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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 June 2007, 09:07 GMT 10:07 UK
Cool not cold - Russia's new foreign policy
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent BBC News website

President Putin
Vladimir Putin: a new relationship

Western governments were taken by surprise when Russia under President Vladimir Putin started to harden up its foreign and domestic policy, but this is something they will have to learn to live with for the foreseeable future.

A common way of describing this relationship (I have done so myself) is to say it has "echoes of the Cold War" or is even "a new Cold War".

However, this is no longer a useful way of explaining what is going on.

There is a certain hysteria in the West about Russia
Sir Rodric Braithwaite
former British ambassador to Moscow

We are in a new situation for which the Cold War is not a good example. That was a multi-generational, philosophical, epoch-making struggle in which one side won and the other lost.

This is a situation in which Russia is not an enemy but cannot be described as a close friend. It is a competitor, playing by some international rules and by some it has made up itself.

It is a change from the complacent years of Boris Yeltsin, who seemed to roll over and do more or less anything the West suggested, especially over economic reform.

That did lead to economic change in Russia, but it also led to the era of the oligarchs, and to a shattering of Russian national nerve.

A bracing mix

President Putin has put an end to those days.

Russian yacht show in Moscow on 22 June 2007
A boom in yacht sales is just one sign of Russia's new wealth

Russia has decided to take control of the natural resources it feels it gave away too cheaply in what Mr Putin has called "colonialist" deals. So Shell and BP, for example, have been taken out of or bought out of major oil and gas interests.

According to the Economist, Russian GDP has increased nearly three times since 2002 and has grown at 6 or 7% each year since 2003. Inflation fell to under 10% last year and its trade balance has increased threefold in four years.

Abroad, President Putin has criticised the US in extremely harsh terms, even comparing its foreign policy to that of Nazi Germany.

He has rejected Western complaints about the curtailment of rights in Russia (it has a less free press now and protests are regularly broken up).

He has differed with the West over a number of key policies - independence for Kosovo and the US missile defence installations proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic being two leading examples.

He has even threatened targeting nuclear missiles on Europe again in retaliation for the latter. That threat, it has to be said, does have echoes of the Cold War, though it was only a threat.

Alexander Litvinenko in hospital

The Litvinenko affair has raised fears that elements in Russia's secret services have not learned that the bad old days are supposed to be over. Russia in turn objects to the asylum granted by Britain to exiles it wants to put on trial. The episode is an example of the difficult relationship.

On the other hand, as a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia has cooperated over sanctions on Iran for its nuclear activities (while warning against a military attack) and on Sudan over Darfur.

Russia has blown hot and cold and the mix can be a rather bracing one for its opposite numbers.

Western 'hysteria'

Sir Rodric Braithwaite was British ambassador in Moscow from 1988 to 1992; his latest book is on the failed Soviet engagement in Afghanistan.

A homeless child begs in Moscow (image from 1994)
"Help me - I want to eat" - a child begs in 1990s Moscow

"The US is disappointed in Putin," he said, "but the Russians like what he is doing because he is making them feel good again.

"After 1991, Russia fell flat on its back. We took it for granted and felt that what was good for us was good for them.

"Russia now has to be taken into account. It has a lot of levers after years of weakness. It has come back quickly from the depth of humiliation and this makes Russians feel better.

"The most sensible way to look at Russia is not as an appendage of the West but, as someone put it recently, as a substantial non-aligned country like China or India.

"We do not worry when those countries define their interests differently from ours. And of course Russia was right to be different over Iraq.

Graph

"On the other hand, its domestic policies are not what liberals hoped for and Russia has adopted a noisy, bullying tone towards its near neighbours and they are right to be concerned.

"Talk of a new Cold War, though, is wrong. We are going through a period of bad relations, not the threat of war.

"Russia now has huge interests in the West and wants to invest more. That is, after all, what we told it to do. And it needs our money as much as we need its oil and gas.

"There is a certain hysteria in the West about Russia."

At a recent seminar at the Nixon Center in Washington, Dmitri Trenin, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Deputy Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, referred to "Russia's sense of global friendlessness, which its focus on its own interests reflects.

Oil wealth has helped bring Russia back from the depths of its impotence. A $200bn military modernisation project over the next eight years indicates a sense of heightened power."

He summed up: "The Russian leadership is not seeking confrontation with the West but is seeking a basis for remaking the relationship. That new paradigm has yet to be found."

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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