17 October 2008

Russian Political Maneuvering

This past Monday sandwiched between stories on the economy and the presidential race was a less covered event which was Russian maneuvering on Alaskan territory. No, Putin was not rearing his head by flying into US airspace into the state sandwiched between two foreign countries, though Putin was flexing his muscles and geopolitical intellect and ambitions.

The events of Monday consisted of a delegation of Gazprom officials visiting anchorage for a conference on upstream and midstream operations in the extreme north environment and related technology, ecology and social responsibility issues. Gazprom, operating extensively in Russia and Siberia, has a great deal of experience in the field and much knowledge to share. Such a conference, involving a state and an oil and natural gas company, normally would be of little international importance. This conference though was different from a typical conference for two significant reasons. First, Gazprom is not simply a business conducting capitalistic pursuits; Gazprom is a 350 billion dollar corporation with considerable clout which mantains bedbuddy status with the Russian government. Recently, Dmitry Medvedev resigned as Gazprom chairman to become prime minister. The then Russian president Victor Zubkov replaced Medvedev as Putin became the new Russian President. Secondly, Gazprom did not send low level officials to Anchorage but rather a delegation of 8 senior level executives who have numerous close ties to Putin. This largely unpublicized event with petro-diplomacy undercurrents is of international interest and signifies what is perhaps a new diplomatic tack by Russia. Naturally we must ask, What exactly is the nature of this new trend?

A strong economy and the associated soft power plays an integral role in a countries status in the world. As Russia looks to become an international superpower from a regional player, it is wielding it's new-found economic might. By developing information and trade relationships with other nations this ambition has better chance of being realized. Such a simple analysis though does not explain why Gazprom sent such high level officials though. The reason for that is much the same for why Secretary of State Rice will be dispatched to an event rather than Deputy Secretary John Negroponte or a lower level ambassador; quite simply the higher the official the more important the matter. In this instance Russia is looking to signal to the US through back channel means that, "Hey, we want to do business with you. Although there has been some friction lets be civil, work together, and be partners on some level."

Although the US may resist Russia's (and China's) increasing economic might, the message we are seeing is one of friendship; Russian is not saber rattling but rather making a peace offering. If this event significes a larger trend, we can be hopeful that Russia is looking to play along rather than playing to win.

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