The Russian Mephistopheles

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: November 26 2004

The trouble with Faustian pacts is that, sooner than you think, the moment comes when you are asked to deliver your soul. The big western democracies have arrived at that point in their relationship with Vladimir Putin's Russia. For all the private handwringing and public protests at the calculated stifling of Ukrainian democracy, we have seen few signs yet that Washington and Rome, Berlin and Paris are ready to renege on their dark bargain with Moscow.

When George W. Bush entered the White House he found it hard to imagine doing business with Mr Putin. The Russian leader was a former head of the KGB. That told him all he needed to know, the president would say to visitors to Washington. Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, added intellectual substance to his visceral instincts. She after all had started out in foreign policy as a cold warrior student of the Soviet Union. Few were surprised that one of Mr Bush's first diplomatic acts was to expel dozens of alleged Russian spies.

That was then. Only a few weeks ago Mr Putin was cheering Mr Bush to a second-term victory almost as eagerly as he backed his friend Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine. The US administration meanwhile boasted warm relations with Moscow as one of the foreign policy successes of the president's first term. Ms Rice's change of heart was apparent some time ago when she remarked that Russia would be forgiven for opposing the Iraq war, while Germany would be ignored and France punished. More recently, she has been heard to say that a weak Russia is a bigger problem than a strong one.

As it happens, Mr Putin's Russia is a curious mix of strength and weakness, a hollow within a hard shell. Geography is the most obvious source of its power. Almost anywhere you look, Russia's borders touch the vital strategic interests of the US or Europe and, more often, both. Think of actual and potential sources of geopolitical instability - say, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Caucasus, Moldova and Belarus as well as Ukraine - and Russia has a geographical presence. Meanwhile demand for its oil and gas has stabilised its economy and given it valuable diplomatic bargaining chips in a world ever more preoccupied with energy security. Closer to home, Mr Putin has systematically rebuilt the political authority of the Kremlin.

Yet the weaknesses are equally obvious: an ageing and shrinking population, crumbling infrastructure and a moribund manufacturing sector, an unreformed and under-resourced military, and a brutal, unwinnable war in Chechyna. The awful scale of the slaughter of innocent children during the Beslan school siege earlier this year spoke as much to a chaotic failure of the Russian state as to the ruthlessness of the terrorists.

Mr Putin, though, is artful in his diplomacy. Like Israel's Ariel Sharon he was quick to exploit the strategic earthquake in Washington triggered by the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. Russian solidarity in the war against al-Qaeda was traded for tacit agreement that the Chechen rebellion would henceforth fall under the same rubric of Islamist extremism; a US military presence in parts of central Asia was matched with the reassertion of Moscow's interests in former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan.

The Russian leader is skilled too at the game of divide and rule. Tony Blair was once his closest friend in the west. He served as a vital bridge in the initial rapprochement with Washington. That purpose served, Mr Blair was discarded. Relations with London are now chilled by the presence in Britain of a Chechen opposition leader and an exiled Russian oligarch. Others too have been disappointed. For all his assiduous investment in France's relationship with Moscow, President Jacques Chirac has thus far failed to persuade Mr Putin to play the multipolar game against the US.

Europe has been left weakened and divided. Germany's Gerhard Schröder and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi have joined Mr Chirac in courting the Russian leader. It has been left largely to the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe and to the Nordic and Baltic states to protest at the price they have paid for Mr Putin's affection. Elsewhere, the progressive tightening of his authoritarian rule, the dismantling of independent media, the abolition of regional democracy and a nasty campaign to eradicate dissent in Russia's civil society have passed with only token protests.

Such is the background to this week's elections in Ukraine. There was no surprise in western capitals at the vote-rigging witnessed by independent observers. Mr Putin's campaign appearances on behalf of Mr Yanukovich were just the tip of a much deeper iceberg of Russian interference in the election. Of course, there were hopes in Washington and elsewhere that Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader, might somehow defy the odds and be declared president. But that was largely wishful thinking.

So I suppose the rest of us should be equally unsurprised that cries of anguish and warnings of retribution this week have been directed not at Mr Putin but at the newly declared President Yanukovich. Colin Powell, the outgoing US secretary of state, sounded quite tough in his warnings that an illegitimate Ukrainian government would pay a price for the subversion of democracy. But Mr Putin escaped serious censure. The Russian leader has got away with meddling in Georgia and Moldova and he serves as sponsor to the tyrannical regime in Belarus. Ukraine was always next in Mr Putin's efforts to tame Russia's near-abroad.

The west's complicity, or at the very least acquiescence, has been justified as part of the bigger (let's not dignify it by calling it grand) bargain. Washington is anxious for Russian co-operation in Iraq. Europe has sought its aid in persuading Iran to scale back its nuclear ambitions. And, of course, the oil companies want access to Russia's vast reserves. Somewhere along the way the strategic ambition to support and entrench Russian democracy has been discarded. Maybe events in Ukraine will change things. I hope so. But I am not optimistic.

The other day someone reminded me that two years from now it will fall to Russia to chair the Group of Eight nations. This elite club used to go by the name of the world's leading democracies. I suppose there is time enough to find another epithet before Mr Putin takes his turn.

philip.stephens@ft.com