U.S.-Russian ties depend on Putin

April 05, 2001|By Derek Chollet

WASHINGTON -- The latest escalation of the spy-versus-spy game between the United States and Russia -- marked by dueling expulsions of intelligence agents from Washington and Moscow -- may be the latest sign of a tougher, more competitive approach by the Bush administration toward Russia.

Bush officials assert that, unlike former President Clinton and his team, whom they say were blindly "romantic" about Russia, their actions are part of a policy rooted in "realism." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer recently invoked the word at least 10 times to explain the new approach toward Russia.

The problem with such claims of a new "realism" is that they don't reflect reality. Indeed, the Bush administration's Russia policy remains virtually identical to the one Mr. Clinton left.

For example, note how President Bush reacted to the arrest of suspected spy Robert Hanssen. After receiving recommendations from the CIA, FBI and Justice Department, he acted decisively and expelled Russian intelligence agents.

President Clinton would have done -- and did -- the same thing. After Aldrich Ames was arrested in 1994, he kicked out the head of Russia's intelligence branch in Washington -- the most senior and, arguably, the most important intelligence official Russia had on American soil. Some believe that the scale of the recent expulsion was excessive, but it seems justified given the damage that a counter-intelligence specialist like Mr. Hanssen has likely wrought.

Such continuity exists in other areas -- from the position on Chechnya to concerns about weapons proliferation. Indeed, the biggest change in U.S.-Russian relations over the past year has not been caused by the transition from Mr. Clinton to Mr. Bush, but by the transition from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin.

Since Mr. Putin emerged, there has been a distinct chill in U.S.-Russian relations. Under Mr. Yeltsin, the United States and Russia always approached problems with the assumption that even with their differences, they could be solved.

Russians worked with us on arms control, in the Balkans and swallowed hard and accepted NATO expansion. When the chips were down, "Bill and Boris" would get together and work things out.

But there never was a "Bill and Vlad" relationship. In the last year of the Clinton administration, Washington was frustrated in its attempts to convince Russia to preserve a free press at home, moderate its policy toward its neighbors, end the bloodshed in Chechnya and curb the proliferation of dangerous technologies to rogue states.

And it got nowhere in its effort to get Russia to agree to changes in the 1972 ABM Treaty, which are needed to allow development of a national missile defense.

The problem with these policies was not their "romanticism" about Russia -- if anything, each reflected hard-headed realism about American interests -- but that they presumed that Mr. Putin, like Mr. Yeltsin, would be a willing partner.

Today, the choice for partnership rests less with Washington than with Mr. Putin and the Russian people. So far the signs are not good. But the United States needs to be careful not to overreact: In the effort to distance himself from Mr. Clinton's foreign policy, President Bush is in danger of pushing Mr. Putin further into a corner and creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.

We must make clear to Russia that we will support it as long as it remains on the course Mr. Yeltsin first charted -- toward democratic reform at home and cooperation abroad. That's not to say we shouldn't act if Russia veers from this course, as it has in the Hanssen case. But we must express hope that Russia can tap all the good things in its history to become a positive force in the world.

Now that's a policy for both romantics and realists.

Derek Chollet, a research associate at George Washington University's Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, served in the State Department from 1999 until this year.

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