West's Criticism, Not NATO, Worries Putin

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Imagine that a person decides to pose as a 19th-century Russian nobleman. He wears a long coat, walks with a cane and lets his sideburns grow long. He would suffer no serious consequences from his behavior other than the occasional shake of the head by passers-by. But now imagine that this would-be nobleman challenges others to duels at the slightest provocation and claims that the passers-by are his former serfs. At best, people would try to avoid him. At worst, they would beat him.

Something like this happened to President Vladimir Putin at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, last week.

At a security conference in Munich last year, Putin caused a scandal by suggesting that he looked at world events through Cold War eyes. He not only demanded nuclear parity with the United States but asserted that the placement of 10 U.S. missiles in Poland threatened Russia's 3,500 nuclear warheads. He further declared that NATO's eastward expansion represented a military threat to Russia.

Actually, Putin was far from being worried about a military threat from the West. At the time, he was deeply anxious about whether the West would accept the legitimacy of his plan to hand the presidency to his chosen successor. During that politically difficult period, Putin tried to engage his Western counterparts in a squabble about missiles, as world leaders did back in the 1980s.

Now that this critical period has passed, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates lavished compliments on President-elect Dmitry Medvedev after meeting him last month, and Putin has noticeably toned down his rhetoric.

However, the leaders of NATO member states decided not to take any chances. A few days before the summit, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer politely but firmly recommended that Putin refrain from Cold War-style rhetoric and from threatening to target missiles at foreign countries. The secretary-general was clearly referring to an earlier suggestion by Putin that Russia might target Ukraine if it joined NATO. Then, just to be sure there would be no unpleasant surprises, summit organizers made sure that Putin delivered his speech to the Russia-NATO Council behind closed doors Friday.

This was an amazing and telling finale to Putin's active engagement in foreign policy. The increased authority and influence Russia has come to enjoy over the past eight years was evidenced by the way that Western leaders preferred listening to Putin behind closed doors. Far from demonstrating a fear of Putin's words, however, it was a clear appraisal of the quality of Russia's foreign policy.

Putin's news conferences confirm the accuracy of that evaluation. Moscow complains about other countries' policies, shows no interest in listening to their explanations in response, and all the while manipulates the facts. The main theme is that NATO expansion threatens Russia.

Which of the alliance's military activities suggest the reality of such a threat? Do NATO war-game scenarios suggest that they are preparing to stage a mass invasion? In recent years, the number of NATO forces participating in training maneuvers has remained at a constant 25,000 troops. Could they be planning a massive invasion by airlifting tens of thousands of troops now stationed far from Russia's borders? If so, there is no sign of it.

Perhaps the issue is U.S. plans to establish military bases in Romania and Bulgaria. These are odd locations from which to launch a military assault against Russia, if that is their goal, but they would allow the United States to move forces gradually closer to Russia's borders.

It isn't a NATO military threat that is galling the Kremlin. Moscow is angry that no matter how polite Western officials try to be, they still believe that the democracy of Putin's government is not on a par with their own. The West considers Ukraine to be a democracy, but not Russia. In a news conference at which he tried to refute the argument that an expansion of NATO was the equivalent to an expansion of democracy, Putin said, "If this or that country is a NATO member, it claims to be a democracy. But if a country is not [a member of NATO] -- that means it is not a democracy? What kind of drivel is that?"

It is true that from Putin's point of view it must be either drivel or an outright falsehood for a country's candidacy to join a military alliance to be based on the presence of strong democratic institutions rather than the number of troop divisions and warheads it has.

In the end, there is no getting away from the idea that this "values gap" renders futile any attempt to lay a solid foundation on Russia's relationship with the West. In the absence of common values, relationships are formed in the manner of 19th-century German leader Otto von Bismarck, who was more concerned with a country's military potential than its perceived intentions. This is why Putin lives in constant anticipation that the West will play a dirty trick on him, why he cannot honestly formulate the reason for his irritation, and why he is unable to verbalize the rationale behind his never-ending and senseless rants about the Western military threat to Russia.

U.S. President George W. Bush showed greater flexibility than he has in the past by choosing not to leave office on a note of conflict with Moscow. In Sochi on Sunday, Russia and the United States produced a fairly pointless document titled a Declaration of the Strategic Framework of Russian-American Relations. It is amusing that in the opening lines of the document both sides hurry to convey the same thing they declared 28 years ago -- namely, that the relationship between the two sides was not confrontational in character. Putin unexpectedly declared that he felt a guarded optimism about the possibility of reaching an agreement over missile defense.

The real cause for Putin's satisfaction, however, was that Bush affirmed the legitimacy of Medvedev as Putin's successor. And this is why Putin can shelve the threat of more Cold War rhetoric -- until it is needed again.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.