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Published: Sunday, 5/7/2006

Cheney challenges Russia over economic threats

On Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney accused Russia of pursuing antidemocratic policies and using its vast energy supplies to blackmail neighboring countries.

Mr. Cheney was speaking to leaders of Baltic and Black Sea states in Lithuania.

Better late than never. It is high time Washington addressed foreign policy issues regarding Russia and Europe. But it would take more than words to make Russia behave.

Energy is not the only thing the Kremlin is using to impose its will - be it nearby in the former Soviet Union or as far as Britain.

Moscow would use anything - wine, for example, as witnessed by its ban on wine exports from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a major wine exporter that wants to join NATO. The ban happened in the wake of a natural gas siege of Ukraine - another former Soviet republic intent on joining NATO.

Moreover, Russia had the nerve to threaten the European Union (which has been critical of its bullying of Ukraine) by promising to take its natural gas and oil elsewhere.

"Russia has a choice to make," Mr. Cheney told the state leaders, calling on Moscow to act in a civil manner.

But this ship has sailed. The Kremlin has already made its choice.

Mr. Cheney spoke the same day Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov published an article titled "Russia in Global Affairs" in the Moscow News weekly.

"There is strong concern about energy as a major factor in politics. " Mr. Lavrov writes. " It would be naive to expect Russia to make do with a fringe status in the world, rather than the role of a world leader."

The Kremlin's arrogance is largely a result of three things: high energy prices, the nearing end of Vladimir Putin's presidency, and U.S. leniency toward Mr. Putin's Russia.

Mr. Putin is aware that his second, and constitutionally last, term in office expires in 2008. There is little doubt that he is trying to make sure he stays in power by whatever means.

To assure that everything goes as planned, he is feeding into the Russians' notorious nostalgia for the country's lost superpower status to keep the public on his side.

Hence, the pseudo-patriotic hysteria and an increasingly aggressive stance in foreign relations. He also needs the West as a scapegoat - because greed does not allow Russia's ruling class of bureaucrats to share the windfall of energy export revenues.

"At any rate, everyone agrees with Russia's choice of energy security as a main theme for Moscow's rotating presidency in G8," Mr. Lavrov writes.

What a nerve!

Surely, "everyone agrees" with the choice of the theme, but not with the choice of the presidency.

If there is one thing Washington can do at this point, it is seeing that Russia is kicked out of the G8, which will hold its annual meeting of the world's leading economies in St. Petersburg on July 15-17. Russia will hold the rotating presidency then.

Moreover, Washington may want to make it clear to Russia that the United States is not going to invest a single dollar in Russia's sluggish energy industries, industries that desperately need investment if Russia is to meet domestic and foreign demand.

Finally, it may help to spell out to Mr. Putin that the U.S. market will not be open to Russia until it plays by the rules, both economically and politically and both at home and abroad.



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