Stephane Bussard: When Russia Bares Its Teeth


Richard Moore

Original source URL: [French]

 When Russia Bares Its Teeth
    By Stéphane Bussard
    Le Temps
    Tuesday 14 August 2007

A day no longer goes by that Russia does not assert its power. To impose respect
and repair the humiliations of the Yeltsin years, how far is Vladimir Putin 
prepared to go?

"Ten years ago, such an event would have been impossible." Wellesley University 
Professor Marshall Goldman, who has on several occasions met with Michael 
Gorbatchev, Boris Yeltsin and, more recently, Vladimir Putin, refers to the 
Russian expedition at the beginning of August. Scientists sent by the Kremlin 
plunged more than 4,000 meters into the Arctic Ocean to plant a Russian flag 
there. Sovereignty over this site abounding in hydrocarbons is contested between
Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway. From a technological 
point of view, few nations can boast the ability to access such depths. Russia 
shows a new interest in polar exploration, a discipline it had abandoned for 
twenty years. The American Russia expert summarizes the episode in one sentence:
"Russia is back." In 1998, the reign of President Yeltsin had transformed the 
former Soviet Empire into a doormat for the West. Today, Moscow holds the 
third-highest level of foreign exchange reserves in the world after China and 
Japan. That commands respect.

With a rediscovered confidence after the difficult Yeltsin years, not a day 
passes that Russia does not go on the offensive to show that it has once again 
become a key actor. Last week, on the same day that anti-Russian Georgia accused
Moscow of having fired a missile close to a village in that Caucasian state, the
Russian Navy proceeded to fire a ballistic missile from a nuclear submarine 
based in the Pacific Ocean. Obviously, the Kremlin did not fear the 
international press's conflation of the two events. On August 8, Russian bombers
effected an aerial passage close to the American Guam base in the Pacific as a 
provocation. These offensives have one objective: one no longer treats Moscow as
any old power, but as a country that commands respect.

"In her day, Margaret Thatcher declared to the annual Munich Security Conference
- not without condescension - that she could do business with Gorbatchev. In 
2006, it's Putin who asserted that his country could do business with Texan 
George Bush," Marshall Goldman relates with some irony. Vladimir Putin reacted 
virulently to the American anti-missile shield project that allows for the 
installation of bases in the Czech Republic and in Poland. He threatened to 
deploy cruise missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave and to point them at Europe. 
And he announced on Sunday that he envisaged endowing his country with an 
anti-missile shield between now and 2015.

This show of strength produced results. Now the Americans are the first to want 
to make Russia a partner. In an editorial published August 10 in the 
International Herald Tribune, former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
deemed it necessary to take Putin's proposition - voiced during the G-8 summit 
in Heiligendamm, to install anti-missile radars in Azerbaijan rather than 
Eastern Europe - into account. "America must be more sensitive to Russian 
complexity, [...] since many global problems can be better solved thanks to 
Russian-American cooperation." Richard Nixon's former righthand man even thinks 
that linking American, Russian and NATO anti-missile systems would constitute a 
"historic" step, allowing for dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass 
destruction and jihadism. In reality, it would also be a means for Washington to
prevent the emergence of a Russian-Chinese axis that is evolving at the center 
of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

How to explain this Russian comeback? There is energy, above all. Moscow is 
fully profiting from the high prices of the oil and gas the country abounds in. 
The country's cumulative growth over the last seven years rises to close to 50 
percent, or nearly seven percent a year. "Vladimir Putin has acted like a 
brilliant chess player," Marshall Goldman emphasizes. "He had already written it
all out during the middle of the 1990s when he was still in Saint Petersburg, 
far away from the presidency he now occupies. According to him, in order to 
restore his country's glory, it was necessary to use the energy weapon, to 
create national 'champions' like Gazprom. When he became president, he kept his 
promises. He implemented state capitalism and expelled corrupt executives from 
public and private companies."

Yet, this strategy could still be undermined by flagrant underinvestment. 
According to the International Energy Agency, Russia could lack gas for export 
and to satisfy domestic demand as soon as 2010. A specialist in energy issues at
the Russia/NIS unit of the French Institute for International Studies, Adrian 
Dellecker notes that Central Asia could still serve to mitigate that lack: 
"Kazakhstan is trying to maintain equidistance between China, the United States 
and Russia. But, in fact, Russia still controls the pipelines. Kazakh export 
options remain very limited."

According to the researcher, although Russia does not have the technology for 
gas liquefaction necessary to exploit the big deposits in Siberia and even the 
Arctic, it could buy it: "The Russians want to succeed on their own. That's why 
they want to control the investments." Thus has Moscow dismissed Shell from the 
Sakhaline-2 gas deposit. But it allowed Total to participate in the exploitation
of the Chtokman gas deposits....

Financially, Russia is solid. It prepaid a $15 billion debt to the Paris Club. 
As for the European Union, it skates along. It showed a common front at the 
Russian-European Samara summit last May. That surprised Putin, but the front has
proven to be fragile. Shortly afterwards, the Russian president took up his 
pilgrim's staff to negotiate bilateral agreements with Austria, Greece, Belgium 
and Italy.

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