Dec 5, 2006

Damaged Relations Between Russia and the West

The Litvinenko affair is damaging the relations between Russia and the UK, claims Sergei Lavrov. When we take a look at the headlines of mainstream Western periodicals, claims to the contrary by the British foreign ministry cannot be taken too seriously. The case is hurting the relations between Moscow and London, and Moscow and the West in general. For the first time in his presidency, Putin is facing a serious challenge to his authority and his management of Russia’s foreign relations. Not in his home country, of course, where the Litvinenko’s case is viewed mostly with indifference, but in the West where the fears of Russian threat that lay hidden for 15 years came alive over the two weeks.

This presents Putin with extraordinary difficulty because it strongly undermines his efforts to use the stick and carrot strategy to keep the West complacent about his rule in Russia. Until recently, he had been quite successful with his clever tactics of linking up with the West on some issues like the global war on terrorism and softly bullying his European neighbors with an ever subtle threat of their dependency on Russian natural resources. His tactics worked especially well in today’s world of constant geopolitical uncertainty, and Russia’s rise as an economic power riding high the recent boom of commodity prices. This maneuvering bought Putin the West’s relative silence on his questionable handling of the Chechen war, the de-facto renationalizing of Russia’s strategic industries, and the increasing consolidation of power in his hands.

It is ironic that none of these episodes have raised the level of controversy that Litvinenko’s poisoning did. But at the same time is understandable from the perspective of the Western public. Russia is far away from London, and the impact of its actions at home is not visible. Russia does not threaten the world with nuclear annihilation; while it disrupts the supply of natural gas to Ukraine and to Georgia, it is a reliable partner to the Western countries; and Western investors are earning millions on rising Russian stock market. An assassination of a British citizen (albeit of Russian origin) with a radioactive substance has changed the complacency. If this can happen to one of ours in Mayfair, can we really feel safe, people start thinking.

And while this episode on its own may not have accounted for more than a second page story in a second rate paper (the issue of Kremlin’s involvement is at best questionable), in combination with the events in Russia that may have been overlooked for the past years, it creates a combustible mix. Therefore, the hysteria in Western media is not only about Litvinenko and his horrible death. It is about the path that Russia has found itself on following Putin’s election in 2000. The attitude towards Russia in the West, as reflected in the media, is tilting fast, and Lavrov is right about the damage it has caused.

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