Putin-Up Close, Sans Soul Gazing: Amid a Small Gathering, the Russian President Talks Tough to America

September 11, 2006 Topic: Security Region: RussiaEurasia Tags: BeslanDiplomacyHeads Of State

Putin-Up Close, Sans Soul Gazing: Amid a Small Gathering, the Russian President Talks Tough to America

Nixon Center Executive Director & Publisher of The National Interest Online Paul J. Saunders examines Russian relations with the U.S., China, and Iran after a meeting of Western experts with Vladimir Putin.



September 11, 2006


President Putin succeeded in impressing a group of foreign Russia experts at his official residence outside Moscow, displaying his command of major issues, his endurance during the nearly three-hour conversation (he had just returned from South Africa), and-with an introduction to the group by press secretary Alexei Gromov and evident pride-his Italian chef.

Delivering a not-so-subtle message at the luncheon, Putin said Russia would not work against U.S. interests, but Moscow would uphold its own interests. Relations will only be effective, he said, "if our interests are taken into account." And while he values his ties with the United States and President Bush, and wants to enhance those ties, the relationship is bogged down with "many peripheral problems." Specifically, Putin charged the State Department with discouraging U.S. legislators from meeting with Russian officials, something the Department denies.

In short, while Putin is clearly eager to work with the United States, he is prepared to do so only on terms that do not damage what he views as Russian interests. Putin also has his eye on Russia's other options-China-and even the capacity to play a central role in alternative institutions outside the West. Putin may well be miscalculating the utility of those "other options" and Russia's ability to play this role-but any attempt to do so could nevertheless be a significant threat to U.S. interests.

Mr. Putin's longest comment about U.S.-Russian relations came when he was asked why the Russian media often appears anti-American. He said that "the press reflects the sentiments of society and the reality of life-otherwise it is not interesting." He added that he is disappointed that some Americans do not see the difference between official Russian policy and what appears in the media. The clear implication was that the United States should appreciate the fact that his government is defying public opinion in seeking to work with Washington and that whatever Americans may think, the relationship could be worse. Putin then complained that the Bush Administration is often unwilling to look for compromises and, rather, insists on what U.S. leaders think is best. As a result, he said, we only succeed sometimes in working together.  On the U.S. side, Putin said the "presumption of guilt" which America applied to the Soviet Union has been "mechanically transferred" to Russia and impedes an improvement of relations.

Putin's comments on China reveal just as much about his calculus regarding Washington as they do his vision for Beijing. Today the relationship was at its "best ever," he said, adding that while he tries not to "use such words", Russia's relations with Beijing have reached a "historic level." In fact, he referred twice to the unprecedented development of bilateral ties between Moscow and Beijing. He attributed this in part to a border agreement signed two years ago that ended forty years of negotiations and established the first settled Russian-Chinese border in history. He added that "political forces and trends in the world will dictate the best relations with China." 

Importantly, Putin said he sees "economic activity shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific" and said that Russia has an advantage in this environment because of its location between the two. Specifically, the Kremlin leader cited plans to increase the share of Russia's energy exports directed to Asia from 3% today to 30% in 10-15 years and noted that Russia has already constructed the first 250 kilometers of an oil pipeline from Skovorodino, in Siberia, into China. (Another senior Russian official, speaking on background the previous day, said that China is financing the entire cost of this effort.)  Mr. Putin also said that Rosneft and Surgutneftegaz are conducting more exploration to establish when the second phase of construction-to the Pacific-should begin.  Until that point, as Putin and other Russian officials have said before, oil exports destined for a Pacific coast terminal will be sent by rail.

Putin went further in this direction in assessing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a body that many in the West have dismissed and in which the United States is not a member. He said (again, twice) that he himself had been surprised at the development of the group, which he said originated as an effort to resolve "trivial matters"-technical cross-border issues among between Russia, newly independent Central Asian countries, and China.  However, he continued, the SCO was so successful with these issues that it started to grow. Though Putin insisted that the group has no ulterior motives and will not become a political-military bloc-some in Washington see it as directed against U.S. involvement in Central Asia-he (somewhat contradictorily) added that there was "a demand for the organization" after the end of the Cold War because of "a need for new centers of power."

On Iran, Putin signaled a stiffening of the Kremlin's position vis-à-vis Tehran.
When asked whether Russia supported Iran's proposal to continue nuclear enrichment on a limited scale-and whether Moscow could support mild sanctions-the president laid out three positions. First, Putin said that Russia had called on Iran to "abandon enrichment", and in the context of the question this clearly implied all enrichment. Second, he said that while Iran does have a right to develop nuclear energy, like other NPT signatories including Brazil, none of the other countries' constitutions refer to "eliminating other states" and added that this is "not good"-clear disapproval of Iran's position on Israel. Putin also said that because Iran is in a dangerous neighborhood, it should limit its own activities. Finally, Putin explained that Russia should spend time talking and thinking with the informal group of six countries working on the issue-Russia, the EU-3, China, and the United States-and consult again with Iran, and only thereafter consider whether to proceed with sanctions.

One final note: no small share of the group-which included American, British, German, French, Italian, Japanese, and (for the first time at this annual event) Chinese experts, academics, and journalists-seemed star-struck, with commentators that are often quite critical of Putin in their own countries mobbed around him after the session, seeking autographs on printed menus. Some went even further, using an opportunity for comments beforehand to make transparently obsequious statements, including one American who compared Mr. Putin favorably to President Bush in his ability to answer substantive questions during long events. Only one questioner directly challenged the Kremlin, asking why it was not a conflict of interest for senior officials to serve simultaneously in the presidential administration and as the heads of major state-controlled companies.

The president may be surprised to note the contrast between what some foreign commentators expressed during the lunch and what they regularly write at home-not to mention what they might publish upon their return.

Paul J. Saunders is the Publisher of National Interest Online and Executive Director of the Nixon Center