Putin Visits Cuba to Thumb His Nose at U.S.

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President Putin is in Cuba supposedly to talk about trade. But given the symbolic place of the communist island in U.S.-Russian relations, surely there's got to be more than trade at stake?

"This may be hard to believe, but that little island owes Russia about $20 billion. It's a good example of how the Soviet Union wasted money — our money went up in smoke in Cuba, Angola, Libya and elsewhere. And $20 billion is about half of Russia's total annual national budget right now.

"But there's another reason: Putin is trying to build a new foreign policy. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Boris Yeltsin's Russia tried to give up the old Soviet foreign policy and adopt positions more accommodating to the West, and more in line with the thinking of democratic countries. But there was a strong conservative backlash against that policy, particularly from within the security and intelligence establishment, which insisted that Russian national interests were being sold out. Eventually, Boris Yeltsin was forced to succumb to this pressure, and appoint Yevgeny Primakov as his foreign minister, straight from Primakov's position as head of foreign intelligence."

But Yeltsin remained more accommodating to the West than Putin has been?

"Yes, Yeltsin still tried to orient Russian foreign policy toward what we may call normal values. Still, there was a shift. In Yugoslavia, for example, Moscow supported Milosevic. Foreign policy began pursuing what these hard-liners call Russian national interests, but which may rather be called the interests of those conservative hard-line circles. Once Putin became president, the idea of a foreign policy change was more openly and publicly expressed. Putin has indicated that he's going to oppose the U.S. whenever possible. He's behaving like old the Soviet leaders by trying to drive a wedge in the Western alliance, seeking separate special relationships with Britain, France and Germany. And at the same time, he's also pursuing relations with states such as Iran and Iraq.

"The rationale of the conservatives is that it's in our national interest to start selling arms to these countries, which will create jobs in the arms industry, and also to collect old Soviet debts. But this is futile and stupid. Russia is not the superpower that the Soviet Union once was, and this policy can be counterproductive. We're not going to collect all the money Putin hopes to collect. Countries such as Iran and Iraq won't pay cash up front; they'll probably barter oil, which will ultimately enrich privately owned oil companies in Russia, but not the state. So we won't get much, but we shall lose our hard-won relations with the normal parts of the world, and we'll find ourselves isolated along with Iraq, Iran and Libya. Putin's visit to Cuba is a part of this strategy.

"The irony is that Moscow is trying to build alliances to oppose the U.S., but they're not learning the lessons from Yugoslavia. There they tried to support Milosevic even though the Serb people were not keen to support him. Now that the Serbs have overthrown Milosevic, they'll probably turn to the West, which has a lot more to offer than Russia does. So there's a danger in Putin's strategy that when all of these countries open up and overthrow their dictators, they're all going to turn back to the West. What will Putin do then?"