Russia wants to become a "pole"

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Vremya Novostei quotes the chief editor of “Le Temps” (Switzerland): “Historians will not write some day that the second Cold War was declared at the Munich conference. But they could.”

Opening his speech at the 43rd International Security Conference in Munich, President Vladimir Putin asked his audience not to be angry if his “opinions seem too polemical or imprecise.”

His fellow politicians attempted to restrain their emotions. That may be why the audience was “petrified” during Putin’s speech, as journalists reported, and newly-appointed US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to whom Putin addressed some remarks, only “turned red” and “gritted his teeth.”

Putin strongly criticized the United States for imposing “unipolarity” on the rest of the world and preferring “unilateral, illegitimate actions” which “haven’t solved a single problem” but only serve to multiply human tragedies.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes Putin as saying that the “obvious stagnation in the field of disarmament” is another consequence of one state’s dominance. Putin reminded his audience that Russia and the United States had reached an agreement to reduce their nuclear arsenals to 1,700-2,200 warheads installed on missiles by December 31, 2012. Putin noted that Russia intends to comply strictly with the commitments it has undertaken. And then he turned to Robert Gates, expressing the hope that the United States “won’t set aside a couple of hundred extra warheads for a rainy day.” With an air of moral superiority, Putin said: “If the new US Defense Secretary should choose to tell us right here and now that the United States won’t conceal any extra warheads in its stockpiles, or under the pillow, or under the blanket, I propose that we should all welcome this with a standing ovation. It would be a very important statement.” Gates kept silent.

This verbal duel began when Gates addressed the House Armed Services Committee a few days before the Munich conference. Incautiously, he said: “In addition to fighting the Global War on Terror, we also face the danger posed by Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions… and the uncertain paths of China and Russia, which are both pursuing sophisticated military modernization programs.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that Gates called for a substantial increase in the US Army’s troop strength, saying that America needs forces capable of fighting against large armies.

This statement, which Moscow found offensive, was made while Gates was arguing the case for increasing US military spending.

In an interview with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Alexei Arbatov, head of the International Security Center (IMEMO, Russian Academy of Sciences), emphasizes that Gates’s words were a slip of the tongue: “He simply blurted it out.” But Arbatov also believes that it was a Freudian slip, “reflecting America’s actual underlying grievances and apprehensions, which usually aren’t expressed in official rhetoric – because the United States has found itself in a difficult situation with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, so it has absolutely no interest in complicating relations with Russia as well.”

Kommersant observes that the extent of Putin’s grievances against Gates in particular was illustrated by a statement he made at the end of his visit to Jordan: “They are even talking up a non-existent threat from Russia, in order to secure funding for military needs in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t understand why they need to play the anti-Russia card to resolve their domestic political problems.”

Putin’s speech in Munich was also a response to the US announcement of plans to install missile defense system elements in Poland and the Czech Republic. He noted that this move signifies “another round in an inevitable arms race.” Putin warned, however, that Russia will not engage in heavy spending; it will make an “asymmetric” response. “So everyone will understand that yes, a missile defense system does exist, but it’s useless against Russia, because we have the kind of weapons that can penetrate it easily,” said Putin. Nezavisimaya Gazeta sums this up as the “asymmetric arms race” formula.

Another sore point for Russia is the deployment of NATO bases in Europe.

Putin quoted from a speech made by then-NATO Secretary General Manfred Werner in Brussels on May 17, 1990: “The fact that we are prepared to refrain from deploying NATO troops beyond the borders of Germany provides firm security guarantees for the Soviet Union.” After quoting Werner, Putin asked his audience: “Where are those guarantees?”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says: “President Putin might also have quoted the promises that US President George H.W. Bush and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl made to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. This is a painful topic not only for the West, which hasn’t kept its promises, but also for the Kremlin. The obvious question is why neither Gorbachev nor then-foreign affairs minister Eduard Shevardnadze bothered to get those promises set down in the form of a legally binding treaty.”

In Kommersant, journalist Andrei Kolesnikov says: “President Putin unleased some sort of apocalyptic criticism at the United States and NATO, but he didn’t say a single word against the European Union. Moreover, he took every opportunity to set the USA and the EU against each other.”

The OSCE was less fortunate than the EU; Putin said that “attempts are being made to turn the OSCE into a vulgar instrument for pursuing the foreign policy interests of one country or a group of countries with regard to other countries.”

Kolesnikov also notes that of all the questions put to Putin by journalists after his Munich speech, there was only one that he “forgot” to answer: it concerned human rights in Russia, of course.

In Moskovskii Komsomolets, Melor Sturua observes: “Official circles and the public in the West were amazed at how heated Putin’s speech was, and his focus and frankness, bordering on the undiplomatic. Putin spoke his mind – contrary to common practice at international forums.”

