The Boston Globe
Thursday, December 30, 2004
There was a time not too long ago when public statements from the Kremlin's top man had great geopolitical significance. In that era, the world seemed divided between two superpowers maintaining what was commonly described as a bipolar world order. But when President Vladimir Putin of Russia gave a spiky end-of-the-year news conference last Thursday, he was speaking as the leader of a troubled regional power that is in demographic decline, was just downgraded to an "unfree country" by the human rights group Freedom House, has frightened capital markets by its rigged takeover of the oil assets of the energy giant Yukos, and was humiliated when voters in Ukraine rejected Putin's choice to be next president of their country.
As befits a local bully who reflexively swats at weaker figures but does not wish to offend major players on the world stage, Putin castigated several parties that have been critical of the Kremlin while praising President George W. Bush as "a very decent man and a consistent man." Considered against the background of Putin's increasing authoritarianism, his disdain for the rule of law and an independent civil society, and his brutal ongoing war against the Chechens, the Russian leader's praise for Bush ought to inspire more wariness than gratitude.
Putin defended his bogus auctioning off of Yukos oil assets by mockingly suggesting that the bankruptcy court judge in Houston who issued an injunction recently against the auction does not even know where Russia is. He also lashed out at Poland's president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, for having sought to encourage a peaceable political resolution of the conflict sparked by the unfair presidential election staged in Ukraine on Nov. 21.
Putin reacted to Kwasniewski's saying that Russia will be better off without Ukraine by insinuating that the Polish president was speaking as "an individual who is seeking employment in connection with the end of his term of office." Putin's subtext was that Kwasniewski has been a stalking horse for U.S. interests in the European Union and in Ukraine. He did explicitly say that if Kwasniewski's statement about Russia being better off without Ukraine was intended "to limit Russia's ability to develop relations with its neighbors, then it means a desire to isolate the Russian Federation."
This evocation of a Western plot to isolate Russia sounds the telltale note of Putin's paranoia. It denotes a deep fear of seeing the West lure away former Soviet republics that the old KGB and military veterans around Putin want to anchor in a Russian sphere of influence. "I don't think this is the goal of U.S. policy," Putin averred at his news conference, but he said he would ask Bush about it when they meet in Slovakia in February.
Bush should explain to Putin that in Ukraine, in Chechnya, and in the world capital markets, the Kremlin is isolating itself.