Day By Day

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Bush and Putin

The Daily Star has a fascinating article on the motives behind Putin's decision last week to help Iran complete its Busheir nuclear power plant. Borrowing a phrase from the American media the arrangement was described as a form of "triangulation" and it was made clear that the signing ceremony had deliberately been scheduled before this week's meeting between Bush and Putin. This, of course, was a sop to Putin's domestic critics who have frequently charged that he has too often acquiesced to the expansion of American influence into areas that traditionally had been part of Russia's sphere of influence. Putin has to make public displays of his independence from Bush and Bush understands this [even if many members of Congress and the American press corps don't] .

What about Iran? Why does it need to develop nuclear energy source when it is sitting upon a huge pile of oil and natural gas? The Star has a good answer for this:

Although the Islamic Republic holds 9 percent of the world's proven crude oil reserves (and 64.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas), nuclear power is seen as an alternate source of electricity generation. Exports of crude oil could then be freed up to pay off the country's $9.9 billion in external debt. Tehran argues that the Gulf reactor at Bushehr will help meet the needs of a population fast approaching 70 million. With median age at 22, the mullahs fear youths with few job prospects could lead a de-facto opposition.

Of course there's no mention of developing nuclear weapons to forestall any American attempt to interfere with Iran's attempts to expand its regional power.

What does Russia get from the deal?
For Moscow, the commercial incentives are strong. Putin is reluctant to alter his economic development plans on the basis of what he sees as unproven allegations. The Kremlin is concerned that Chinese oil companies are profiting from the diplomatic crisis by clinching deals in Iran. According to a January report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, China's Sinopec has secured 51 percent of Iran's Yadavaran oil-field project. And in September, another Chinese oil major took over operations at Masjid-e Suleiman. Meanwhile, the European offer to supply Tehran with nuclear fuels and civilian technology is a potential slap in the face for Putin.
But what if Bush goes ahead and attacks Iran? Moscow is betting that it won't happen:
In Moscow, a consensus among analysts holds that Bush's threats are not credible. "Iran is not Iraq. There is no possible way the U.S. can carry out the same type of campaign it launched against Saddam Hussein in Iraq," says Gleb Pavlovksy, a Kremlin-connected political strategist. "
And what about those arms sales to Syria?
Russia is struggling to find its strategic fit in the Middle East. One way is by opening new export markets. But to avoid upsetting the regional balance, it will have to tread lightly. This past week, Moscow had to qualify the sale of Strelets surface-to-air missile systems to Syria. A controversy erupted in January over the possible sale of rocket propellers.
Russia claims that since these are merely defensive weapons they would not be of use to terrorists. Americans quite rightly point out that Strelets could easily bring down commercial aircraft.

None of this is written in concrete. Bush is certain to bring up objections to both the Iran and Syria initiatives. How will Putin respond?

"Putin will be as opportunistic as he is allowed to be. It all depends on U.S. persistence and whether Bush can convince the Europeans to hold the line...." The delivery of anti-aircraft systems to Syria does not directly violate UN conventions. But if Putin is unable to calibrate his policies, he may have to alter his portfolio and forsake Iran.
It is interesting to note that the Star article holds that Putin might be more flexible on Iran than on Syria and that everything ultimately depends on the attitude of the Europeans. If they back Bush on the Iran deal, then Putin will abandon it. But if they don't all bets are off.

Verrrrrrry interrresssstinggg.

This is all a context within which Bush and Putin will be negotiating in Bratislava. Writing in yesterday's WaPo the Russian Ambassador to the US, warned that, while there were many areas on which the US and Russia could agree, two areas were of particular concern to Putin. These were:

1) Russian domestic policies where Bush is under pressure to demand democratization from Putin. Here there is a clear warning:
[Putin is engaged in] the very challenging task of strengthening law and order, building democratic institutions and civil society and addressing grave social problems. The road to attaining these goals is a bumpy one. At the same time we are taking steps to accomplish a pressing task: ensuring the stability and integrity of our country. We must deal with complex and comprehensive problems that we inherited. This is something Americans should understand well.
In other words, our recent experience in Iraq should have taught us just how difficult it is to maintain order and stability in a country. Expect no concessions other than rhetorical from Putin on this front.

And 2) on foreign policy, where the US objects to Russian cozyness with Iran and Syria.
It is an open secret that many in Russia are expressing serious concern about American intentions in the post-Soviet space, including in Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Notwithstanding these pressures, Putin and the Russian leadership are committed to a close relationship with the United States.

Here there is a warning not to attempt to expand our presence too far in states that were formerly part of the Soviet sphere of interest, but notably, there was no mention of either Iran or Syria. The signal is that Putin may possibly be flexible on these matters, but of course he will want something in return.

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