Putin's hard line takes aim at West
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published December 16, 2007
Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call President Bush and offer support. Pundits predicted a bright new era in U.S.-Russian relations.
That isn't what happened.
"When he didn't get anything back, when he felt he was not being treated as an equal, he decided to turn the other way and make life a lot more difficult," says James Nixey, an expert on Russia at London's Chatham House. "And he has."
Putin has blasted U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, melodramatically warning that it could lead to another Cuban missile crisis. He has resisted tougher sanctions on Iran, a country widely feared to be developing nuclear weapons. And last week he stirred reminders of Russia's authoritarian past by naming a successor who presumably will let Putin run things even after he leaves the presidency in March.
Still, the 55-year-old Putin remains hugely popular with most Russians, whose standard of living has soared along with oil prices since he took office in 2000.
"Basically, Russians are better off than they have been at any time in their history," Nixey says. "Yes, there is corruption. Yes, there are assassinations, and these things are black marks, to say the least. But purely on economic terms, Russia has done pretty well."
Putin's United Russia party probably would have swept this fall's parliamentary elections even if he hadn't cracked down on opposition parties and media. Although barred from a third consecutive term, he ensured his continued dominance of Russian politics by naming Dmitry Medvedev, his 42-year-old protege, as his choice to succeed him in the presidential election March 2.
Medvedev quickly said he wanted Putin as prime minister, and it is almost certain that a compliant Parliament will transfer most of the power now in the presidency to a Putin prime ministership.
Although denounced as undemocratic, the political machinations are hardly surprising.
Putin, a former KGB spy, "comes from a Soviet mentality of the need to ensure the levers of control," Nixey says. "To our minds, it's kind of pointless to manipulate elections you're going to win anyway, but the Russians suspect the West was involved in the change of regimes in Georgia and Ukraine, and that means they take extra steps.'"
Critics find some encouragement in the fact that Medvedev appears to be pro-West and that, unlike Putin, he took part in the pro-democracy movement that led to the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain. Yet it's anyone's guess how independent he will be.
Putin's popularity among Russians is also due, in part, to a strong anti-American sentiment that has been building for years. Under pressure from campaign opponents and a defense industry eager to sell arms to Eastern Europe, President Clinton in 1996 supported the expansion of NATO to former Soviet bloc countries.
"A lot of Russians thought this was kind of a stab in the back," says James Klebba, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who has spent extensive time in Russia, most recently last summer. "Here they had overthrown communism and established a more or less democratic form of government, and we're expanding NATO."
The strain in relations has grown during the Bush administration with its proposal to put antimissile radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Although it's not a serious threat to Russian security, Putin and his countrymen see it as another symbolic slap in the face.
Now that most Russians are happy and their oil is in high demand, the West has little leverage over Putin, the one man best equipped to take a tough line with Iran. The Russians probably know more about Iran's nuclear ambitions than anyone else - they're helping to build Iran's new nuclear power plant - and Russia must agree if the U.N. Security Council is to impose punishing sanctions.
But given Russia's economic investment in Iran and other parts of the Mideast, Putin has been unwilling to do the West's bidding. Nor is he apt to while outsiders decry his authoritarian tendencies, no matter how justified the criticisms may be.
"To engage Russia, we need to substantially change our current policy approach to Moscow," Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. ambassador to India, recently wrote. "This means it is time for the West, including the U.S., to stop trying to reshape Russian domestic politics. There is a new sense of dignity and confidence in Russia, and ordinary Russians give Vladimir Putin the credit."
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org