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Russia's Putin Worries Many in the West


Many analysts say significant economic strides made by Russia in recent years have prompted President Vladimir Putin to try to reassert his country as a world power. But experts also say that Mr. Putin’s foreign policy has changed Russia’s relationship with the West.

Russia has done remarkably well since Vladimir Putin took over presidential powers from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin in 1999. Russia’s economy, which just a few years ago was smaller than Portugal’s, now ranks sixth in the world and it is expanding at record pace. The country’s growing wealth from energy exports and its large private sector have raised many living standards to levels not seen since before the fall of the Soviet Union 1991.

Under Mr. Putin, who has twice been elected president since 2000, Russia has paid off its debt to the World Bank and other international financial institutions. And it has hundreds of billions of dollars in monetary reserves, which are now being invested at home and abroad.

Keith Crane of the RAND Corporation, a private research center in Washington, says Russia’s economic success story rivals China’s.

“China has been growing close to nine-to-ten percent per year. The Russian economy has averaged 6.4 percent per year. But people fail to understand the ruble has appreciated [in value] so strongly that in dollar terms, the economy has been growing by 25 percent per year. The size of the private sector in Russia is substantially larger than it is in China and it is really what’s driving economic growth,” says Crane.

Many analysts note that the country’s economic performance has boosted Russia’s ambitions to reassert itself as a great power.

Georgetown University, political scientist Angela Stent says Mr. Putin believes that Russia signed many agreements with the West in the 1990s when it was weak, and now he wants to revise them and enter into a different relationship with the West.

“I think they feel that they allowed communism to collapse and allowed the Soviet Union to collapse, but that the West never really gave them in return respect for that,“ says Stent. "They want to be treated as an equal and they want their views to count as much as those of the United States or the European Union. And hence you see Mr. Putin saying, ‘We are not going to be as compliant as we were in the 1990s and we have the right to pursue our own interests,’” according to Stent.

Wary of Western Influence

She points to President Putin’s criticism of Western and NATO enlargement into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in the Baltics, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Mr. Putin, they say, also thinks the U.S. is ungrateful for Russia’s help in toppling Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban regime.

The Kremlin has now taken opposing views on issues important to many in the West such as using military force, if necessary, to curb Iran’s nuclear arms ambitions.

After objecting to U.S. plans to station anti-missile batteries in Eastern Europe to shield Europe from a rogue state or terrorist attack, President Putin threatened to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which removed U.S. and Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe. And he says Moscow might pullout from the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations says Mr. Putin’s foreign policy has contributed to his popularity at home. “He has rested his legitimacy and his whole claim to be a great Russian leader on having increased Russia’s power and on the claim that he doesn’t just accept what other countries offer, but he tries to drive a hard bargain for Russia. He wants to pitch himself in public as somebody who is even belligerently pursuing Russia’s interests as he sees them,” contends Sestanovich.

KGB Legacy

The RAND Corporation’s Keith Crane adds that Mr. Putin has surrounded himself with former Committee for State Security, or KGB, officials. “Putin himself comes from this intelligence agency background. I think they are highly suspicious individuals. They see the world in a pretty much zero-sum perspective. And so if another country wins, they interpret that Russia had to lose or if Russia wins someone else loses,” notes Crane.

Analyst Stephen Sestanovich agrees, noting that “President Putin has definitely installed a whole class of like-minded officials throughout the state and state-owned corporations.”

“Part of the KGB ethos was that this was the most meritocratic institution of the Soviet state. This is deeply believed by a lot of the KGB alumni that unlike the unprincipled oligarchs [Russia’s new class of business elites], the cynical opportunistic politicians, the ineffectual intellectuals, these are people who have Russia’s true interests at heart," says Sestanovich. "They are, of course, benefiting enormously in personal terms from the pursuit of Russia’s true interests as they claim to be.”

Sestanovich adds that Russian institutions and business practices are not transparent. “When Western businessmen look at the prospect of dealing with the Russian state and businesses, they are not so sure about what they can count on in the future. Over the past several years, you’ve seen the renegotiation of a lot of energy contracts and that’s raised a new set of questions among Western businessmen as to what will be the fate of their investments in Russia.”

Other experts point out that for Russia and its new leaders, there is no going back to communism. They say that the country is still in transition to democracy and capitalism. But most analysts agree that Russia has become a concern for many in the West.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.