The International Herald Tribune reports the President Bush’s nominee to replace departing Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld, Robert Gates, has signaled a change of course in U.S. Russia policy in testifying before Congress over his appointment, firing a big “we told you so” from his years in the Reagan administration at the Europeans over their dependence on Russian gas and oil:
Defense secretary nominee Robert Gates said Tuesday that Western Europe finally is learning the validity of American warnings two decades ago that they would regret letting Russian natural gas fuel their economies.
Gates, nominated by President George W. Bush to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld, made the comments in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in response to a senator’s request for his evaluation of today’s Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
While Russia is freer than was the Soviet Union, “There are a number of areas of concern in terms of Russian behavior, particularly over the last two or three years,” Gates said.
Gas is an example, he said. Russia is the world’s largest natural gas exporter, and the European Union relies on Russian gas for almost half its gas needs.
“When they attempted to punish the Ukrainians by turning off the gas pipelines, they sort of forgot that the gas pipelines to Western Europe go through the Ukraine, and the Europeans began to have some shortages,” Gates said.
During the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, “we tried very hard to persuade the Europeans that it was not in their interest to become dependent on Russian gas — Soviet gas in those days,” Gates said.
The Americans told their European allies, he said, “that the potential for political manipulation of the supply was very real. That was 20 years ago, and we’re now seeing that as the Russians try to use it on some of their neighbors in the near-abroad, clearly it has begun to raise some concerns on the part of the Europeans.”
Gates built his career in the CIA on knowledge of the Soviet Union and holds a doctorate in Russian and Soviet history. He was in the top echelons of the CIA during the Reagan years, even advancing to acting director for a while. Later, under President George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father, Gates became the only rank-and-file CIA employee to become the agency’s director.
About Putin’s Russia, Gates said he thinks “what Putin is trying to do quite frankly is to re-establish Russia’s great power.”
“I think we in the West really probably don’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the humiliation not only of the loss of the Cold War land the loss of Eastern Europe but in effect the destruction of the Russian Empire itself, three to four centuries in the making,” he said.
Not only is Putin trying to restore Russia’s pride, he said, but “I think he has a lot of popular support at home for the things he’s trying to do.
“He’s got the money to do it, thanks to the price of oil, and I think he’s basically trying to make Russia a force in the near-abroad.”
Even the Bush administration, which went to great pains to nurture friendship with Russia early in President George W. Bush’s tenure, has complained that Putin has overstepped himself in both domestic and foreign affairs.
In the Ukraine incident, Russia cut off the former Soviet republic during frigid weather in a price dispute and eventually forced Ukraine to pay double what it had expected.
Several weeks ago, Russia slapped economic sanctions on the Caucasus republic of Georgia and began deporting Georgians from Russia. Like Ukraine, Georgia has courted the West, especially the United States. Russia acted after Georgia arrested four alleged Russian spies.