Evidence is staggering of a deepening rift between Putin's Russia and the West, especially the US. Putin, deeply suspicious about NATO's intentions towards Russia as well as the US' proposed missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic, hasn't spared harsh words and cold war rhetoric in the process. He's hinted at parallels between today's USA and the Nazis and "asserted that there are fewer black pages in the history of the USSR than in the past of the United States, citing racism, the atomic attacks on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam," writes the International Herald Tribune.Russia has recently suspended its involvement in the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty; it has blocked a "crucial reform" aimed at improving the European Court of Human Rights efficiency and -- according to an expert's opinion cited in International Herald Tribune -- is "trying to undermine the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe" (Vienna). It has called for an alternative to WTO and escalated a diplomatic spat with Britain following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko there. Just one way Russia has been flexing its muscles amidst a vast military build-up that is financed by its newly-earned petro-rubels:
"On three occasions last month, as the row over Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoy, suspected of murdering exiled dissident Alexander Litvinenko, caused tit-for-tat expulsions, Tornados were scrambled to warn off Russian Bear aircraft," writes the Guardian.
"For the first time since Communism's fall," IHT author William Pfaff quotes a former Gorbatschev advisor, "the West is seen in Russia as a power center "which has to be dealt with, but with which Russia does not share a common future." And the population seems to share this disaffection, according to one poll conducted at the end of last year by the independent EU-Russia Center in Brussels and another one by the independent Russian Youri-Levada Institute. (both cited in the International Herald Tribune: "Only 16 percent of the Russians consulted want to see Western democracy installed in their country."
Twenty-six percent think that the quasi-authoritarian system put in place by Putin is more suited to Russia than democracy, and 35 percent would like to return to the Soviet system.
Thus some two-thirds of the Russian people prefer a strong state providing protection to a liberal state that guarantees liberties. [.] The majority want a state authority that coordinates the institutions of national power, rather than a separation of executive and legislative powers. The Russians' priorities (at 68 and 64 percent respectively) are security and housing. Only 18 and 4 percent of those polled consider free expression and the right to free association priorities.
Seventy-five percent believe that Russia "is a Eurasian state with its own path of development," while only 10 percent think it "part of the West, with a vocation to move closer to Europe and the United States." Nearly half (45 percent) think that the European Union threatens Russia's financial and economic independence, would impose its foreign culture on Russia, and is a menace to Russia's political independence. [.]
Whatever Russia is now, the Russian people seem comfortable with it. They are not comfortable with the foreign attitude to this new Russia. They find America threatening, for exactly the reasons Putin expressed at the Munich international security conference in February, to the anger and feigned astonishment of U.S. officials.
At the same time, Russia is turning to other allies, having joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization (2003, with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (2001, with China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), moves that some interpret as an attempt to create an alternative to the OSCE.
Even more interesting are the "softer" measures at home, for instance the founding of a nationalist youth movement called "Nashi" and the rewriting of Russia's history books. "Right now, the list of Moscow's unilateralist actions is probably only exceeded by those of the White House over the past six years," comments Paul Kennedy in his International Herald Tribune article.
"If all of this is unsettling, it is by no means unusual. Actually, Russia's actions are rather predictable. They are the steps taken by a traditional power elite that, having suffered defeat and humiliation, is now bent upon the recovery of its assets, its authority and its capacity to intimidate.
There is nothing in the history of Russia since Ivan the Terrible to suggest that Putin is doing anything new. "Top-down" policies from the Kremlin have a thousand-year provenance. If they seem more noticeable at this moment in time, it may simply be because of two (possibly temporary) factors: the modern world's dependence upon petroleum, and the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq and terrorism. All Putin is doing is walking through an open gate - opened, by and large, by the West.
Many experts on Russia maintain the same, namely, that the West shouldn't be too surprised about Putin nor the acceptance of his policies in the population. "Neither in Russia nor in the West did the hopes match reality," comments Russian novelist Alexander Solschenizyn in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel; available for 0.50 ? in German. Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the London-based Centre for European Reform, points out that while "Westerners may lament the loss of freedoms in Russia, most Russians never knew they had them. What we are nostalgic about, the Yeltsin years, Russians perceived as a period of chaos, instability and great inequality." In contrast, writes The Economist,
the seven years of his [Mr Putin's] presidency have been among the least bad periods in Russia's history, which helps to explain his popularity-but so does his neutering of the media, strangulation of political opposition and suborning of parliament and elections. That grip counts as a strength in Mr Putin's book.
So while the Russians might be happy with their president's new-found assertive diplomacy, the dilemma for the West
stem[s] from Russia's explosive combination of strength and weakness. [.] This new Russia, strident but erratic, requires a subtler approach than either the straightforward rivalry of Soviet times or the handouts and advice (not always very helpful) offered to Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. The inclination of most Western leaders most of the time has been to coddle or appease Mr Putin, rather than confront him-because they have been deluded about his real goals and motives, or distracted by other crises, or divided by the Kremlin's gas deals. [.]
Britain's decision to press for the extradition of the ex-KGB officer suspected of committing radioactive murder in London last year represents a welcome stiffening of tone. More stern talk at this year's G8, from more leaders, about the Kremlin's threats to Western interests and to those of its own citizens-the expropriation of energy assets harms both-would be better than diplomatic platitudes.
But the truth is that, with the Kremlin in its current mood, even robust tickings-off will not change Russia's trajectory. [.] The harsher measures that some, especially in America, advocate-such as keeping Russia out of the WTO, or kicking it out of the G8 itself-are more likely to do harm than good. They would feed the widespread belief that the encircling West is bent on weakening Russia (Mr Putin himself avowedly sees complaints about his human-rights record as disguised efforts to impede his pursuit of greatness). They would probably encourage even more draconian measures at home; and they would reduce Russia's incentive to co-operate on difficult issues, such as Kosovo and Iran, where its weight could help.