Reversal of Fortune; Should Russia Be Booted out of the West's Exclusive Club, the G8? of Course Not

Article excerpt

Byline: Owen Matthews

Peter the Great built St. Petersburg in hopes that its sweeping neoclassical boulevards would prove to a skeptical Europe that Russia was no longer a barbarous Asian principality but part of mainstream Western civilization. As Vladimir Putin prepares to host this summer's G8 summit in the old imperial capital, he faces a similar challenge. Buoyed by a windfall of petrodollars, Russia's president has transformed his country from a dysfunctional, debt-ridden post-Soviet wasteland into a major world economic and political player. All that's missing is recognition from his peers that Russia is a full member in the club of the world's leading industrialized, democratic nations.

He's likely to be kept waiting. Instead of a triumph, the St Petersburg summit is fast shaping up as the biggest rethink of Russia's relationship with the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rather than the recognition that Putin craves, there's talk of diluting Russia's G8 membership with a revival of the old G7. Just last week, his old friend George W. Bush responded to calls to boycott the summit, after it was alleged that Russia had passed military secrets to Saddam, with a less-than-ringing endorsement: "I haven't given up on Russia." Give up on Russia? It was only eight years ago that Russia was ceremoniously welcomed into the G8. Yet now, critics in Brussels and Washington seem to talk of it as a borderline outlaw nation.

Russia's reversal of fortune--in the eyes of the West--has been swift and remarkable. Europeans' confidence was shaken this winter, when the Kremlin cut off gas supplies to Ukraine just as much of Europe was finalizing long-term energy strategies tied to Russia. Then came a new Kremlin law restricting foreign NGOs working to build civil society in Russia--receiving, for their pains, a barrage of hostility and accusations of espionage. In recent weeks Europe's last dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, was re-elected amid police brutality and heavy support from Moscow. Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the European Court of Human Rights (already reviewing hundreds of other human-rights complaints concerning Russia) has fast-tracked a complaint by the former Yukos Oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed on charges of tax evasion and fraud after he challenged Putin politically. Soon European judges will have their say on the fairness of a case that, to many, has come to symbolize the Kremlin's abuse of power.

Nowhere has the shift been sharper than in America. A tipping point came late last month, when the Pentagon claimed that Russia's ambassador to Iraq had passed U.S. war plans to Saddam Hussein on the eve of the invasion. That sparked a chorus of denunciations from Congress. "They've endangered American lives," thundered Sen. Edward Kennedy. "I think you'd have to rethink whether we're going to the G8 conference." More, the news set off a mini-avalanche of criticism of Russia's sins, from Putin's steady repression of civil society at home to his support of obnoxious dictators in Russia's near abroad.

The new thinking is clearly set out in the White House's latest national-security strategy, issued last month. Washington's principal foreign policy objective, the paper said, was now the "support of democratic movements and institutions around the world." And U.S. Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns didn't mince words, either, when he spoke of exactly which regions of the world Washington has in mind. The United States would make a point of "encouraging democracy and withstanding oppression in Central Asia and the Caucasus," said Burns, as well as urging "Ukraine and Georgia to work toward ties with NATO and the EU." In the U.S. view, it seems, Russia has become a major obstacle to America's geostrategic interests.

What a change from 2000, when Bush famously looked into Putin's "soul" at a meeting in Slovenia and found a reliable partner. …