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Russia Between Old Europe and New America

by Dmitri Trenin

Throughout the UN debate on Iraq, President Putin tried to let France lead the charge against America's supposed "unilateralism". He also refrained from joining German Chancellor Schroeder's opposition to any military action against Baghdad. In the end, Russia's president came down against backing the US, yet he has - so far - attracted none of the angry gibes that the French and German leaders have received from America. The subtlety and maturity of his diplomacy over Iraq are but another sign that Russia is emerging from its long post-communist funk to find its voice in an American-led world.

From the start of the crisis, Russia's president shrewdly saw the difference in the way Americans perceive France and Germany, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other. The lingering empathy for France and Germany born of the Cold War alliance stands in stark contrast to the American foreign policy community's wariness toward post-Soviet Russia. Had President Putin joined the Franco-German chorus of doubters at the beginning of the UN debate, he would have squandered the goodwill and reputation for reliability he had painstakingly accumulated since coming to power three years ago.

The difference between Paris/Berlin and Moscow, however, reaches deeper. France is not merely interested in Iraqi oil, nor is Germany's Chancellor simply taking notice of opinion polls (on his own government's performance, not just Iraq). For both France and Germany, the Iraq issue is a crucible for forging an autonomous foreign/security policy for the European Union.