Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Kremlin Wises Up; After strong-arm tactics backfire, Moscow finds smarter ways to extend its influence abroad.

Newsweek International Edition - Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova

February 4, 2008

Russians can be forgiven for a little nostalgia. Not long ago, their country commanded a worldwide empire. Yet in the past 15 years, their homeland has lost much of its geopolitical clout. No surprise, then, that the newly rich Russia should hanker to restore its muscle, and not just in its old Soviet backyard. As Tatyana Parkhalina, director of the Moscow-based Center for European Security, describes the government's current attitude, "Russia wants to send the world a message: “‘We are a superpower--we are still here!' "

Many of Russia's neighbors have already borne the brunt of Moscow's efforts to reassert itself. Last year, after a spy row with Georgia, Russia cut off all rail and air links and embargoed Georgian products. Estonia's embassy in Moscow was raided by Kremlin-backed thugs after a spat over the removal of a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn. And both Ukraine and Belarus found their oil and gas supplies suspended when they refused Russian price hikes. But all these attempts to enforce Russia's will backfired: both Georgians and Ukrainians recently re-elected their anti-Kremlin leaders. Even Belarus, once Russia's closest ally, responded to Moscow's squeeze by making overtures to Europe.

Now, it seems, the Kremlin has learned its lesson. Vladimir Putin's latest power plays demonstrate greater subtlety, and his new tactics--trading gas supplies and international diplomatic backing for loyalty--are proving more effective. Last week, for example, he traveled to Sofia to clinch a deal that will see a major new gas pipeline built through Bulgaria and ultimately on to the Balkans and Italy. Bulgaria will get stable energy supplies--but will become dependent on a Russian pipeline. Serbia quickly signed up too, in no small part because Belgrade needs Moscow's backing on Kosovo.

Indeed, Kosovo is set to become the latest showdown between Russia and the West when the breakaway Serbian republic declares its independence in the next few weeks. Washington and Berlin have promised to support it, but Putin has insisted Belgrade must approve the deal--something Serbia's current president has vowed never to do. Behind Moscow's position is an implicit threat: should the West hold firm, Russia could return the favor by ratcheting up separatist pressure in several pro-Western former Soviet states.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, denied last week that Moscow has any plans to recognize the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet both areas are already effectively Russian protectorates, policed by Russian troops. So is Transdniestr, on the border of Moldova and Ukraine. "Abkhazia and Ossetia are like knives held to the throat of Georgia," says former Georgian parliamentarian Vakhtang Gilovani. While Moscow says it opposes the recognition of breakaway nations, it has been more than ready to use the threat of separatism as a strategic tool in the past.

Even if Moscow wins the showdown over Kosovo, it is likely to continue challenging what Putin has called the U.S.-dominated "unipolar world." U.S. backing for Kosovo's independence is proof that "Americans feel they can give or take away sovereignty depending on their own interests," says Vasily Likhachev, vice chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the upper house of Russia's Parliament. Such rancor among Kremlin leaders could lead to even more ambitious power plays. Today's "resurgent Russia is the world's foremost revisionist power," argues Prof. Robert Skidelsky of the U.K.'s University of Warwick. To balance the West, Moscow, using its "two superpower assets, nuclear weapons and energy," has already established friendly relations with a growing coalition of disgruntled states like Venezuela, Iran and Syria. What's next on the agenda? One option, according to Skidelsky, would be to foment unrest among the sizable Russian populations in Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine to help bring these states back into Moscow's orbit. Another would be to build the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement, a loose alliance of Central Asian dictatorships plus Russia and China, into a powerful union.

Putin's anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, due to take over in five weeks' time, has so far remained quiet on questions of foreign policy. But he has said that Russia should be "strong and integrated with the rest of the world." Of course, what form that integration takes remains to be determined, and could shift dramatically if the disgruntled former superpower insists on rewriting the rules.

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