Arms reduction a natural step for Russia

Nation no longer aspires to superpower status and couldn't sustain it

May 14, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW - The wholesale reduction of strategic nuclear weapons announced yesterday might help sustain the slow-motion momentum of Russia's realignment toward the West, and it might give the architect of that realignment, President Vladimir V. Putin, a political lift at home.

But beyond the staggering size of the reductions - 4,000 warheads, give or take a thousand, for each side - the latest exercise in strategic diplomacy between what used to be two superpowers seemed only to seal the victory of one, the United States.

Russia has been downsizing for at least a decade, since the unsustainable Soviet empire fell and took standards of living, population totals and industrial production levels with it.

A drastic reduction of nuclear arms stocks is not just long overdue, Russian experts noted. It is natural in a nation that neither wants to take over the world any more nor has the economic or military capacity to do so.

President Bush announced the new arms deal yesterday by declaring that the Cold War had been laid to rest. Russia's view is more clear-eyed: What the accord formalizes is the United States' victory in that war.

"We are managing the light of a star which has been dead for 10 years," Dmitri Trenin, a leading foreign policy expert at the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an interview last night.

Yesterday's announcement lays to rest the last of Moscow's notions that it can be an equal partner with Washington, at least soon, in setting and managing the new world order.

Nobody disagrees that the new arms treaty serves Russia's interests as much as those of the United States, if not more so.

Under Putin, Moscow has utterly rewritten its concept of national security to focus on domestic concerns - terrorism, narcotics trafficking and so on - instead of a superpower rivalry that no longer exists. In addition, Putin has ordered a sweeping reorientation of the military from a global Cold War force to one whose mission is largely defensive.

Six-thousand nuclear warheads are useless to such a military. More than that, Russia desperately needs the money it now spends on maintaining a nuclear stockpile to modernize the smaller, more flexible force it wants to build.

Sergei Karaganov, deputy director of the Institute of Europe, based in Moscow, and a foreign policy and defense expert, said the mere fact of an agreement was a victory for two nations that, before the global realignment set off by the Sept. 11 attacks, seemed to be drifting apart.

Moreover, he said, Russia comes away with some prizes: The levels to which both sides' warheads would be reduced are almost precisely what Russian strategists had sought, and the agreement on arms cuts paves the way for cooperation on other issues - most notably, curbing weapons proliferation - that could lie at the foundation of a future international order.

"I think we're getting a bit more than people could have predicted," Karaganov said.

Perceived or actual American high-handedness toward Russia, from the Bush administration's abandonment of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to its criticism of Russia's war in Chechnya, is an article of faith here.

Several analysts noted, however, that yesterday's agreement said as much about Putin's strategic vision as it did about his being bested by Washington bargainers.

Former President Boris N. Yeltsin, a staunch pro-Westerner, nonetheless bristled at any suggestion of American encroachment on Russian interests. Putin, still not a confirmed democrat in Western eyes, has, however, conceded key points to the White House in arms control talks, perhaps with an eye on the larger goal of permanently anchoring Russia in the West.

In that view, concessions on methods of counting warheads or erecting missile defenses are a small price for admission to a Western alliance that could well shape global politics for the foreseeable future.

In contrast to previous arms talks, Trenin said, "the prize is not a concession from the U.S."

"The prize," he said, "is Russia's integration into the world community which is dominated by the United States."

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