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Tuesday, 28 March, 2000, 15:20 GMT
Putin's foreign policy riddle
Putin: how close is he to Russia's hawkish generals?
Putin: how close is he to Russia's hawkish generals?
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

Vladimir Putin has left Russian voters guessing about his plans as the country's new president, and diplomats searching for clues on foreign policy are in the same predicament.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on Monday that he was a "complicated" man who should be judged by his deeds rather than his words.

We have no intention to restore the notorious iron curtain

Vladimir Putin
But Mr Putin's deeds in the realm of foreign policy do not yet amount to much.

One move stands out - the decision to resume dialogue with Nato, which was frozen at the start of Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia, thus moving the relationship from "permafrost" to "softer ground" in the words of the Nato Secretary-General, Lord Robertson.

The trouble is that Mr Putin's words are sometimes consistent with this conciliatory step, and sometimes not.

Nato membership

Russia's Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, added to the confusion on Monday by saying that foreign policy would undergo changes, while having earlier promised continuity.
Putin: a complicated man
Putin: a complicated man
The most widely-reported of Mr Putin's foreign policy statements was his startling suggestion in a BBC interview that there was no reason why Russia should not join Nato, as long as it were accepted as an equal partner.

He spelled out in this interview that while Russia was "concerned and irritated" at being sidelined on decisions concerning European security - a situation made worse by Nato's plans for expansion - isolation was not an option.

The implication is that Mr Putin has no time for injured imperial pride. He added, in this interview, that seeing Nato as an enemy was "destructive" for Russia - an implicit criticism of Russia's most hawkish generals.

He once said: "We have no intention to restore the notorious iron curtain."

Other signals of a constructive approach to foreign relations with the West emerged from Mr Putin's meeting with Mrs Albright in January, this time on the question of arms control.

Missile defence

Mr Putin endorsed ratification of the Start II strategic arms reduction treaty, and gave his support for talks on Start III. There is some hope in Washington that he will persuade the Russian parliament to ratify Start II in time for a summit with President Bill Clinton before he leaves office in January.

It is unreasonable to fear a strong Russia, but she must be reckoned with. To offend us would cost anyone dearly

Vladimir Putin
On arms control, however, Russia has a major disagreement with the USA. It concerns the 1972 ABM treaty on anti-ballistic missile systems, which Washington wants to revise in order to develop its proposed National Missile Defence system (NMD).

If the US does develop this system, it would decisively bury any notion of nuclear parity between Moscow and Washington, leading some US analysts to speculate that Russia, stung by the "final insult", would embark on a new Cold War.

Mr Putin has certainly given plenty of signals that he would be capable of very decisive action if he felt Russia's vital interests were being threatened.

Economic interests

"Yes, Russia has ceased to be an empire, but it has not lost its potential as a great power," he wrote in a letter to Russian citizens before the election.
Russia could lose nuclear parity with the US
Russia could lose nuclear parity with the US
"It is unreasonable to fear a strong Russia, but she must be reckoned with. To offend us would cost anyone dearly."

Some of Mr Putin's reactions to Western leaders' criticism of the Chechen war, have also been very sharp.

"They are trying to speak with us in a language of force, which we in Russia are unaccustomed to hearing," he once said.

But other signals pointing in another direction are not far away. In the same letter to Russian citizens - the nearest thing to a political programme Mr Putin has so far provided - he underlines that foreign policy should be determined by the country's economic interests.

These economic interests include, amongst other things, exporting weapons to China and Iran - even though this irritates the West - and encouraging investment from the US, Western Europe and Japan.

One of the foreign trips already on Mr Putin's agenda is a visit to Japan for the G8 summit in July, where Russia hopes to expand co-operation with the world's most technologically advanced economies.

Another trip, possibly before July, will be made to Beijing, in an effort to bring closer the "strategic partnership" that some in both countries regard as an answer to US global domination.

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See also:

27 Mar 00 | Europe
Cautious welcome for Putin
23 Mar 00 | Americas
Russia calls for Star Wars ban
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