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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Propaganda here, propaganda there:
The press responds to Putin's State of the Nation speech

It has always been difficult to get reliable information about Russia. Propaganda here, propaganda there. The world press reaction to President Vladimir Putin's State of the Nation speech to the Russian Duma on May 10 is a case in point.

British Conservative Shadow Secretary of Defence Liam Fox hinted that Putin's speech might be a thinly veiled warning that any attempt to limit the activities of state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom in the European market might be met with a military response.

In a speech at Chatham House on May 22, Fox expressed concern about "some worrying signals" emerging from what he called "the Russian domestic energy market." Though Fox referred to Putin's speech later in the same paragraph, the sentence that had caught his eye was this one back in April, from Gazprom’s chief executive Alexi Miller. “Attempts to limit Gazprom’s activities in the European market and to politicise questions of gas supply, which are in fact entirely within the economic sphere, will not produce good results,” Miller had said. [My emphasis -jlt]

Slipping easily into Cold War angst, Fox went on to read the remark as a threat. He admitted that Miller "did not specify what these ‘not good results’ might be – political, military or economic is unclear. But [Fox went on to say,] President Putin’s address to the National Assembly contained substantial passages detailing his plans to enhance Russia’s military capabilities."

Other less melodramatic cold warriors including Pravda and the Winston-Salem Journal portrayed the speech as a rejoinder to Dick Cheney's speech in Lithuania a week before. Kommersant, a major Russian daily, called Cheney's speech 'the beginning of a second cold war,' this time in a struggle over energy and competing spheres of influence rather than ideology" (Greenberg and Kramer May 6 06).

We'll look at some of the details from that speech on another day. Today we'll stick with Putin's remarks.

In an article for Asia Times online, former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar rejects the notion that Putin was sparring with Cheney. Cheney is, he says, "at best a skilled politician;" Putin, a statesman, though perhaps a cynical one.

The speech provoked him to reflect on Strobe Talbott's book The Russia Hand which he describes as "a cold-blooded account of the Bill Clinton presidency" and "a chilling study of the fate of any state aspiring to have a relationship of mutual respect with the US" (ATol May 24 06).

Bhadrakumar raises some emotionally-charged questions. Does the American administration "genuinely believe that the United States can gain support for its policies by abusing and threatening other major states"? or does Cheney hope to destroy the possibility of negotiated compromise "by driving Russia into Iran's arms"?

Let's not forget that Bhadrakumar is watching as the US-India nuclear deal stalls in the US Congress despite his country's reluctant willingness to play the unequal partner.

And he sees the main thrust of Putin's speech as "the modernization of Russia's armed forces and a new approach to defense and foreign policy."

Unfortunately, it appears that India may have set its foot on the same path that led the Soviet Union to its demise and that might be about to do the same for the United States, a path Putin identifies in his speech when he says simply, "We must not resolve our defense issues at the expense of economic and social development."

Perhaps hoping to avoid some of these prickly questions, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo reprinted the Voice of America story which heard Putin's speech as "focused almost exclusively on domestic issues."

Fortunately, MosNews gives the full text of the speech. A link to it is available at so you can decide for yourself.

If you read it, you will see that it's not "focused almost exclusively on domestic issues" as the Voice of America says. Nor is it mainly about "the modernization of Russia's armed forces and a new approach to defense and foreign policy."

It can be divided into roughly three parts: the first addresses the modern world order and Russia's role in it. The second brings Putin to his top priority which was to spell out in detail what the state will do to change Russia's declin in population. The final third describes how Putin proposes to develop Russia's armed forces.

Germany's Der Spiegel did not foresee a new Cold War but did say that Russia "continues to pine for superpower status."

Writing in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, former director of UN Radio and TV in New York Ayman El-Amir suggests that Putin's speech "...may be a much-delayed response to President George W Bush's National Security Strategy .... [which stated in Oct 02 that] "the US will not allow the military supremacy it has maintained since the collapse of the former Soviet Union to be equaled or surpassed" (El-Amir May 18-24 06).

El-Amir describes the context of this response.

As a major oil and gas producer with enormous reserves, estimated at 60 billion barrels of oil and 1,680 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to 2006 figures, Russia is poised to strike many alliances in an energy-hungry world. It can play the role of a trusted political mediator in major world crises. But it also has a significant overlap of interests with the US and the Western alliance. Russia is still seeking membership of the World Trade Organisation and has a common interest in fighting terrorism which, because of the conflict in Chechnya, is making the country vulnerable. In addition Russia is still a significant player in the international arms market, with annual exports estimated at $5 billion" (El-Amir May 18-24 06).

El-Amir continues: " the end of the 20th century the world had grown too complex for a single actor and a self-styled new world order based on hegemony.

Fears of the consequences of single super-power dominance were confirmed by the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the confrontation with Iran, Syria and North Korea, the free hand granted to Israel to suppress the Palestinians, and withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty, the International Criminal Court and agreements to curb nuclear proliferation. It is against this background that Russian President Vladimir Putin's state-of-the-nation address ... should be viewed. The message is not only that a unipolar world has become too dangerous but if China and India are now flexing their foreign policy muscles then it is time for Russia to reclaim its place on the international stage. (El-Amir May 18-24 06)

El-Amir's reading of Putin's speech puts too much emphasis on energy production and the military. Putin himself points out that "our energy use is many times less efficient than that of our direct competitors" and urges that "our country must become a major exporter of intellectual services."

He adds that Russia has "had average economic growth of around seven percent for the past three years...."

Speaking of the US Putin says, "Their defense budget in absolute figures is almost 25 times bigger than Russia’s. This is what in defense is referred to as ’their home — their fortress’. And good on them, I say. Well done!"

Putin's response has been to increase defence spending, modernise Russia's nuclear forces in the next five years, and commission two nuclear submarines that would be armed with nuclear missiles this year -- the first since 1990.

El-Amir declares that "The arms back" (El-Amir May 18-24 06).

Alex Norman at Power and Interest News Report portrays Russia as a rising state that may mature into a new form. Norman sees Putin's speech and the new Russia in the context of generational change. "Tenths of thousands of young men and women have been educated in the West, either in the United States or Western Europe, from 1991 until today. While many chose to stay in the West and work, others have returned, bringing their own blend of Western ideals to the ready mix of Russian economic and social principles" (National Maturity May 22 06).

Globalization clearly looms large in Putin's thinking. He does not reject multilateral institutions. For him, the UN has taken on a new importance even though there is a need to reform it.

Looking at the chaotic days following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin admits, "The changes of the early 1990s were a time of great hopes for millions of people, but neither the authorities nor business fulfilled these hopes." It is hard to imagine one of our leaders saying such a thing. But Putin says "This is a real opportunity to change the structure of our entire economy and establish for ourselves a worthy place in the international division of labor."

Germany's Der Spiegel cites an editorial in the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which notes candidly that "Russia offers German entrepreneurs something that's getting increasingly difficult to find back home: the potential for spectacular economic growth."

As Allgemeine Zeitung notes, Russia isn't "a weak state that submits happily to exploitation."

And Putin is determined to keep it that way.

Bhadrakumar warns that "it is unrealistic for Moscow to expect from Washington a relationship based on equality and mutual respect." As long as Russia is "free from the Yeltsin-era delusions regarding relations with the US" then it will follow a path of "fundamental revival, relying paramountly on its own resources...within its natural habitat of the Eurasian space" (ATol May 24 06).Recommend this Post

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