Putin sees chance to carve new niche for Russia in world

President is exploiting opportunities with U.S., others created by Sept. 11

October 21, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The judo-loving Vladimir V. Putin kept on the offensive last week, pushing forward in a daunting effort to find a new place for Russia in the world.

He told his astonished generals that Russia was closing its big listening post in Cuba and pulling out of the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. He swept into Shanghai on Friday and spoke more forcefully than ever in support of the American effort against the Taliban.

Then he told the North Koreans to get on board, and if they didn't feel they were ready to join the Americans, they could simply join the Russians instead. His Foreign Ministry sent an emissary to New Delhi, India, doing Washington a valuable favor by letting the Indians know they weren't forgotten even as the United States has become preoccupied with rival Pakistan.

"We have declared our outright support for the United States," Putin said in China on Friday. "If you want to know whether our position has changed, no, it has not."

Putin's moves have caught a lot of people off balance, in Russia and the rest of the world. All these gestures toward the Bush administration look like a tectonic shift in the making - or is that just wishful thinking?

Russian analysts who have been watching Putin can see that there is nothing starry-eyed about him. A lot of what he has offered has been in the packaging, rather than in the substance. But he has been almost single-minded in exploiting the opportunity that the events of Sept. 11 handed him. He has been relentless, in fact - in keeping with the KGB training that shaped him.

What happened after Sept. 11 is that American and Russian interests - at least as Putin sees them - quickly coincided. Putin opened up Russian airspace to some U.S. planes, began sharing intelligence, cheered on the Americans and told his dependent allies in Central Asia to do the same.

He wasn't bargaining. Russia has things it wants from the United States - debt relief and an acceptable understanding on NATO expansion foremost among them. But according to a person knowledgeable about the ways of the Kremlin, this is not a time for horse-trading.

"We have common goals and a common enemy," Boris Nemtsov, a liberal member of parliament, told an interviewer from Trud. "There is no uniting force more powerful than a common enemy."

It was Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's leading human rights campaigner, who first observed of Putin that he approached his job as if he were still a KGB operative. That was in a much different context: the early months of the second Chechen war. What Kovalyov meant was that once Putin set a goal, he would pursue it undeviatingly, obsessively, until it was achieved, with no regard for ramifications or political consequences.

Two years later, Putin has a little more political savvy, but he's still pursuing a goal without letup. He's driving Russia into a place where the old ways won't work and driving hard.

A good example would be his decision on the Cuban and Vietnamese bases. It's likely that Russia would have given them up eventually anyway, and sooner rather than later. In the past, they might have been potential bargaining chips, especially because they hold a certain emotional punch for Americans.

But Putin's new attitude, evidently, sees them like this: Does Russia need a naval base in Southeast Asia? No. Then clear it away. Remove the distraction.

Last week, he took this back-burner issue, brought it into the foreground and disposed of it in a nicely staged bit of drama. He came out of a meeting with his military leadership and told reporters that it had been a "stormy" session. And it wasn't that he was trying to curry favor with the Bush administration; he was primarily making a point to those same high-ranking officers - that the world, along with Russia's place in it, has changed.

On Thursday night, the Interfax news agency reported that, according to an unnamed source, Russia and the United States were close to building the "framework of a strategic partnership." Some interpreted that to mean that an agreement on President Bush's national missile defense plan had been reached and might even be announced after the two presidents meet today.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said Friday in Shanghai that progress was being made, but no announcement of that sort was expected. Other administration officials said a more likely venue for such an agreement would be at another meeting of Bush and Putin at Bush's home in Texas next month.

When Putin ran for president last year, his campaign made sure to show him as a man of action, doing manly things. Wearing a regulation navy fur hat against the bitter cold, he was photographed on the bridge of a submarine in Russia's northern fleet as it did surface maneuvers. He flew a fighter jet. He was filmed while he went downhill skiing, which, for the residents of the vast flatlands of Russia, is a trendy and European sort of sport.

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