Vladimir Putin came out of the G-8 Summit smiling, and he had every right. He had established his status of the amiable and constructive security partner of the U.S. and Europe — and had given little or nothing to do so.
As the master of the judo technique of taking an opponent’s impetus and using it to create an advantage for oneself, Putin side-stepped George Bush’s adamant position on building anti-missile bases aimed at Iran and offered the use of existing radar facilities in Azerbaijan. If those didn’t work, how about Turkey, at sea, or even Iraq, he suggested.
In other words, while in effect granting the legitimacy of an American fear of eventual Iranian intercontinental missile capability, the black belt judo veteran gained leverage over the American project through creating an alternative to Polish and Czech bases. The Americans weren’t prepared for the maneuver and went into a defensive rope-a-dope (to mix sports metaphors).
This was not the first time the Russians had pulled a summit surprise. In 1986 Gorbachev unexpectedly offered a plan on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). On its face the Soviet plan was calculated to appear reasonable, but it was really only aimed at getting international propaganda credit while creating an atmosphere that would bring pressure on President Reagan to accommodate the now seemingly cooperative Soviets. The Reagan Administration smiled comfortingly right back at Gorbachev and quietly proceeded on its own way. Time and treasure was not on Gorbachev’s side.
One easily can see the similarity in the Putin anti-missile ploy and the earlier Gorbachev effort to impede SDI development and, at the same time, gain a propaganda victory. The question exists, though, whether the Bush Administration is in the same position of strength as Reagan’s was.
There is, of course, far more to Putin’s game plan. It is very important to Moscow to reverse the second class political status it believes it was forced into by the dissolution of the USSR. Putin wants Russia to be RUSSIA again — a great nation of equal stature to the United States, politically, militarily, and economically. He sees Bush as politically wounded. The plan is to take advantage of the American president’s low standing at home and abroad to allow Moscow a leg up on the global power ladder.
The underlying element in Putin’s strategy clearly is his desire to end the lengthy drought of Russian influence on the world scene. But there is a more specific issue that troubles the Kremlin leadership and hearkens back to Cold War fears. Putin and his cohorts believe that there was a tacit agreement beginning with the early days of the Clinton Administration that expansion of NATO to the former Eastern Bloc nations was not going to be pursued. It was an unwritten accord that Moscow deeply resents being broken. Old Clintonites have no memory of the confidential understanding.
What nettles Putin even more is that much of the NATO expansion has come after Russia was of substantial assistance post 9/11. This included aid in establishing U.S. bases in former Soviet Union territories of Central Asia in support of American and allied operations in Afghanistan. The decision of the U.S. to opt out of the long-standing 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty essentially legalized the new U.S. anti-missile system. The Russians see it as an American offensive action.
Much about which Putin complains is just out-of-context argument, but nonetheless his views reflect Russia’s deep seated fear of military encirclement as well as what it sees as a purposeful effort on the part of Washington to block Russia’s growth in global political and economic councils.
Putin recently challenged the existing (Western-dominated) financial and trade structure at a major economic forum held in St. Petersburg. He called for a “new architecture of economic relations…,” implying a reordering of world economic institutions, and thus political balance, reflecting the greater importance of the powerful new emerging economies such as China, India, and, of course, Russia.
Putin is taking the giant steps necessary to make Russia once again a major player in all aspects of world affairs — and he is doing it without regard for negative public relations consequences. On the contrary, he is following the old agitprop principle of “say it loud and often enough” and fifty percent of the audience will believe it to be true. It’s time for the West to wake up to what’s going on!