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Putin's State Of Mind

Russian President Vladimir Putin(L) and US President George W. Bush in 2006. Six years after they first met, and Bush reported gazing into Putin's soul, the two leaders face tense talks here at the G8 summit on Thursday. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Arnaud De Borchgrave
UPI Editor at Large
Washington DC (UPI) June 06, 2007
The reasons behind Vladimir Putin's increasingly hostile attitude toward the Bush administration are becoming clearer. To understand them in their proper context, imagine the United States and its allies had lost the Cold War. NATO has collapsed.

Next thing we know capitalism collapses, along with America's two political parties. In their place springs a one-party system, known as USA, which now stands for United Socialists of America. As we lick our military, diplomatic and psychological wounds, Canada and Mexico follow our former European allies into the Warsaw Pact.

France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain and the Benelux countries join COMECON, the Warsaw Pact equivalent of the now defunct European Economic Community. NAFTA also folds like a house of cards and is replaced by INTER-ARTA (Inter-American Regulated Trade Association). Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Venezuela become the charter members.

The Soviet leader -- Gorbachev, Yeltsin or Putin -- then embarks on a triumphant tour of the former NATO capitals, including Ottawa and Mexico City, now full-fledged Warsaw Pact allies.

Soviet hubris has led the world's most powerful nation to punish a recalcitrant dictator in the Middle East, say, Iraq. The men in the Kremlin decide to invade Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, roping in key satellites in a coalition of the unwilling. Oblivious to local tribal and sectarian forces, Soviet and coalition forces find themselves bogged down in another Afghanistan.

When the Soviet leader first met with his new counterpart in the White House, he stared into his soul and liked what he saw: an American socialist who could be trusted. But now that the Russian imperialist was bogged down in Iraq, the USA president was beginning to enjoy his discomfiture. He then went on to criticize the Kremlin leader for the biggest blunder in the history of socialism. The Russian's ratings plummeted to single digits.

Now back to reality. Putin is savoring President Bush's predicament and piling on. His paranoid military had briefed him on the anti-missile system the United States wants to install in Poland and the Czech Republic as a deterrent to hostile nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles. From what his intelligence tells him, Iran is so far behind in producing a nuclear weapon, let alone one that can be miniaturized and fitted into the nose cone of a Shehab-4 missile, that the Americans must have an ulterior motive. A copy of North Korea's No-Dong missile, the latest Shehab-4, or Shooting Star, would have a range of about 1,500 kilometers (900 miles), which would threaten Israel, Jordan and all the Gulf countries, but not Europe.

Putin, after listening to his military and intelligence services, decided to rattle the Europeans by snarling at Bush. This could produce a little more daylight between Washington and its European allies. Given Bush's single digit popularity ratings in Europe, Putin presumably concluded this is a propitious time to push the envelope with strident warnings about a new missile race, this time one that the United States started.

At first blush it seemed like much ado about very little. The U.S. proposal to expand its missile defense shield to cover Europe entails locating 10 missile interceptors in Poland that would be linked to a new radar base in the Czech Republic. For Eastern European countries that are now NATO members, the U.S. missile plan seemed like additional guarantees against their former imperial masters in Moscow. Putin's new Russia is now flush with the income of oil and gas exports and many Eastern Europeans sense nostalgia in Moscow for what is known as its "near abroad."

Poland, a country that has spent more than two centuries under imperial Russian and imperial Soviet domination, is divided on the plan for a new U.S. missile base against Iran. Surveys show 58 percent of Poles and 68 percent of Czechs opposed. But the Polish government is pushing back on what they detect to be recrudescent Russian imperial ambitions.

Russian generals have spoken to Polish generals as if their NATO membership was more fiction than reality. So before they accept a U.S. missile base, Polish authorities want to make sure the U.S. supplies local air defense and anti-missile systems. Unless Polish security is enhanced vis a vis Russia, the government sees no point in enhancing security against Iran in the distant future and antagonizing Russia in the immediate future.

Asked by Italy's Corriere della Sera whether the U.S. defense shield in Eastern Europe would compel Moscow to target its own missiles at NATO locations and U.S. military sites in Europe, as during the Cold War, Putin said, "Naturally, yes." His response was clearly designed to frighten America's European allies to push back on the projected anti-missile deployment.

"If the American nuclear potential grows in European territory," Putin told the Italian reporter, "we have to give ourselves new targets in Europe. It is up to the military to define these targets, in addition to defining the choice between ballistic and cruise missiles. But this is just a technical aspect."

Putin's answer was clearly designed to sow confusion in the minds of Europeans that are already panicked at the idea of U.S. military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. They can see the threat of a rekindled Cold War and Putin is making sure the Bush administration gets the blame. Putin and his former KGB colleagues, now relocated in key government posts, are saying, in effect, "We're back and we're tired of being pushed around." Chutzpah and megalomania are part of the new image as Putin declared he is now the world's only "pure Democrat" and complained, "After the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there's nobody to talk to."

The Bush administration, Putin said, explains "it is necessary to defend oneself against Iranian missiles. But Iran does not have missiles with a range of 5,000-8,000 kilometers, so it's a defense against something that does not exist. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad."

