For Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a historic state visit to Britain this week, it’s been a good summer so far. While British Prime Minister Tony Blair and, increasingly, President Bush stew in the fallout of the Iraq war, Putin has been playing czar in his hometown of St. Petersburg, where lavish, summer-long festivities are feting the old royal capital’s 300th anniversary. Although a stern critic of the war and its aftermath, unlike other U.S. allies Putin has come out on top.
In Britain, Putin is being honored with a stay in Buckingham Palace and a carriage ride with the queen. His four-day trip is resplendent with pomp unseen since 1874 — the last time a Russian leader, Czar Alexander II, paid an official state visit (Boris Yeltsin came to Britain, but the erratic former president never got the full royal treatment).
Putin’s visit, packed with protocol that took more than a year to perfect, was planned far in advance of the Iraq war. Yet feting Putin with the highest accolade the British can offer could be seen as a fitting greeting for a man who, almost uniquely, survived the Iraq war virtually unscathed.
“Putin, if you compare him to all other European and non-European leaders, he’s not a loser,” said Lilia Shevtsova, author of “Putin’s Russia” and a research fellow at Moscow’s Carnegie Center for International Peace.
Shevtsova and other analysts say Putin has emerged in the post-Saddam Hussein world with a distinct advantage. Although his criticism of the U.S.-led war was sharp, he did not dig the diplomatic hole France and Germany’s leaders are still trying to climb out of.
Christopher Langton, a Russian expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Putin’s status as a European outsider — albeit one vitally important to European and U.S. foreign policy — was used to his benefit.
“Firstly, he’s not a leader of a mainstream European, NATO state,” Langton said. “One of the reasons France, Germany and United States came to such an impasse was because the United States expected more of the NATO allies to support the war. Russia is more outside that process.”
In the end, Shevtsova and Langton said, Putin preserved his growing ties with the West without, as Langton put it, “sacrificing relationships over a temporary disagreement.”
In a press conference on the eve of his departure to Britain, Putin said, “The situation around Iraq was a serious test for the Russian-American relations. . . . We emerged from this situation with minimal losses.”
Putin was probably talking about political losses. Financially, the Kremlin’s losses are stratospheric. Russia stands to forfeit billions of dollars in contracts Russian oil companies signed with Saddam’s regime. And, given the amount of money needed to rebuild Iraq, Baghdad’s $9 billion debt to the Kremlin has slipped low on Washington’s list of priorities for the country’s future.
Putin, to be sure, has raised the issue with Bush, who initially has awarded Bechtel, an American conglomerate with close ties to the White House, a contract to manage many aspects of Iraq’s reconstruction.
Putin reportedly has given up on resurrecting old contracts with Saddam, but only after extracting promises from Washington that Russia’s interests would be taken seriously. In fact, some Russian firms, with their longstanding ties to the Iraqi energy industry, may have an advantage over U.S. companies. Many of Iraq’s oil engineers were trained by Russians on Russian equipment.
Putin also may use his post-war pragmatism to force Washington to back off in its opposition to Russia’s support of Iran’s nuclear power program. The Russian president has sought to alleviate U.S. concerns that Iran will adapt Russian civilian technology for military use by advocating surprise inspections by international experts to Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
Putin’s approach “may help him to defend other markets for Russian exports, like the export of weapons, missiles and nuclear power. Those markets currently are under threat from the United States. Russia will have to defend its markets in Iran, India and China,” said Viktor Kremenuk, an expert at the Moscow’s U.S.A.-Canada Institute.
“Putin is a smart guy,” agreed analyst Shevtsova. “He understands diplomacy and Russia’s limitations.”
Post-war political chaos
But what Putin may not understand, Shevtsova added, is how to profit from his current position of power. While not a “loser” in the post-Iraq war landscape, “he didn’t win either, although he could have.”
With the United States and “old Europe,” as U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently dubbed France and Germany, in their respective corners — and Britain’s Blair facing a barrage of criticism over his support for Washington and the war — traditional Western alliances and political partnerships are divided.
“It is very difficult for Putin when the West is disunited and bickering,” Shevtsova said. He has to decide which West to choose.” She describes Putin as “zigzagging between Europe and America. He is vacillating. Russia is stuck between the floors.”
The post-Cold War bond between Moscow and Washington is pulling the Russian president in one direction, while Russia’s economic interests in Europe, which accounts for roughly half of Russia’s exports, tears him in the other.
Putin could have lifted Russia’s leverage by bridging the differences in the West, Shevtsova said. “Russia lost an opportunity to become more important on the world stage.”
According to Shevtsova, the West has also lost an opportunity. Disunited over Iraq, Western leaders have effectively “concluded a Faustian bargain with Russia. Nobody is trying to pressure Putin to go ahead with democracy.”
Topics like human rights abuses in Chechnya and the Kremlin’s grip on the Russian media are getting scant attention amid the post-war political chaos in Europe and the United States.
“Nobody from the outside is forcing or pushing Russia toward changing the rules of the game,” she said.
(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is based in London.)