Mr. Bush’s fluent-Russian-speaking arch-diplomat Condoleezza Rice had failed to achieve any real consensus on her visit to Moscow other than a faint promise that the rhetoric would be toned down on both sides – that promise seemed to be broken straight away. Now, however, given that the fundamental disagreement was centred almost exclusively on the issue of the Anti-Missile System, and that ‘situation’ is transpiring to have been nothing more than a bad dream, the “New Cold War” might well have been nipped in the bud. Well done George and Vladimir - but what is really going on?
There are a series of explanations. The first lies in the strategic advantages of placing a joint facility in Azerbaijan. The US had proposed to Russian defence chiefs at the end of April that the two countries negotiate a settlement and that they should work together on the proposed systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. The answer was then, and till now remained, a resounding “nyet”. The geographical and geopolitical differences of having the system in Azerbaijan have a number of advantages for Russia which would appear to mitigate the need for such confrontation. A system in Azerbaijan would pose no direct threat to Russia – the skies between Russia on the one hand and Europe and America on the other would remain open. The argument that the proposed anti-missile system is an affront to Russia becomes invalid, and while it remains extremely unlikely that actual military hostilities will break out, the fact of military parity with its western neighbours is an extremely important condition of Russian stability – politically, economically, psychologically - both at home and from a global perspective.
The deployment of the system in Azerbaijan gives a much larger proportion of control to Russia’s military-industrial complex than the proposed US plans to co-operate in Central Europe. As the multinational oil corporations are discovering, the Russian state (in this case – Gazprom) does not like the idea of leaving the Europeans or Americans in charge of joint operations which have a bearing on Russian affairs. Just as the state gas giant does not want ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, Statoil and Total to have more than a minority share of the control of its large gas projects (although they are happy for these companies for pay for disproportionate chunks of the capital investment), the military is not too keen on letting the Americans build an anti-missile base in countries where Russia does not have a significant amount of political leverage – no matter what the supposed mutual advantages, and even if the plan is to be a joint venture. After all, Poland in particular has very chilly relations with Russia, with disputes over the meat embargo, a gas pipeline which bypasses Poland and Ukraine, and the dismantling of Soviet monuments causing rifts not only in bilateral relations between the two countries but also having much larger implications for the dialogue between Russia and the EU as a whole – as witnessed by the complete standstill of the EU-Russia summit in Vozhsky Utyos a few weeks ago. Russia already has agreements with Azerbaijan over military cooperation, and the country is much less in the field of influence of the NATO-EU complex of which Moscow is currently so suspicious. The US has a presence there but it is more commercial in nature. A compromise can be reached with a more understanding (or, some might say, fearful) Baku.
However, this is to overlook one vital inconsistency. Putin had until yesterday insisted that there was no threat from Iran, and he has (not very surreptitiously) performed a complete volte-face on this stance. A base in Azerbaijan is clearly aimed at the Middle East – where Tehran is undoubtedly the principal threat. It is possible, indeed likely, that he has changed his mind to appease George Bush and end the diplomatic crisis on his own terms. It would certainly not be the first time the Russian president has changed his tune or counteracted statements made by his own government ministers.
Added to that is the fact that, despite the friendly manner in which the agreement was made in Heiligendamm, much has been left undecided. Putin only proposed that the radar system be deployed in Azerbaijan; the rocket interceptors are still an unresolved issue. Presumably, George Bush still wants that facility in Poland, which, judging by past remarks and Putin’s opinion of Russophobic Poland, would not be acceptable to Russia. The fact that the issue has been left at that juncture suggests there may be more to the story.
