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Is Putin's 'New' Foreign Policy Working? - 2002-07-05

Russian President Vladimir Putin returned triumphantly to Moscow from last week's summit of major industrialized nations in Canada. His country won a permanent seat in the G8, which will now be made up of the heads of state of Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada, the United States, Japan and Russia. Mr. Putin was also promised $20 billion to eliminate and decommission his country's nuclear and chemical weapons over the next decade. This was the latest in a series of foreign policy successes for President Putin. But Mr. Putin's policies have also raised the ire of critics at home and get mixed reviews from average Russians.

Television pictures from the G8 summit in Canada showed a confident-looking President Putin chatting easily with the leaders of the world's richest nations. News reports talked of the Russian leader's comments being taken very seriously by his counterparts at the summit. Gone were the days, it seemed, when Russia sat on the sidelines of these meetings, waiting for assistance.

During their meeting, the leaders of the world's major industrialized nations decided to make Russia a full-fledged member of the G8, even though experts might argue that Russia's economy does not warrant such status. Russia also received promises of $20 billion in assistance to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction. By the end of the summit, President Putin seemed on the verge of achieving one of his main foreign policy goals, to have Russia recognized as a partner and a player in international politics.

Boris Kagarlitzky, political editor at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said President Putin is reaping the benefits of his support for America's global coalition against terrorism.

"It is, in a way, a pay-off for Russia, for its position taken on the war against terrorism. It's very important to understand that these things are extremely important for the elite in Russia. It's a strategic goal for the Russian elite to get recognized internationally, to be treated as equals internationally," Mr. Kagarlitzky said.

And those within the political elite who support President Putin have had plenty to celebrate lately. Because of Western backing, Russia is close to gaining entry into the World Trade Organization, which promotes trade and economic development by reducing tariffs. In May, there was the successful summit between President Putin and U.S. President Bush in Moscow and St. Petersburg, during which the two leaders signed a landmark nuclear arms reduction pact. A few days later, the two presidents attended a signing ceremony in Rome, during which a new partnership was forged between Russia and NATO that gives Moscow more say in the alliance's affairs.

Analysts here say President Putin's support for the global coalition against terrorism is part of a broader strategy by Moscow. They believe Mr. Putin hopes to use the support to gain political and economic benefits from the West.

Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies, says President Putin made the right choice. He said, after all, the Americans have gotten rid of the extremist Taleban regime in Afghanistan, which posed a security threat to Russia's southern backyard in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

"Maybe, for the first time in our history, somebody did the dirty job for us. Certainly, pursuing their own objectives, the Americans have solved a very important Russian security problem by liquidating the hotbed of Islamic radicalism in the south. The alternative to support for the global coalition to American intervention in Central Asia would be the Taleban in the Ferghana Valley now and Russian soldiers being sent there," Mr. Piontkovsky said.

Mr. Piontkovsky acknowledges, however, that this is not the prevailing view in Russia. He said, while part of the political elite does support Mr. Putin's strategy, the majority does not. He said there is no gratitude here for American actions. Part of the reason for this, he said, is that American forces are in places that were, during Soviet days, off-limits to them. Mr. Piontkovsky cited the American troop presence in Central Asia and the presence of U.S. military advisers in the Caucasus republic of Georgia. On top of this, NATO is expanding eastward ever closer to the Russian border.

"There are people who have very serious concerns the United States pushed us out of Central Asia, they're pushing us out of Georgia, NATO is crawling to our borders and so on and so on. What is important is a general perception of the West, and especially the United States, if not as an enemy, but certainly as a strategic opponent diminishing Russian greatness," he said.

And it's not just the political elite that feels that way. Public opinion polls consistently show Russian distrust, and often outright dislike, of the United States. Just ask 32-year-old Oleg, who declined to give his last name.

Oleg is a policeman. He said the United States and Russia will never be friends, although he says they might be partners in some specific cases. He said the United States just gives advice and nothing more, like on solving the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. But Oleg also chides President Putin for not having solved the Chechen conflict either.

Forty-eight-year-old Elena Mizyulina, a biology teacher, had nothing good to say about the United States either. She said the image of the USA as a friend has failed. She said she still thinks of America as an enemy.

But, how much do these Russians care about President Putin's much-touted foreign policy successes? The views are mixed. Sixty-five-year-old Lydia Bryntseva said foreign policy is important.

"Friendships with other countries are important. Our economy depends on how Putin deals with other states," she said. "Putin invites people here, he goes abroad and solves political and economic problems. Let him work and let local officials like our mayors deal with domestic problems."

Oleg, the policeman, does not share that view. "It doesn't matter to me," he said. "I have a life of my own. I have a family and children."

Oleg said he does not care about the WTO and all that. "I wish Putin did something inside the country and then we can talk about foreign policy. Foreign policy depends on how strong the country is; that determines whether anyone will listen to us or not," he said. But whatever they may think of President Putin's foreign policy and his friendship with America, opinion polls show that most Russians like Mr. Putin and think he's doing a good job. Political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky said that's because Mr. Putin has brought about some improvements in people's daily lives, such as ensuring that salaries and pensions are paid, which was not the case in years gone by. But Mr. Piontkovsky warns that attitude could change. And he predicts that if Mr. Putin were to lose the support of the people, his political opponents will go on the offensive.

"If the economic situation deteriorates and ordinary people become frustrated with their well being, then the political opponents will use this opportunity to present their accusations that he, Putin, is selling out the 'Motherland,' and so on," he said.

Many analysts agree that Mr. Putin's current course of rapprochement with the West and especially with the United States, is a fragile policy, and by no means an irreversible one.