M.L. Sondhi & Ashok Kapur

The Telegraph, 9 October 2002

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow had become something of a minor player in world affairs. But under President Vladimir Putin, it is regaining a sense of direction in its internal and external affairs. If Mikhail Gorbachev had tilted heavily towards the West, which did nothing for Russia's economy and its international standing, Boris Yeltsin was mercurial and vacillating. On the other hand, Putin is sophisticated, experienced and has strategic vision.

In a paper, "Russia at the Turn of the Millennium", published in December 1999, he had noted the challenges to the economic, technological and leadership structure of Russia, and said that the country had reached "its limit for political and socio-economic upheavals and radical reforms".

Here, it seemed, was a voice that favoured moderation, stability and growth. Putin noted that only twice in history had Russia found itself in a crisis over changing the form of the state. In 1917, the answer was a socialist system based on brute force. This time the change was more gradual, the result of a process of internal dialogue, and some astute thinking.

Asian arena
Putin's object is not to restore communism but to instil pride in its greatness and to encourage democratic processes. For Putin, economics, foreign affairs and military strategy are more important than constitutional reforms. Putin also wants to ensure that the world order moves in the direction of greater multipolarism, rather than unipolarism, in Asia and elsewhere.

Partnership and economic links with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization may be important and necessary, but are not sufficient to restore Russia to its earlier eminence in world affairs. That can happen only in Asia. For example, Russia can tap its storehouse of resources in Siberia, with the help of Western technologies and aid.

For Russia, China's use of demographic engineering in its frontier areas like Tibet and Siberia should also be of concern. India too shares a similar problem in the Northeast. As both countries have seen, changed demographics can significantly alter local and regional politics as well as the security situation.

Russia's cooperation with the United States of America over tackling al Qaida and its associates in Asia, has given Putin's diplomacy a new strategic direction after September 11, 2001. The Islamic threat has now assumed more importance than the US missile defence or the weapons of mass destruction.

Clever moves
What has Moscow done to meet these challenges? Here it is important to differentiate between Russian tactics and its perceptions and interests. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia wavered between building ties with China, including arms sales (both countries, pre-September 11, feared US hegemony) and seeking to forge links with the US.

China too wavered between building a strategic partnership with the US and seeking ties with Moscow to keep the US on edge. Putin continues to play this game, only his tactics have become subtler. He is feeding China's naval ambitions by supplying it with naval armament on the one hand, and on the other he is suspicious of China's influence in central Asia and is investigating Chinese links with Islamic militants and their state sponsors who act against Russian and American interests. The politics of oil is also a serious consideration for Russia.

Thus Putin has not only moved within Russia against the ultra-nationalists and radical reformers, but he is also starting to manage the changes in Asia. Russia seems ready to take its earlier place in the game. The Indian leadership needs to draw the right conclusions from this and build links with Putin's Moscow that take in the reality of militant Islam, oil politics and the challenge from Beijing's deceptive posture of peace, instead of confining the relationship to a common perception of the threats of the weapons of mass destruction.
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