Putin: US seeking 'absolute invulnerability'

In a piece published yesterday, a few days ahead of elections, presidential candidate Vladimir Putin took a tough stance on several foreign policy issues that will put Russia at odds with the US.

By , Correspondent

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    In this photo, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gesture while speaking as he attends a massive rally in his support at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, last week. A few days ahead of elections, presidential candidate Putin took a tough stance on several foreign policy issues that will put fresh chill in US-Russia relations.
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A more world-weary and mistrustful Vladimir Putin appears set to return to Russia's presidency in polls slated for next Sunday.

Mr. Putin's hardening suspicions toward the West in general, and the US in particular, are on full display in the latest of the lengthy policy manifestos that have comprised the main substance of his campaign over the past two months.

In this one, a 6,060 word missive published in the state-owned weekly Moskovskiye Novosti yesterday, he lays out a foreign policy vision that suggests a fresh chill in US-Russia relations may follow his return to the Kremlin. Already Moscow is moving to block Western initiatives in the Middle East, drawing a tougher line on US plans to install an anti-missile shield in Europe, and seeking to strengthen ties with the East, especially China.

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His main foreign policy concern is that Russia is being encircled by NATO expansion into former Soviet territory and its strategic nuclear deterrent is threatened by US missile defense plans.

"It seems that NATO countries, and especially the United States, have developed a peculiar understanding of security which is fundamentally different from our view," Putin writes. "The Americans are obsessed with the idea of securing absolute invulnerability for themselves, which, incidentally, is a utopia, for both technological and geopolitical reasons. But that is exactly where the root of the problem lies…. Absolute invulnerability for one nation would mean absolute vulnerability for everybody else."

A domestic crackdown on foreign-funded nongovernment organizations and a politically active civil society could also be in the cards, some experts warn, as Putin reiterates accusations that Western powers are using such groups for "political engineering" in Russia and other countries.

"If we take each of the points in this long article one-by-one, we won't find anything new. But taken together, in combination, this article acquires a straightforward anti-American sense," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a leading Moscow think tank.

"This is deeply concerning, since it creates the impression that chances for improvement in US-Russian relations will diminish [after Putin is elected]. Putin is clearly disillusioned with the US, even angry at it… in his view America is to blame for everything that's going wrong in the world today, even terrorism, and Russia must prepare itself to act as a counterbalance to the US," he adds.

Defying the 'itch for military intervention'

Putin argues that Russia wants to be part of the global order, "but everything we do will be based on our own interests and goals, not on decisions other countries impose on us. Russia is only treated with respect when it is strong and stands firm on its own two feet.… Russia will call a spade a spade.… We have presented our arguments more than once. But unfortunately our Western partners ignore and dismiss them."

Exhibit A, in Putin's view, is the way Western pro-democracy meddling in countries affected by the Arab Spring revolts, particularly Libya, resulted in more bloodshed and the victory of intolerant forces. Though Russians initially sympathized with the aspirations of Arabs, he writes, "it soon became clear that events in many countries were not following a civilized scenario. Instead of asserting democracy and protecting the rights of the minority, attempts were being made to depose an enemy and to stage a coup, which only resulted in the replacement of one dominant force with another even more aggressive dominant force."

This is why, after acquiescing to Western intervention in Libya, Russia has drawn the line at any international involvement in Syria's increasingly civil war-like crisis.

"Sadder but wiser, we oppose the adoption of UN Security Council resolutions that may be interpreted as a signal to armed interference in Syria's domestic development," Putin writes. "The logic of such conduct is counterproductive and very dangerous. No good can come of it.… I cannot understand what causes this itch for military intervention."

Putin also claims that Western-sponsored regime changes always lead to anti-Russian outcomes. "It appears that with the Arab Spring countries, as with Iraq, Russian companies are losing their decades-long positions in local commercial markets and are being deprived of large commercial contracts," Putin argues. "The niches thus vacated are being filled by the economic operatives of the states that had a hand in the change of the ruling regime."

Worse could be coming if trouble erupts in the Persian Gulf, he continues. "Russia is worried about the growing threat of a military strike against Iran. If this happens, the consequences will be disastrous. It is impossible to imagine the true scope of this turn of events," Putin adds.

Blocking US interference in Russia

In seven articles since the election campaign began, Putin has outlined, among other things, his plans to reform Russia's troubled political system, to combat the scourge of nationalismsolve Russia's galloping demographic crisis, and rebuild a world-class military machine.

Though there is nothing new in Russia's objections to the Pentagon's missile defense schemes, some experts detect a change of tone that suggests Putin will link any chance of future cooperation to US concessions on this matter.

"Putin says, indirectly, that no red line has yet been crossed and it's still possible to improve relations. But the US must stop insisting on deployment of an anti-missile system in Europe" as the price, says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

"Connecting all possible progress in international relations with the anti-missile issue is somewhat surprising. Even Russian cooperation in Afghanistan, where NATO is clearly fighting for Russian interests, appears to get linked to the anti-missile system."

Some experts also see worrisome domestic implications in Putin's attack on the role of what he calls "pseudo-NGOs," which he accuses of aiming to exploit internal difficulties and promote revolution. In December, as a protest movement against electoral fraud began to take to the streets of Russian cities, Putin alleged they were acting on orders from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"There must be a clear division between freedom of speech and normal political activity, on the one hand, and illegal instruments of 'soft power,' on the other," Putin writes. "The activities of 'pseudo-NGOs' and other agencies that try to destabilize other countries with outside support are unacceptable."

Six years ago, in a wave of "anti-terrorist" measures, Putin launched a sweeping crackdown on politically-active NGOs, which winnowed their numbers and limited their ability to operate in Russia.

"Clearly on display in this article are Putin's very strong suspicions toward civil society. He sees foreign-funded NGO's being utilized by unfriendly powers and basically stated that they should not be allowed to exist," says Mr. Suslov. "You don't have to read deeply between the lines to worry that we may see a fresh assault on NGO's after the election. It's a very worrisome signal." 

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