Putin shows assertiveness

Policies, plans for Hamas talks put Russia at odds with the West

February 11, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir V. Putin's public musings this week that he planned to invite leaders of the militant group Hamas to Moscow for talks has left Russia squarely out of step with the West but has highlighted Russia's newfound assertiveness.

More clearly than in the past, Putin seems intent on bolstering Russia's status as a major world power and on Russia's own terms.

"He sends these signals to the outside world that we are with you - we are a part of this world on the most important issues - but we have our own national interests, we have our own vision of the future, and sometimes these visions do not coincide with what you want to see," said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Moscow-based New Eurasia Foundation.

"That's why they say, `We're not going to join NATO, we're not going to join the European Union: We're not a bigger Poland. We are different, and we're entitled to a different approach.'"

Russia is setting its own rules on matters including energy policy, Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program and the operation of nongovernmental groups working in Russia with financial support from the West.

On New Year's Day, Russia's state-controlled natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, stopped gas shipments to neighboring Ukraine over what was, ostensibly, a price dispute. But the interruption in gas supplies, which also affected Western Europe, was widely viewed as retribution for Ukraine's peaceful revolution in 2004, which replaced a president with close ties to Russia with a reformer with closer ties to the West.

Also last month, Putin signed into law a measure tightening the reins on nongovernmental organizations despite criticism from the West and calls by a government advisory panel for parliament to delay passage of the law. A short time later, authorities accused British diplomats of spying in a scandal that the Federal Security Service said involved sophisticated communications gear camouflaged as rocks, and payments to nonprofit groups.

And twice in the past two weeks, Putin has stressed that Russia does not view Hamas as a terrorist organization, as do the United States, Israel and the EU.

"We need to recognize that Hamas has come to power as a result of a legitimate election, and we need to respect the will of the Palestinian people," Putin said Thursday during a visit to Spain. "To burn bridges would be the simplest action, but it lacks perspective."

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mikhail Kamynin, yesterday elaborated on Putin's comments, saying the decision to hold talks with Hamas was based on a desire to "avert a serious degradation of the situation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict" and to salvage peace, the Interfax news agency reported.

But some analysts offered a more cynical view. Yevgeny Kiselyov, a political analyst who is former director of NTV television, suggested that Putin was all but taunting Russia's Western allies.

"`Look, what can you do about us? We have nuclear arms, we are a nuclear power, we are an energy power,'" he said of Putin's actions. "He is trying to make the West take Russia as it is now: `You either like it, or you go to hell.'"

Western scrutiny of Russia has intensified since Jan. 1, when Russia assumed the chairmanship of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona this week urged world leaders to boycott the G-8 summit scheduled for July 15-17 in St. Petersburg.

"Under Mr. Putin, Russia today is neither a democracy nor one of the world's leading economies, and I seriously question whether the G-8 leaders should attend the St. Petersburg summit," McCain said in Munich, Germany, at a meeting on security policy. Russia "continues to prosecute a brutal war in Chechnya that has killed as many as 200,000, radicalizing the Muslim population, and it actively supports dictatorships in Central Asia."

McCain's comments followed publication last month of a "G-8 scorecard" by a British think tank, the Foreign Policy Centre, which concluded that Russia was unfit to be a G-8 member.

The scorecard rated Russia's compliance in a dozen areas, including openness and freedom of speech, political governance, rule of law and civil society. It found that Russia did not demonstrate broad compliance in any of them.

"This Russian chairmanship in the most prestigious world club could have been used by the Kremlin and Putin to change Russia's image abroad to a much more benevolent image," said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It's already a month and a half of squandering opportunities."

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