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After years of feeling powerless in relations with the West, Russian leader is combative, defiant

After years of feeling powerless in relations with the West, Russian leader is combative, defiant

As President Vladimir Putin enters the last year of his presidency, he has become more defiant of international pressure and more willing to challenge both Europe and the United States.
Some analysts say Russia's stability and growing wealth have given it the confidence to confront the West, and to try to reassert its proper influence as a world power. Critics warn the Kremlin's new assertiveness reflects renewed imperial ambitions which threaten Russia's neighbors.
No matter who is right, the world is entering a new period of accusation and acrimony in East-West relations _ with the appearance of new fault lines resembling those that marked the Cold War.
"The Russians don't want a return to the Cold War," said Andrew Kuchins, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They don't want to raise their defense spending to the very high levels of the Soviet period. But on issues they care about, they're going to play harder ball."
In his state-of-the-nation speech Thursday, Putin denounced what he said was foreign interference in Russia's internal affairs. He threatened to walk away from an agreement that regulates the deployment of military aircraft, tanks and other heavy non-nuclear weapons in Europe if the United States puts ballistic missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland.
"These systems will control Russian territory up to the Urals _ if, of course, we do not take action in response, and we will," Putin said Friday. The Ural Mountains sit hundreds of miles (kilometers) inside Russia, dividing Europe from Asia.
The Russian leader also rattled Washington in February in a closely watched and highly bellicose speech in Munich, accusing the United States of an "overly aggressive American foreign policy."
Given Putin's overwhelming popularity at home, his successor _ who is scheduled to be elected in March 2008 _ is likely to adopt a similarly combative posture.
Some analysts say Putin has sought to turn back the clock, by openly embracing the great power politics of the 19th century. Only this time, the Kremlin seems prepared to rely mainly on Russia's economic clout and huge energy resources, rather than military forces, to exert influence over its neighbors.
Dmitri Trenin, a scholar with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that Russia's new assertiveness is the logical result of the trauma it suffered after the Soviet collapse.
Putin's blunt criticism of the West "kind of clears the air," he said, by demanding Russia's opinions be respected. That follows a decade when the Kremlin felt powerless in its dealings with the West in general and the United States in particular.
"There are three models of United States-Russian collaboration, at least as seen by Putin," Trenin said in a recent interview. "The Gorbachev period can be summarized as attempts at partnership through concessions. The Yeltsin period, as partnership through submission. Putin wants a partnership built on competition."
From the Soviet collapse through to the end of Putin's first term in office, analysts said, Russia could do little more than complain as NATO expanded into Eastern Europe and the Baltic nations, and Western influence grew across the states of the former U.S.S.R. That changed following Putin's re-election in March 2004.
"This time, under Putin II, they are resisting that openly and firmly," Trenin said.
Neither has Russia, as many hoped, adopted Europe's political and social norms _ in particular, a commitment to political pluralism.
"That is not happening," he said. "Russia is not going down the path of Europeanization."
Moscow's new aggressive posture abroad, many foreign analysts agree, is possible partly because of the perception that U.S. global influence has been weakened by the Iraq war.
It's also due to the growing confidence that Russia has from its robust trillion-dollar, oil-fueled economy, which has averaged 6.7 percent annual growth since the disastrous financial crisis of 1998.
In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq four years ago, there was talk of a Russia aligned with France and Germany _ as a counterbalance to the U.S. _ in the post-Soviet political map, said Michael McFaul, a political scientist at Stanford University.
But Putin reforms have moved the country away from many post-Soviet democratic policies and Moscow's reliance on power politics has made that impossible, McFaul said. "Now, it's Russia versus the West."
Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister who is now a pro-Western opposition leader, is among those who say the United States and Russia have reached a turning point in their relations.
In an article in the current edition of the influential journal Foreign Affairs, she says _ ominously _ that joint action is required by the West to blunt Moscow's "imperial ambitions." Otherwise, Moscow willl pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy, cutting separate energy and security deals and preventing the West from counterbalancing Russia's growing economic influence.
The article is a call to action that echoes many of the points of the so-called "Long Telegram," a 1946 document written by a U.S. diplomat that laid out a blueprint for dealing with the Soviet Union _ and the policies that came to mark the Cold War.
"The Russia that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991 came with borders that reflect no historical precedent," Tymoshenko wrote. "Accordingly, Russia is devoting much of its energy to restoring political influence in, if not control of, its lost empire."
The Russian Foreign Ministry on April 16 took the extraordinary step of responding directly to Tymoshenko's article, denouncing it as "a kind of anti-Russian manifesto and an attempt to once again draw dividing lines in Europe and return the world as a minimum into the Cold War atmosphere."
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Douglas Birch is the Associated Press' bureau chief in Moscow.


Updated : 2020-11-30 00:25 GMT+08:00