Digging a bit deeper, however, and conjecturing on the political psychology of the entire affair, there is ample evidence that the spat has in some respects been a giant smokescreen from start to finish. Plenty of western and Russian media outlets have surmised that the very public appearances of Mr. Putin over the last few days have been a shrewd form of electioneering - if not for himself, as he cannot run for a third presidential term, then for the current political establishment as a systemic whole. His confrontational press conferences and public statements may have been given to the Western media, but his real audience was his supporters in Russia. Anti-Western sentiment in Russia is strong, especially after recent clashes with Europe over the Bronze Soldier affair in Tallinn, the military disputes which are the main subject of this article, and other matters, and stoking those flames does his popularity no harm. By half-falsifying the threat of the American plans and manoeuvering with extreme panache and skill (he was a KGB operative after all), Mr. Putin has been able to cook up a storm and orchestrate its winding down on his own terms – making him a yet again a hero to millions of Russians at home. ‘There is no threat from Iran’ – ‘now there is’; now you see it, now you don’t. George is happy because Vladimir will play ball, Vladimir is happy because George is happy. Western Europe equally has no interest in seeing hostile disputes flashing across its field of vision, so they will probably be happy – though the European Union has its own, rather different, grievances with Russia including energy relations, media freedom, human rights, Soviet monuments, Polish meat and the Ukrainian question.
The same argument is valid from the USA's point of view. The Anti-missile System could be perceived as a mechanism for diverting global attention away from US failures/war crimes (depending on your point of view) in the Middle East. This dispute flared up at a time when the four-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion had just been clocked, the Democrat-led Congress was fighting for withdrawal (which it seems to have given up, sadly), and US military strategy was under intense scrutiny and criticism. Suddenly the front page focus has been persistently on Russia, and the EU and USA seem to have successfully sidelined the issues of the Middle East and other problem areas. The Middle East is no less volatile than before: Palestine, Lebanon and Turkey/Kurdistan are witnessing either mass violence or escalating tensions, Guantanamo is in a legal shambles, and Israel's brutal military occupation of Palestine is reaching its landmark 40th anniversary. Yet the top international stories have consistently been Putin's rhetoric on the West and its military “threat”, the Russia-Estonia clashes, and so on.
Divide and rule
Bear in mind that there is effectively no CFE treaty anyway – the adapted treaty under the 1999 Istanbul agreement was never ratified by any of Western Europe. Now the European leaders are tripping over each other to say they will ratify it after all. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was also scrapped unilaterally by the Americans in 2002. Economic interdependence and the principle of mutually assured destruction ensure that no armed conflict will arise anyway, especially not in Europe. Such a standoff would only really benefit China, which none of the above are interested in seeing happen.
As we have seen, there are plenty of indicators that the threat countered by the proposed Anti-Missile System is at least partly a fabrication, and recent history has shown that the US (and UK) governments under the present administrations are prepared to lie to the public to get what they want. It is one thing to say that Putin is electioneering, which is a perfectly reasonable theory, but given that both the current US and UK governments may well be on their way out within the next two years, the US actions could be perceived as a last stand to ensure that their neo-conservative, 'New American Century' ways remain embedded in the global political framework. (They really have nothing to fear, for, as Zbigniew Brzezinski shows in his latest book, the Democrats' way of thinking in foreign policy doesn't differ hugely in its imperialist overtones). As for the Czechs and Poles and the East-West Europe divide, it is the USA, still the global superpower despite upsurges from India, China, Russia and others, which has the most to gain from exploiting these disagreements. They continue to "divide and rule", as they have for so long, all over the world.
Meanwhile, Putin's Russia is countering the USA's power games by befriending the Middle East (talk of a 'Gas-OPEC' or equivalent "forum" springs to mind straight away) and building diplomatic and economic relations with strategic countries including Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Japan, and China.
The issue of the Anti-Missile System may well blow up again – the inconclusiveness of the first stage of the agreement may easily lead to more confrontation in the near future. What should be questioned are the facts of the case – what are the motives for the changes of tone and the inconsistency of tactics on both sides? While I certainly would not go so far as to say there was a conspiracy at play, one thing seems clear: there is no new cold war. A cold war requires two superpowers with satellite states who have no links whatsoever with each other’s establishment institutions. There are more than two superpowers in today’s global society, and the geopolitical map is far more complex than one than can be carved up into 'Communists' and 'the West'. What there may be is a tacit, unspoken understanding between these two presidents that they can play a game of ‘Public Warfare / Domestic Electoral Security’. What remains to be seen is whether the next generation of Russian and US leaders will change their respective tactics, how the Russia-Europe disagreements will play out, and where the rising tide of global political Islam fits into the bigger picture.
Simon Lewis is a freelance writer and Russia analyst based in London, and is a director of the Moscow-based educational charity Begin It Now.