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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin as Diplomatic Houdini

The extraordinary thing about Vladimir Putin is just how much he gets away with, both at home and abroad. The Russian president is not very interesting, at least on the surface. He is cautious and shrewd, with good political instincts. He is obviously ruthless, too, when he needs to be. And he seems to know exactly how far to push his luck. Perhaps that is his defining feature.

Take his foreign policy. He has managed to pursue an independent path since he came to power in 2000. He has been a clear westernizer in the style of Peter the Great, even when it infuriated his military establishment.

He rolled over and accepted NATO enlargement, bringing the old enemy of the Soviet Union right to his borders. He allowed the United States to install troops in Central Asia, well inside former Soviet territory, and even send special forces to Georgia -- the former Soviet republic whose independence Russians resent most. Then, over the war in Iraq, Putin suddenly got difficult with his friend George W. Bush. He threw in his lot with Jacques Chirac and threatened a veto in the United Nations.

His instincts were the same as Chirac's: that it would be wrong to give a UN rubber stamp for U.S. unilateral action. Yet he has been forgiven, unlike the French president. He is a diplomatic Houdini who remains a welcome visitor to the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas. And this week Putin is getting the full honors of a state visit to London, the first Russian head of state to do so since Alexander II in 1874.

By rights he should be in the doghouse again in Washington, if not in London, for refusing to cancel his nuclear supply contracts with Iran, Bush's next target in his "axis of evil." Putin has stubbornly resisted years of concerted U.S. pressure, first to abandon the contract to complete the nuclear power plant at Bushehr and then to stop the fuel supplies needed to operate it.

The Russian president has succeeded in sowing enough confusion to leave everyone in doubt about his intentions. He told his fellow world leaders at the G-8 summit in Evian earlier this month that the contracts would be canceled unless Iran agreed to more rigorous inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But Alexander Rumyantsev, his nuclear power minister, insists that fuel deliveries will begin next year, come what may.

It would be wrong to assume that Iran matters to Russia simply for common commercial reasons -- just as it was wrong to do so in the case of Iraq. That was where London and Washington miscalculated. Of course cash comes into it. The Nuclear Power Ministry has long made hefty profits from an aggressive export trade. But nuclear exports to Iran matter to Putin for more than that.

For a start, they mean that Russia can present itself as something other than just a Nigeria of the north, capable only of supplying oil and gas to the highest bidders. With nuclear fuel and know-how for sale, it is a serious technological operator, too.

Second, Iran is an important regional partner. Tehran was an ally against the Taliban in Afghanistan and a fellow opponent of Sunni Muslim fundamentalists in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Even if the Soviet borders exist no more, in Moscow Iran still counts as a neighbor. Old habits die hard. Russia is not going to abandon an old ally simply to please the United States.

Indeed, even if the Soviet empire has collapsed, Putin and many of his closest advisers remain profoundly influenced by their former background as servants of a superpower. It explains a continuing love-hate relationship with America and an inability to decide if they really want closer ties with Europe or the United States.

Take NATO enlargement. The security establishment in Moscow has never forgiven Washington for pushing that agenda and insisting that the alliance expand into former Warsaw Pact territory. These people see the idea of U.S. bases in the Baltic republics, or Romania and Bulgaria, as confirmation of a U.S. plot against Russia.

Yet, at the same time, they see Washington as their only proper interlocutor. That is where they want to be taken seriously. They are unmoved by the plans of the European Union to have an autonomous defense capacity. They do not care what the EU thinks on an issue such as Iran. It is American attention they are seeking.

Neither the United States nor EU seems to know quite how to deal with the phenomenon. They both want to embrace Putin, even if they do not entirely trust him. They appreciate the fact that he seems to have stabilized Russian politics, and the economy, after the chaotic Yeltsin years. But he continues to preside over horrible human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Chirac was so determined to win Putin's support over Iraq that he praised his March referendum in Chechnya -- a spurious attempt to prove that the war was over and political processes were under way. Tony Blair has done much the same, to try to win Putin back to his side.

They are both wrong to forgive and forget so soon. Chechnya is a festering sore that cannot be wished away. But the irony remains that everyone is prepared to be good friends with Putin, precisely because Russia is weak, not strong. Putin is the only man who can stop his country becoming the world's prime source of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

No wonder he can get away with almost anything.

Quentin Peel is international affairs editor of the Financial Times, where this comment first appeared.