SVOP, whose membership includes more than 170 members of Russia's political, intellectual, and business elite, is frequently viewed as a mouthpiece for Western views. But it is too powerful an organization for the Kremlin to ignore outright.
So when SVOP Chairman Sergei Karaganov presented the report at a meeting on March 17-18, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov were on hand to challenge some of its assertions.
The report, in part, anticipates a weakening of the U.S. geopolitical role during the next decade. The remaining void, it goes on to predict, will be filled not by other world powers but by a rise in chaos, anarchy, and an overall decline in international institutions.
Lavrov begged to differ. In a speech March 17 (the full text of which can be found at the Foreign Ministry website), he agreed that the power of the United States may be in decline -- due in large part to its "unipolar" philosophy.
But, he added, dismissing the "alarmism and pessimism" of the SVOP report, chaos and anarchy are not the inevitable outcome. There are other countries, like Russia, who are prepared to assume a more muscular role in international events. The end of U.S. supremacy, he appeared to suggest, is not necessarily the end of the world.
Shivers, But No Cold War
Russian President Vladimir Putin's uncompromising rhetoric at the Munich security conference in February prompted waves of speculation that a new Cold War is on the horizon. Lavrov, taking up the issue of Russia-U.S. relations, said there are no "objective grounds" for such a conflict. At the same time, he suggested, the two countries must find a new way to work together -- one with "full equality in analyzing threats and making decisions."
In general, the foreign minister said, Washington and Moscow will continue their existing dialogue on combatting international terrorism, resolving regional conflicts, and nonproliferation and strategic stability issues. Occasionally, he acknowledged, the two sides may disagree. "We don't deny the United States the right to decide matters for themselves," he said. "But that means they proceed at their own risk, and at their own expense."
At the same time, Lavrov was harshly critical of Washington, for both its support of pro-Western governments in the CIS, and its resistance to Moscow's claims of control in the neighborhood. Accusing the United States of "playing games" in the CIS, Lavrov added: "One should inform our Western partners that attempts to contain Russia in her regional 'shell' are hopeless."
Lavrov was even more harsh on the topic of Washington's planned missile defense installments in Central Europe, which the foreign minister characterized as a "provocation in global and European politics."
"Russia is not going to drive a wedge into trans-Atlantic relations," he said. "But we don't want the trans-Atlantic link to be reinforced at our expense."
No Compromise On Kosovo?
Lavrov showed uncustomary anger in remarks on the Balkan territory of Kosovo and the United Nations envoy on Kosovo, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who is due to present his plan recommending nationhood, and eventual independence, to the UN Security Council as early as March 26.
Russia, which has steadfastly backed Serbia's resistance to the plan, says negotiations on the issue much continue. Ahtisaari, Lavrov said, "has exhausted his potential. It's always possible to find another man for the job."
Igor Ivanov, picking up the topic on March 18, blamed NATO for any potential military clashes the issue might provoke in Kosovo. There are currently no conditions in Kosovo to provoke a resumption of fighting, he said. If a provocation arises, he said, "it will be NATO that is responsible."
Iran's "Direct, Indirect" Threat
Ivanov also touched on the contentious issue of Iran. Moscow has often used its nuclear partnership with Tehran as leverage in its dealings with the Security Council. Those days, Ivanov seemed to suggest, are over. For Tehran to possess a nuclear weapon would be a "direct and indirect threat to Russia," he said, adding: "Russia is doing everything to prevent this."
Ivanov's remark is the first open statement by a senior Russian official that appears to side almost fully with the U.S. position on Iran's alleged designs on a nuclear arsenal. Explaining this apparent about-face in Russian policy, a member of SVOP, TV-Tsentr commentator Aleksei Pushkov, noted that it amounted to nothing less than a complete halt in Russia's years of work on the Iranian nuclear energy facility in Bushehr, which is itself in the final stages.
A "top-level" decision like this, Pushkov said, meant Moscow is desperate to avoid a major confrontation with the United States -- especially if Washington decides to pursue a military option against Iran. "Putin decided to reduce the number of conflict issues with the United States," Pushkov said. Officials in Iran and Russia have since denied any direct link between the Bushehr postponement and Iran's intransigence on demands to give up uranium-enrichment activity.
Energy Politics -- A Natural Right
Lavrov also used the SVOP gathering to address the issue of what he called "our rising role in energy geopolitics." The Russian foreign minister dismissed allegations that Moscow had engaged in "energy blackmail" of its CIS neighbors and the European Union.
"Russian foreign policy today is such that for the first time in its history, Russia is beginning to protect its national interest by using its competitive advantages," Lavrov said.
An oil field in Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan (TASS file photo)
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