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
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
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
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
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 $310
million budget submitted by the Bush administration for the missile defense
plan, while the Senate was expected to cut the original budget to $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
Putin's hard-nosed stance is to put himself on an equal footing with the
The author is a senior researcher with the Beijing-based Research Center of
(China Daily 08/01/2007 page11)