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Monday, July 23, 2007

Zaxi Blog on the Russo-British Firefight

Zaxi blog on the Russo-British firefight:

You know it has all gone a bit pear-shaped for the Kremlin when Germany throws in the towel.

Britain broke something of a European convention by expelling four Russian diplomats for Moscow’s decision to harbor the presumed killer of Alexander Litvinenko. It may be argued that London’s response was too meek. London could have justifiably mothballed an entire Russian embassy section for potentially helping Andrei Lugovoi smuggle polonium into London. It might have recalled its Moscow ambassador – the hounded man must surely welcome a respite from the Kremlin youth mob that blots his every step. Yet its suspension of fast-track visas for bureaucrats was a delightful exposure of Russia as a criminal state. True: the City still props up its cash trough before Kremlin Inc. But it should also now get a notch harder for London Stock Exchange listings regulators to justify wearing their blinders.

Moscow allowed itself a few days of fulminations before issuing a tit-for-tat response capped by a droll decision to freeze anti-terror cooperation. Russians watching their television news in that span could hardly escape a feeling of having just been violated by an “immoral” monarchy that refuses to honor their young constitution. “The so-called Litvinenko case” was a plot against Russian soul and sovereignty – “a provocation planned by the British authorities.”

However Britain’s new government took a far more fundamental step than just standing up to Kremlin debauchery. It also demanded that a Europe that strikes self-serving bilateral deals with Moscow while mumbling a few chorus lines about democracy do the same.

And Europe did what Europe does best. It stalled.

The Foreign Office sought an immediate European Union statement denouncing Russia’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi. Nicolas Sarkozy’s new France was rearing to go. But the EU presidency now rests with Portugal and its foreign minister clung to the phrase “a bilateral issue” like a white flag before an advancing Red Army.

In fact the heart of this European matter rested elsewhere – namely Berlin. As The Guardian wrote: “German foreign ministry officials reportedly believed Britain had overreacted by expelling four diplomats.”

Germany’s Angela Merkel holds an abridged encyclopedia of evidence against Russia in the case. Lugovoi’s cohort Dmitry Kovtun scattered Po-210 traces at both his ex-wife’s and former mother-in-law’s Hamburg homes before landing in London. Kovtun also submitted a radioactive passport photo to Hamburg city hall while applying for a permanent residency permit that was officially stamped on October 30 – two days before he and Lugovoi met Litvinenko for poisoned tea.

This is not just circumstantial evidence – this resembles DNA evidence on a smoking gun.

But Merkel had until now betrayed her East German roots by allowing the admittedly daunting weight of local industrialists to quash her nascent efforts to stare down Russian intimidation. The Hamburg evidence was buried. The most vocal German on Litvinenko has been the disgraceful Gerhard Schroeder – the sellout ex-chancellor who lobbies Kremlin interests from his payoff post as head of the Nord Stream pipeline shareholder’s committee controlled by Gazprom.

Merkel initially received Gordon Brown in Berlin with a message that could have been read by Schroeder from his Gazprom script – that Britain’s actions were leaving it exposed and isolated from Europe. Yet somehow Brown – forever damned with the contrast of his Hugh Grant predecessor – managed to swoon Merkel. She dropped her “bilateral” charade and the EU expressed its “disappointment” with Russia on the following day. And it vitally stressed that the standoff “raises important questions of common interest to EU member states.”

Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband will go for gold in Brussels on Monday by trying to compel EU foreign minister to detain and hand over Lugovoi should he ever step on EU soil.

This momentum must carry for the Kremlin’s divide and conquer strategy now roiling Europe to finally crack. There is precious little evidence to go on that it will. E.ON and ENI have until now run the Moscow strategy desks in Berlin and Rome. A bone tossed to Total in the Shtokman gas field is still expected to appease Paris.

Thus the Brown-Merkel-Sarkozy troika – at this critical juncture – was in dire need of a razor-sharp US signal that it too was shelving the Russian appeasement strategy for the Europeans' Kremlin gambit to be worth its immense risk.

And thus US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dusted off her old hymn sheet and reminded the world once more that “Russia is not the Soviet Union” and should not be “abandoned.”

What a shame that the face of US diplomacy is represented by perhaps the last Washington survivor to still believe that Vladimir Putin’s Russia must not be challenged but contained. Rice has been true to her message from the start and her measured tone – no matter how horribly mistimed in this case – has tempered the potential mayhem that could have erupted had Vice President Dick Cheney been let loose.

But Rice needs to honestly ask herself if her “not the Soviet Union” mantra is still really true.

Moscow may no longer export global communism but it has published one teacher’s guide calling Stalin “the most successful Soviet leader ever” and another accusing the US of building “a global empire.” Both state and private enterprises are making membership in the Kremlin’s United Russia party compulsory for employees to win promotions on the job. Former KGB agents not only run almost all major state companies but also – according to a study by the eminent Kremlinologist Olga Khryshtanovskaya – comprise 78 percent of Russia’s 1,016 leading politicians. Elections have been scrapped: the president remains the only federal official still directly chosen by Russians after parliament axed single-mandate votes that allowed liberals to win a handful of house seats. Regional governors have been appointed since about the day the Kremlin swallowed the last independent national television network. And of course the Soviet echoes ring just as boldly on the international arena. Moscow’s withdrawal from the CFE treaty that defined post-Cold War peace in Europe is just the most emblematic example. The United Nations’ forced abandonment of the Kosovo independence resolution is only the most recent and regretful.

Perhaps the only things separating the Russia of today from the Soviet Union of Brezhnev besides open borders are IKEA stores and Moscow Echo radio. It is a “mini-USSR” that can provoke a “mini-crisis” – a Soviet consumer society fed on oil.

Europe’s new leaders and the “new Europe” states are settling to this uneasy reality. It was Russia that pulled down the old curtain and it is now up to the United States to accept that the farcical play about democracy has come to a close.

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