Russia, Again at the Crossroads: Fallout from the Petersburg Summit
In the aftermath of the Chirac-Putin-Schroeder in St. Petersburg, it is clear that the "trio" is quite concerned about the reconfiguration in world affairs that has begun in the aftermath of the American victory in Iraq. This development challenges the customary arrangements that enabled Russia, Germany and France to have a certain number of "shares" on the world exchange market of influence--without having to reform either their foreign or domestic politics, or to revise their current circle of foreign political partners (from Iran and Gabon to Cuba and North Korea).
The unexpected American success--which greatly perplexed the "coalition of the reluctant"--has marginalized a great deal of what the three had earlier anticipated and discussed. The St. Petersburg meeting was an attempt by Chirac, Putin and Shcroeder to maintain face. After all, any sudden change in their expressions would run the risk of losing prestige, both in the eyes of their own domestic publics and foreign partners.
But the trio is worried. Take economic matters. The reconstruction of Iraq could prove to be a real boon; the tens of billions of dollars allotted by Congress is capable of resuscitating many American companies which are close to bankruptcy. The upsurge in the value of the dollar and the revival of the American financial markets is not a prospect that makes Europe particularly happy.
Russian economist Vladislav Inozemtsev points out that any recovery in the global economy resulting from Iraqi reconstruction is likely to be an American phenomenon that will have little impact on Europe and East Asia. As a result, he predicts that not only the political, but also the economic interests of the United States and Europe may seriously diverge. For its part, Moscow already has a headache contemplating the sudden drop in oil prices (and the corresponding negative effect on the Russian budget) caused by the American victory.
The Russians and Europeans are hardly excited at the prospect of playing only in the role of small sub-contractors for American companies in reconstruction projects in the recent theater of military events. But let's not forget that there are differences. A contract that might not necessarily attract the French or the Germans may well arouse Russian interest. Especially since Bush's promise regarding the "fate" of oil and other Russian interests are well remembered in Moscow--there still are high hopes that the White House can positively influence Congress and the new Iraqi government on Moscow's behalf.
That is why Putin reacted differently from Schroeder and Chirac in St. Petersburg to Paul Wolfowitz's suggestion that the old Iraqi debt be forgiven. Russia is ready to discuss the question at the upcoming June summit of the G8 and under the auspices of the Paris club. Schroeder, speaking after Putin, remarked that since the war is not yet completely over it would be "premature" to discuss concrete proposals about the debt.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the united "anti-American" front vis-a-vis Iraq is over. After the St. Petersburg summit, Schroeder met with Tony Blair, and after a two-month break, Chirac phoned Bush and announced that France would take a "pragmatic approach" to solving post-war problems in Iraq.
After that metamorphosis, the rhetoric of Putin and his European colleagues in St. Petersburg--about not permitting a "new colonization" in Iraq, re-affirming the "central role of the UN" and calling for an international conference on the model of what was done for Afghanistan--are now primarily perceived as face-saving gestures. Or a soul-saving ritual.
Russian political analyst Aleksey Bogaturov described the St. Petersburg summit as "trilateral therapy." What remains to be seen, however, is whether the trilateral relationship can move forward--away from focus on an anti-American agenda and to a means for Russia to seek closer integration with Europe. After all, there is a mass of other formats--of which the EU is the largest--where Europeans meet regularly with each other, yet Russia's links to these are tenuous. Regular summits with other European states, gradually widened to include more and more participants, may lay the foundations for a more permanent Russia-Europe organization.
But at this point, Moscow again finds itself at the crossroads. Where to go--eastward to China or India? Seemingly, such an Eastern direction is already not the option favored by the Russian's elite. Then, the only way to go is West. But westward is where - to Europe or to America?
Russia must not be deceived into thinking that the current crisis in Euro-American relations represents any permanent bifurcation of the West. Euro-American disagreements will never take a confrontational character, and Russia can gain nothing positive by focusing on them. The Kremlin seems to realize that Russian-American relations have their own dynamic that must be kept separate from Russia's relationship to Europe. Thus, Putin has realized that it is necessary to minimize the damage that was created in the Russian-American relationship as the result of disagreements over Iraq.
It should be mentioned that a few days before the St. Petersburg summit, President Bush sent Condoleeza Rice on a short visit to Moscow with a clear message to Vladimir Putin. The chief goal should be keeping the relationship on track, and this means restraining disagreements and beginning an immediate dialogue regarding post-conflict questions in Iraq. When, after Rice's departure from Moscow, I asked ambassador Alexander Vershbow whether he was sure that relations are now firmly on track, he replied with one word: "Absolutely!")