Time to tie Russia to Western world

May 23, 2002|By Dusko Doder

VIENNA, Va. - It's probably safe to say that old-style Russian-American summitry is dead.

Even the word "summit" seems somehow inappropriate since it conjures up the image of two superpowers competing around the planet. Russia is no longer a superpower, nor does it pretend to be.

Yet President Bush should have much to talk about with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week because one core problem remains: Russia still has a powerful nuclear arsenal even though the Soviet Union collapsed more than a decade ago. Over four decades, the equilibrium of force between the two countries was roughly in balance and was kept that way to preclude a direct confrontation.

Despite increasingly warmer Russian-American relations, the need for serious arms control remains, largely because Russia's disintegrating nuclear infrastructure holds grave risks of nuclear proliferation, even accidents. This summit offers an opportunity to deal with this issue seriously by reducing the strategic arsenals of the two sides and instituting proliferation controls as part of an overriding need in a war against terrorism.

But the arms cut agreement that Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin will sign is little more than a public relations stunt. The figures sound impressive - from about 6,000 warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 each. But the fine print in the three-page document reveals that that the cuts will not be realized until 2012, that either side is allowed to store its decommissioned warheads and that either side can withdraw from the treaty with three months' notice.

In the past few months, Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin have quietly formed a pragmatic partnership on which the Russian leader has staked his political future. With a comparatively small circle of enlightened advisers, Mr. Putin has begun taking Russia in a new direction on the world stage, staking Russia's success and security on Western integration - economic, military and political. This course is grounded on Mr. Putin's belief that Russia must become economically competitive with Western nations or it is doomed to third-class status in a globalized world.

Mr. Bush can take some credit for this; his positive comments about Mr. Putin must have nudged the Russian in the new direction. After their first meeting, Mr. Bush said he looked into the eyes of the former KGB officer and saw his soul.

Mr. Putin's U-turn in foreign policy emerged forcefully after Sept. 11 as he decided to give strategic, intelligence and other aid to the United States in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. In part, this was because of the stark choice America gave the world: You are with us or against us. In part, it was Mr. Putin's pragmatism; he was dealt a weak hand and had to make the best of a bad situation.

Since Sept. 11, Mr. Putin has not uttered a squeak of protest that the three formerly Soviet Baltic states, as well as Slovenia and Slovakia, could be invited to join NATO in November, along with Romania and Bulgaria. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are already in. A few days after the Bush-Putin summit, NATO is set to welcome Russia into a new "19+1" arrangement. It will give Russia a say in some NATO decisions, a first step to possibly joining the alliance.

Having been created to oppose the Soviet Union, NATO is due for an overhaul. Its new mission is still ill-defined. So is Russia's association with it; it is, in effect, only a fig leaf to permit Mr. Putin to swallow the enlargement. In some respects, NATO is becoming the kind of civilizing "club" that the European Union has proved to be in restraining bad behavior, particularly from former communist regimes.

And yet, since NATO's future missions are likely to focus on problems outside Europe, it is possible to create a significant role for Russia in the alliance. But Mr. Bush must help Mr. Putin to improve Russians' economic lot.

In turn, Mr. Putin could help Mr. Bush withstand any potential Arab oil blackmail over U.S. policies in the Middle East. The current crisis there and the prospect of Western military action against Iraq's Saddam Hussein have underscored U.S. reliance on OPEC and particularly Saudi Arabia.

A possible partnership with Russia, with its vast oil resources, could, quite literally, transform U.S.-Russian relations by lashing them with business ties.

This is far from being a perfect match. Among the many potential pitfalls: transportation difficulties, Russia's continuing economic mess and the bad past experience of American businesses investing in Russia in the 1990s.

If Russia's economy were eventually stabilized and underpinned by wealth from properly managed oil sales, Russia could eventually join other clubs, such as the World Trade Organization, as China has just done. A stable and allied Russia within the Western fold would have an important impact on U.S. security.

Dusko Doder is a journalist and author whose books include Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin (Viking 1990).

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