October 17, 2001

Analysis:Cuba base closure signals Putin is courting West

                 MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia's surprise departure from a Cold War base in
                 Cuba used for spying on the United States signals Russian President
                 Vladimir Putin's readiness to ignore military hawks and forge closer ties
                 with Washington, analysts said Wednesday.

                 Putin told his military chiefs Russia would close the Lourdes base on the Caribbean
                 island after almost four decades as Moscow's "listening post" on America, whose
                 Florida coast is just 90 miles away.

                 He also announced Russia would withdraw from the gigantic Cam Ranh Bay base
                 in Vietnam, another key Soviet-era ally, curbing the navy's aspirations to play a
                 strategic role in Asia.

                 "It is the first real step toward a real partnership with the U.S.," independent
                 military expert Alexander Golts said. "If you wanted a symbol of the Cold War, it
                 was Lourdes.

                 "I think it is a clear signal to the U.S. that Russia is changing its position, that we
                 are true allies. It is a very important signal which continues this shift of Mr. Putin
                 toward a clear partnership with the West."

                 The Russian leader has offered stalwart support to the "war on terrorism" declared
                 by President Bush in the wake of the attacks on the United States last month.

                 Putin has also backed U.S.-led air strikes against Afghanistan, accused of sheltering
                 the alleged mastermind of those attacks -- Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden.

                 Putin has sent a number of clear signals to the West that he wants to end Russia's
                 traditional policy of studied truculence toward the United States.

                 In the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Putin told
                 Washington he had ordered Russia's air defenses not to go on alert -- the standard
                 Soviet procedure in reaction to important international events.

                 As well as offering U.S. aircraft Russian air space for humanitarian flights to help
                 those displaced by air strikes on Afghanistan, Putin cleared the way for former
                 Soviet republics in Central Asia to offer their air bases to U.S. forces.

                 In Brussels, Putin softened his stance on NATO expansion eastwards, saying
                 Russian hostility could be reviewed if NATO became geared more to political than
                 purely military issues.

                 Such a reaction would have been unimaginable even earlier this year, when Russia
                 was still patching up ties with NATO that were damaged during the alliance's air
                 campaign against Moscow's ally Yugoslavia during the 1999 Kosovo crisis.

                 On coming to power on New Year's Eve, 1999, Putin said the economy was key to
                 restoring Russia's tarnished status as a great power. Powerful, efficient armed
                 forces were possible only if the economy modernized and shook off Soviet sloth.

                 But his apparent abandonment of Russia's traditional "Eurasianism" -- its love-hate
                 relationship with the West -- has powerful opponents who may yet try to thwart
                 the president.

                 "I think the majority of the higher echelons of power do not support the president"
                 in his overtures to the West, said Vadim Solovyov, managing editor of the
                 Nezavisimaya Gazeta Military Review.

                 "They would like a tougher line to achieve more concessions from the American
                 side on resolving problems of strategic national defense," a reference to U.S. missile
                 defense plans hitherto opposed by Moscow.

                 Interestingly, Putin sweetened the pill by announcing more cash for the military, the
                 need to radically improve training and salaries, and to ensure military reforms
                 enabled Russia to confront emerging threats to its security.

                 Whether Putin can take with him his hawkish Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, a
                 close ally and fellow native of St. Petersburg, remains to be seen.

                 "Any further development in the partnership with the West ... moves us slowly to
                 the underlying contradictions between Mr. Putin and those he thought were his
                 closest allies," said Golts.

                  Copyright 2001 Reuters.