Russia: Is it a newly confident economic power, attempting to flex its muscles on the world stage -- or is it a country feeling increasingly threatened as it sees its former sphere of influence being steadily absorbed by the West?
Russia's increasingly defiant tone over a range of issues, including a missile shield planned by the Americans in Eastern Europe, has caused some to worry about a return to the bad old days of the Cold War. Germany as the current president of the European Union, has been attempting to ease the tensions.
Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on Sunday even warned against a new East-West conflict. In an interview that appeared in Monday's edition of the mass circulation newspaper Bild, Steinmeier said: "There cannot be a new spiral of mistrust between the West and Russia." He said he wanted to see an open dialogue with Russia. "Where we have differences of opinion with Moscow, I am in favor of addressing them openly, and looking for common solutions. We can only achieve security together and not in opposition of one another."
Steinmeier was responding to the statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, during his annual speech to parliament, that he would suspend Russia's obligations under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Putin is adamantly opposed US plans to station a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. Washington insists that the planned radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland are solely intended to protect against possible attacks from Iran and North Korea. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Moscow's fears that the shield could pose a threat to Russia as "ludicrous." But these reassurances have done little so far to placate an increasingly bellicose Moscow.
Steinmeier uneasy about missile shield
Steimeier also expressed unease about Washington's approach on the issue. "A project of this kind of strategic importance brings up a range of serious issues that should be carefully looked at within the framework of NATO," he told Bild. "We have to avoid a situation where the security of a few is achieved at the cost of new mistrust or even new insecurity. It is in Germany and Europe's interest to prevent this."
Merkel and Steinmeier are currently in Washington for an EU-US summit, and they are accompanied by the president of the European Commission, Jose Manual Barroso. In advance of the meeting, Barroso expressed European solidarity with the US, saying that attempts by Iran and Russia to drive a wedge between the EU and US wouldnt work and he criticized Russia's position on the proposed missile shield.
"Any sovereign state of the European Union has the right to establish security arrangements with others," he said in an interview with CNN on Sunday. "We should not accept any third power to have a kind of veto power on what a sovereign state is doing." And he described Putin's threats to withdraw from CFE as "very disappointing."
Chancellor Merkel phoned with Putin on Saturday to discuss the missile shield dispute, as well as recent events in Estonia. After the conversation her spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said that she was pleased that discussions between the US and Russia had "intensified" in recent days. Putin and Merkel are due to meet in the Russian town of Samara in mid-May for an EU-Russia summit.
Tensions with Estonia simmering
The two leaders also discussed the violent clashes in Estonia in recent days between ethnic Russian youths and police forces, during which one person died. In a statement, the Kremlin said that Putin had expressed his "serious concern" to the German chancellor over what he described as a "crisis situation." The violence erupted after Estonian officials removed a Soviet World War II memorial statue on Thursday. The Baltic country's Russian minority, around a quarter of the population, perceived this as an affront to the memory of the Red Army soldiers -- the remains of a number of soldiers were exhumed when the memorial was moved. But most Estonians view the statue as a painful reminder of 50 years of Soviet occupation.
In Russia, there has been dismay at the Estonian actions, with calls from some lawmakers for sanctions. Over the weekend people gathered in front of the Estonian embassy in Moscow, some dressed in World War II-era uniforms. The ambassador was insulted and a few protestors even threw tomatoes. Now several grocery stores are said to be boycotting Estonian goods.
Poland, which is blocking an EU-Russia trade deal due to a Russian ban on Polish meat imports, couldnt resist the opportunity to get a dig in at Moscow. In a statement released Sunday, the Polish foreign ministry called on the European Union to show support for Estonia. "Yet again the difficult history is casting a shadow on relations between states and nations."
Russia flexing its muscles
The Russian reaction to the events in Estonia reflects the increasingly nationalistic tone there in recent years, and Putin's confrontational stance towards the West is undoubtedly popular at home. Moscow has had to stand by for years and watch as NATO and the EU slowly absorb countries from the former Soviet bloc. But now its growing economic clout, due to its vast reserves of oil and gas, has given it a newfound ability to flex its muscles.
Meanwhile many in Europe are uneasy about a Putin they feel is systematically dismantling the country's post-Soviet era democratic reforms. And Russia's tendency to use its natural resources as a political instrument -- for example when it cut off gas supplies to Ukraine at the beginning of 2006 -- hasnt helped quell European concerns. In fact the EU is now searching for a way to decrease its dependency on Russia as an energy supplier. It currently accounts for 28 percent of oil imports and 30 percent of gas coming into the 27-member bloc.
On Monday the EU Energy Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, met with Georgia's foreign minister, Gela Bezhuashvili, to discuss the development of transport routes through Georgia for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea. Pielbags told reporters after the meeting that the oil pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, through Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan was the "first breakthrough" to securing Caspian supplies for Europe. A similar pipeline for gas is currently in the works.
This development is unlikely to be welcomed in Moscow. It can join the ever-growing list of grievances: including the US missile shield, tensions with Estonia and other former Soviet republics and the trade dispute with Poland. Next on the agenda for ramping up East-West tensions is the expected push by some members of the United Nations Security Council for an independent Kosovo: Russia, a veto power, has repeatedly said that it opposes full independence.