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Moscow and multipolarity

By Vladimir Radyuhin

Russia is building new alliances and using oil to counter the United States' attempts at regime change in its neighbourhood.

REELING FROM an election debacle in Ukraine, Russia is bracing to fight what it sees as a Western offensive to set up a cordon sanitaire around its borders. Even while the defeat of the Russia-backed Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich, was mainly the result of an overwhelming rejection by voters of the corrupt oligarchic regime of the outgoing President, Leonid Kuchma, Moscow saw the heavy hand of the United States in orchestrating an "orange revolution" in Ukraine, which brought a pro-Western leader to power.

The immediate task for both Moscow and Kiev is to do some damage control after a lot of angry election campaign rhetoric on both sides. Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine's Opposition leader who has won the disputed presidential poll re-run on Sunday, has said his first visit would be to Russia. For his part, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said he expects no problem working with Mr. Yushchenko.

With Ukraine importing about 90 per cent of its oil and 80 per cent of its gas from Russia, Moscow will continue to exert a powerful influence on Kiev's policy and will try to keep it in a free-trade zone it is setting up in the former Soviet Union. However, a fundamental re-orientation of Ukraine towards the West is on the cards.

Yuri Kostenko, Mr. Yushchenko's deputy in a coalition of parties that brought him to power, said in an interview on Monday that Ukraine could join NATO and the European Union within five years. This will create an entire new geopolitical configuration for Moscow and has already generated shifts in Russia's foreign policy.

Mr. Putin has said Russia will remain the U.S.' ally in combating terrorism and nuclear proliferation. But he has also declared a stronger resolve to uphold its national interests in the neighbourhood, forge regional alliances to balance U.S. domination, and to restore state control over the energy sector to wield the country's huge energy resources as a powerful instrument of its foreign policy.

The Russian leader warned the U.S. against further attempts to isolate Russia by stage-managing Ukraine-type "orange revolutions" in other ex-Soviet states. "If we embark on the road of permanent revolutions ... we will plunge all the post-Soviet space into a series of never-ending conflicts, which will have extremely serious consequences," Mr. Putin said last week in Moscow.

Kyrgyzstan and Moldova, which hold parliamentary elections in February and March respectively, are the likely next targets for the West-fomented "velvet revolutions" that led to regime change in Ukraine and Georgia a year ago.

Russia's remaining allies in the former Soviet Union, above all Belarus and the Central Asian states, are now expected to move closer to Moscow.

Kyrgyzstan's President, Askar Akayev, said on Saturday that he was aware of the West's plans to incite a "tulip revolution" in his country to install a compliant regime and promised to foil these designs. Uzbekistan's leader, Islam Karimov, also said he would not tolerate "revolutions." "One cannot use democracy as a means to topple state power," he said after a tightly controlled parliamentary poll on Sunday.

The Interior Ministers of post-Soviet states met in Moscow last week to coordinate efforts to combat "all sources of terrorism and extremism" in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Notwithstanding the election of a pro-Western President in Ukraine, Mr. Putin has vowed to push forward a pact to create a common market with Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. He has also asserted Moscow's right to bring ex-Soviet states closer to Russia. "We have focussed and will continue focussing on the development of relations with our closest neighbours in the economic sphere," Mr. Putin declared. He has made it clear that Russia will more resolutely defend its interests beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union as well.

At the height of the Ukraine standoff with the West, Russia and China agreed to hold their first large-scale joint war games next year on Chinese territory in a sign of a rapidly growing alliance between the two nuclear powers.

Halfway through the election crisis in Ukraine, the Speaker of Russia's Upper House, Sergei Mironov, visited Iran to reiterate Moscow's support to Teheran in its deepening confrontation with Washington. "Russian-Iranian friendly relations are extremely important for promoting the national security of both countries and stability in the region and beyond," the number two man in the Russian power hierarchy said in Teheran. After long delays, Moscow last week reaffirmed its commitment to supply nuclear fuel for Iran's first nuclear reactor built with Russian help and raised the prospect of building up to seven more reactors in that country.

The Russian President has launched a new crusade against U.S. unilateralism, projecting "velvet revolutions" in ex-Soviet states as part of Washington's strategy to impose its will on the rest of the world. "We see attempts to remodel the God-given diversity of modern civilisation according to the barrack-like principles of a unipolar world as extremely dangerous," he said during his visit to India earlier this month.

It was by no accident that the Russian leader fired the opening salvo against "diktat in international affairs" from New Delhi. Russia sees India and China as its main allies in building a multipolar world. Russia's setback in Ukraine has made Mr. Putin redouble efforts to forge an informal axis with India and China.

Moscow is nurturing even more grandiose plans to expand the Russia-India-China triangle to include Brazil. Mr. Putin paid the first-ever visit by a Russian leader to Brazil barely two weeks before visiting India. His offer to jointly promote "multipolarity" and "a just democratic world order" met with enthusiastic response from the Brazilian President, Lula da Silva, who, on a visit to India in January, called for an alliance with China and Russia similar to the IBSA forum Brazil had already set up with India and South Africa.

Mr. Putin has also intensified his drive to re-establish state control over the strategic energy sector. Last week, the Russian Government de facto re-nationalised the country's biggest private oil major, Yukos, selling its main assets to the state oil company, Rosneft, which is expected to merge with the government-controlled natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. The new oil-and-gas conglomerate will rival Exxon Mobil, and Mr. Putin has suggested that the Government may bring other oil companies under its control as well.

Given the uncertainty of Middle East supplies, Russia has acquired a powerful geopolitical clout as the world's biggest energy producer. "If Putin is successful in exerting control over the Russian oil industry, the U.S. economy will be directly dependent on decisions made by the Russian President and Kremlin," the pro-Republican U.S. National Center for Public Policy Research warned.

Russia has also moved to diversify its energy export routes to ease its dependence on Europe as the nearly exclusive market for Russian oil and gas. Moscow has formalised strategic alliances with India and China to meet their growing energy needs and to jointly develop new oil and gas projects in Eastern Siberia.

Even though oil has displaced nuclear arsenals as Russia's chief foreign policy weapon, Moscow still sees them as the ultimate guarantor of its security and sovereignty. Russia has poured additional funds into perfecting its nuclear missile technologies and has held a record 20-odd long-range missile tests this year.

"In the long historical perspective, we will preserve nuclear parity, not only with the United States but also with the other nuclear powers," Russia's Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, said last week after witnessing the concluding test-firing of the mobile version of the latest Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile, which is capable of busting the planned U.S. missile shield.

The induction of the new missile has been advanced by one year and will now begin in 2005.

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