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PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin rides into the Apec summit in Brunei this week on a wave of foreign-policy successes his predecessor Boris Yeltsin never enjoyed. But, if you listen to the Russian and Western press, you would never know it.

“”What was the cause of the fire in the Moscow television tower?” is the question in the latest Russian joke.

This is a reference to the accidental blaze that knocked out Moscow’s television- and radio-transmitting complex on Aug 28. The disaster, which kept Muscovites from seeing the main television networks for several days and delayed resumption of some radio broadcasts for weeks, killed two members of a fire-and-rescue team.

It followed closely the sinking of the nuclear-attack submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea, with the loss of all 118 men on board.

The Kursk drama began just four days after a bomb exploded in a crowded shopping area of central Moscow. Over 90 people were injured; 21 were killed.

The answer in the Russian joke to what caused the television-tower blaze? A collision with a foreign television tower.

For Russians, that is a cymcar reference to the official version of what caused the sinking of the Kursk – a collision with an as-yet-unidentified foreign submarine that triggered the explosion of the submarine’s torpedoes. The joke implies that they don’t believe the Kremlin explanation of the submarine disaster, and think it as improbable as a collision between two television towers.

For domestic and foreign pundits, the three summer catastrophes in Russia were pronounced signs of the worsening collapse of all Russian institutions. Reporters in Moscow wrote that President Putin would pay a heavy price in public confidence — and maybe even in his power to govern.

In fact, the humour turns out to be far blacker than reality — at least for Mr Putin — and the pundits should be looking red-faced. Russian opinion polls show the President’s approval rating took a dive from 73 per cent in July to 60 per cent in August. But, by the end of last month, his approval rating was at 72 per cent — a full recovery.

His foreign-policy moves in the same interval have also been remarkable, not least for exposing the yawning gap between what the pundits call his failures, and the concrete results: 2

• US backdown on national missile defence (NMD). After months of worsening relations with the Clinton administration over threatened revocation of the ABM Treaty and unilateral American moves to start building the NMD, the Clinton administration backed away from its plans in September. Russian resistance to the schemes and, in particular, Mr Putin’s resistance, are cited in a recent New York Times report as the key strategic factor. Not a single Russian military analyst or media commentator has given him credit.

• India partnership. Mr Putin’s visit to India at the start of last month helped solidify relations with the traditional ally, and added to the defence-export-order book. The Indian military has been asking Kremlin to deliver for years. He purged the corrupt leadership of Russia’s two arms-export agencies, and ordered the merger of the two rivals into a single unit.

• Palestine crisis. The Russian and Western press have claimed Mr Putin was excluded from the Sharm el-Sheikh summit
conference on Oct 20, thereby indicating how weak Russia is today in the Middle East “peace process”.

Far from demonstrating weakness, Kremlin advisers say, his absence saved him from the embarrassment of a summit that got nowhere. It also preserved Russia’s leeway between Israel, the Palestinians, and the rejectionist Arab states like Iraq and Libya, with which Moscow is fast solidifying relations. 2

• Yugoslav reconciliation. Although Mr Putin was criticised in domestic and Western media for failure to act quickly enough, the
way in which he arranged to support the Yugoslav Army, switching to Mr Vojislav Kostunica when the then President Slobodan
Milosevic and the Army decided it was time to step down, was far from failure.

In retrospect, his move preserved Russia’s real assets in the country — the Yugoslav Army, territorial integrity (including Montenegro), and the leftist parties, who remain in control of the federal and the Serbian legislature. Mr Kostunica’s Moscow visit on Oct 28 ~ his first to a foreign capital — capped Mr Putin’s achievement. 2

• Euro Summit in Paris. On Oct 30-31, Mr Putin ended the period of estrangement with the Chirac administration with a visit to Paris that, in domestic terms in both countries, went a long way to reviving traditional Russian sympathy for France.

The reciprocal effect was obvious in the French media too. Chechnya was much diminished as one of his negatives in France.

• Awacs sale to China. During Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov’s visit to Beijing at the start of this month, it became clear that the billion-dollar air-defence order would go to Moscow.

n short, in the space of a few weeks, Mr Putin has demonstrated an agility and tactical impact on every significant foreign-policy vector Russia’s national interests dictate.

And, contrary to the reports and assessments of his critics at home and abroad, he gained significantly, not to mention financially, at every stop.

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