What is Vladimir V. Putin up to? Recently, an unofficial emissary of the Russian President has been signaling the White House that Putin is unlikely to resist U.S. efforts to remove Iraq's Saddam Hussein from power so long as Russia's interests in the oil-rich country are protected in a post-Saddam regime. Yet on Aug. 17, Washington was irritated to learn Moscow is considering a multibillion 10-year pact to widen economic cooperation with Saddam.
It looks like duplicity on Putin's part. But the mixed signals from Moscow more likely reflect an intricate political game that Putin is playing with vested interests at home even as he tries to link Russia more closely to the West. Insiders say Putin remains firmly committed to the bold, Western-oriented foreign policy he embraced last year--the hallmark of which is a new strategic partnership with the U.S. That, in his cold calculation, is the best way to improve Russia's economy and global standing. His challenge is to implement that policy despite resistance from the Foreign and Defense ministries--both citadels of old-line thinking. Parts of the business community that still hope to cut big deals with ex-Soviet client states such as Iraq and Iran are resisting as well. Putin "doesn't want to alienate all of his constituencies at once," says a Western diplomat in Moscow.
Indeed, as a careful guardian of his own political capital, Putin is trying to finesse domestic opponents of his foreign policy rather than confront them head-on. To end-run obstructionist Foreign Ministry diplomats, he relies on informal emissaries such as Mikhail V. Margelov, 38, chairman of the foreign relations committee in the Russian Parliament's upper chamber, to help communicate with Western officials. Fluent in English and, like Putin, an ex-KGB man, Margelov has been trading e-mails on Iraq policy with such officials as Thomas E. Graham Jr., a Russia expert at the National Security Council. "We are not enemies of the U.S. anymore," says Margelov. "We have an opportunity to develop oil fields together in Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin, and maybe later in Iraq," he adds.
The newly disclosed negotiations with Iraq may also reflect wily maneuvering by Putin rather than a policy shift. Talks to involve Russian companies in long-term infrastructure projects in Iraq began more than three years ago, before Putin became President. Putin, it seems, simply allowed them to grind on. Most analysts say that even if Russia signs an agreement to appease the pro-Iraq factions, big business deals are unlikely soon--especially if Saddam is under threat of attack. Putin could also brandish an Iraq deal as a reminder to Washington that Russia has an economic stake in Iraq that it expects to keep even if Saddam is removed. Moscow wants its $7 billion in Soviet-era debt to Iraq to be honored by a post-Saddam regime, and it wants the interests of Russian oil companies in Iraq to be protected.
Neither Moscow nor Washington is likely to reveal details about such prewar bargaining. The danger for Putin is that his dealings with entrenched interests at home could lead to more mixed messages to the outside world--and the misinterpretation of his policies. "This is not a good way to run a foreign policy over the long haul," says Celeste A. Wallander, a Russia expert at Washington's Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Still, Russia's relations with the U.S. have improved greatly in the past year. And ordinary Russians seem willing to give Putin's Western-tilted policy a chance. So the inscrutable President faces little choice but to keep his game going--whether his bureaucracy and Washington's like it or not.
By Paul Starobin in Moscow
Edited by Rose Brady