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7 March, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

The End of the Thaw: The West is Preparing For Confrontation With the Kremlin

Every movement and all the initiatives made by the West or NATO in Vladimir Putin's eyes are seen as an efforts to harm Russian interests

With the return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency, the West is bracing itself for a sharp new confrontation in relations with the Kremlin.

For the past four years, relations with Russia have been improving. President Medvedev talked the language of reform, and encouraged Western companies to invest in Russia. He promised to ease restrictions, to improve financial regulations, strengthen the rule of law and fight corruption. At the same time, he negotiated the "reset" of US relations with Moscow and signed a new arms control agreement with President Obama. There have been sharp disagreements - notably at the start of his presidency with the brief war between Russia and Georgia. But in other areas, especially the Middle East and efforts to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, Medvedev offered a more co-operative Russian face to the international community, even if not many pledges on fighting corruption and opening up the economy were realized.

The contrast with the early Putin presidency was notable. Putin had shown himself a prickly partner, quick to take offence and to lash out at what he saw as Western attempts to "dictate" to Russia. His presidency ended just as the world economy went into sharp decline. Russia was acutely affected in the years 2008-2009, and Putin, now Prime Minister, was preoccupied with the attempt to halt the rapid fall in Russia's growth, shore up faltering energy prices and seek the support of Russia's main trading partners. 

Russia has recovered economically. But Putin appears to have lost none of his suspicions of Western intentions, especially his resentment at US global leadership and what he sees as Western and NATO attempts to threaten Russia's interests and to limit its influence. In a remarkably combative article, published in Moscow News a week before the presidential election, he issued a stark warning to America and its Western allies that Moscow would not accept any limitation on its sovereignty, foreign policy or commercial activities. He declared that in a range of areas, especially in the Middle East, he would oppose Western policies, stick by Russia's friends and allies such as Syria and not allow the West to use human rights and the Arab Spring to undermine Russian influence. 

"We intend to be consistent in proceeding from our own interests and goals, rather than decisions dictated by someone else," he said at the start of his long article. He went on to challenge NATO, saying that "some aspects of US and NATO conduct contradict the logic of modern development, relying instead on the stereotypes of a block-based mentality". The West had "brushed aside" Russian concerns, had created facts on the ground that were counterproductive to confidence building, and was guilty of double standards in its selective support for human rights. Western policies to the Arab world, he said, were based on "outright demagogy", and were undermining the sovereignty of independent countries.

It is clear that the Arab Spring has deeply worried Putin. He accused the West of intervening in Libya in order to strengthen its position, establish military bases and replace "one dominant force with another even more aggressive dominant force". The flashpoint in the coming months will be Syria. Russia has tied itself irrevocably to the Assad government, which relies on Russian arms exports and gives Moscow its only overseas naval base. Putin was furious at the "hysterical reaction" to Moscow's veto of the UN Security Council resolution calling on Assad to resign.

The West fears that Putin is not simply returning to the old zero-sum mentality in global strategy; what has angered him almost as much is the growth of Western "soft power", especially non-governmental organisations, aid groups and what he calls "pseudo-NGOs", which he says are determined to undermine Russia's traditional alliances, and shut Russian diplomacy and commercial interests out of the Middle East and other parts of the world. 

He is also clearly worried by Western encouragement of social media - the bloggers and internet users who have so effectively undermined authoritarian Arab regimes. The example has encouraged many bloggers in Russia, and this has sharply reduced Putin's popularity, produced a new and vocal opposition from the young and the urban middle class and suddenly left him looking politically vulnerable.
All this, he suggests in his article, is part of a Western plot to weaken Russia. And he gave the West a warning that he would hit back sharply.

Of course, some of these threats may be election rhetoric. Putin was appealing to the nationalist vote and needed to bolster his image as a tough leader who would raise Russia's prestige and influence in the world. But already the reaction in Western capitals has been one of alarm. And the fear is that if Putin feels domestically less secure, he will sharpen the confrontation with the West to distract attention from the protests and to give himself greater freedom to crack down on his critics at home.

Some Western governments have already begun to prepare for a new Cold War with Russia. In Britain, three former foreign secretaries recently called for new sanctions targeting 60 named individuals in the Russian government and security services responsible for the death in prison on Sergei Magnitsky, the anti-corruption lawyer who uncovered a $200 million tax fraud involving interior ministry officials and police. British politicians said the proposal, to be put to Britain's parliament, was topical because of the deteriorating political situation in Russia and widespread concerns about its human rights record.

Germany will probably maintain reasonable relations with the Putin presidency, partly because of its crucial economic and energy links with Russia. But the Obama presidency has already run into difficulties with the appointment of its new ambassador, Michael McFaul, who was Obama's adviser on Russia and who made the deliberate decision to bypass Putin and negotiate only with Medvedev on the "reset" of relations. Moscow has already accused McFaul going beyond his role of ambassador by interfering in Russian affairs. The real reason for the anger, however, is that McFaul speaks fluent Russian, knows many opposition leaders and was outspoken in his criticisms of Putin when he headed the Carnegie Institute in Moscow for some years. Putin does not forgive or forget his enemies.

Some Western analysts say that Putin cannot afford a new confrontation with the West at a time when Russia desperately needs new investment and modernisation of its industries and infrastructure. Putin, they argue, is shrewd and pragmatic. His instincts were clearly on display in his outburst against Western policies. But as President will he now be guided by the need for global co-operation and Western technology to get Russia moving again? If so, perhaps the two sides will, after all, find a way of living with the new - or, rather, old - leader in the Kremlin. 

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