Russian veto raises questions about Medvedev

For one day, it looked like Russia and the West had finally found common ground on a key global issue: President Dmitry Medvedev joined the other Group of Eight leaders in a statement suggesting Zimbabwe's leadership was in for sanctions, the AP reported.

About 24 hours later, however, Medvedev emphasized that the statement stopped short of guaranteeing U.N. sanctions - and two days after that Russia and China vetoed a U.S. and British-backed sanctions resolution in the Security Council.

The seeming shift sparked anger in Washington and London and raised questions about what happened: Did Medvedev step out of line and get slapped down, suggesting the new president is not calling the shots? Was he in the loop all along, sending conflicting signals by design?

Whatever the answers, the episode - played out last week in New York, Moscow and at a G-8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan - suggests there is little hope for a sea change in Russia's often confrontational relations with the West.

The summit was a chance for Medvedev, hand-picked by his popular predecessor Vladimir Putin, to show Western leaders that he is in charge of the world's largest country. The back-and-forth on Zimbabwe undermined that effort.

"He's still a dependent figure who was nominated by Putin's clan, and he remains certainly to a great extent a puppet, a hostage in the hands of the group which brought him to power," said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation.

"As a not very experienced foreign policy maker, he's inclined to some kind of compromise, which certainly is not in the mainstream of Putin's foreign policy - and the people around Medvedev are, of course, Putin's people," he said.

Putin's top foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, is now Medvedev's top foreign policy adviser, and accompanied Medvedev to the summit. Putin, now formally No. 2 in the Russian hierarchy as prime minister, did not attend.

Medvedev, inaugurated in May, has by no means promised an overhaul in foreign policy. But the emphasis he has placed on freedom and the rule of law may have raised Western hopes that he would tread closer to the professed values of the West.

The statement the G-8 released last Tuesday, a day after Medvedev's first meetings as president with the leaders of the United States, Britain and France, appeared to point in that direction.

It promised steps including "introducing financial and other measures against those individuals responsible for violence" connected to the widely criticized election that gave Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe another term.

But at a news conference Wednesday wrapping up the summit, Medvedev stressed that the statement included no instructions for the U.N. Security Council. That left open the possibility that Russia could allow a sanctions resolution backed by the United States and Britain to pass by abstaining from the vote.

Instead, Moscow used its veto. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the veto marked a "U-turn in the Russian position" and "raises questions about its reliability as a G8 partner."

Russian officials have lashed out angrily at those characterizations, repeating Medvedev's argument and saying Russia never promised support for U.N. sanctions.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said the clash between Russia and the West on the issue likely stemmed from differing ideas about how far Russia's acquiescence to the G8 statement meant it was willing to go.

But Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said it pointed to differences in Russia's leadership over policy. "I have the feeling Medvedev did not want this to happen - did not want a veto," he said.

Analysts said Russia's veto had little to do with Zimbabwe itself.

Given questions about Medvedev's own election, in a tightly controlled political system from which vocal Kremlin foes were increasingly shut out during Putin's eight-year presidency, Russia is wary of punishing any government over a troubled vote.

Malashenko said another motive was more likely, suggesting Moscow wanted to show the West that it could use its veto in potential showdowns on issues such as U.S.-allied Georgia's struggle with its Russia-supported separatist regions or the use of force against Iran.

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