From Russia with love
After summits in St Petersburg and Evian, is Vladimir Putin signalling that Russia has become part of the west's family? America thinks so
Vladimir Putin is a happy man. He is back in the Kremlin after the three most dazzling days in Russia's zigzag post-communist journey. First he persuaded 40 world leaders to come to his home town for a gala of opera and ballet favourites. Then at the Evian summit he got Russia accepted for the first time as a full member of the rich world's club, turning the G7 into the G8.
In the wings of the St Petersburg extravaganza he held a summit with the EU, amid promises to set up a partnership council. The Russian president also met George Bush and signed a statement outlining a "new strategic relationship" with the US. Now (climax or foot-note to his other triumphs?) he is preparing to bed down at Buckingham Palace later this month on the first state visit since the Crimean war put a bit of a dent in Anglo-Russian relations.
So is Russia part of the family at last? The US has certainly decided to behave as though it is. In the words of Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, Bush came to Europe last weekend to forgive Russia, punish France and ignore Germany. Her remarks show that the key point was not to treat all three opponents alike. Washington had to prevent the nyet-uttering troika, which held a number of high-profile, veto-threatening meetings before the war on Iraq, from becoming a fixture. Equal rudeness to the three could have backfired.
In reality, there was little danger for Bush. The three states do not have the self-confidence, let alone a common vision, to coordinate their foreign policies and start to build the permanent countervailing power vis-à-vis the new US imperialism that many Europeans and progressive Americans hope to see. After the war France, Germany and Russia quickly fell into line and gave Washington the control over Iraq's oil and governance that Bush wanted.
But the White House could have chosen its options differently. It might have forgiven France and ignored Germany - or vice versa - but in both cases have made sure that it punished Russia. That it did not suggests that France and Germany are seen in Washington as the short-term enemies. Donald Rumsfeld's famous division of Europe into new and old was not a slip of the tongue but the catchy expression of a new US strategy to manipulate rivalries within Nato and maintain it as an instrument of US power. After all, alongside Condoleezza Rice's three directions for Bush's trip was a fourth one: thank Poland.
Yet if the west views Russia as a country to be flattered, does that mean it is weak or strong? Russia's own establishment believes it to be the former.
It sees its country as proud, potentially great, but currently lacking power. It does not imagine it will ever be fully accepted into the west, and its strategic priority is still to prevent the return of the kind of isolation, sanctions, encirclement and, indeed, punishment that marked the cold war. The aim is not to remove all foreign policy differences with western states but to ensure that each one is dealt with on its merits, rather than letting them poison the climate as a whole.
For all the talk of his being more of a nationalist than his erratic predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin's record has been one of concessions. After September 11 he accepted US military bases in central Asia. In St Petersburg at the weekend the last vestiges of opposition to Washington's "son of star wars" missile defence programme vanished, and Putin talked of Russia joining it. Although Russia has started to ask for assurances that the Baltic states will not deploy US or other Nato nations' troops on their territory, the alliance's expansion to within 100 miles of St Petersburg has gone smoothly.
In return, under the guise of the international war on terrorism, Putin has won western acceptance of his cruel ground war in Chechnya. In St Petersburg the EU even went so far as to describe the recent flawed referendum and minimal amnesty as important steps forward. As a weak power, Russia's opposition to the attack on Iraq may seem odd. But it was principled. Russian diplomats insist that even if France had buckled, the Kremlin would have used its veto to deny Washington legal cover, just as Moscow indicated it would over Kosovo in 1999.
Running through Moscow's entire post-cold war strategy - whether under Gorbachev, Yeltsin or Putin - is the notion that we live in a multipolar world in which the UN must be protected as the guarantor of peace and security. Putin repeated the point in his joint communique with China's new president last week.
As Washington turns up the heat on Iran, Tony Blair yesterday claimed Putin promised his Evian partners he was stopping nuclear supplies to Tehran until it gave the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspectors extra access. That assertion appears to be false. Russia has made it clear that while it shares concerns that Tehran might seek to use its nuclear energy programme as a cover for acquiring a bomb, it will not permit the US to manipulate the issue for commercial gain, let alone to launch another war.
Russia sees no value in confronting the US as a cardinal aspect of policy or from ideological grounds. It takes issues pragmatically but if the new call is to attack Iran, it will say no.