Bush and Putin: Smiles Now, Trouble Later?

The U.S. is expecting big things from Russia, but the President has less leverage than Bill Clinton and less willingness to deal

By Stan Crock

On the surface, relations between Washington and Moscow seem to have turned almost euphoric. The year started out rocky as could be, with the U.S. arresting a top FBI official as a Russian spy. Both countries expelled dozens of diplomats in retaliation. But then U.S. President George W. Bush looked Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in the eye and found him to be trustworthy. Now they have developed a je ne sais quoi (I really am baffled by what that is exactly, but both heads of state certainly have become chummy.) Both seem intent on striking a deal on a new strategic framework for dealing with missile defense and cuts in nuclear arsenals. They're even talking about more investment in Russia -- a prospect that most American investors have shunned like the economic rathole it is.

Sounds peachy. But this latest era of good feeling may soon be over, as the list of U.S. demands on Russia gets ever longer. Bush has far less leverage than former President Bill Clinton had in dealing with Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Equally important, the U.S. wants changes in Russian behavior now, while the rewards for such moves would be long-term -- if they come at all. Make no mistake: The Russians are cash-on-the-barrel folks. They like quid pro quos in their negotiations. The result is that relations between Washington and Moscow are more likely to become increasingly testy.

Why does Dubya have less leverage than Clinton? Mostly because Putin is in a different position from Yeltsin's. Putin doesn't have the same domestic opposition that Yeltsin faced. So he doesn't need the kind of political nod of approval for a boost that Clinton could give -- or withhold from -- Yeltsin, notes Michael McFaul, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Nor, at this stage, is Putin looking for the international financial aid Yeltsin desperately sought and Clinton helped provide.


  The lack of leverage is a problem when you look at the lengthy list of areas where the U.S. would like Russia to change its policy. Washington wants Moscow to:

-- gut the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

-- acquiesce in the construction of a missile-defense system

-- back "smart sanctions" against Iraq

-- accept NATO expansion to nations on its borders such as the Baltics, and

-- stop selling nuclear know-how to Iran.

That's just the international list. The Bush team also would like Russia to:

-- reach a political settlement in Chechnya

-- allow press freedoms

-- halt corruption

-- adopt the rule of law, business transparency, and corporate governance initiatives as part of their legal code, and

-- clean up the police and courts.

That's quite a to-do list. But Bush has precious little in the way of incentives to encourage Russian reforms. "We don't have the sticks, and we haven't offered the carrots to change that behavior," McFaul says.

The only near-term benefit for Russia on the table is Bush's plan to slash America's nuclear stockpile in return for Russian cuts. But it's something the U.S. might have done even without reciprocal moves from Moscow. That's because there's no strategic downside, and the Pentagon is looking for savings wherever it can find them. Down the road, the Defense Dept. could save about $2 billion a year if the stockpile shrinks from 7,000 warheads to 1,500 or so, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

What the Bush Administration does hold out is the vague promise of integration into the West. The prospect of entry into the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and NATO may be worth dangling before Putin. But it would take years, if not decades, for such seismic changes to materialize. There's little for Putin to reap now. If he supports smart sanctions, for example, there could be plenty of downside if Iraq retaliates by cutting Russia out of its energy-development plans.


  Missile defense is another potential problem area. The U.S. and Russia may well sign a vague memorandum of understanding that backs reductions in the number of nuclear warheads and the notion that countries can defend themselves. But instead of formally amending the ABM Treaty and negotiating an arms-control treaty, as Moscow wants, Washington may just withdraw from the ABM Treaty and unilaterally cut warheads. The Bush folks just don't like treaties. Again, Russia would be left empty-handed.

Moscow has been hoping to negotiate deals since Bush took office, figuring the President could deal better with realpolitik Republicans than the humanitarian Democrats. Russia was willing to go along with missile defense if the U.S. agreed to limit NATO expansion. That didn't happen. Now Moscow is suggesting it will go along on the strategic issues if the Administration ignores Russian domestic matters, from press freedom to Chechnya. The Administration has indeed talked less about domestic reforms than the broader issues, which troubles some Russia experts who fear the Bush team might cave on this. "The challenge for the Bush Administration is to keep all those things in the forefront," says Fritz W. Ermarth, a former CIA Russia specialist.

Ermarth thinks Dubya should adopt the policy of Ronald Reagan and his secretary of state, George Shultz, who pushed for arms control, regional security, and economic packages, but not at the expense of pulling back on championing human rights in the Soviet Union. That, Ermarth says, pressured then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to liberalize his regime. And that, in turn, helped speed the Evil Empire's downfall.


  The Administration may do just that after an internal struggle. Richard N. Haass, the State Dept.'s policy chief, says, "You can't have six priorities simultaneously," suggesting the Bush folks would downplay some of the internal issues of reform. But other Administration officials insist Bush eventually will put more emphasis on these topics, noting that reform in these areas is needed for real integration into the west. "If Putin wants to be a member of the club," says Ermarth, "there are certain requirements for membership: political, institutional, legal requirements. You can't get around them."

But Putin knows the potential political cost of real democracy and a free press. He wants none of it. If the Bush team raises these issues, it could set the stage for a blowup. If the Administration doesn't, Congressional Democrats surely will -- and blast Bush in the process for ignoring Putin's authoritarian streak. It would be payback for GOP criticism that Clinton turned a blind eye to corruption under Yeltsin.

The upshot: U.S.-Russian relations now may be in an era of good feelings, but the euphoria could be short. After a memorandum on strategic issues, it could be Tension City again. On everything from NATO expansion to Iraq to Chechnya, a bumpy road lies ahead.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views twice a month, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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