putin’s latest threats

Posted on June 4, 2007

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Should we start worrying about the latest salvo fired by Russian President Vladimir Putin?

In a move reminiscent of the old Cold War days, he had just threatened to target Russian missiles at Europe in a tit for tat move for US plans to have a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The US had said the missile defense system it plans to install in eastern Europe is meant to counter threats from states like Iran and North Korea.

But Russia is not biting.

Refuting that Iran or Korea is the intended target, Putin instead suggested that the real aim is Russia.

So is this just the latest flap or is Russia serious about challenging what it sees are threats to its very existence and turning hostile?

It could be argued that Russia is still uncomfortable with the growth of NATO right up to what it feels are its doorstep and backyard, the eastern European states.

Another theory is that Putin, mindful of his departure from office next year and the elections, is keen to buttress his nationalistic credentials, playing to the domestic audience and trumpeting Russia’s new sense of toughness, to ensure a smooth transition for his hand-picked successor. Russians are known to prefer a strong and dictatorial leader to one who’s democratic yet weak, so it’s no wonder that Putin is enjoying high ratings. Its repressed media also probably has much to do with his showing with the Russian people, but that’s another story.

The Russian leader might also have been reacting in anger at what it deems as Washington’s unilateral actions. The Bush administration did withdraw in 2002 from the anti-ballistic missile treaty that had previously been in force for 30 years. Washington had also proceeded with its plans of the missile shield a little too quickly, without ensuring that Russia is suitably mollified, and is now reaping the consequences of Russia’s wrath.

The BBC calls current US-Russia relations “… an era of self-interest, with both sides following and promoting their own agendas, which may or may not coincide or clash”.

But President Bush is trying to build bridges with Putin before things get out of hand.

The International Herald Tribune says Bush has invited Putin to the Bush family estate at Kennebunkport in Maine, an honor Bush has never accorded to any other world leaders. Not much good though, is expected to come out of that, with analysts even speculating that the Kremlin is deriding the Bush reaction after the series of belligerent Russian statements, the IHT reports.

On the other hand, there is truth to the argument that the missile defense system destabilizes the strategic balance of Europe and Russia is justifiably nervous at the westward sweep of NATO alliance forces. It is perhaps perceived not only as a snub, but also raised its heckles. Coming at a time when Russia is feeling flush from rising oil prices and its growing strategic importance with its involvement in issues such as the Iranian nuclear issue, Putin is more emboldened to assert itself and even turn hostile by hitting back at what it views are threats to its place.

Putin’s latest reactions are distressing, considering the succession of incidents recently: from Putin likening the US to Nazi Germany, Russia’s bellicose attitude towards Estonia, to its blatant disregard for human rights such as the attack on and detention of gay rights protesters in Moscow.

It seems unlikely that the US-Russia relation will turn back to the time when Bush declared that he saw into Putin’s soul and decided he could do business with the man. Perhaps the tension will remain at the level of a war of words until both men leave office and might not erupt into a return to the Cold War, although it is threatening to step dangerously into that territory.

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Posted in: europe, politics, russia, US