Russia And The West: The New Rapprochement

Diplomats in Washington and Europe see a major pendulum swing back toward good relations with Moscow. Will it last?

Putin and Obama (Mark Rain via Flickr)

PARIS - "One step forward, two steps back," Lenin once said. But there are signs now that relations between Russia, the United States and Europe may just be set to make one leap forward?

During the NATO summit in Lisbon last November, the Alliance's 28 members and Russia started a rapprochement that German chancellor Angela Merkel called "historic". On paper, two years after the war in Georgia and the amputation of part of this former Soviet satellite's territory by Russian troops, important progress has been made between Russia and the West.

Russia and NATO have agreed to cooperate on the project of common deployment of a missile defense system in Europe. A real revolution in comparison with the Bush years, which were marked by extreme tensions on the issue. Moreover, the Atlantic Alliance and Russia have decided to improve their cooperation in Afghanistan. Moscow will allow American troops and their allies to transport material and armored vehicles through Russian territory in order to avoid Pakistan. Both sides have also agreed to relaunch joint military exercises, which were put on hold during the summer of 2008.

On major 21st century challenges, Russia and the US increasingly have a common take on the world, whether it be nuclear proliferation, terrorism, piracy, natural disasters and human migration. It all looks as if Russia is on the doorstep of joining NATO, but without its military constraints, without its integrated command and probably without the solidarity of allies in case of an attack. On 95 % of today's major strategic questions, NATO and Russia are very close, noted a Russian official during a meeting in Paris.

The Russian-Atlantic thaw doesn't stop at military and security issues. It also relates to civil society and economy, as proven by informal meetings between industrial and political leaders. We can also mention the Kremlin's will to find a path to reconciliation with Poland by recognizing Soviet responsibility in the massacre of Polish officers in Katyn in 1940, thereby showing its commitment to easing relations with the European Union.

Beyond the short-term common interests, what is pushing this rapprochement is no doubt a major tectonic drift in global geopolitics: the economic and political rise of China and India; and, to a certain extent, the relative decline of influence of both the US and Europe's failure to prove itself as a real power.

Putin's Russia is no longer the wounded bear of the post-Soviet era, but a nation looking to regain its place as a great power. Moscow's fear of a US push on its doorstep, especially in Ukraine, died down with the return of a pro-Russian government in Kiev. At the same time, Washington abandoned its project to install, without consulting Russia, or its French and German allies for that matter, radars and antimissile batteries in the Czech Republic and in Poland. This helped ease Moscow's mind.

The better relations are also a direct consequence, two years after Barack Obama took office, of the "restart button" policy on relations with Russia.

The war in Georgia also played a role in this process. It proved "the numerous failures of the US's Russia policy," wrote Craig Nation, a professor at the US Army War College in a note published by the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). This crisis showed "how risky it was to maintain a relationship with Russia based on confrontation."

But the rapprochement is fragile. Suspicion on both sides hasn't disappeared. Without giving too much credit to the WikiLeaks revelation, the thoughts of Jean-David Levitte, President Sarkozy's diplomatic advisor, during a 2009 meeting with American diplomats, reveal a certain state of mind. According to him, Moscow tends to consider that "a good neighbor is a totally submissive neighbor."

The current thaw is not a first in the history of the two former blocks. In front of senators in Paris, French ambassador to Moscow Jean de Gliniasty mentioned four periods: the first under Mikhail Gorbachev, the second with Boris Yeltsin, the third after the 9/11 attacks and the current one. Though the first three failed, the diplomat believes the fourth one will be "lasting and irreversible."

But we can't yet be sure it will succeed. The main condition is political. The US Senate still hasn't ratified the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreed to by the White House and the Kremlin. Ratification may be just a small step toward getting rid of nuclear weapons, but it is an important sign of détente toward Moscow.

Republican success in the midterm elections in November doesn't bode well for a quick ratification of a treaty dear to the US President. Moreover, Russian nationalism hasn't disappeared. Recently, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threatened to start a new arms race if NATO and Russia didn't come to an agreement on missile defense mechanisms. The pendulum between Russia and the West has definitely not stopped and it could swing back at any given moment.

Read the original story in French

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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