The Rules According to Putin
MOSCOW -- What he has done to the once-turbulent Russian political scene Vladimir Putin would like to do to the world's equally volatile energy markets: Make them as stable and peaceful as the graveyard.
This grand ambition comes through vividly if implicitly as I listen to the Russian president outline in detail the concept of "energy security" that he had presented to world leaders in July at the Group of Eight summit. Putin wants markets built on long-term contracts guaranteeing not only adequate supply (of oil and gas from Russia) but also sustained demand (from consumers willing to pay fixed prices that would hold for decades).
His fellow leaders listened politely but did not commit to an idea that might have seemed quixotic coming from anyone else. Given the year that Putin is having, however, no one was willing to bet that he would fail at grand designs.
He has crushed the vibrant domestic opposition that flourished under Boris Yeltsin. With a 70 percent approval rating, he holds the power to name his successor. He has gained control over the flood of oil dollars pouring into Russia. And perhaps most satisfyingly for him, the political revolution lapping at Russia's frontiers a year ago has receded as reformers who accomplished Ukraine's Orange Revolution splintered and as his non-democratic allies in Belarus easily won reelection.
So the wiry former KGB colonel was chipper as he underwent an annual political checkup of sorts by a group of about 40 American, European and Asian policy and academic experts at his sprawling dacha in suburban Moscow yesterday. He took questions between servings of octopus carpaccio, baked sea bass and figs with yogurt sorbet, all prepared by his Italian chef and washed down by an unassuming pinot grigio 2005.
The clearest sign that fortune has smiled broadly on Putin since he met with the same organization, the Valdai Discussion Group, a year ago in the Kremlin was his warm praise for Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, whom he now magnanimously terms "a serious, responsible" leader. Last September, he accused Yushchenko of allowing corruption to flourish in Ukraine while suggesting that the West was fomenting upheaval throughout the former Soviet Union.
President Bush also came in for praise and was offered a carefully hedged olive branch on Iran:
"Iran is a special case" located "in a very dangerous area," Putin said. Other nuclear-capable countries such as Brazil or South Africa "do not establish in their constitutions the goal of destroying another state," as he said Iran did with Israel.
"Iran should abandon its plans for nuclear enrichment on its soil," he continued. When asked specifically if Russia would support U.S. calls for sanctions, he declined to rule them out. Economic reprisals should be avoided if possible and adopted only after more discussions between Iran and the six-nation negotiating group that includes Russia and the United States. But Putin's remarks, delivered in simultaneous translation, lent weight to reports that Moscow has agreed to support symbolic sanctions if Iran remains adamant.
Putin, however, does not do mellow for long. He remains intense, focused and at times prickly even when munching the octopus carpaccio (quite tasty, by the way). His eyes flare when the subject turns to energy supplies and the vast infrastructure of new pipelines and producing fields that Russia intends to develop over a decade to become the world's dominant exporter of energy.
Putin and his aides insist that to justify the investment needed to build that infrastructure, consuming nations must begin to sign 20- to 30-year contracts with Russia now to avoid the boom-and-bust cycles of petroleum and natural gas prices of the past three decades.
"We have tremendous potential in energy. Not everybody appreciates that potential," Russia's president said in a waspish swipe aimed at the European Union, which is wrangling with Moscow over natural gas supplies. "But it is not their resource. It is Russia's resource," which must be developed "under clear rules of behavior ."
Asked by British political theorist Anthony Giddens to consider swift changes that technology could force on energy suppliers because of global warming in that time frame, Putin turned the question away: "Stability is what the world economy needs . . . to become more predictable."
In his view, the same is true for Russia's political future. Putin promised again not to change the constitution so he could serve a third term after 2008. "Public opinion wants a country that will be stable, and stability is not assured by one man alone," Putin said. It comes instead from following Moscow rules.