The Financial Times reports:
There is a discernible pattern to Vladimir Putin’s calculated confrontations with the west. It is described by three concentric circles radiating outwards from Moscow.
The first of these rings delineates a domestic arena from which the US and Europe have been locked out. The outermost circle covers more distant ground where the Kremlin admits the possibility of collaboration. The second circle marks out dangerous territory in the former Soviet space. Here, the ambitions of Mr Putin’s Russia collide head-on with the interests and values of the west.
If there were residual doubts about Mr Putin’s resolve to exclude outsiders from Russian politics they have been dispelled by arrangements for next month’s parliamentary elections. We have seen the slide to authoritarianism – the Kremlin calls it “sovereign democracy” – accelerate.
New electoral rules will deny most opposition parties representation in the Duma. To challenge Mr Putin’s United Russia, a party needs 50,000 members and 200,000 signatures. If it surmounts those hurdles it needs to win 7 per cent of the vote to secure any seats. That with the media under Mr Putin’s control. As Neil Buckley, the FT’s Moscow bureau chief has calculated, a party could poll 3.5m votes and win no seats.
The Russian president has not been content with gerrymandering. This week he accused his critics of colluding with the west. The opposition parties, he charged, wanted to weaken and divide the state in order to grab its energy riches. To oppose United Russia, in other words, was akin to an act of treason.
If Mr Putin might have once been embarrassed by western protests at the return to arbitrary rule, he seems now to exult in it. The international observers of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have been forced to abandon plans to monitor the December 2 poll. Criticism now invites a lengthy recital of the manifest flaws of democracy in the west in general and the US in particular. Remember those “hanging chads” in Florida? The Kremlin does.
There is a recurring theme here, one that has become the mantra of Russian officials and diplomats. The west took advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to weaken and humiliate Russia. It aided and abetted the oligarchs of the 1990s in looting the country’s resources. The west’s agenda was not to promote democracy, but to cripple Russia as a great power. Mr Putin has restored the nation’s self-respect and power – with some unspoken help, of course, from soaring oil and gas prices.
This increasingly strident, sometimes ugly, nationalism does not preclude all co-operation with the west. If Russia is accorded due respect and status – Mr Putin craves, above all, recognition as the leader of a superpower – it will strike bargains with the US when interests coincide. Thus there has been close, if sometimes intermittent, collaboration in the fight against violent Islamism. Moscow has been generally helpful in US efforts to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. It has been less obstructive than it might over Iraq.
The Kremlin’s attitude to Iran’s nuclear ambitions has often been more helpful in private than it has sounded in public. Mr Putin’s reluctance to endorse further sanctions has reflected as much a more sanguine assessment of the progress of Iran’s nuclear programme as any difference of principle. On a recent, much publicised, visit to Tehran, the Russian president agreed to carry an offer from George W. Bush to the Iranian leadership. The US president promised to start talks covering all aspects of the relationship if Iran suspended nuclear enrichment. Nothing came of it, but the episode was a measure of co-operation between Moscow and Washington.
Iran lies in the third of Mr Putin’s rings. Move into the second, the territorial and political space once occupied by the Soviet Union, and the atmosphere sours. Here Russia is reasserting itself – and it is here that the west must show its own resolve.
Mr Putin’s strategy is clear enough: to push the west out of Russia’s near-abroad. The tactics are equally transparent: intimidation of the governments of the Baltic states; pipeline politics to undermine the Poles; warnings that the west must stay out of Ukraine; refusal to endorse independence for Kosovo; suspension of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty; efforts to destabilise the government in Georgia.
Russia cannot reclaim the Soviet empire. It can, in Mr Putin’s mind, re-establish informal hegemony. Thus a friendlier government in Tbilisi would greatly strengthen Moscow’s recovering grip on the Caucasus and central Asia. It would also protect its monopoly of gas supply to Europe. A proposed gas pipeline under the Baltic should likewise help tame Poland and the Baltic states.
The decision to suspend participation in the CFE, meanwhile, is calculated to underline the cost to Europe of US plans to site missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Support for Serbian agitation in Bosnia and Kosovo speaks at once to Russia’s traditional role as guardian of the Serbs and to its capacity to undermine European security.
The west is not entirely innocent in some of these disputes. The US, for example, could have been more diplomatic when it first unveiled its missile defence plans. There have been other moments when western leaders would have done better by indulging rather than inflaming Russian sensitivities. But Mr Putin sees conflict as a way to command respect. To be at odds with the US, this rather paranoid logic says, is to be its equal. All this need not, as I have heard it said by some in Washington, amount to the onset of a new cold war. The present Moscow regime does not want, as did its communist predecessors, to overturn liberal democracy everywhere. We do know that Mr Putin intends to be around well beyond the expiry of his second presidential term.
A coherent western response is long overdue. Little if anything can be done to persuade Mr Putin to restore democracy. That does not mean the west should remain silent. It does suggest that sustained engagement with Russian business and civil society may be more productive than efforts to shame the Kremlin.
In the third ring, there is nothing to be gained from excluding Mr Putin. Where Russia and the west have shared interests, collaboration makes sense. But it should not define the relationship within the second circle. Here the US – and, more especially, Europe, must show they can be as tough and, when need be, as rough as Mr Putin. Respect is one thing; appeasement quite another.
Stopping Russian Imperialism