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Last Updated: Monday, 10 July 2006, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
G8 summit: It's really about Russia
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Russia's President Vladimir Putin
Russia's relations with the West have deteriorated in recent months
The G8 summit of industrialised nations being hosted by Russia later this week is likely to be more interesting for what it says about the West's relationship with Russia than for any outcome of the meeting itself.

It may be that it is now in the interests of both sides to calm some recent heightened language.

They have, for example, some common interests, including Iran's nuclear programme, North Korea and international terrorism. Russia might also want to signal that it is a reliable energy provider.

Certainly, the last few months have seen a marked deterioration in relations.

This was fuelled on the one side by fears of a new Russian authoritarianism in both home and foreign policy and on the other by a sense that the West is playing by double standards.

Public spats

The symbolising issue was the demand by the Russian gas company Gazprom to Ukraine for higher prices.

The West saw this as Russian bullying. The Russians saw it as playing the capitalist game they had been encouraged to join.

US Vice-President Dick Cheney in Vilnius, Lithuania
Dick Cheney stepped into the fray during a visit to Lithuania

It led on 4 May to US Vice President Dick Cheney laying into the Russians in a speech in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, one of the Baltic states that broke away after the fall of the Soviet Union and where there is a lingering suspicion of Russian intentions.

"No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolise transportation. And no-one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbour, or interfere with democratic movements," Mr Cheney said.

The world's seven richest nations - the US, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada have met annually since 1975
Russia joined in 1998, turning the G7 into the G8
2006 summit to be held in St Petersburg - the first time Russia has hosted the G8
Energy security, infectious diseases and education are on Russia's agenda
Iran, North Korea, Israel and the Palestinians and international terrorism are also likely to be discussed

The US is openly supporting countries on Russia's borders and fringes that seek to distance themselves from Moscow.

Russia on the other hand has sought to keep places like Belarus tight within its fold and does not seem to mind much about their internal policies.

Such differing policies are always liable to lead to public disagreements.

It is all a long way from the buddy-buddy relationship begun by President Bush and President Putin in 2001 when George declared of Vladimir: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy... I was able to get a sense of his soul."

'Western rhetoric'

There are those in the West, though, who think that Russia has been misunderstood and unfairly criticised in the run-up to this summit.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite, British ambassador in Moscow from 1988-1992, the era of the Soviet collapse, said: "They resent being lectured and don't see why they are singled out. Their answer to our accusations that their behaviour is unreasonable is 'who are you to say so?'"

Now the Russians find that they are in a powerful position over energy and that people are interested in them
Sir Rodric Braithwaite
British ambassador to Moscow, 1988-1992

Sir Rodric, still a frequent traveller to Russia and author of a new book on the defence of Moscow in the war, called Moscow 1941, told the BBC News website: "Russia had a good case over the gas for Ukraine and messed it up with bullying language.

"But you have to remember that the Americans have played politics with energy themselves. They tried to stop British companies from taking contracts when the Soviet Union agreed to supply Western Europe with gas. Mrs Thatcher had to put her foot down with Mr Reagan over that.

"Western rhetoric, like that from Mr Cheney, is unproductive. The Russians were humiliated and disoriented after the collapse of communism and their whole worldview. It can take three generations after a revolution for a society to settle down. The French took until the 1870s.

"Now the Russians find that they are in a powerful position over energy and that people are interested in them.

"They are pleased to be back on the scene and they don't like it to be taken for granted that they will do things the Western way. And if they do things the Western way, like buying foreign companies, they don't see why they shouldn't."

'New Cold War'

As for President Putin, Sir Rodric said: "He is very popular, has stabilised Russia and given it self-respect, though there are aspects about his rule that are not attractive. However the idea that he wants to start a new Cold War are quite wrong."

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Russia's Vladimir Putin
Russia is unlikely to back economic sanctions against Iran
The "new Cold War" concept arose from Mr Putin's latest State of the Union speech in which he compared the US to a wolf.

However, added Sir Rodric, that was not the main thing Mr Putin had to say.

"He spent much of his speech calling for change and development in Russia, acknowledging corruption, the point being that he did not present himself as quite the warrior some sections of the Western press have made him out to be."

But just how far they will be able to work with Russia is of concern in Western capitals.

Russia has red lines that it will not cross. For example, at the moment it is content to put Iran under diplomatic pressure. But it is unlikely to accept economic sanctions and would not accept military action. But then nor would EU member states.

Careful cooperation

Russia is always at some distance from the US over the Middle East, where Washington favours Israel much more clearly. Moscow angered the Bush administration by inviting Hamas to an early meeting.

Again, however, there is no open breach as Russia is still on board as part of the Quartet that drew up the now dust-gathering roadmap.

That pattern of careful but limited cooperation might be the path ahead.

There are also sensitivities on both sides about Russia's internal policies.

Freedom House, an American pressure group which campaigns for democratic governance worldwide (and which has criticised the Bush administration over its interrogation methods) attacked the measures the Kremlin has taken to tighten its internal control.

Freedom House's director of studies, Christopher Walker, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in June: "Russia's leadership is hoping the West will turn a blind eye to its tightening autocratic grip.

"But ignoring the problem will not solve it. A strong message from the world's leading democracies should be heard by the Kremlin and, most important, by wider Russian society alike."

It will be interesting to see if the halls of the just-restored Konstantinovsky Palace near St Petersburg ring with such talk.


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