Forcing Russia's Hand

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President Vladimir Putin's blatant intervention in Ukraine's presidential election has spawned an array of commentary that the Russian president is trying to re-establish the Soviet empire. What is missing from this analysis is one very important fact. The United States and Western Europe have forced Putin's hand. It is the West that has rekindled Russia's international ambitions, ambitions hardly noticeable under Boris Yeltsin.

Evidence continues to reveal Putin's drive to re-establish some form of empire, although what he seeks is more a sphere of influence than a classic empire. Unlike an empire, a sphere of influence only requires keeping the right people in power with the right foreign policies. As long as that happens, national leaders within the sphere are free to conduct a variety of domestic policies. Russian participation in elections and power struggles within the sphere, therefore, is the prime strategy for maintaining and expanding this sphere. It also helps for the hegemonic power to have a military presence in its sphere, with bases legitimized by a formal alliance. In addition, the sphere is further reinforced by agreements establishing an economic community.

Putin is following this pattern. Putin's support of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is only the latest effort to get his man in power. As Putin said when commenting on the disputed Ukrainian election after meeting with outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in Moscow, "We are not indifferent to what happens there." Russia maintains military bases in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It is actively creating bilateral and multilateral economic agreements within this sphere.

All this could have been predicted. The United States has stupidly and seemingly unconsciously convinced Putin that he needs a sphere of influence and must accelerate its creation. In provoking Putin, Washington brought along NATO and the EU, although the Europeans, like the Americans, failed to recognize that they would exacerbate Putin's hegemonic interest in Russia's near abroad. Eight U.S.-led Western policies energized Russian expansiveness, with the Kremlin's hegemonic aim going far beyond the loose Commonwealth of Independent States created under Yeltsin.

First, President Bill Clinton intervened during his first term in the former Yugoslavia, countering the aggressiveness of Russian client Serbia, first in Bosnia and then Kosovo. Russia protested, found it ineffectual and then joined the NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo. Russia's political elite, including Putin, saw NATO's penetration of the Balkans and the eventual overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic as a slap in the face.

Clinton also promoted the expansion of NATO to include former members of the Warsaw Pact and eventually former Soviet republics. This brought U.S. client states close to Russia and even to its very borders -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Clinton's motives were clear. A bigger NATO would be a "hedge" against Russian revanchism, although publicly Clinton told Yeltsin that an organized Europe was only moving east to merge Russia into Europe. The inclusion of Russia in the Western alliance structure via NATO's Partnership for Peace and in the G7 industrial nations (now G8 with Russia) backed Clinton's seemingly benign pledge. But both Yeltsin and Putin strongly objected to NATO expansion. They had no way to stop it, however, and were unwilling to jeopardize relations with the Americans and Europeans. Putin especially wanted to cultivate the Europeans, toward whom he sought closer relations, in order to check assertive U.S. policies.

The EU then expanded eastward as well. This made a Russian-led economic community more urgent, both to bolster its economy and to generate leverage if the Russian sphere should ever merge with the EU.

U.S. affronts to Russian political and economic security have accelerated under President George W. Bush. In a common effort to counter Islamic terrorism, Putin acquiesced to the establishment of U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as part of the war in Afghanistan. Putin did so on the understanding that Bush would not criticize the war in Chechnya and that the U.S. bases were temporary and directed toward a quick war with the Taliban. The U.S. bases remain and seem less than temporary. As a result, Putin has moved to increase a Russian military presence in the "Stans." This fourth U.S. action somewhat resembles the old Cold War containment policy and is not appreciated in the Kremlin.

Bush attacked Iraq without UN Security Council approval and in violation of his pledge that the United States would sponsor a meeting with its members to evaluate the weapons inspections in Iraq before taking military action. Russia enjoyed expanding economic relations with Iraq and held a considerable amount of Baghdad's debt. Bush's militarism shattered that relationship.

The United States under Bush also has granted political asylum to "Chechen terrorist envoy," Ilyas Akmadov, an act Putin believes reflects American "double standards" on counterterrorism.

Bush has designated Iran as part of the axis of evil and has said he would not "tolerate" Tehran going nuclear. The United States wants a full range of UN Security Council-approved economic sanctions imposed on Iran if it does. Russia has a contract to build three nuclear power plants in Iran. U.S. policy, therefore, counters Russian interests.

And Bush is pressing Putin about the Russian leader's democratic backsliding and his interference in Georgian and Ukrainian elections. Putin responds (hypocritically, of course) by saying "one must not meddle and apply pressure" from outside.

All these factors are pushing Putin to solidify a sphere of influence to ward off U.S.-led threats and to bolster Moscow's international political stature. He is doing so without much fanfare or without a direct challenge to Bush. Putin is buying time to build his sphere of influence.

Bush, meanwhile, professes warm regards for Putin while expressing mild criticism toward those Russian policies (mainly through his subordinates) of which he disapproves, such as Russian interference in Georgia and Ukraine. On the surface, it appears that the Russian relationship remains cooperative -- and it is cooperative on issues of nonproliferation, joint space operations and counterterrorism. What is hardly noticeable in the United States is that Washington's policies are provoking countermoves, not only in Paris and Berlin, but also in Moscow.

Nicholas Berry is director of the Foreign Policy Forum in Washington. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.