At this geostrategic moment, Russia has more geoeconomic leverage on Europe as a whole than does a much-diminished U.S. presidency. Bush's eight days of travels through Europe this week, including a G8 summit in Germany, and stops in the Czech republic, Poland, Italy, Albania and Bulgaria, were choreographed to soften the with-us-or-against-us war on terror image and display the softer side of power -- or "smart power" in the now fashionable geopolitical vernacular.

And if the new Russo-American hatchet can't be buried this week, another Putin-Bush meeting July 1 and 2, this time in the more relaxed ocean setting of the Bush family's Kennebunkport summer compound, will give them another opportunity to take a fresh look into each other's hearts and/or souls. And hopefully stow brinkmanship.

earlier related report
Analysis: Cold War at G8?
by Stefan Nicola
Wednesday's Group of Eight summit meeting is heading for a clash between Russia and the West over the country's backsliding democracy, a U.S. missile defense system planned in Eastern Europe and the mysterious murder of a former Russian spy-turned-Kremlin critic.

Recently, both Washington and Moscow further turned up the heat in their war of words.

U.S. President George W. Bush, a day before he was due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G8 summit, rebuked Russia for its deteriorating democratic record.

"In Russia, reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," Bush said as he spoke in Prague, Czech Republic, a country that wants to be a part of the controversial U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Over the weekend, Putin had launched the most daunting threat against the West yet, when he said the U.S. system, which foresees 10 bunker-protected rockets to be stationed in Poland and an accompanying radar unit in the Czech Republic, would force him to retarget Russia's nuclear rockets toward Europe. Russia sees the missiles as a threat against its territory, despite U.S. pledges that Moscow needn't be worried.

"As a matter of fact why don't you cooperate with us?" Bush asked in Prague.

U.S. officials have repeatedly extended an invitation to Moscow to join the system, with no results. Western diplomats are increasingly frustrated over Putin's unwillingness to move -- not even an inch -- on any issue, be it energy, democracy, independence of Kosovo or the U.S. missiles.

The missile system has even managed to disunite Europe; politicians across the continent have either praised the missile shield as an important security asset or bashed Washington for not informing Russia ahead of time.

"Ten interceptors threatening Russia's entire nuclear arsenal? That's the most ridiculous thing I have heard in a long time," John Hulsman, trans-Atlantic and Europe expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank, told United Press International in a Wednesday telephone interview. "But even when the Americans are right with their policy, nobody trusts them. That's the price you pay for Iraq."

"We will likely see a lot of fireworks at this G8 summit," he added.

The big question is: What is Putin gaining from his current confrontational policy?

"That's the question we are all asking ourselves," Hannes Adomeit, Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Berlin-based think tank, told UPI Wednesday.

Adomeit said it was most likely a combination of several issues:

-- Putin wants to elevate Russia's defense standing; that strategy goes hand-in-hand with the United States' lessened clout after Iraq and the growing self-confidence of Moscow because of its energy assets.

-- Putin is tired of being lectured on democracy, and has thus dropped a boulder of blockage against the missile system into the Atlantic, "watching how it's drawing its circles."

-- Putin wants to rebuke the Baltic and Eastern European states who have joined the European Union and NATO.

-- Putin wants to pave the way for December's parliamentary elections and the presidential elections next March. "Putin's self-confident rhetoric toward the United States goes down well with the Russian public," Adomeit said.

Hulsman, a former senior fellow at the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation, offered another theory: "In the 1980s, Putin was a very able KGB spy," he said, adding that the main goal of the time was to secure and spread Russian influence through its gas supplies, and to try to divide the alliance over missile defense. "So there really is no change in the playbook," he said, arguing that Putin's strategy was also aimed at disuniting the West and that he was testing "how far he can go."

Adomeit said that behind the scenes, talks on issues that the West and Russia agree upon -- namely Iran -- will continue. Most Western leaders, including Bush on Tuesday, have stressed that Russia remains an important ally and that the days of the Cold War with its hair-raising nuclear confrontations are over.

Adomeit stressed there is no need for hysteria. "Rhetorically, it is heating up, but it's not a real crisis yet," he said.

It could turn into one during the summit, however. Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced he will send some tough words in the direction of Putin as a diplomatic row has developed with Moscow over the murder of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned last November in his exile in London.

British prosecutors last month said they had enough evidence to charge Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB spy, with the poisoning of Litvinenko, calling on Russia to extradite the man so he can be brought before a British court. However, the Russian constitution forbids extraditing Russian citizens.

"If they didn't know (about the constitutional prohibition) it's a low level of competence and thus we have doubts about what they're doing there. And if they knew and did this, it's simply politics," Putin said in a recent interview released by the Kremlin.

"This is bad and that is bad -- from all sides it's the same stupidity," Putin said.

On Tuesday, Russia's Ambassador to Britain in an interview with the Financial Times accused London of fueling the conflict with "megaphone diplomacy."

Yet observers say Britain is right to remind Russia of its obligations in the spy murder.

"Even if nothing happens, Blair is right to make a point on this," Hulsman said.

Source: United Press International

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