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Russia: In Global Politics, Putin Content To Play 'Spoiler'

Anne Applebaum (file photo) (Courtesy Photo) July 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the "The Washington Post" newspaper and a regular commentator on Russia. Her most recent book, a history of the Soviet gulag system, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2004. She spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Irina Lagunina ahead of the Kennebunkport summit about the state of U.S.-Russian ties.

RFE/RL: In recent months, Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of creating a unipolar world, upsetting the global security balance, and a host of other things. He even compared the United States to the Third Reich during his speech at the Munich security conference in February. And yet the Bush family is now receiving him in their family home, which is a very rare and personal thing.

Anne Applebaum: Unfortunately for Mr. Putin, it's an indication that when he gives speeches like that, they aren't taken very seriously. People in Washington now generally believe that Putin recognizes he has some ability to be a spoiler -- he can sort of wreck everybody's mood at summits and he can cause trouble in the West. He doesn't really have much power to do anything else. In fact, I think that speech was seen as a sign of weakness. If the only thing he can do to show how powerful and important he is is attack the United States in a kind of patently silly way, then this is not very serious.

"The main foreign-policy issue for the United States right now is Iraq. Maybe after that comes the Middle East. And somewhere down the list -- fairly far down -- is Russia. I happen to think that's a mistake. But that's how most people in Washington right now see it."

RFE/RL: How do Washington and the White House view what's going on in Russia? Do they see Russia shifting away from a democratic state into an authoritarian and nationalistic one?

Applebaum: I don't know how deep their contacts are in Russia and how profoundly they understand it. Certainly there's awareness in Washington, and I would say all over Europe now, that this is becoming really a very different kind of regime. Rightly or wrongly, there's some tendency to say: "Well, maybe this has something to do with the handover of power that's going to happen in the next few months in Russia. Let's wait and see what happens after Putin leaves office or doesn't leave office, and then we'll know what to do next."

RFE/RL: A lot of people, looking at the summit, say that without a concrete agreement on something -- missile-defense bases, for example -- the whole exercise will have been a failure.

Applebaum: If that were true, then most summits are failures. There are many, many meetings between statesmen that don't produce anything in particular. The expectations of Putin now are very, very low. People don't expect much is going to come from him, and there's very little being said to build up this summit. So I wouldn't declare it a failure just because nothing happens.

RFE/RL: The U.S. Congress and the White House see relations with Russia in different ways. How does Congress view Bush's personal relationship with Putin?

Applebaum: The Congress doesn't like most anything about Mr. Bush, so they're unlikely to like this either. Bush is unbelievably unpopular on Capitol Hill and disliked by both parties, including his own. One of the problems in general for anybody who is interested in America's relationship with Russia is that this is very much not a top-tier issue. The main foreign-policy issue for the United States right now is Iraq. Maybe after that comes the Middle East. And somewhere down the list -- fairly far down -- is Russia. I happen to think that's a mistake. But that's how most people in Washington right now see it.

RFE/RL: Can Russia and Vladimir Putin create real problems for the United States?

Applebaum: Russia is clearly interested in dividing up the Western alliance -- in separating and creating a bad atmosphere, for example, between Germany and Eastern Europe, as they did over the proposal to build a pipeline directly to Germany across the Baltic. Russia is interested in undermining Western policy in Iran. Russia is interested in possibly undermining Western policy in other places.

I hope that it's not going to get any worse than that. At the moment Russia isn't militarily or even economically powerful enough to do more than that. It could be in a few years; things could get worse. Much depends on what happens in Russia in the next 18 months. Yes, of course Russia could cause a great deal of trouble for the United States. I don't see right now why it's in Russia's interest to do that. I don't see why lining up nuclear missiles again, pointing at Western Europe, benefits Russia. However, insane politics do happen and people do make decisions that don't make sense.

RFE/RL: Perhaps part of the explanation is that the present regime in Russia feels it needs an archenemy, in the form of the United States, in order to shape public opinion.

Applebaum: Most of what Putin has done have been gestures that don't have any real significance. If Putin were actually invading Estonia, we would feel differently than about Putin teasing Estonia, or whatever it is that he does. The policy toward Estonia is shameful and terrible, but it's not an invasion. He hasn't even done anything yet that would inspire an actual Western military or even a serious economic response. And I assume that's deliberate, that what he's interested in is spoiling the mood, rather than actually causing trouble.

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The Russian Perspective

The Russian Perspective

Fyodor Lukyanov (RFE/RL file photo)

'A SYMBOLIC RITUAL.' RFE/RL's Russian Service asked FYODOR LUKYANOV, the influential editor of "Russia In Global Affairs," to comment on the July 1-2 summit. Below are excerpts from that interview.

There is no reason to expect a radical turnabout because a radical turnabout in U.S.-Russian relations requires a profound rethinking of those relations and the emergence of some sort of strategic course. The problem is not in the personal relations between the two presidents or in the sum total of various factors of conflict. It is in the fact that since the Cold War no working models of interrelations have emerged. The relations that arose in the 1990s, for various reasons, didn't work. What we are seeing now are the consequences of the crisis of the 1990s model.

Serious work is required in order to develop solid, stable relations. And neither side is currently in a position to do this serious work with a long-term perspective.

[Bush] needs to save his foreign policy from total collapse. He has absolutely nothing to boast of. And if we add to the Iraq drama the final turn of relations with Russia into confrontation, then that will definitely complicate still more the position of the Republican Party and turn Bush into a foreign-policy monster. So, it seems to me, that he has a very short-term problem -- preventing a final collapse, preserving until Putin leaves the feeling that, "yes, we have many problems, but we are still partners; we are in dialogue, etc., etc."

This summit is, definitely, a symbolic ritual, all the more because it is taking place in a symbolic venue. This is the place where the father of the current president conducted serious negotiations concerning the end of the Cold War. Inviting Putin here, of course, is particularly symbolic. Both sides need to demonstrate that a process is going on. "Yes, we have complicated relations, but we are continuing to look for answers." And this is the state that should be maintained until the terms of both presidents come to an end.


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