By Yu Sui
Russia lately seems to be toughening up its diplomatic posture as it faces heavy pressure from several fronts. Two have stood out.
One is seen in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to reach consensus with his American counterpart George W. Bush when the latter "warmly" welcomed him during his US visit early this month. On July 14, Russia announced it had temporarily stopped implementing the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), citing "current extraordinary circumstances" as a reason, and stated the country "needed to maintain its national security".
It went on to say that, during the temporary halt, Russia would not be subjected to any international agreement on limitation of conventional arms and it would decide the specific quantity of weaponry as the development of international military and political situation calls for.
The statement also noted that the move did not mean Russia would shut the door to dialogue with countries concerned, while emphasizing that President Putin had asked the Russian Foreign Ministry and other relevant authorities to monitor reactions from other signatories of the treaty and take whatever action is necessary according to the changing situation.
According to Russian wire services, in his meeting with top Russian military and security services last Wednesday, Putin cited a number of "global threats" that Russia must be prepared to encounter. The threats include the US pushing forward plans to deploy forces in Eastern Europe and the stalled ratification of CFE in Europe.
As many people are well aware, the CFE treaty was signed in 1990 and is designed to limit the number of combat equipment such as tanks, heavy artillery, warplanes and helicopter gunships.
The treaty has played a significant role in helping maintain European stability. Due to different circumstances following the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1999 passed the revised CFE treaty, but so far only Russia, Kazakhstan, Byelorussia and Ukraine have approved it.
None of the European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have signed the revised CFE treaty because they want to keep the provision banning large-scale military deployment in certain border areas, which Russia sees as designed to restrict troop movements within its own boundaries.
In his state of the union address in late April, Putin pointed out that NATO members not only had failed to ratify the revised CFE treaty but also planned to deploy missile defense systems near Russian borders, for which Russia would have to consider the possibility of suspending its compliance to the treaty.
By matching Putin's words with action now, Russia has indicated the time is right to do so as the US has gone ahead with its missile defense deployment plan anyway.
The other event that prompted Moscow to toughen up is the expulsion by the British government on July 16 of four Russian diplomats. The reason Britain gave is that Russia had not provided adequate response to its request for an explanation of (former Federal Security Service agent) Alexander Litvinenko's death and the deportation of the main murder suspect, who is now hiding in Russia.
Litvinenko defected to Britain in 2000 after he was kicked out of the FSS. On November 23, 2006 he died in a London hospital, where doctors announced he had been poisoned by a radioactive substance polonium-210. British authorities on May 23 accused Russian businessman Andrei Lugovoi, also a former Russian secret service agent, of committing the crime and demanded his deportation to stand trial. Russia refused the request.
The two sides saw their bilateral ties deteriorate afterwards. On July 16, the British foreign minister called the expulsion of Russian diplomats "an appropriate move" and hoped it had shown how serious London was about the matter. Also that day, a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson described the British act "a carefully planned move of provocation" designed to "politicize" the Litvinenko case in an attempt find an excuse for refusing to deport two suspects wanted by Russia (in a separate case). Those two suspects are business tycoon Boris Berezovsky (accused of conspiring to overthrow the Russian government and embezzling state-owned corporate assets) and head of Chechen rebels Zakayev.
In a tit-for-tat move, Russia announced the expulsion of four British diplomats on July 19 and ordered them to leave the country within 10 days.
It is not the first time Russia and Britain have expelled each other's diplomats since the end of the Cold War. The latest move by Britain, however, gives the impression it is acting as Washington's wingman while the Russia-US relationship turns complicated.
It should be noted that leaders of both Russia and Britain have not gone all out despite their exhibition of toughness. On the night of July 16, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, while stressing in Berlin that Britain "must take action" in response to the murder case, expressed his country's hope to maintain "a constructive relationship" with Russia.
On July 19, Putin said in a speech "you must respect your partner's rights and interests or things will turn worse" and said he believed "the mini-crisis will be resolved".
On July 22, the British ambassador to Moscow said publicly he believed UK-Russia ties "is not in a crisis". He also cited the fast growth of bilateral economic and trade relations, closer exchanges between the two peoples and expanding cooperation between the two governments on such issues as the Iran nuclear plan, the status of the Kosovo region and the Middle East situation.
Following the two events mentioned above were some side incidents that cannot be considered accidental. One such example is the joint naval exercise held in the Black Sea near Ukraine by warships from 13 countries, most of which NATO members. Almost at the same time, air forces of NATO members held an exercise in Georgia. On July 9, the Russian Navy's chief officer disclosed a plan to beef up the country's Navy, especially its Pacific Fleet. And on July 17, two Russian strategic bombers flew very close to British air space, prompting the latter's fighter jets to scramble for interception.
All this has been interpreted as fallouts from crashes between the national interests of Russia and the US and its allies.
As for Russia's hardening attitude, there are three "causes". The first is full confidence justified by reason. Russia sees itself as the victim enjoying considerable sympathy from the international community. Even political forces within the US are divided over Washington's plan to deploy missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.
The House of Representatives approved in May only about half of the US$310 million budget submitted by the Bush administration for the missile defense plan, while the Senate was expected to cut the original budget to US$85 million.
Some American analysts have warned Bush's plan for Eastern Europe could work against itself by angering Russia, alienating Europe and offering Iran one more reason to develop long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.
The second is the growing Russian pride pumped up by increasing wealth. Though only one-third of America in terms of economic strength, Russia has maintained the annual growth of its gross national product at 6-7 percent in recent years. Its budget surplus and foreign reserve have increased as well.
A new national plan to raise people's living standards has been adopted and it has repaid ahead of schedule all debts owed to the Paris Club nations. There is no denying that Russia is feeling really strong these days.
The third is steely guts kept strong by mounting popular support. Putin's decisions have won the hearts of Russians nationwide, whose support for his administration has surged to over 85 percent recently from an already impressive average of 70 percent.
Treated by the West with "a combination of humiliation and realist politics", Russia's response will be a velvet-gloved iron fist that will not hurt too much. The Russia-US relationship will not be derailed and neither will Russia's relations with European Union members, including Britain.
The seemingly popular notion of a "new Cold War" does not hold water. As the July 21 issue of the British weekly The Economist puts it: "Despite the echoes of Soviet-era spats, this stand-off does not herald the onset of a new cold war Even as they prepared to destroy one another, the West and the Soviet Union struck deals and traded in energy."
The Guardian also noted that expelling diplomats is a weapon often used by rivaling countries during the Cold War in a game of "tit for tat."
But, today, between Britain and Russia there is no longer a Cold-War era relationship. As some members of the media have observed: the current situation has the West putting pressure on Russia rather than the latter provoking the former.
Putin's hard-nosed stance is to put himself on an equal footing with the Western countries.
The author is a senior researcher with the Beijing-based Research Center of Contemporary World.
(China Daily August 1, 2007)