Putin heads into 2-day summit with balance of power shifted

U.S. struggles in Iraq mean Bush is the one more in need of help

September 26, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - When Russian President Vladimir V. Putin arrives at the two-day Camp David summit today, he may find that a certain character-building vegetable isn't on his plate.

No, this is not about broccoli, the food President Bush's father famously loathed. Strobe Talbott, President Bill Clinton's top aide on Russia, has written that since the Soviet collapse the White House has used summits to demand that the Kremlin "shut up and eat its spinach."

Usually, Russia has grudgingly complied, swallowing everything from NATO intervention in the Balkans to America's unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

But, Russian specialists say, Washington's struggle to pacify Iraq has shifted the balance of power. And after being forced to accept so many unpalatable American demands, the tough-talking Putin probably relishes the prospect of getting straight to the metaphorical dessert.

"Now Bush needs Putin more than Putin needs Bush," said Michael McFaul, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute who teaches political science at Stanford University. "And to me, that's a striking change in the relationship."

A White House statement said only that the two leaders see the summit as a chance to "deepen their cooperation to deal with the shared challenges of the 21st century." A senior U.S. diplomat here, speaking on condition he not be named, said the administration isn't counting on any big announcements.

But McFaul and other specialists say that the Bush administration is keen for Putin's help in Iraq, where the relentless attacks on U.S. troops have led many Americans to question the wisdom of the war.

Most of all, they say, the White House hopes that Putin will send soldiers to Iraq to bolster the Americans - a situation that few would have dreamed of even a few years ago.

"The greatest thing the Russians could do is come out of Camp David and announce that they're sending troops," McFaul said. "I don't predict it, but I know that people are hoping for it."

Putin began his summitward journey by addressing the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, sounding like a leader who had the upper hand, implicitly criticizing the United States.

"The position of Russia here is consistent and clear," he said. "Only direct participation by the United Nations in the rebuilding of Iraq will enable its people themselves to decide on their future. And only with the active - and I want to stress this - practical assistance by the United Nations in its economic and civil transformation, only thus will Iraq assume a new worthy place in the world community."

Putin said that in the future Russia will be more active in contributing peacekeeping troops to operations sanctioned by the Security Council; whether that meant Russian troops might serve in Iraq under U.S. direction, as long as the U.N. approves, remains unclear. Putin has made unexpected moves before, allowing the United States to establish bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and withdrawing Russian troops from Vietnam and Cuba.

The dour Russian leader, a one-time judo champion and former KGB colonel, also has a knack for turning adversaries' vulnerability to his advantage. And America's troubles in Iraq appears to have given him a lot of room to maneuver.

In recent months, the Kremlin has switched off the last independent nationwide television network. The government has implemented a restrictive press law that makes it all but impossible for the media to explain, or even report, the current parliamentary election campaign to voters.

Targeting the wealthy

And the Kremlin has stood by silently while prosecutors have launched what appear to be punitive investigations of wealthy Russians critical of Putin.

"Forget Glasnost, It's Over," one newspaper headline recently announced.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration paid scant attention. Partly, analysts say, the White House has its hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan. Partly, the administration is thin on Russia experts. Only one of its ranking officials - Condoleezza Rice - is a Russia specialist. And she has been swamped with assignments since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Whatever the reason, the Bush administration has had little to say about Putin's incremental but relentless nudging of Russia toward authoritarianism. At the same time, the United States is committing hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops to build a democratic society in Iraq.

With the summit, Putin is poised to make himself even more indispensable to the White House, and, perhaps, criticism-proof.

By sending troops to Iraq, McFaul argues, Putin could revive and expand the Russian-American post-Sept. 11 alliance - damaged by the Kremlin's initial opposition to invading Iraq.

He could place Russia squarely at the center court of world affairs, and possibly salvage some of the contracts with Russian firms, worth perhaps $40 billion, signed with Saddam Hussein's government last year.

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