Located on the Gulf of Finland, the Strelna estate, 20 kilometers from Saint Petersburg, was once a retreat of Peter the Great, the Tsar who tried to make Russia part of the West. Designed by French, Italian and English architects and landscape artists, the palaces and gardens of the estate make it a European oasis on the edge of the Russian landmass. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, however, the estate was turned into a labor camp for children, and, later, left to ruins.
A few years ago, President Vladimir Putin decided to revive the estate as a presidential residence, hoping to turn it into a symbol of Russia's return as a major power.
This weekend, Putin will see part of that dream realized when leaders of the world's most industrialized nations gather at Strelna for this year's G-8 summit under Russian presidency.
How will Russia project its new power, largely won thanks to high oil prices and fissures in the Western alliance under American leadership?
Putin provided part of the answer in an interview a week before the summit.
Russia, he said, was seeking a " multipolar" world in which the United States would no longer be "the sole superpower that tries to dictate to the world how to behave."
The Russian leader was careful not to give the impression that he wanted to revive the Cold War in any form. Nevertheless, he insisted that the world had to be "multilateral because it is so diverse."
He said that while he regarded the United States as "a partner" on some issues, he had no qualms about opposing American policies on a range of others.
He spelled out that opposition with reference the two hottest issues of the day: North Korea's log-range missile tests, and the Islamic Republic of Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions.
On North Korea, Putin said that since Pyongyang was not "party to international agreements which limit activities in those spheres"- that is to say building nuclear warheads and missiles to deliver them- there was no grounds for sanctions. "They are right whether we like it or not," Putin emphasized. All that he wanted was for North Korea to inform the international community of the time and place of future tests as part of a "normal" pattern of behavior.
The Russian president was even more forthright on the Iranian nuclear crisis. He said Iran had full legal right to "all aspects of nuclear technology."
He also dismissed American and European calls for Iran to respond before the G-8 summit to the latest offer by the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Instead, he said he would wait for Tehran's answer until late August as his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had demanded.
To forestall attempts by the G-8 to tighten the screws on Iran, Putin also said he would oppose referring the issue to the United Nations' Security Council even if Iran did not accept the latest offer. Instead, he wanted the dossier to be returned to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), thus perpetuating the diplomatic ping-pong.
Putin regards the American analysis of the North Korean and Iranian crises as "emotional".
His advice is: "We must not allow emotions to drown out commonsense."
Last May the Bush administration reversed American policy by agreeing to direct talks with the Islamic Republic. The hope at the time was that Russia, and, in a different context, China and France, would move closer to the American analysis.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to justify the U-turn by predicting a closer alliance around US positions on Iran. If we are to believe Putin, however, Russia sees that policy change as an admission by Washington that its previous posture on Iran had been based on emotion rather than commonsense.
That Russia, and in other contexts China and a host of smaller powers, should try to challenge the American "superpower" is no surprise.
During the Cold War, global power politics had assumed an ideological expression that often pushed classical national rivalries into the background.
Today, smaller powers such as Iran, North Korea, and, in a different way, Venezuela, still appear prepared to sacrifice national interest to ideology. Others, notably Russia and China, however, have reverted to the non-ideological big power rivalries of the traditional type.
Seen in that context neither Russia nor China, and, for different reasons, not even France and Germany, have an interest in allowing the United States to impose its solution for North Korean and Iran. Pyongyang and Tehran wish to arm themselves largely because of their enmity for the United States. To ask them to abandon their quest for weapons of mass destruction is tantamount to calling for an end to anti-Americanism that provides the backbone of their ideology.
Why should Russia, China and, always in a different context, France and Germany, help install pro-US regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran?
Reunified under a pro-American regime, the Korean Peninsula would provide the US with another powerful ally, in addition to Japan and Taiwan, to counterbalance Russia and China in the Far East. A pro-US regime in Tehran would turn the Middle East into an American zone of influence, reducing Russia, China, France and Germany, among others, to crumbs from a feast in which they hope to be treated as guests of honor.
Russia, China and others can play the game this way because of another ironical twist to this story. They know that if the worst came to the worst, for example if North Korean and Iran tried to use nuclear weapons against neighbors or nations further
a field, the US could always be relied upon to deal with the danger.
In other words, Russia, China and other " multipolarist" wannabes want their bread buttered on both sides. While they are happy to see the US shut out of North Korea and Iran, they also regard the US as their ultimate insurance against the "rogue states."
When planning the liberation of Iraq in 2002, the Bush administration developed the concept of the "coalition of the willing." In the case of North Korean and Iran, we witness a new version that can only be described as " the coalition of the unwilling."
This version is designed to make the US the loser on all counts.
Assured that there will be no serious consequences, the "rogue states" would intensify their anti-Americanism, and, reward the " multipolarists" with even more advantages. That, in turn, would increase the resolve of the " multipolarists" to further "restrain" the United States.
The experience of the past three years has shown that the more the US has tried the "multilateral" track on Iran and the Korea the more defiant they have both become.
It is, perhaps, time for the US and its "willing allies" such as Britain, Japan, South Korea and Australia, to name but a few, to understand that what is at issue in the case of North Korea and Iran is a classical case of big power rivalry motivated by national interests. In such rivalries, there are always two camps with conflicting agendas. The hope that the US can organize a third camp that would include some " multipolarist" rivals is the offspring of an illusion.