Analysis: Bullying tactics mar Putin's G8 presidency

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The Independent Online

New Year's Day was supposed to be a momentous occasion for Russia; assuming the presidency of the G8 for the first time in its difficult history and showing the world that it was finally getting its act together after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But instead of glowing stories about the country's coming of age, its startling economic success and its fabulous natural resources, Moscow found itself accused of bullying and economic blackmail.

The decision by Gazprom, Russia's state gas monopoly, to cut supplies to Ukraine in the depths of winter was not the kind of feelgood publicity that President Vladimir Putin was seeking. However it was dressed up, it looked heartless.

That the trouble emanated from Ukraine, a country that Moscow perceives to have turned its back on its bigger Slav brother in the past year, must have made the reversal of fortune all the harder to bear.

Little love is lost between Mr Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, who came to power in a peaceful revolution that appeared to sweep away centuries of Russian influence in humiliating fashion. That western European gas customers such as Austria began to feel the pinch because of the row must have been especially galling for the Kremlin, since it is eager to portray itself as the world's most reliable energy supplier.

Criticism of Russia's stance in the dispute from the US State Department will also have been unwelcome. President Putin will be disappointed by the negative publicity, but he will not have abandoned his high hopes for 2006.

The Russian leader is due to host a grandiose G8 summit in a Tsarist-era palace in his native St Petersburg in July attended by Tony Blair, George Bush and the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan. He will be desperate to ensure that the Ukrainian gas dispute is a distant memory by then.

Until recently the Kremlin was unfazed by how Russia was perceived in the wider world, but that has changed. Officials worry that foreigners think of Russia only as a place where bears roam, vodka is drunk like water, and where brute force and aggression reign.

Mr Putin tried to head off the crisis before it escalated by making what he thought were two compromise proposals.

It will stick in his craw, but if he is serious about improving Russia's image he may have to make another.