- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Commentary on Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Washington this week has described his country as an “emerging power.” That will certainly play really well back in Moscow and be music to the ears of President Vladimir Putin, whose ambition since taking power has been to restore Russia to its former seat on the international stage. Ambitions and rhetoric, however, don’t necessarily make it so. Russia rather seems to be on a path toward becoming something like Saudi Arabia with nukes — repressive internally and in overall economic decline, but wielding clout in the relationship with the West because of its vast energy wealth.

Specifically, Mr. Ivanov came to Washington to sell the Bush administration on the idea of a Russian-Iranian nuclear deal that would avert a showdown in the U.N. Security Council (and beyond) over Iran’s reprocessing of fissile material, which both Europeans and Americans worry might end up in a nuclear weapons program. Russia has now proposed moving the reprocessing to Russian soil, allegedly to make it unavailable for nuclear-arms production in Iran.

Faced with a likely Russian veto in the U.N. Security Council, the Bush administration is making polite noises about the Russian initiative, but there is no appetite here for backing it. Both the Russians and the Iranians have a dismal record of actually abiding by international agreements.

The initiative on Iran is not the only Russian power play there is to worry about. Mr. Putin is reviving the old Soviet foreign policy toward the Middle East, and is pushing to extend his influence. Before traveling to Washington, Mr. Lavrov met with a delegation from Hamas, the terrorist organization that recently won the majority of seats in the parliament of the Palestinian Authority.

With Hamas’ record of suicide bombings against Israeli citiziens in mind, the United States and the European Union have called on Hamas to reverse its policy of destruction of Israel and renounce violence as a precondition for political recognition and international aid. By contrast, Mr. Putin took it upon himself to reverse the order of these factors and invited Hamas to Russia for a meeting, which took place over the weekend. While the Russian foreign minister did actually deliver a message of no violence to Hamas, the terror group is far more likely to appreciate the symbolic message of support from Moscow than it is to listen to Mr. Levrov’s lecture.

Most important, though, is Russia’s energy wealth, which in an environment of rising oil prices, is giving it new found clout. In the words of Michael McFaul of the Hoover Institution, “The Soviet Union held the world’s attention of fear, not respect… Putin aspires to return Russia to its great-power status, not because of its army, ideology or even nuclear weapons but because of its oil and gas.”

Mr. Putin has announced that “energy security” will be the focus of Russia’s chairmanship of the Group of 8, leading up the group’s summit in St. Petersburg this summer. Mr. Putin, throwing his weight around, will demand the suspension of disbelief from the other G8 countries, as Russia’s economy is actually smaller than that of the Netherlands, and as Russia was only invited to join the group in the 1990s in order to show political support for then-President Boris Yeltsin.

This past cold winter has seen some pretty crude power plays on Russia’s part toward its CIS partners. Ukrainians, who had the nerve to rebel against the Russian-backed results in the December 2004 parliamentary elections, found themselves on the receiving end of a tight Russian squeeze this winter. In December, Gazprom officials raised the price of natural gas to Ukraine from $50 per 1,000 cubic meters to $230, and on Jan. 1 Gazprom turned the volume of gas way down, affecting prices and supply throughout Europe as well. An agreement was subsequently reached with Ukraine, which placed Russian gas at $95 per 1,000 cubic meters. Meanwhile, Belarus, which has remained an obedient little ally of the Kremlin, gets its gas from Russia at $46 per 1,000 cubic meters.

None of this makes Russia a great power, but it does make it a potential troublemaker in international affairs. Could there be a better reason for getting U.S. (and European) energy policy right? Having the U.S. economy hostage to countries like Russia, Iran, Venezuela or Saudi Arabia can only spell trouble for the future.

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