Friday, 18 May 2007

18 May 2007

Do you remember who said this, and about whom? “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy … I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

The man who said it was President Bush. The man about whom he said it was President Putin. The date: June 2001, just months after Mr Bush moved into the White House.

I wonder what Mr Bush thinks about Mr Putin’s soul now.

Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had a chat with the Russian president this week – and she thought it necessary to deny that we’re heading towards a new Cold War. But the unfortunate fact is that there is a long list of issues about which Mr Putin and Washington have fallen out.

Mr Putin doesn’t like Washington’s anti-missile defence system, with its plans for installations on his doorstep in Poland and the Czech Republic. He doesn’t like Washington’s support for Kosovan independence (if Kosovo, why not Chechnya?). He doesn’t like the calls for tougher sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme.

Washington, on the other hand, doesn’t like Mr Putin’s plan to help Burma, one of the world’s most distrusted pariah states, to build a nuclear reactor. It doesn’t like the way he uses his gas pipelines as a way of exerting pressure on his neighbours, like Ukraine, Belorus and Lithuania. And that, by the way, is something that worries the EU quite a bit too, given that about 25 per cent of Europe’s gas comes from Russia.

Most worrying of all are the suspicions that Russia has now been waging “electronic war” against Estonia, disabling its internet and mobile telephone networks. Estonia is a member of both the EU and NATO – and NATO, remember, has an article in its founding treaty (article 5) which states that an attack against one member shall be considered an attack against them all.

Estonia’s foreign minister, Urtas Paet, told us on the programme last night (Thursday) that his country is now under attack in what he called a “21st century war”. NATO has already sent electronic communications experts to Tallinn to help the government combat this new threat.

Some commentators have started talking of a “slide towards Fascism” in Russia. A strong-man president, prepared to use his political and economic power against his neighbours; virtually no independent media; a tolerance of political thuggery and worse (remember what happened to the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the renegade intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko?).

For about a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West had things pretty much its own way. Not any more. High oil prices mean that cash is pouring into Moscow’s coffers. President Putin is in a far stronger position than Boris Yeltsin ever was, and he knows it. When any bear wakes up after a long hibernation, it’s wise to tread with care. The Russian bear, I suspect, is no different.

By the way, I gather we’ve elected a new Prime Minister. Gordon someone? I’ve been so busy reporting on other people’s elections, I seem to have missed ours …

For the past 10 weeks, I have ended every newsletter with a reminder of our missing colleague Alan Johnston, who disappeared in Gaza on 12 March. It was his 45th birthday yesterday, and there are now more than 92,000 names on our online petition calling for his immediate release. If you’d like to add yours, click here.

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