Second term Bush can't count on Putin

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Jan. 20, 2005 at 10:16 AM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- As President George W. Bush celebrates his second inaugural Thursday, he can look out on a Eurasia that is already radically changing from his first term: A powerful new friend is taking power in Ukraine, but a vastly more powerful old friend in Russia may be turning into an enemy.

As expected, Ukraine's Supreme Court Thursday rejected the appeal of defeated presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych for yet another rerun of the nation's second-round election runoff. That means the way is clear at last for President-elect Viktor Yushchenko, the man who defeated Yanukovych in the rerun vote of Dec. 26, to finally take power this coming Sunday. And the pro-Western Yushchenko has already made clear he wants to forge close security ties with the United States and bring his major country, a former Soviet republic with a territory the size of France and a population not much less, into the 25-nation European Union as quickly as possible.

As a result, also on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin of Russia finally brought himself to do what he had never managed to over the past 3½ weeks since Yushchenko's victory: he congratulated him.

Putin had left no doubt during the long, bitterly fought Ukrainian election race that he and the Russian government very much wanted Yanukovych to win and preserve the traditional framework of post-Soviet Russia-Ukraine relations, with the latter subservient and still very much attached to the former. But under Yushchenko, that is not going to happen. For the first time since Ukraine's leaders petitioned for the protection of the Tsar of Russia in 1652, a Russian leader must rule without the breadbasket wheat-fields of western Ukraine and the expertise of the armorers and heavy industries of eastern Ukraine at his beck and call. Putin has made clear he does not like it.

Therefore, while Bush celebrates the heady reality of Western-style democracy, leaders and policies triumphing at last in Ukraine as they appear ever more embattled in Iraq, he must also face the ominous reality that his most important global strategic ally in the war on terror over the past three and more years -- Putin -- may be turning into a global enemy.

Putin took pains in his Dec. 23 end of the year Kremlin press conference to praise Bush as "a very decent person." But that was still two days before Yushchenko finally won his decisive mandate in the Ukrainian election rerun with enthusiastic U.S. support. And even then, he made clear, while avoiding any personal criticism of Bush, that he blamed the United States for funding Yushchenko and masterminding his campaign. Since then, the Moscow media has been full of articles claiming that far from fulfilling the promise of democracy, Yushchenko's victory negated it as it proved that American mass media consultants were now capable of manipulating everything.

Bush and Putin did each other major services during the past four years. Putin defied massive anti-American sentiment in Russia, especially in the circles of his own security service allies, to pressure Uzbekistan to allow U.S. forces to operate from military bases there in the war to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001. Since then, Russian security services have cooperated effectively and closely with U.S. ones against the al-Qaida international terrorist organization.

Bush too has been personally loyal to Putin. He has refrained from any significant criticism of the Russian president's repressive policies in Chechnya, his drive to bring the nation's electronic broadcasting media under tight Kremlin control and his drive to dismember the giant Yukos oil corporation and bring its core production unit, Yuganskneftegaz, under effective state control too.

After Chechen secessionist terrorists took 1,200 people including hundreds of children hostage in Beslan , North Ossetia, in early September, Bush privately phoned Putin and assured him of U.S. support whatever he did. In the event, the terrorists managed to slaughter 344 people, including 190 children.

But Yushchenko's triumph in Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" now looks like proving the fracture point for this crucial friendship and the international cooperation that stemmed from it.

Today Putin, despite his reelection to a second four-year term of office with more than 70 percent of the vote less than 12 months ago, appears weaker and more embattled than at any point in his presidency.

As a result, Putin has been forced to fall back for support more than ever on the siloviki, the security services, and their former senior officials he has appointed to key positions in the Russian state and economy. Their influence is correspondingly growing. And the consensus among them, as openly expressed in sympathetic Moscow newspapers and journals, is extremely hostile to the United States.

What makes this development especially ominous is that it coincides with a drive by Putin that has accelerated in recent months to not merely modernize Russia's formidable Strategic Rocket Forces, but also to carry out exercises envisaging their possible limited use against the West.

"There has been a reactivation of Russian strategic forces on a scale not seen since the demise of the Soviet Union, analyst Peter Rutland wrote in the Eurasia Daily Monitor of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation Jan. 17. "The new emphasis on the nuclear deterrent is presumably driven by a feeling that affirmation of friendship with the United States has failed to produce the desired results," he continued. "Washington only respects the strong."

It remains to be seen how far Putin will go. He gave the United States a tacit green light, albeit reluctantly, for the U.S. conquest and occupation of Iraq in March-April 2003. The White House, the National Security Council and Pentagon civilian planners remain confident he will not try and interfere in any U.S. confrontation or action against Iran.

But that assumption looks increasingly shaky as an angry and insecure Putin, buffeted by reverses at home and abroad, is forced to fall back more than ever on supporters who are ferociously anti-American. As Bush and Yushchenko celebrate their victories this week, they would do well to heed Winston Churchill's 1918 advice to Bernard Baruch and watch closely the new wind blowing from the east.

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