Sun, Feb 26, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Praying for the Russia with less unpredictability

The West needs to stop treating Moscow as a junior partner, but it should avoid treating the Kremlin with kid gloves

By Dominique Moisi

When he first arrived in Paris in 2000 as the newly elected President of Russia, Vladimir Putin had a simple and reassuring message to convey.

"I am bringing you what you need most: a stable and guaranteed source of energy. My oil and my gas will not be cheaper than supplies coming from the Middle East, but they will be much more secure," he said.

Putin's implicit point was that "Christian energy," even if "Orthodox," would be more reassuringly certain than "Muslim energy" for a Western world jittery about stability in the Middle East.

The Middle East was supposed to be messy and unpredictable, unlike the new and modern Russia of Putin. The problem today is that for Ukrainians, Georgians, not to mention Italians, "Christian" oil and gas from Russia does not seem nearly as secure and as fail-proof as Putin promised.

The key criterion by which its allies and partners should judge Russia is predictability, and, in this respect, Russia is increasingly falling short. When Putin welcomes Hamas's leaders without consulting the other members of the "Quartet" -- the UN, the EU, and the US -- charged with shepherding peace talks between Israel and Palestine, is Russia testing its "nuisance value" or simply performing an avant-garde role for the other Quartet members?

What is becoming clearer by the day is that the formula defining Western policy towards Russia since communism's collapse -- "Let's engage Russia if we can, let's contain Russia if we must" -- must now be completely rethought. The West has largely failed to engage Russia either as a European or Western ally. Was this due to a lack of openness or imagination on our part, or a lack of interest or goodwill on Russia's part?

The inheritors of the Soviet empire never anticipated that their future was to become the West's "junior," poorer, repentant, and admiring partner. Indeed, today's Russians have no nostalgia for the Yeltsin years, which they associate with confusion, humiliation, shame and weakness. For most Russians, the emergence of an independent civil society and the first fluttering of an inconstant democratic wind could not balance the deep national frustration felt over the loss of empire and shattered status.

Besides, what would a containment policy applied to Russia today look like? Russia's leaders, tucked behind the political safety cushion provided by high energy prices, rightly feel that time is working in their favor, that "we" in the West need Russia more than Russia needs us.

To be sure, Russia's role as the world's newest "petro-state" is very different from the Russia where life expectancy for men is bordering on levels seen in the poorest African countries. But world events are inclining Russia to forget about its bleak demographic outlook and focus instead on its oil-charged future. Indeed, escalating tensions in the Middle East -- particularly Iran's nuclear ambition -- is likely to incline the US to overlook Russia's diplomatic prickliness even more. Rapid economic growth in China and India means that both countries will give primacy to a stable flow of energy -- and therefore to placid relations with Russia. Nor can the EU afford a serious crisis with the Kremlin.

The diplomats surrounding Putin may find it natural, given their training, to apply the old Soviet-era methods, and may believe that the moment has come to undo yesterday's humiliation. Defending Russia's national interests, in their view, demands hard bargaining tactics, even if these now verge on the comical, as in the recent case of supposed British spies hiding secrets in a rock in a Moscow park.

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