Putin's quest for a global niche

UN summit this week is the latest chance for Putin to step between the West and disaffected states.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Rogues are in vogue, at least in Moscow.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin makes his debut United Nations appearance attending the Millennium Summit in New York this week, he'll hold talks with more then 20 other world leaders. His foreign minister, meanwhile, will meet the North Korean delegation to arrange a Moscow visit by reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who accepted an invitation after Mr. Putin traveled to Pyongyang in July.

And there are unconfirmed reports that Putin may stop in Cuba following the UN summit, which Cuban leader Fidel Castro also will attend.

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Since he was elected in March, as part of a globe-trotting itinerary Putin has cozied up to almost every international bad guy the US State Department used to call "rogue" nations, but now refers to more diplomatically as "states of concern."

Some observers fear Putin may be trying to revive a cold-war-style anti-Western bloc, perhaps with a strategic axis among Russia, China, and India at its core. But Russian foreign-policy analysts say Putin, an ambitious new Kremlin leader, aims to reassert Russia's weight on the global stage by making Moscow the essential mediator between the West and disaffected developing countries. Former Soviet clients are also potential markets for Russian arms and engineering technology.

"Putin is a pragmatist who is searching for Russia's niche in the world," says Leonid Fituni, director of the Centre for Strategic and Global Research, an independent Moscow-based think tank. "Over the past decade, we obeyed the West and cut off relations with former Soviet allies, and where did it get us? Russia was marginalized in world affairs. Putin is searching for a new way."

His more aggressive tone is being heard. President Clinton cited Russian opposition as one reason behind his recent decision to delay launch of a national missile-defense shield. The NMD project would install rocket interceptors in Alaska to guard against nuclear attack by a "rogue" state - North Korea tops the list of potential villains. Moscow opposes the plan, which would undermine three decades of superpower arms control and end Russia's presumptive nuclear equality with the US.

Asserting his image as an internationally respected leader may offset troubles at home as well. Putin has been lambasted for his handling of last month's Kursk nuclear submarine crisis, in which all 118 crew members perished. A fire at the Ostankino television tower, Europe's tallest building, added to a sense of national ruin.

The countries of concern to the State Department have little in common, though most were formerly Soviet clients and all have angered the West by resisting the post-cold-war, US-led security order. Yugoslavia and its leaders have been quarantined for alleged crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Kosovo. Iran, Afghanistan, and Libya are said to be sponsors of international terrorism. Iraq and North Korea may be developing weapons of mass destruction. Then there is Cuba, a traditional bone in Washington's throat.

"The American way is to isolate these countries, slap sanctions on them and sometimes attack them militarily," says Alexander Konovalov, an expert with the semiofficial Institute of Canada-USA Studies in Moscow. "Putin is saying that good diplomacy is a better remedy, and for that the West needs Russia."

Since Putin took over the Kremlin reins, Russia has opened fresh diplomatic channels with all but one of Washington's "states of concern." In May, he met with Yugoslavia's foreign minister in the Kremlin and invited Yugoslav defense minister Dragoljub Ojdanic - an indicted war criminal - to a Red Square military parade. Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz came calling in July. Next to arrive was Libya's foreign minister, who came away with a pledge from the Kremlin leader to visit Tripoli.

Russian deputy foreign minister Viktor Kalyuzhny traveled to Iran in July. The two countries are said to be discussing a joint strategy for exploiting the Caspian oil basin. "There is no coincidence about all this activity," says Mr. Fituni. "Russia is engaged in a major diplomatic offensive."

Only the Taliban regime in Afghanistan remains an unregenerate "rogue" for both Moscow and Washington. The Kremlin accuses the Taliban of backing rebels in Chechnya.

Courting rogues is just one component of Putin's independent-minded foreign policy, however. His weekend visit to Japan failed to resolve a territorial dispute, but both sides pledged to cooperate on issues such as North Korea, nuclear nonproliferation, and terrorism. A senior Chinese delegation is due in Moscow Sept. 11. Last month, Putin visited Beijing, and with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin signed a declaration on "strategic partnership." He will conclude a similar deal with India during a trip there in October, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Analysts say Putin's North Korea visit illustrated the potentials and pitfalls of his foreign-policy goals. From Pyongyang, Putin flew to the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa, where he proudly declared the North Korean leader had pledged to suspend his country's missile program in exchange for the use of foreign satellite facilities. He was publicly embarrassed when Mr. Kim then claimed the remarks were made in a "laughing manner," and were not meant to be taken seriously.

Still, analysts say Putin can be expected to continue playing the "rogue" card to blunt US policies he views as counter to Russian interests. "Some Americans are afraid that we are aiming to become the chief of a gang of bandit states," says Sergei Kozyonnov, a specialist at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, which trains Russian diplomats. "On the contrary, we want to become a pillar of international security. But not on Washington's terms.... Russia, with its unique attributes, must have a key role in the system."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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