Potemkin village

May 22, 2002

SO FAR THIS month, the Cold War has already ended twice: once when the Russian and American presidents announced an arms-cut treaty, and then shortly afterward when Russia signed up to take an honorary place at NATO's table. Tomorrow, George Bush goes to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin, and before his four-day visit is done someone is bound to try to end the Cold War yet again.

Enough already. It's over with. Finito. The Cold War ended at least 11 and maybe 13 years ago.

So why does everyone keep talking about it? Do they just like the way it sounds?

Sadly, no. Dredging up the Cold War, only to bury it again, is a way to focus on Russia as a great power, as a nuclear heavyweight, and now as a new partner with the West. It's a way to pretend that this is all about geostrategy and a lot of other mumbo-jumbo. It's a distraction, to keep attention away from what this summit is really about.

Mr. Putin, clearly acting in what he believed to be Russia's best interests, took an enormous gamble last fall when he aligned his country with the United States in its war on terrorism. It was a logical but by no means inevitable move. And it is too soon to say whether the gamble is going to pay off.

But it's already clear that Russia is going to need help. The economy, which grew the past two years, is crumbling. In the country's most productive regions - the Urals and along the Volga - output is down. Wage arrears are growing again. Some signs suggest the ruble may be in for another nose-dive. This is new territory for Mr. Putin.

What Russia wants from the United States is stability. This explains, in part, why Russia conceded so much on the questions of missiles and nuclear arms. Russia badly needed a treaty, and gave up most of its bargaining positions to get one. By slashing the number of nuclear warheads, it will be able to reduce its ruinous military spending - and, incidentally, make itself look a lot more inviting to Western investors.

But Mr. Putin also doesn't want to see the United States go off half-cocked against the axis of evil. Mr. Putin apparently fears that the unintended consequences of an American attack on, say, Iraq could end up giving Russia a severe case of whiplash (by way of various unsteady neighbors and an Islamic terrorist or two).

The Kremlin has recognized that it can't fight the United States. Mr. Putin is going to have to try to sway Mr. Bush through charm and persuasion. He has to make the summit look like Russia's grand re-entry into the civilized world. He has to make it look like the end of the Cold War.

The American president would do well to go along. Mr. Putin is still popular among ordinary Russians, but the sorts of people who infect the echelons of power are decidedly less enthusiastic about him. A foreign policy disaster or an economic debacle could set loose any number of unhelpful forces. There are those within the Russian military who would be only too happy to make trouble for American soldiers now in Central Asia and Georgia.

An overtly hostile Russia would make U.S. foreign affairs indescribably more complicated. Does this mean that Washington must tie its Russian policy to the fate of one man, a former KGB agent who rose precipitously to power? No, far from it. That has been America's mistake in Russia for far too long. But here is a case where America's own interests will best be served if Mr. Putin's gamble turns out to be a winner.

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