“He said he recognizes that… he doesn’t need to be causing conditions such that it hurts consuming nations.” This was how President George W. Bush summed up his 15-minute telephone conversation with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Monday, August 23, the week that oil prices rocketed towards $50 per barrel. The US president’s tone was sharp and to the point. He warned the Russian leader that his persecution of the Russian oil giant YUKOS to the point of its extinction as a private concern was a key factor that neutralized every step taken by the US administration to curb runaway oil prices. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Moscow, Bush also accused Putin of actively undermining his campaign for re-election by causing oil prices to run wild. The conversation ended with the Russian leader’s consent to be more considerate of his American opposite number’s difficulties in this regard.
And indeed, a few hours later, Russian officials announced that Russia’s oil output had been increased by 10.3% in the last few days and Russian oil exports boosted by 4.2% in the first half of 2004.
The announcement acted as a damper and the prices began to subside.
Not so the Russian president, whose close aides described him as fuming over the tone the American president took in their conversation.
Two days after the Beslan school siege ended appallingly as the biggest hostage-taking atrocity in the history of global terror (of 1,200 hostages, 328 died, 727 were injured, 95 bodies still undetermined), Putin’s anger had still not cooled. His comments Monday night, September 6, were sour: Russia’s former Cold War rivals have proved they are unreliable partners in the war on terrorism, he said, and have failed to understand that the carnage at a Russian school last week was the work of child killers just as bad as Osama bin Laden. Talking to a group of Western academics and journalists late Monday night, he responded with bitter sarcasm to European suggestions that Russia needs to explain its actions over the siege and above all engage the Chechens in talks.
“Why don’t you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House, engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so that he leaves you in peace?” he burst out. “You find it possible to set some limits in your dealings with these bastards, so why should we talk to people who are child killers?”
But behind the acerbity, the oil price crisis and the worst wave of terrorist violence Russia has ever experienced, the informal Bush-Putin strategic pact has held fast.
A reciprocal prop
Putin’s firm stand in the war on terror will help stiffen Bush’s dogged fight against Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists anywhere. His Republican campaign managers believe a tough stance is the key to winning over undecided voters and sustaining the lead the president gained over Senator John Kerry at the party convention.
Seen from the Kremlin, emphasis on Bush’s determination to fight terror to the death will boost Putin’s standing in Moscow and enhance his strength to advance on the four goals he formulated during the 52-hour Beslan school siege:
A radical shakeup of Russia’s intelligence services and reforms of the practices and methods of the FBS, the general intelligence service. First of all, he must pluck them out of many of the political and financial plum positions they grabbed in Moscow and St. Petersburg in recent months.
To purge and restructure the Caucasian security services, a far more complex venture than shaking up the federal services given the baffling ethnical and familial intricacies that dominate the regime structures in that part of the world. The Beslan crisis brought home to the Russian president that the Chechen war cannot be won or even eased without the Kremlin tightening its authority in Chechen’s neighbors, Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Dagestan, where it has grown lax.
Putin’s comprehensive Caucasian perception of the Beslan crisis was reflected in the assertion parroted by the only hostage-taker captured alive (two others died under torture during interrogation) and most certainly put in his mouth, that the gang of terrorists had meant to light the flames of an ethnic war across the entire Caucasian.
To exploit the world’s preoccupation with the siege crisis to burn the Chechen issue indelibly onto international consciousness as a front of the global war against bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
To wrest greater authority for his relentless drive against the oligarchs controlling the Russian economy since the breakup of the Soviet Union. In this campaign, at least, he has every chance of coming out on top.