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The Russian Bear Begins To Growl

If strategic analyst's in the West are not concerned about Russia's new direction, they should be. Vladimir Putin has signalled the West will be a rival rather than a partner. The Russian Bear begins to growl. John Howard reports.

In a series of actions over the past few weeks, Russia's acting President, Vladimir Putin, has moved to bolster its military, befriend repressive regimes and put the West on notice that it will be a rival rather than a partner.

Although US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, praised Putin for his open-mindedness, his actions have sent a very different signal.

Putin, a former KGB agent who is expected win next month's presidential elections, has set Russia firmly on a collision course with the West.

His Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, has visited North Korea and signed a friendship pact with the Kim Jong II regime, a pariah in the international community.

Ivanov also visited Japan where he indicated that Russia will not honour a commitment by Boris Yeltsin to resolve the dispute over the Kurile Islands, a territory seized by Stalin at the end of World War II.

Russia is also selling very high tech fighter aircraft and guided missile destroyers to China, adding to China's Russian supply of sophisticated war hardware. Another ship is expected to be delivered by the end of this month.

The presidential Security Council recently passed a new military doctrine which relaxes the rules of engagement of Russia's nuclear force. From next month, the President will be allowed to use atomic weapons in conflicts that do not threaten Russia's territory.

There has been another successful test of the Topol-M ballistic missile, its new generation inter-continental weapon.

The Kremlin has just assigned the sole right to extract and exploit Chechnya's oil and gas reserves to Rosneft, Russia's last state-owned oil giant. The annexation of Chechnya's oil is seen as an unmistakeable signal that Russia means to extract swift returns in oil revenues and regional prestige.

One analyst has put the untapped oil reserves at 60 billion tonnes, equivalent to much of the Middle East's remaining supplies. Its status in global oil business rests on its position straddling a key pipeline linking the Caspian to Russia's biggest Black Sea oil terminal, at Novorossiisk.

Even as the wells and refineries which ring Grozny continue to burn at a rate of 400 tonnes of oil a day, a succession of delegations has flown in from Moscow to assess the damage and set production targets.

Access to the Caspian has been the reason for Chechnya's importance and that's why Hitler also tried so hard to conquer it.

Russia's relations with NATO also remain largely frozen with a visit by NATO Secretary-General, Lord Robertson, to Moscow being postponed. Any meeting is unlikely until after the presidential elections on March 26.

Meanwhile, so confident is Putin of his election to Russia's presidency he has hired, from his native St Petersburg, a cadre of advisors who could mould Russian politics for the next decade.

17 key posts in the Kremlin, including two Deputy Prime Ministers and the head and deputy head of the Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB), are already filed by figures who rose with Putin when he was the St Petersburg deputy mayor in the early 1990's.

People like, Nikolai Patrushev, Viktor Cherkessov and Viktor Ivanov are former KGB.

These and others in the Putin team are widely feared as instruments of a return to authoritarian government after the election. Putin is likely to use his advisors to set policy and have the KGB men put them into place.

Putin has also yet to declare war on corruption which has beset Russia for much of the 1990's. He has made a promise, however, not to investigate the privatisations that enriched many of those who will now be his advisors.

Moscow's new leaders have historically bought with them new waves of appointees. Boris Yeltsin's rise was marked by an influx of former colleagues from Yekaterinburg, and Stalin lavished his patronage on former Georgians.

Putin is following the pattern, but the billionaire oligarchs attached to Putin and blamed for much of Russia's stagnation, are likely to be unaffected and will likely benefit even more from their new positions of power.

© Scoop Media

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