Vladimir Putin's intriguing two-day visits to China and India this week show the speed with which Russia is seeking to wield its influence among the biggest players in Asia, post-Sept. 11.
In Beijing, where students treated him like a rock-star, and in New Delhi yesterday, the Russian president put on what some analysts say is a clinic in selling the idea of a strategic partnership or "strategic triangle" in Asia between Russia, China, and India - with Moscow taking the lead.
Moreover, Mr. Putin indirectly backed the idea of a triangular alliance while at the same time stating clearly that good relations with Washington, and the war on terrorism, is the centerpiece of Russian ambitions - a sentiment shared by India, and of late, by China as well.
Yet Putin also made a number of moves to position Russia as a leading interpreter of what the war on terrorism means, and to provide a counterpoint to the US. While the White House has defined terrorism as a global phenomenon, a cross-border danger, Putin argued that terrorism's main danger is secessionist movements that challenge state sovereignty.
With Russia concerned about Chechnya, China concerned about Muslim separatists in Xinjiang province (and eager to gain international acceptance of Taiwan as a separatist entity), and India concerned about militants in Kashmir - that message played well.
"Asia has not been on the whole happy with the George Bush approach to antiterrorism, though everyone has felt obliged to go along," says a Beijing-based diplomat. "Putin looks to become a kind of moderator of antiterrorism. He is saying, 'We are with the US big time, but oh, by the way, we don't agree with them on everything.' "
China, for example, is not anxious for a breakup of North Korea that would send millions of refugees across its borders. India is determined to have the core problem of Kashmir defined as Pakistani-based terrorism. Putin obliged on both counts.
In Beijing he signed a joint declaration asking North Korea to end its various illegal nuclear weapons programs, but urged Washington not to pressure North Korea by treating previous treaties as nullified.
In New Delhi, Putin's antiterror message was a welcome, clear break from the US position, which Delhi has criticized as too weak. Putin strongly backed India's stance that no talks with Pakistan should take place until Islamabad stops supporting militant groups that operate Kashmir. The US has implied it would like talks to take place without such preconditions.
Moscow also showed it can be a full-service strategic partner by dangling big money deals in both capitals - an oil pipeline for energy-worried China, and a $2 billion aircraft carrier package for India. Neither deal got signed on this visit.
A $1.6 billion deal for China to buy eight super-quiet Kilo class submarines is currently being negotiated. According to one Western defense attaché, the submarine deal, which would give China new capabilities in the Taiwan Strait, appears to be "unstoppable" - though no mention was made of it this week by either side.
Putin's aim, analysts say, is traditionally Russian - to center Moscow solidly between East and West, Atlantic and Pacific, NATO and China. It's unclear whether a Russia-China-India strategic triangle is realistic. The idea, floated in the mid-90s by Russia's Yevgeny Primakov, and backed in India by President I.K. Gujural during the NATO-led war in Kosovo, never gained momentum. Later, it was supplanted in East Asia by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group designed by China's Jiang Zemin that included Russia, China, and the Central Asian states. The group was intended as an alternative to US unilateralism.
But Sept. 11 seemed to drive a stake into the Shanghai group; several Shanghai members accepted NATO troops, and Moscow bonded with Washington.
Yet apart from the desire of Beijing, Moscow, and New Delhi to create a tighter bond with the US, Asia has too many local rivalries for a strategic triangle to function as a coherent counterweight to Washington, some analysts say.
"We have signed so many friendship treaties with Moscow that I've lost count," says Rahul Bedi, a military expert in New Delhi. "There are too many potential gaps in such a triangle. For example, China can't and won't give up its long relationship with Pakistan."
China, India, and Russia met to discuss common interests in Beijing last month. But the idea of a triangle is still nascent.
"The triangle is an idea so far still in the second track; it has not been translated into anything formal," says Han Hua, a South Asia expert at Beijing University. "Since the idea was raised by Russia, Putin should be the leader, and take the initiative."
In Beijing, Putin cut a dashing figure at a talk at Beijing University. Young men called him "cool."
Chinese female students in particular treated the slender, pale, reflective, former KGB chief with celebrity status; crowds of young women translated the words of a Moscow song titled, "If you are going to marry a man, marry a man like Putin."
"A lot of freshmen girls were angry they didn't get [one of 600] tickets to Putin's talk," says one professor.