Wednesday, March 28, 2007

U.S. Intelligence Official Says Putin’s Advisers Threaten Democracy in Russia

Russia has taken a step backward in its democratic progress and could be heading toward a controlled succession to President Vladimir Putin, the Reuters news agency quoted U.S. director of national intelligence as saying.Retired Navy Admiral Mike McConnell, installed as U.S. director of national intelligence last week, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Putin has become surrounded by “extremely conservative” advisers who are suspicious of the United States.“The march to democracy has taken a back step. And now there are more arrangements to control the process and the populace and the parties and so on, to the point of picking the next leader of Russia,” McConnell said at a hearing to discuss world threats to the United States.

“That’s my worry: Is the march toward democracy, the way we understood it ... now being controlled in a way that it is less of a democratic process?”He suggested that aggressive Russian rhetoric toward the United States in recent weeks could reflect the direction of political influence in Russia. Putin, who has called Washington’s plan to put a missile defense system in central Europe a threat to Russian security, accused the United States of wanting to dominate the world during a February 10 speech in Germany.

Nine days later, Gen. Nikolai Solovstov, commander of Russia’s strategic forces, warned that Russian missiles could target Poland and the Czech Republic if they accepted parts of the U.S. missile system.“Those that (Putin) is listening to ... interpret things through a lens that portrays Russia as the downtrodden or (shows) we’re trying to hold them back to the advantage of the United States,” McConnell told the Senate panel.“My reading of that is they’re not interpreting the lens correctly. But they have renewed energy and vigor because of the high price of oil.”U.S. intelligence depicts Russia as a country that sees itself as an energy superpower.

But Russian leaders still view a strong military as a necessary element for its return to great-power status.Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, who heads the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, said Russia spent about $90 billion on defense in 2006, compared with China’s $80 billion to $115 billion.U.S. defense spending for the current year is estimated at about $500 billion, or more than two-thirds of the $738 billion spent in 2006 by all other countries combined.

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