Putin offers a 'real partnership' in West's battle

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Russia wants to become a leading player in the new world order, President Vladimir Putin declared yesterday in a historic speech, offering the West "real partnership" in exchange for acceptance of his country's fight against "fanaticism".

"The Cold War is over," President Putin told the Bundestag. He was the first Russian leader to address the German parliament since the Second World War, and the first foreign statesman to do so in German.

He used the venue to project to the world a new Russia, at peace with Europe and shoulder to shoulder with the West in its forthcoming battle.

He did not need to name his price for the support his government has already provided. Mr Putin equated the terror attacks in Russian cities that precipitated the second Chechnya invasion two years ago with this month's attacks on America. "Religious fanaticism", he said, was a common foe, and the Russian variety operated out of Chechnya.

His host, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, had already made clear that Russia now had carte blanche in the Caucasus. "The international community must and will re-evaluate the situation in Chechnya," Mr Schröder said at a joint press conference. In other words, there will be no further criticism from Western leaders if Russian troops scorch the breakaway republic once more, as Mr Putin is threatening to do.

Mr Schröder was candid enough to admit that, in the aftermath of the suicide hijackings in America two weeks ago, the Western coalition could no longer afford to be so fussy about its partners. "It has now become clear that anyone who seeks better security in the world must work closely with Russia," the German Chancellor said.

And who better to turn to at the dawn of a new war than the former head of the KGB, who learnt his German while stationed in Dresden for five years? Russia's invaluable intelligence, Mr Putin assured his German audience, will now be flowing freely.

Modesty prevented him from mentioning the other big favours already rendered. Russia has leant on its former satellites in central Asia to open their military facilities to the erstwhile imperialist enemy. Bases in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are likely to provide the key to the expected campaign.

Before his arrival in Berlin, President Putin promised more weapons for the dispirited Afghan opposition forces ranged against the Taliban in the north of the country.

Russia has also volunteered to participate in "search and rescue" missions in the region. What Moscow will not provide are ground troops; 13,000 Soviet soldiers perished during the last invasion in the 1980s. The lesson has been learnt.

Mr Putin spoke about the pain endured by a country that vanished from the map of the civilised world in 1917. But he felt Russia had been in the doghouse for too long, and pleaded for urgent rehabilitation. Without mentioning the new US administration, he voiced anger at the Cold War thinking still prevalent in some quarters. "The world is not divided into two camps," he asserted. "The world has become much more complex."

Three days ago, the Russian leader spent an hour talking on the telephone to President George Bush. That conversation was apparently enough to dissipate his concerns about America's planned new missile shield, NMD. Yesterday, in stark contrast to his last visit to Germany, he skirted the issue.

Did President Bush promise, in the light of recent development, that "Son of Star Wars" was dead in its present form? That is certainly the conclusion that Mr Putin and his German hosts are drawing. "I'm sure the discussion in the US over NMD will now switch direction," said Karl Lamers, the foreign policy expert for the opposition Christian Democrats.

Gernot Erler, his counterpart in the governing Social Democrat party, was more explicit. "I can imagine that the Americans will reward his support by considering co-operation with Russia on this project," he said.

Anything, apparently, is now possible. Mr Putin spoke about plans for joint Russian- German military exercises next year. He demanded "consultation" by Nato and the EU on military matters, and access for Russian industry to the latest Western technology.

He even refused, when asked by a mischievous journalist, to dismiss out of hand the distant prospect of Russian membership of Nato. Seasoned politicians were pinching themselves. Wolfgang Thierse, the Speaker of the Bundestag, said: "A global coalition of this kind would have been seen as Utopia only two weeks ago."

Only when President Putin spoke about his country's desperate financial needs did German MPs start shifting in their seats. About half of the nearly $50bn (£34bn) owed by Russia to the West is burning holes in German banks.

More cash is unlikely to be forthcoming, much to the regret of Moscow's opulent élite. But after a century's interruption, normal business with Russia is about to resume. For Chechnya, though, tough times are approaching.