Putin speech plays to U.S., Europe fears

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 13, 2007 2:36pm EST

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Queen Alia airport in Amman February 13, 2007. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Queen Alia airport in Amman February 13, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent anti-U.S. tirade exposed growing tensions with Moscow despite a U.S. decision to deliberately play it down.

Putin's speech, to a security conference in Munich, reflected a squandered opportunity for Russia to show leadership and statesmanship, U.S. and European experts said.

"People in Europe and the United States are these days quite wary about Russian policy and ready to write them off as a negative force in international politics," said Stephan Sestanovich, Russian specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Putin's speech "only strengthens those suspicions," he added.

The Russian leader on Saturday abandoned normal diplomatic protocol and unleashed a barrage of long-festering complaints.

Washington is dominating global affairs, provoking a new nuclear arms race by building missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, undermining international institutions and destabilizing the Middle East by mishandling the Iraq war, he said.

After consulting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Russia expert, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who also spoke at the conference, deflected the faulting-finding with humor, rather than a counter-attack.

U.S. officials insisted they do not want to rekindle a Cold War and expressed surprise at Putin's unvarnished rhetoric.

Still they said the administration has cooperated effectively with Russia, including on anti-terrorism and non-proliferation measures, and would continue that focus.

"We'll talk about things over which we disagree but it is a mature relationship" that can weather the differences, a senior U.S. official said.

DUAL DISAPPOINTMENTS

Not everyone is convinced. Russia's grudges against the post-Cold War world have been accumulating for years, but so have western disappointments with a country once expected to be a democratic partner.

Russia's protests were ignored when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 and when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. It had to accede to NATO's expansion to its border when the Baltic states joined the Western alliance in 2004.

A sharp rise in the prices of Russia's main exports -- oil, gas and metals -- have given Moscow fresh economic clout and the desire for commensurate political influence. It blocked action on recent UN sanctions against Iran, a long-time ally and arms customer, until the penalties were weakened.

The United States and Russia are discussing possible new nuclear sanctions on Iran and their ability to work together will affect, among other things, whether a U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement worth billions of dollars can win the support of the U.S. Congress.

Experts see a heavy domestic political context for Putin's attack. With his successor due to be elected in March 2008, he wants to effect that choice and set a future course, they say.

"The 'America-as-the-enemy construct bolsters the legitimacy of the current regime, headed largely by former KGB officers, as the defender of Mother Russia," said Ariel Cohen of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"Moscow is back -- with a vengeance -- in the most important energy depot in the world" -- the Middle East -- and Putin "is signaling that Russia is willing to be the vanguard of the anti-American camp in Europe and the Middle East," he wrote on the foundation's Web site.

Washington should avoid a rhetorical confrontation with Moscow but "a realistic reassessment of the relationship is in order," Cohen added.

Russian leaders have sometimes tried to divide America from Europe but that was largely ineffective and in this case, Russia's ties with Europe on trade and energy are in some ways worse than with Washington so it is puzzling Putin would "come in with guns blazing," said Sestanovich, former senior Russia adviser in the Clinton administration.

"This should have been the opportunity to come to Germany and give a high-minded, high-concept, single-European-home speech trying to cast himself as a statesman and advocate of reconciliation. Instead, he seemed like what the Europeans worry he might be -- a nasty little KGB agent," he added.

Washington long ago drew that conclusion so if the speech was an attempt to maneuver for diplomatic advantage, it seems "badly calculated," he added.

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