West Plays Nice, But Putin Talks Tough at Summit

By Joshua Yaffa

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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Leading up to last weekend’s Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, talk swirled in the United States and Europe over how best to confront Russia’s perceived slide toward authoritarianism. In the end, the United States and its allies opted not to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin openly about his consolidation of power and crackdown on civil society, but he still seemed to be itching for a fight.

“We proceed from the fact that no one knows better than we do how to strengthen our state,” Putin said at a press conference near the outset of the three-day gathering.

When challenged on the rollback of democratic freedoms and government corruption, Putin struck back with oblique references to America’s difficulties in Iraq and a campaign finance scandal in Britain.

“Putin believes that Russia’s economic standing gives him the possibility to be much more cocky than before,” said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the Russian branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There is a sense that Russia should not be coddled, but engaged as an equal.”

Rising global oil prices have allowed Russia to shed the image of a bruised, indigent nation that it carried for most of the 1990s. It paid back the balance of a $16.8 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund last January — over three and a half years ahead of schedule — freeing itself from the last vestige of a time of relative weakness and instability.

“Russia very much resents the position it was in throughout the 1990s,” said Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “And it used the G-8 forum to show it, big time.”

While Russia has suffered some recent diplomatic setbacks — namely the defeat of allies in a spate of democratic revolutions that have swept through the region — its economic growth has been at times astronomical. Foreign currency reserves stood at $7 billion when Putin assumed the office of prime minister in 1999. At the time of this week’s G-8 summit, the sum topped $250 billion.

“The reversal of fortune is staggering,” Gaddy said of the profits from oil and gas. “And they [Putin and his allies] have used this windfall to try and decrease the leverage of the outside world over Russia.”

While the extent to which Russia has succeeded in this goal remains unclear, visiting heads of state appeared ready to defer to their Russian hosts, tiptoeing around any uncomfortable questions on democracy or human rights. British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that he would raise these issues with Putin “without wrecking the hotel room.” President Bush also struck a more conciliatory tone, noting after a one-on-one meeting with Putin, “I don’t expect Russia to look like the United States.”

Some observers argued that this shift toward less confrontational rhetoric — especially in contrast to more pointed comments that Vice President Dick Cheney made in Lithuania this May — reflects a more pragmatic view in the Bush administration of the American-Russian relationship.

“There is a general consensus that criticizing Russia publicly is not only not productive, but actually counterproductive,” said Angela Stent, who until last year served as the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia on the National Intelligence Council.

According to this view, confronting Russia too forcefully on its domestic political situation could have a negative impact on vital areas where collaboration is needed. The United States is looking for Russian support in reigning in suspected nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, in addition to hoping for broader cooperation on energy security and the war against terrorism.

“Pushing Russia on democratic development didn’t produce the desired outcome, so we are seeing this shift back towards realpolitik,” Stent said.

A move toward a tactical, issue-driven relationship would certainly be a change from the intensely personal bond formed after the two presidents’ first meeting five years ago, when Bush famously remarked that he looked into his Russian counterpart’s soul. This warmth was missing during a joint press conference that followed a bilateral Putin-Bush discussion on July 15.

After Bush spoke on the process of building Russian democracy, Putin quickly responded, “We certainly would not like to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I’ll tell you that quite honestly.”

A day later, while answering a question from a British reporter on a similar topic, Putin brought up the case of Lord Michael Levy, who has been implicated in a Labour Party corruption scandal. “We’d be interested in hearing about your experience, including how it applies to Lord Levy,” he wryly remarked.

With the lavish show in St. Petersburg now over, and with elections in 2008 looming in both the United States and in Russia, few expect the relationship to change dramatically in the short term.

“The question remains, do they just need to blow off a little steam,” Gaddy said of the resurgent Russian side, “or will this become something embedded in Russian politics?”

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