Eric Walberg watches the schoolyard antics
It's been a busy week for Russian President Vladimir Putin. First he had a visit from French President Nicolas Sarkozy 9 October, followed by both United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates 12-13 October, who were in Moscow for talks with their Russian counterparts the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. He then squeezed in a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prior to departing to Wiesbaden to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Then he set off to Tehran to meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite reports that suicide terrorists had been trained to assassinate him in Iran.
As the dust settles on the shiny new dynamo in the Élysée Palace, Sarkozy is beginning to look like a bit of a goof. He is widely compared to Monsieur Jourdain of Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, a comically vulgar, social-climbing figure who can never attain the veneer of nobility he seeks. It's not just his clownish, sad-sack grin, his bluster and his frantic, pointless globe-trotting, but his continued loud protestations of friendship with the US administration for which he gets absolutely nothing in return. He twice proclaimed himself to Putin as "a clear ally of the United States", and earlier described Russia as "a country which complicates the resolution of the world's greatest problems." God forbid that we live to see Sarkozy's resolution of these problems. No doubt it would include reducing Iran to smoking ashes. After meeting with Putin, he rushed off to visit Chechnya human rights activists. One can only marvel at his chutzpah, or his stupidity. Putin was not amused and coolly told Sarkozy to tell his "clear ally" to forget about independence for Kosovo and that there was no evidence that Iran was intent on producing a nuclear bomb.
Putin is a busy man and all these pointless meetings clearly disrupted his schedule. He kept Rice and Gates waiting 40 minutes at his private dacha while Lavrov entertained US reporters about possible breakthroughs at the talks. "Breaks, definitely. Through or down, I don't know." Putin swept in and proceeded to lecture his guests on the crimes of their boss. Dr Rice scowled as she scribbled away in her notebook, while Gates remained impassive. No doubt he was recalling gleefully how, as a CIA adviser under President Carter, he organised and armed Al-Qaeda and their friends in Afghanistan and helped bring down the Soviet Union. He reiterated his invitation for Russia to join NATO as a full partner in a brand-new Joint Regional Missile Defence Architecture, complete with invitations for Russian and American officers to be stationed at each other's missile defence sites. "We remain eager to be full and open partners with Russia on missile defence," he crooned. Like their "clear ally", they also met with human rights activists.
And just what did the whirlwind of diplomacy accomplish?
As for the Americans' human rights activities, Tanya Lokshina, director of Demos, said that given the focus on security matters, the meeting with rights campaigners was mostly symbolic. She complained that the US had "lost the high moral ground. The American voice alone doesn't work anymore. The Russians are not influenced by it." According to her, Rice bristled at the criticism, replying sharply, "We never lost the high moral ground." Ouch.
Kosovo is threatening to declare independence from Serbia on 10 December over Russia's strenuous objections. Russia has hinted it could retaliate by pressuring the pro-US government of Georgia through its relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that broke away from Georgia with Russian military help. No change.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated both his threat to quit the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe accord by 12 December if the US goes forward with its missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, and his offer of an old Soviet radar facility in Azerbaijan if the US backs down. Gates thanked Putin for his offer of the base, but said this couldn't possibly replace but only supplement the one in the Czech Republic. How clever: let's station the CIA and US military in Azerbaijan as well as in eastern Europe. Gates said on his scout's honour there is absolutely no intention of targeting Russia's 4,162 nuclear warheads from these new bases close to Russia's boarders. Lavrov was not impressed and warned that Moscow would be forced to take measures to "neutralise" the shield if it is built as planned. So no change there either.
Just as President George Bush has become famous for his mangled malapropisms, Putin has become known for cutting through the diplo-speak with sharp sarcasm. He described the American antimissile bases as a reaction to a threat that had not yet materialised: "Both of us, one day, may decide that an antimissile defence system can be deployed on the moon. But before we get there, the possibility of reaching an agreement may be lost because you will have implemented your own plans." He smoothly added, "but our American partners' constructive disposition on continuing the dialogue is, of course, a very positive signal."
Putin has already said that Russia would target its nuclear arsenal at Europe for the first time since the Cold War if the "shield" is not moved. In order to hit Europe, Russia could move its short-range missiles to Kaliningrad. But it is hampered by the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty. The Kremlin is unhappy about the treaty because of the growing mid-range nuclear arsenals of its immediate neighbours China, Pakistan, India and now Iran. The treaty currently only applies to the US, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. It was highly disadvantageous to the Soviet Union as it did not include US naval nuclear cruise missiles or the nuclear arsenals of Britain or France. Analysts say that Russia's withdrawal from the INF treaty is all but inevitable. So, some change here. US foolhardiness means a historic peace treaty is being thrown in history's rubbish bin.
Rice and Gates also raised the issue of ways to extend limits on nuclear weapons when the existing nuclear arms proliferation treaty expires in 2009. That no doubt provoked a chuckle in the Kremlin.
Concerning upping US/EU sanctions against Iran, Lavrov said, "we believe collective work would be much more effective if there were no parallel steps to use unilateral sanctions against Iran, let alone recurring calls to use force against Iran." Rice fired back, saying the United States would continue to impose financial sanctions on Tehran for funding "terrorist activities". Under US pressure European trade to Iran has fallen shaprly -- by up to 40 per cent this year. No change, at least not for the better.
As for the meeting with Merkel, it merely emphasised that Ostpolitik is dead. "Germany used to be an active mediator between Russia and the West," says Alexander Rahr, director of Russian policy at the Germany Council on Foreign Relations. "Merkel is now just a passive player, and this means there is no European strategy toward Russia." Putin's summit with Merkel was probably the last before March presidential elections in Russia. Since taking office nearly two years ago, she has gone out of her way to placate Poland and the Baltic states, and has made confrontation with Putin on human rights the centrepiece of her politics, unlike Schröder, who focussed on economic relations and apparently developed a genuine friendship with Putin. He was recently fêted in Moscow, launching the Russian edition of his memoirs.
The irony in this obsession with "human rights" is that real human rights have never been more scrupulously observed in Russia's entire history than they are today, exposing the hypocrisy of this ruse to return Russia to its traditional role as the West's enemy.
No doubt Putin, in Tehran this week for a regional conference on Caspian oil, commiserated with Ahmadinejad about this. Incidentally, this is the first trip by a Kremlin leader to Teheran since 1943, when Joseph Stalin met British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, presumably, the Iranian head of state Mohamed Reza Shah, son of the exiled Reza Shah. The allies had brusquely overthrown their puppet monarch in 1941 as a suspected Nazi sympathiser in favour of his more staunchly pro-American son, who reigned as a faithful friend of the US until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the symbolism of which no doubt is not lost to Ahmadinejad.
Of course, the answer to any unresolved issues between the US and Iran, as recognised by rational people of all political persuasions (which seems to exclude current Western leaders), is direct US talks with the Iranians. This would not only weaken Russian influence (surely a logical US policy goal), but give a real boost to the supposedly pro-American Iranian people (surely another logical US policy goal) suffering under their supposed dictatorship, who now can only be accused of being traitors.
Sadly, these visits are really just schoolyard games, where the bullies taunt and threaten the aloof new boy on the Free World block, clearly planning to gang up on him when no one's looking and possibly throw some Free World projectiles at him. But the composed Vlad merely spits in their faces and continues to practise his judo chops, ready for all comers.
Not to be entirely left out, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko announced he was closing ranks with his big brother, that Russia is still Belarus's best friend despite a quarrel over energy prices earlier this year. The Belarussian leader now fancies himself as peacemaker, both apologising for his angry outbursts against Moscow and calling for improved relations with Western countries. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is still king.