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Opinion: Focus on Bush-Putin Duo at the G8

  • June 6th, 2007
  • Posted by 7thmin

putin-tv.jpgOpinion: Heads of the Group of Eight leading industrial countries meet tomorrow (6.6.07) at Heiligendamm in Germany, their agenda filled with hopeful points about combatting climate change or resuscitating world trade – but overshadowed by East – West tensions reminiscent of the Cold war. As matters come to a head, Lee Duffield in Brussels looks for signs of what can be motivating the two main players.

The world is looking for maturity from George Bush and Vladimir Putin and although recent history is discouraging on that score, perhaps mutual interests, like their worries over radical Islam, will see that reason prevails. Each has a nagging problem; for Bush, Iraq; for Putin, having to stop being President of Russia next year.

George Bush has shown higher leadership qualities, exploiting the born-to-rule mentality of a privileged and political family background, always able to identify a constituency and communicate his point. There is no substitute for ingrained confidence, except that with the failure of the operation in Iraq he has become a preoccupied leader with obviously very limited room to manoeuvre; the confidence is tinged with hubris. Rightly or wrongly in this part of the world he is coming to be seen most widely as a kind of dangerous buffoon, resistant to professional advice. The American newspaper published in Paris, the International Herald Tribune, which can be expected to treat the US President fairly, in leading articles has begun referring to his present Middle East adventure as “folly”. As with Putin, actions of government associated with death and destruction on a large scale get traced back to the President; and if the man has such responsibility pinned on him, what is the value of his motivation; what can be known about his grasp of reality?

With eighteen months in office President Bush may salvage worthwhile cargo by moving away from unilateralism and working-in better with allies. This week he looks set to be making the best of available options: talking human rights and democracy where his commitments are seen to be sincere, bending to pressure on climate change, perhaps taking more notice of the Europeans, possibly even to escape outright disaster over Iraq by working with others on a settlement. Certainly though he is in the position of a man backing out, preparing, slowly, to leave the scene.

Vladimir Putin also is scheduled to finish his term in office before the end of next year. The Russian constitution rules that this second term must be his last. But he is still busy with his project, building up Russia, restoring its position in the world. He is not looking at failure like Bush. He has much more to do, he does not want to go, and has already spoken about soldiering-on in some kind of powerful post. He has accumulated much power, and as the apparatus of government is far less stable than in the United States, the strength of the law to restrain him must be in doubt. So the world has a problem with President Putin: how is the pressure affecting what he will do?

Putin undoubtedly has the character and brains needed to be the no-nonsense, get-things-done leader that was demanded by his huge country, fed up as it was with chaos, collapse and humiliation. He was fortunate to be able to exploit the boom in energy prices that restored economic power to Russia, but he grabbed the opportunity in a highly focused way. What can be read from his behaviour in office as a successful leader? The blokey and robust culture of his administration has the old attitude of the unlamented security service, the KGB, which Putin served, in the last years of the Soviet Union: self-assured, even cocksure, impatient with scruple, professional and angry about the corruption and ineptitude of the declining Soviet empire, ready to be blunt, prone to do anything to force its will. These are actual tough guys not pretend ones, ready to take satisfaction in kicking over some traces – because they can. The nonchalance and indifference shown by Andrei Lugovoi, the man accused of murdering the dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London, in his television appearance last week gave a good glimpse of the team attitude – a picture of impunity.

Actions of the Putin government fit a pattern: defeat of the “oligarchs”, shutting-up of the independent media; intimidation of opposition political parties; putting down of terrorist acts with hardly due regard for hostages (the theatre in Moscow; the school in Beslan); above all the brutal military campaign and repression in Chechnya. Mr Putin knows how to guard his interests, at all costs keeping control of strategic oil and gas reserves in Russia and its sphere of influence around the Caspian Sea. There is unambiguous state backing also from the old country for Russian ethnic minorities in the former Soviet territories and a close watch on their Islamic populations in the South.

The European Union has acknowledged that much of this is the rightful space of a large if capricious power next door. Angela Merkel in the EU Presidency has had public disagreements with Putin over human rights but insisted this week Russia was a partner not an adversary; the Cold War was still a long way away. Europe has to show forbearance, for example over a prickly Russian attitude to the “loss” of the Eastern European states now signed up with NATO and the EU; suspected of being behind Russia’s rather intransigent position on differences over trade with Poland or Bulgaria. Mr Putin clearly appreciates being able to tell the Europeans he is amenable to reason; no more a monster than they are “fluffy toys”. The Soviet Union may be gone but he can enjoy retrieving its old ability to hold up the game and demand terms. He insists Europe’s concerns over the reliability, or otherwise, of contracted fuel supplies from Russia are unfounded, because he’s interested only in a “market” approach. He insists that previous accords with the West on development of the energy industry were made under duress, when Russia was facing collapse; that it is only just for Gazprom and his other enterprises to take back a large share, and invest in the West too if they want. The European side will remain adamant that contracts must be kept, but can also see they are dealing with reason rather than hysteria on most of these points. In Brussels the diagnosis on the Russians is not simplified. The boys at the Kremlin may be driven by resentments over past humiliation, too pleased about getting revenge, a little elemental in outlook, and unrestrained, but they are legitimately achievers taking advantage of an opportune situation — and what accomplished Euro-politician would find fault with that?

The meeting this week at Heiligendamm starts with some difficult background and
ugly portents. Vlaidimir Putin and the European powers are fresh out of the unsuccessful Samara summit, 17-18.5.07, where they made precious little ground on their various ticking points: civil rights, a settlement for Kosovo, energy cooperation. The G8 in Germany now brings in the United States and this week’s ominous position-taking over the location of US anti-missile defences at former Soviet installations in the Czech Republic and Poland. Would Mr Putin go back to training missiles on targets in Europe as he has suggested? Less than Mr Bush in the later stages of a long term in power, he is still kicking hard; still not weighed down by policy failures or constricted by law, or mobilising political opponents; still unpredictable. His interlocutors around the table will be watching with studied interest, and the rest of the world with them. The events of this week may come to be truly enlightening about what’s going to happen next on the European and global stage, because at the beginning of proceedings, it looks impossible to tell.

Countries in the Group of Eight (four from the EU): Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States.

Picture: Vladimir Putin on European television on the weekend talked about targeting missiles on Europe.