Sturua reports a mixed reaction on Capitol Hill. Senator Lindsay Graham said that Putin has done more than anyone, with his speech bringing Europe and the United States closer together. Senator Joe Lieberman described Putin’s speech as “confrontational,” with its rhetoric taking us back to the Cold War era. But others don’t think that the harsh tone of Putin’s speech signals the start of a new version of the Cold War – as if it were Winston Churchill’s famous Fulton speech. According to these observers, Putin’s harsh tone signified something different: Russia reclaiming the great power status that it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This tone was determined by Russia’s economic, military, and social achievements, and the votes of the 70% of Russian citizens who support Putin’s policy course.

Some observers, according to Sturua, say that President Putin outlined his foreign policy course so strictly not only for the West’s benefit, but also for his own successor – in order to impose this course on him and oblige him to follow it.

“Other than tough rhetoric, what does Russia have to counter the USA and NATO?” asks the Gazeta newspaper. Almost nothing, says General Vladimir Dvorkin, senior research fellow at IMEMO, Russian Academy of Sciences: “Russia’s military arsenals are growing, but they’re still not comparable to those of the West, and the technology gap is widening.” In Dvorkin’s view, Putin’s speech only expresses his displeasure that NATO is taking action without consulting the Kremlin, and under these circumstances the “catch-up model” of military development is unworkable; Russia ought to concentrate on modernizing its high-precision weaponry, integrating it with reconnaissance satellites.

Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, maintains that US defense spending plans for 2008 are not aimed against Russia to any substantial extent. She told the Vedomosti newspaper that the significant increase in defense spending is due to the growing costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta takes the view that Russia is at risk of being drawn into a new arms race, similar to the race that destroyed the USSR.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov addressed the Duma to report on achievements and development plans for the Russian Armed Forces. He stressed that optimal funding for Armed Forces development in 2008 should be around 3% of GDP.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that in 2007, as in the entire post-Soviet period, defense spending is around 2.6% of GDP. So there might be a substantial increase next year.

Given Russia’s economic growth rate, if funding for defense is around 3% of GDP, it would mean that defense spending is increasing by 50-60% annually in money terms. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out, this increase exceeds the economic growth rate, and other countries are sure to notice.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the Pentagon’s budget has increased by only 65% since President George W. Bush first took office. It will rise by only 11% in 2008. Nezavisimaya Gazeta concludes: “Whatever Russia’s military leaders may say about high technology in defense, so far we are only seeing a substantial rise in military spending, outpacing Russia’s economic growth and the analogous figures in the United States.”

Prominent political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky says that hatred of the West and the United States has become paranoia among Russia’s political class, and Russia is creating security threats by going along with this paranoia.

In an interview with Radio Liberty, Piontkovsky said: “What does the NATO military organization mean today? It means American, British, Dutch, and Canadian troops in Afghanistan, desperately trying to prevent Islamic radicals from moving into the Central Asian region. In other words, they’re working on one of Russia’s important security objectives. Meanwhile, we’re doing all we can to undermine that operation, pushing NATO bases out of Central Asia. Putin’s going on about a mere 5,000 troops in Bulgaria. This isn’t just a flashback to the Cold War – it’s a mindset from centuries ago, from the conquest of the Crimea. It’s completely inappropriate in evaluating the real threats to Russia’s security.”

The Munich speech preceded Putin’s tour of three Middle East countries. Kommersant says that in economic and political terms, Russia is evolving toward the East, feeling more comfortable among its monarchies: “It’s time to admit that our subgroup in global politics is the subgroup of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan – not the G8. And the fact that we have nuclear weapons and permanent membership of the UN Security Council – unlike any other country in our subgroup – really doesn’t change anything.”

RBC Daily quotes from an editorial in “Arab News,” an influential Saudi paper, which maintains that Putin had his reasons for visiting Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan – countries in the US influence zone – while “ignoring Syria and Iran, Russia’s long-time allies in the region.” Putin’s visit “is primarily aimed at demonstrating to the United States that its expansion in Eastern Europe will be met with an appropriate response, and the secondary purpose is an attempt to establish economic and political contacts with countries which have not been part of Russia’s influence zone to date.”

Novaya Gazeta reports the results of “Perceptions of European Values in Russia,” a study commissioned by the EU-Russia Center and done by the Levada Center polling agency: 75% of respondents say that Russia has a special path of its own – neither European nor Asian. According to this study, the absolute majority of respondents (71%) don’t think of themselves as either Europeans or “Eurasians.” Almost half (45%) regard the European Union as a threat to Russia.

Ogonek magazine’s poet observer, Dmitri Bykov, got “carried away by pride” in Russia’s special path and produced the following lines:

I’m bored by your disgraceful regulations,

Your well-fed bourgeois tranquility.

I’m different, I’m toil-worn, I’m idle,

But I’m not like that, guys, I’m not like that!

Some can only be happy when they rustle

Like leaves on a common branch.

But I want to be so distinctive

That no one will come within a mile of me.

(The next issue of Political Forecasts will be out on March 2.)

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