Putin playing to U.S. politics

June 08, 2000|By Dusko Doder

WASHINGTON - The most interesting thing to come out of the Moscow summit is a clearer view of Russian President Vladimir Putin. There should be no doubt that he will turn out to be a forceful leader determined to shape Russia's future.

Mr. Putin is smart, articulate and certainly a quick study. He may easily turn out to be a younger and more pragmatic version of Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief who served briefly as Soviet leader in the early 1980s and who tried to pull Russia out of the torpor of the years of Leonid Brezhnev. Mr. Putin himself was a KGB officer for two decades and is very much a product of the secret police's culture.

Russia, in Mr. Putin's view, has nothing to gain from a confrontation with the United States. He has inherited a country whose population has experienced a dramatic decline in living standards, its economy in shambles, its health care system near collapse, most of its citizens living in poverty. To reverse this decline, Russia's economic development will benefit from greater links with the West.

At the same time, Mr. Putin believes that Russia is, and must remain, a great power. Great power status is based solely on its nuclear strike force. As the only country that could destroy the United States, Russia is treated as a respectable partner.

President Clinton's main goal at the summit was to bring Mr. Putin around to accepting amendments to the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty that would allow the United States to deploy a missile defense system. Anyone having dealings with the Russian elites during the past decades could have told him that his scheme was doomed to failure.

Mr. Clinton must have known this, too, yet thought it worth a try. But Mr. Putin knew that the lame-duck president is not the one to negotiate with anyway and that Moscow should play for time.

But instead of dismissing the president's explanation - that the ABM system was needed against North Korea and other "rogue" states - Mr. Putin played along, conceding the possibility of such threats. He dismissed the idea as "a cure that is worse than a disease." But he left the door slightly open to further talks, even though Moscow's consistent position has been that anti-missile defenses would undermine the strategic balance, threaten Russia's strategic deterrent and lead to a new arms race.

This tactic was undoubtedly dictated by the fact that missile defense is a U.S. presidential campaign issue and that the only sensible course for Moscow was to delay and confuse the issue. "No matter who gets to be president, we're willing to go forward" with discussion, he said.

The last thing Mr. Putin wants is a new arms race. He needs time to reform Russia's financial and tax systems, create an orderly society and rebuild the machinery of state power. In fact, he had proposed - and Mr. Clinton had turned down - deeper arms cuts for both sides, slashing their strategic weapons to 1,500 warheads. He has also publicly praised Mr. Clinton as a "very experienced politician" and a "very comfortable and pleasant partner."

Yet there is no doubt that Russian-American relations are entering a new phase. The Clinton administration acted as if it had a vested interest in Boris Yeltsin's presidency and ignored his autocratic practices, corruption and Chechnya. The prevailing view among the Russians is that Mr. Yeltsin was used up by the Americans to keep Russia weak.

Unlike Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Putin does not share the foreign assessment of Russia's evolution nor does he welcome lecturing by Western officials acting as though they were a party to internal Russian politics. Russia, Mr. Putin says, will not become a carbon copy of the United States or Britain.

"We must know our history, know it as it really is, draw lessons from it and always remember those who created the Russian state championed its dignity and made it a great, powerful and mighty state," he said.

We certainly have a stake in Russia's future in so far as it affects the international order. After a 1,000-year history of authoritarianism, Russia has only just embarked on a long process of democratization. To pretend that this process has been virtually completed - that Russia, as Mr. Clinton put it in January, is "a pluralistic political system and civil society competing in world markets and plugged into the Internet" - is wishful thinking.

Equally disturbing is the president's failure to take a forceful stand on Chechnya.

Given Mr. Clinton's rhetoric on Kosovo a year ago, the cynicism seems overpowering. Russians respected and admired Ronald Reagan, who called their country an "evil empire" but who had the imagination and the will to seize opportunities to reduce nuclear confrontation. Ironically Mr. Reagan, and another Cold Warrior, George Bush, endorsed and implemented a most significant reduction in the nuclear arms of the two countries.

Before he leaves office, Mr. Clinton will have to decide whether the United States should go ahead with the anti-missile project. Mr. Putin undoubtedly would maneuver to delay or limit it. But it is unlikely that the fundamental disagreement can be resolved, which would unravel 30 years of arms control efforts and heighten the prospect of another arms race.

Dusko Doder is an independent journalist who specializes in Russia and the Balkans.

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