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Western Press Review: Commentary Emphasizes Russia And West

Prague, 13 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The common thread of Russia's relations with the West runs through much of the Western press commentary today. Here is a sampling:


Thomas Avenarius writes from Moscow in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that Russian President Vladimir Putin's continuing all-out support for politically ailing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma can best be explained by considering Kuchma a tool that Putin is using to fend off the West. Avenarius's commentary says: "When a powerful figure grasps a person threatened with losing power, there must be a reason."

The writer says the Putin-Kuchma partnership seems such a tool. "It is unclear whether [Kuchma] will survive politically. Nevertheless, during his visit to Ukraine [yesterday], Putin acted as if all were well in Kuchma's empire."

Avenarius said: "With the exception of the non-CIS Baltic nations, all of Russia's neighbors are feeling Moscow's pressure to once again enter the fold in the political, economic and military arenas. Here, the Slavic Ukrainian nation plays a prominent role. Although the ex-Soviet republic had been unabashed in making offers to the West, it remains a vital buffer between an expanding NATO and Russia. And although [Russia] opposes NATO's eastward enlargement, it is powerless to react to it. Nevertheless, whether Ukraine turns to the East or the West can be actively controlled from the Kremlin. So even while Kuchma is out for the count, he serves Putin's purposes. Never before has Kyiv's top man been more dependent on [the Kremlin] than [he is] now."


The U.S. administration of President George Bush presses enthusiastically forward with a National Missile Defense, known as NMD, while much of Europe remains skeptical and Russia is openly opposed. Another Sueddeutsche Zeitung commentator, Nico Freid, says today that this complicates Russo-German diplomacy.

Freid writes: "The project has put a strain on trans-Atlantic relations and has forced the powers-that-be to engage in daredevil speculation. Diplomacy has entered the age of the computer simulation."

The writer says: "This issue is the background to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's talks in Moscow. He has a thankless task. The Russians have rejected NMD, pointing to the terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and the German government is likewise prone to view the project with reluctance."

The commentator writes: "It will not come to a concrete anti-missile agreement between Russia and Germany, if only because the German government will not want to ruffle feathers at the White House. Thus Fischer's only option is to attempt to persuade the Russians to join talks on the issue, although he cannot be sure that the Americans are at all interested in talks of this kind."


The Washington Post today turns commentary space over to a former national security adviser under president Bill Clinton, Samuel (Sandy) Berger. Berger writes from Washington: "I believe it would be a mistake to proceed pell-mell with missile defense deployment as though all legitimate questions about the system had been answered. They have not." He says: "Twenty years and thousands of millions of dollars later, National Missile Defense is still a question-ridden response to the least likely of the threats posed by [chemical, biological, and nuclear) weapons -- a long-range ballistic missile launched by an outlaw nation."

Berger concedes that Clinton last year decided to continue research and development of NMD, but deferred deciding about deployment because its workability remains unproved. The weapons the United States needs to fear most, Berger suggests, could be delivered in a suitcase. He writes: "The real issue is what is the most cost-effective way to spend an additional $100 billion or more on defense to protect this country from the greatest threats. In that broader context," he asks, "is [NMD] our first priority?"


"What Europe lacks most is enemies," begins a commentary by analyst Robert Levin in the International Herald Tribune. With the same concise candor, Levine writes: "The European military force is a waste of money. So is the U.S. missile defense. But if the Europeans or the Americans want to waste money, each project is [each region's] business alone. What remains important, at least until Europe integrates enough to lead itself, is to keep the United States in. It is time to drop [trans-Atlantic] acrimony and get on with the deep commonalities that unite [the sides]."

Of NATO, Levine writes: "[It] served a real military need, to keep Russia out." Of NMD, he says: "The expenditure of billions to counter a North Korea that can spend millions on non-missile means of delivering weapons of mass destruction [is silly]."

Of Europe's attitude, he comments: "What is even sillier, however, is one of the Central European objections to American missile defense, [that] the United States will walk out and leave Europe defenseless. Against whom?" Levine asks.


Another commentator points to a need for a new outlook on a world in which a Soviet Union bristling with missiles aimed at Washington and other U.S. cities is no longer a focus of international tension. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says that George W. Bush should use this week's scheduled foreign policy speech to demonstrate "that while he has his father's (that is, former president George Bush's) foreign policy advisers, he doesn't have his father's foreign policy." Friedman writes: "He certainly doesn't have his father's world."


Russian President Putin has attracted favorable attention from many leaders of Western nations by presenting himself as a democrat, a reformer, and a free press champion. Western commentaries frequently challenge each of these poses. Today, the Los Angeles Times takes on Putin's claim to support a free press.

The newspaper says in an editorial: "President Vladimir Putin, while saying he supports a free press, is using the dirty tricks of his Soviet predecessors, and some new ones, to muzzle the press. It's an ominous development in a country where democracy has yet to find a permanent home."


Turning to the world economy, the New York Times publishes today a commentary by Deutsche Bank chief economist Norbert Walter, who says that current U.S. anxiety about its economic slowdown seems unwarranted from a European perspective.

"What is wrong, foreigners wonder," Walter writes, "with an American economy that is slowing from an unsustainable pace to a more reasonable rate of growth." The economist says: "The United States is leading the world in transforming its economy from manufacturing to services -- the direction of increasing profits in an age of globalization and computerization. This sort of transition naturally will generate a constant stream of layoffs as workers shift from poorly run companies or those trading on old skills to new and more efficient employers. In fact, if there were no layoffs, that would be a sign that the Unites States was somehow missing needed structural adjustment."

Walter also says that many Europeans would welcome the United States' problems.