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Putin Uses Persian Gulf Trip To Boost Russian Role In Arab World

By Victor Yasmann
February 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It is rare for foreign leaders to be received in such pomp in Saudi Arabia, but Russian President Vladimir Putin was greeted by King Abdullah himself.

Putin brought along a sizable entourage: the head of the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, Aleksei Miller; Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, a number of other oligarchs, and some high-ranking Muslim officials.

Most important of those was Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev and Vagit Alekperov, the head of the petrochemical giant LUKoil and the only Muslim among the Russian oil magnates. In keeping with local tradition, all female members of the delegation and journalists wore chadors specially tailored for the visit by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Putin completed his historic three-day visit to the Middle East on February 13, after visiting Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan.

Talks Behind Closed Doors

On the surface, no big agreements were reached, although Yakunin did pledge to build a railway between Mecca and Medina.

Addressing Saudi businessmen and financiers, Putin called on them to open Saudi banks in Russia. Putin also promised that Russia would help Saudi Arabia develop a national nuclear program as well as launching several Saudi satellites in addition to the seven already boosted into orbit by a Russian missile in 2005.

For their part, the Saudis promised to allow LUKoil and other Russian companies greater access to Saudi energy projects and to continue talks on buying Russian arms, including the advanced T-90 tanks.

Although the majority of the talks were behind closed doors, many Russian observers believe that the two sides were discussing a future energy strategy -- in particular, plans for a gas cartel.

Gas Cartel

That was the focus of Putin's trip to the tiny Qatar, which is the third-largest producer of natural gas after Russia and Iran.

The plans for such a gas cartel, which first emerged during Putin's visit to Algeria in 2005, are still on the drawing board, but it potentially could include Russia, Qatar, Algeria, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela.

Speaking at a press conference in Qatar on February 12, Putin repeated his earlier statement that a cartel is "an interesting idea," but said that there would be difficulties in making it happen.

Many experts would agree that a gas cartel is an unlikely proposition. Gas differs from the oil in that it is not traded on the stock exchange. And, unlike oil, it is usually sold on long-term contracts that eliminate price fluctuations.

The Arab Gulf states have traditionally been among the staunchest allies of the United States and largely on the periphery of Russian interests.

Russia had virtually no relations with Saudi Arabia throughout the 20th century. Saudi Arabia did not want to deal with an atheistic Soviet Union, which suppressed Islam. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Saudis supported the Afghan resistance. And Saudi Arabia has been accused of supporting resistance fighters in Chechnya.

New Cold War?

Relations thawed after the visit of Abdullah, then crown prince, to Moscow in 2003. Abdullah established personal relations with Putin and the two countries, the world's biggest exporters of oil and gas, started to discuss cooperation in energy and other fields.

But Russia's interest in Saudi Arabia goes beyond just economics. For Russia, with its 20 million Sunni Muslims, Saudi Arabia, as the spiritual center of the Sunni world, is important for Moscow in terms of balancing its relations between Sunni and Shi'a forces, such as Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas.

Putin's visit comes after his confrontational speech in Munich, which some commentators said revived the spirit of Cold War.

If relations between Russia and the West did descend into a new Cold War, it is perhaps worth remembering one of its lessons. One of the reasons the West won the Cold War was by building a strong coalition, which at the final stage included the majority of the Arab world. Now Putin is doing his best to have the Arab world on his side.


Washington Reacts To Putin's Munich Speech
By Andrew Tully
WASHINGTON, February 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has been cautious in its reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin's criticisms of its policies. At a conference in Munich on February 10, Putin accused the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush of what he called an "almost uncontained use of military force" that has led other countries to seek nuclear weapons.

Putin also criticized U.S. support for an independent Kosovo and plans to set up a missile-defense system in Central Europe.

Shortly after Putin spoke, Gordon Johndroe, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House was "surprised and disappointed."

After all, for nearly six years Bush has made much of his friendship with Putin, going back to their first meeting in June 2001 in Ljubljana, Slovenia. At the time, Bush said that during the meeting, he looked Putin in the eye and got "a sense of his soul."

'Reeducation Camp'

The day after Putin spoke, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed the same Munich conference and referred to the Russian leader's comments somewhat lightheartedly.

"As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday's speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time," Gates said. "Almost. Many of you have backgrounds in diplomacy or politics. I have, like your second speaker yesterday, a starkly different background, a career in the spy business. And, I guess, old spies have a habit of blunt speaking. However, I've been to reeducation camp."

But Gates followed up more seriously. He said that while the United States and Russia are partners in several undertakings, Moscow's policies also, in his words, "seem to work against international stability" -- specifically, arms sales to Iran and its use of energy for what he called "political coercion."

On February 12, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Putin was wrong to accuse the United States of acting unilaterally and emphasizing military force over diplomacy.

"If you take a look at the way this administration has dealt with international issues, it has always begun with an international diplomatic component and will continue to," Snow said.

Still, Snow sought to emphasize the positive, saying that Russia is, in his words, "a valued ally" and partner in many international endeavors, including efforts to get North Korea and Iran to end their nuclear programs.

Putin's comments reminded more than a few observers of the verbal exchanges between Moscow and Washington during the Cold War. Even Gates referred to it, saying no one wants it revived, even as one side may express concerns about the other's behavior.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private research institute in Washington, says Putin is making a kind of declaration that Russia must be treated with more respect.

Putin wants to show the world that he will no longer acquiesce in some U.S. foreign policy decisions that have bothered Russia, Carpenter says. He points to Moscow's past acceptance of the war in the Balkans, two rounds of NATO expansion, the U.S. troop presence in Central Asia and, of course, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"What has been developing over the past year or so and really culminated with this speech was a clear declaration that those days are over, that Russia is going to stand up strongly for its interests, it's not happy about the direction of U.S. foreign policy, and that it will make those views known very clearly."

Carpenter says he expects Russia to stand up for its own interests -- not just with speeches, but with what he calls "natural-gas diplomacy" to make Europe realize how dependent it is on Russia for energy. He also cites Moscow's recent effort to keep Ukraine out of NATO and the political and economic pressure it's brought on Georgia.

Expect Russia to exert pressure on the United States, too, Carpenter says, but indirectly.

"Russia can certainly exert pressure on the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, making it clear that there is a price to pay for excessively close ties to Washington and making them, in all likelihood, more reluctant to intensify those ties," he says. "In Central Asia, Moscow can use [its] influence to make life even more uncomfortable for the United States than it has become in recent years."

Increasingly Assertive

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Carpenter says, Russia appeared weak as it sought to establish a new, post-communist identity. Now Moscow wields economic power through its vast reserves of natural resources, particularly gas and oil.

Carpenter says it's time the U.S. government began treating Russia with more respect and caution than it has in the past 15 years.

"There developed an attitude in Washington that we could pretty well barge into a traditional Russian sphere of influence, and Moscow could do nothing about it. That attitude has to change," he says. "We [the United States] are still, by far, the leading power in the international system, but Russia has made it abundantly clear that it's no longer content to be treated as a third-rate power. And that's pretty much what Washington had been doing for a good many years."

Carpenter says Russia is not now strong enough to make it a counterbalance to the United States. But its influence is growing, and Washington should recognize that.

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