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U.S.-Russia: Just How Far Will the Love-In Go?

George W. Bush and Vladimir V. Putin--or do they now call each other "Dubya and Vlad?" In three days of talks and socializing at the White House and Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex., Nov. 12-15, the Presidents of the U.S. and Russia took key steps to develop the alliance that has flourished since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Among other things, Bush and Putin agreed to historic cuts in nuclear arsenals--down to as low as 1,700 on both sides--and on joint efforts on everything from bioterrorism to economic development. "The United States and Russia have overcome the legacy of the cold war. Neither country regards the other as an enemy or threat," the two Presidents declared in a joint statement.

Not that there won't be bumps ahead. One issue on which the two leaders disagreed in Washington was the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. An even bigger problem that could arise down the road if the U.S. expands its campaign against terrorism is Russia's close relations with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But Putin's decision to ally Russia firmly with the West--plus the strong rapport between the two Presidents--offer a chance for them to make progress on problems that once may have seemed intractable.

BARGAINING POSTURE. Take the ABM treaty. Bush needs to persuade Putin that it's obsolete so the U.S. can test an antimissile defense system without violating the pact. Putin still thinks the ABM treaty is important and made it clear in Washington he prefers any new nuclear arrangements with the U.S. to be in writing. But Administration officials think that's mainly a bargaining position. Says one: "The Russians are prepared to be flexible on what we test." Russian analysts say Putin may well be angling for a promise that Russia's defense industry benefits from missile defense. That meshes with his goal of linking Russia's economy to the West's. And it could ease opposition from hard liners unhappy about Putin's bid for closer Russia-NATO ties.

The Iraqi question may be trickier. Russia has longstanding relations with Saddam Hussein's regime, which owes Russia $8 billion in Soviet-era debt. So, according to conventional wisdom, Russia would not accept any U.S. military campaign against Iraq. Still, that may be less true post-September 11, especially if Washington presents clear evidence against Saddam. Moscow aligned itself with Baghdad during and after the cold war partly to challenge America. With the U.S. and Russia fighting terrorism together, that motivation has disappeared. "For Putin, Iraq is not so important now," says Moscow defense analyst Andrei A. Piontkovsky.

Moreover, Putin could try to extract a steep price for allowing a decisive U.S. strike against the oil-rich Iraqi state. Russian oil majors have curried favor with Saddam's regime with an eye on future contracts. But if Bush quietly guarantees that Russian oil companies will get a prime slice of the Iraqui oil, Putin might go along. "There is a good case for a behind-the-scenes bargain," says Dmitri Trenin, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. For now, Putin has called for the renewal of international inspections in Iraq. If Saddam refuses, Putin can save face if the U.S. goes after Iraq by citing Saddam's intransigence to his own proposal.

It's hard to say where the U.S. will take the war on terrorism next. Debates with Russia on the war--and other issues--will continue. But the Russian-American dialogue has changed remarkably: No one would have predicted that a Russian President would invite the U.S. military into nearby Central Asia. Don't be shocked if Bush and Putin find ways to surmount other obstacles to their alliance. The U.N.-administered Yugoslav province of Kosovo could take a big step on Nov. 17 toward achieving more autonomy. Voters will elect an assembly that, in turn, will choose a president for the once war-torn province. The U.N. will still be in charge, but Kosovars can begin taking a wider role in running their own affairs, from providing better health care to spurring economic growth.

Parties representing Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, still bitter over repression at the hands of Serbs before NATO troops moved in 1999, are expected to win big. A large chunk of the 120 seats is likely to go to the Democratic League of Kosovo, whose leader, Ibrahim Rugova, would become President. He favors autonomy for the province but is more moderate than the leader of the rival Kosovo Democratic Party, which is led by the former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Hashim Thaci. The one Serb party running, Coalition for the Return, is guaranteed 10 seats in the assembly and could win a handful more.

Both the U.N. and European governments hope that the new Kosovo assembly will help ease tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. "By slugging it out in the assembly, we hope they can learn to work together," says Susan Manuel, U.N. spokeswoman in Kosovo. Indeed, the 200,000 Serbs that fled Kosovo are being urged to vote. Whether the shaky peace holds will depend a lot on how responsibly Rugova--and the Kosovo assembly--will lead. If they push for full independence, all bets may be off.

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