Barely six months after Russian President Vladimir Putin became the Bush Administration’s most valuable ally in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, the promise of a historic US-Russian partnership is being squandered. Indeed, this second chance to establish a truly cooperative relationship with post-Communist Russia–after the lost opportunity of the 1990s–is being gravely endangered by Bush’s own policies.
During the weeks after September 11, Russia’s contribution to the US counterterror operation in Afghanistan exceeded that of all of America’s NATO allies together. Not only did Moscow provide essential intelligence information, it allowed the Pentagon to use its airspace and crucial Soviet-built airfields in Central Asia. It also stepped up its military assistance to the Afghan Northern Alliance, which Russia had supported long before September 11 and which did most of the ground fighting until recently. Even Russia’s pro-Western lobbies are now asking, “What did we get in return?” Or as a leading member of the Parliament defense committee told us, “After September 11, we thought we were strategic partners, but America is an unreliable partner who completely disregards the interests of Russia.”
Indeed, the arrival of the two of us in Moscow in March coincided with the Los Angeles Times revelations about the Pentagon’s new nuclear doctrines, which continue to include Russia as a possible target of a US attack. It was the lead story for days in Russia’s media, and most of the headlines and commentary were angrily anti-American. Komsomolskaya Pravda, Moscow’s largest-circulation newspaper, featured a half-page illustration of a muscular Bush as Rambo, cradling a machine gun and flanked by his warriors–Rumsfeld (in a metal-studded headband, brandishing a bloody sword), Cheney, Powell and Rice. Protests against US policy and Bush himself reached such levels that the US ambassador called in Russian journalists to chastise them for being anti-American.
His lecture did nothing to squelch anti-US sentiments, which had diminished after September 11 but are now growing rapidly. Symptomatic was the view, widely expressed in media commentary and public opinion polls, that a US-led plot had deprived Russian athletes of gold medals at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Scarcely less resented was Bush’s decision to impose tariffs on Russian steel, which increased belief in American hypocrisy about the virtue of “free markets.”
More serious, however, is the opinion spreading across Moscow’s political spectrum that the Bush Administration’s war on terrorism now has less to do with helping Russia–or any other country–fight Islamic extremism on its borders than with establishing military outposts of a new (or expanded) American empire (“a New Rome,” as a leading politician’s aide remarked to us) with control over the region’s enormous oil and gas reserves as its primary goal. Even Russians who consider themselves pro-American are understandably finding it increasingly difficult to counter this charge.
After all, viewed from Moscow, since September 11 the Bush Administration seems to be systematically imposing what Russia has always feared–a hostile military encirclement. This is not merely the product of anti-US conspiratorial theories. In fact it is likely that by 2003, there will be a US or NATO military presence in at least eight or nine of the fifteen former Soviet republics–four or all five of the Central Asian “stans,” Georgia and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Not surprisingly, President Putin, Bush’s alleged “partner,” is coming under increasing high-level attack in Moscow as a result of White House policies. Putin’s policies have unleashed angry charges that he is “losing” Central Asia and the Caucasus while succumbing to US imperialism. Of special importance, and virtually without precedent in Soviet or Russian history, has been a series of published “open letters” signed by retired generals, including one of former President Yeltsin’s defense ministers, accusing Putin of “selling out” the country and “betraying” the nation’s security and other vital interests.
The Kremlin is, of course, trying to defend what Putin’s supporters call his “strategic choice” of an alliance between Russia and the United States and to discount the Bush Administration’s recent steps. But a fateful struggle over that choice–and perhaps Putin’s leadership itself–is clearly under way in Russia’s political class. A pro-Western newspaper headline responded to the Pentagon’s new strategic doctrines: America Prepares Friendly Nuclear Strike for Russia. Even given Putin’s personal popularity with the Russian people and his backing by the Western-oriented energy oligarchs, it seems unlikely that he can go along with this fictitious “partnership” much longer.
If nothing else, the new US strategic thinking, including its enhanced status for tactical nuclear weapons, strengthens elements in the Russian military that have lobbied since the 1990s for giving “surgical” battlefield nukes a larger role in the Kremlin’s own doctrine. As a leading Russian military specialist argues, the new US doctrine gives the Russian military additional arguments for new testing and deployment. “If the United States resumes real nuclear tests to make the new weapons,” he wrote in early March, “Russia will soon follow.” Indeed, in late March the head of the Parliament defense committee called on Putin to upgrade Russia’s nuclear weapons capability in response to the US missile defense program.
All this suggests that the scheduled May summit between Bush and Putin, in Russia, may turn out to be little more than a show designed to promote the two leaders’ political fortunes, but that does nothing to achieve today’s most urgent security need–sharp reductions in both sides’ nuclear arsenals. (“Storing” instead of destroying warheads, as Washington insists on doing, for instance, would not actually reduce those weapons or Moscow’s growing sense of military insecurity.)
None of this is in America’s true national interest. The post-cold war nuclear world, as this magazine has long pointed out, is more dangerous than was the cold war itself. The primary reason, September 11 notwithstanding, remains the instability of Russia’s post-Soviet nuclear infrastructures. CIA director George Tenet has emphasized, for example, the imminent danger that Russia’s nuclear devices, materials and knowledge might become the primary source of proliferation.
The Bush Administration’s policy of treating Russia not as a real partner, with its own legitimate national interests, but merely as a part-time helper when it suits US purposes as well as a potential nuclear target only increases these dangers. In this fundamental sense, the United States today has an Administration whose Russia policies are endangering America’s national security.