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Brian Till
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Putin's Third Act

Comment

It wasn't diplomatic; it wasn't what his boss wanted to hear, but Joe Biden spoke with blistering accuracy in late July. "Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions," Mr. Biden said in an interview following a four-day tour of Georgia and Ukraine. "They have a shrinking population base; they have a withering economy; they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years; they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable."

At the moment, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might be relishing an ounce of triumph, though, or considering what his own scathing tirade might sound like if left alone with Biden. As he leaves Poland, following a critical meeting with the beautiful and iconic Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, thoughts of his remaining leverage, and control over Europe, probably dominate his mind.

While some analysts expected a political fallout from the meeting, reality instead casts Putin as Vladimir Vladimirovich the merciful.

Tymoshenko finds herself in a difficult position as the campaign heats up for January's elections. Viktor Yanukovych, 2004's "pro-Russian" candidate, is out to an early lead, and Ukrainian public opinion has not warmed to NATO or the U.S. as compared to Russia.

Remarkably, despite January's gas debacle — in which Russia cut off natural gas supplies flowing through Ukraine and thereby starving Western Europe of heating as well — a recent poll by Kiev's Institute of Management Issues found that 70.2 percent of Ukrainians have a positive view of Russia. That should not be confused, however, for interest in reintegration with the neighbor: Only 13.7 percent favored a common foreign policy with Russia and 9.3 percent a common currency, for instance.

In Poland, Putin and his elegant neighbor cut a deal that frees Ukraine from contractual obligations to buy a good deal more gas than its disheveled economy can endure.

The deal, combined with an IMF loan of $3.3 billion in early August, should allow Ukraine to move forward peaceably in regards to energy in the coming months.

But the news isn't all good for Putin. Although the energy giant Gazprom now has its balance sheets more in line — thanks to delivered Ukrainian back payments — Biden's dire assessment, after all, is an accurate depiction. The state's committee on statistics recently released figures showing that the number of Russians living in poverty has jumped by 30 percent in the past three months, moving from 18.5 million to 24.5 million. The official poverty line, it's worth noting, is an income of less than 5,497 rubles per month, or roughly $170.

Nonetheless, what's important is that Putin, now well into the third act of this play — where, as in nearly all four-part theater, the lead must face his most difficult challenges, often in exile — is still delivering final edicts. President Medvedev, long believed to be Putin's placeholder in the presidency, offered a torrent of complaints against the Ukrainian government in mid-August with an open letter and a video blog to match. Putin now gets to reconcile the spat, while also bolstering the woman many believe to be the Kremlin's favorite to usurp the presidency early next year.

The reconciliation may not have been what his boss wanted to hear; but, unlike Mr. Biden, Mr. Putin doesn't answer up. The kingmaker is always the true heir, even if the Romanovs are nowhere to be seen.

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at till@newamerica.net. To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS.COM



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