From Evil Empire to Strategic Ally

How the U.S. and Russia came to realize that they need each other

When Condoleezza Rice was a staffer on the National Security Council in 1989, she once had to physically block upstart Russian politician Boris N. Yeltsin from barging into President George H.W. Bush's office. At the time, the Bush team was putting all its support behind Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev as the Evil Empire was unraveling. And Yeltsin, in the White House pushing his own reform agenda to Bush aides, made the unpardonable gaffe of trying to crash the Oval Office without an appointment. These days, as National Security Adviser, Rice would gladly give Yeltsin's hand-picked successor, Vladimir V. Putin, unfettered access to the current President Bush.

The turnabout reflects a marked evolution in Republican thinking about Russia since the USSR's demise a decade ago. During the Clinton years, the Republicans argued for distance from the Yeltsin camp, and to some extent from Russia itself. The former superpower was seen as a corrupt basket case and the erratic Yeltsin as something of a buffoon. Now, Bush's Washington sees Moscow as potentially a key player in critical areas--from fighting the war on terrorism to providing a backup oil reserve. That's why Russian and American sherpas preparing for the mid-November summit in the U.S. are working furiously to produce an historic breakthrough.

Expectations are high. For their part, the Bushies envision a chance to get the nod from Moscow for proceeding with tests for a missile defense system--one of the Administration's key foreign policy goals. In return, Bush may promise to heed Putin's request to delay any decision on scrapping the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Putin has called "the cornerstone of nuclear peace." That would give both sides leeway to decide the treaty's fate years down the road, when missile defense--if it works--is deployed. Just as important, the Russian and American leaders could agree to slash nuclear arsenals to 1,500 or 2,500 warheads--down from 6,000 in Russia and 7,000 in the U.S.

Perhaps most important for Putin, he expects Bush to endorse Russia as an important post-cold war ally and a major player again on the global stage. That status, after a decade of humiliation in the wake of the USSR's collapse, could help restore a sense of national pride to Russia and enhance Putin's stature as leader. "Putin from the beginning grasped this as an opportunity to redefine the entire relationship," says a senior Bush Administration official. The Administration is expected to throw away relics such as the 1970s' Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions, imposed when Soviet Jews weren't allowed to emigrate.

TWO-PRONGED ATTACK. The Bush-Putin summit in Washington and Crawford, Tex., was planned long before September 11. But the terrorist attacks on the U.S. transformed the prospects for U.S.-Russian relations. Suddenly, Administration officials realized "they need Russia in a way they didn't dream they needed Russia," says Robert Legvold, a Columbia University political scientist and Russia expert.

Even so, the thinking for a major reshaping of the globe's strategic landscape began years before that terrible day. The roots of the idea go back to Ronald Reagan and his ambitious Star Wars, or Strategic Defense Initiative, which never really got off the ground but nonetheless helped spur Gorbachev to launch reforms in the Soviet Union. And they also date to 1991, when then-President Bush and Gorbachev signed the second U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which called for slashing nuclear arsenals to 3,500 warheads on both sides. That treaty wasn't ratified until last year and has never been implemented.

Meanwhile, the moribund Star Wars project got a new lease on life. In 1998, now Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld led a government commission that concluded that the threat of a missile attack from a rogue state such as Iraq could become real in a few years. That put pressure on the Clinton Administration to channel funds into limited research on missile defense. Then, in early 2000, Rice echoed Rumsfeld's views in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine. She proposed that the next Administration follow a two-pronged approach: missile defense plus drastic cuts in nuclear arsenals.

Bush had already tapped Rice as his campaign's foreign policy adviser. On May 23, 2000, at a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, he laid out his vision for a post-cold war relationship with Russia. "Russia itself is no longer our enemy. The cold war logic that led to the creation of massive stockpiles on both sides is now outdated," he declared. During the campaign, Bush also made it clear that he considered the ABM treaty obsolete. And if Russia didn't want to come along, the President would walk away from the treaty. Once in power, senior Bush officials continued to talk tough about missile defense, despite opposition from Putin as well as leaders in Europe and China. Rumsfeld even called Russia "a part of the [nuclear proliferation] problem."

Then, in the spring, the Bush team's tone suddenly changed. Some senior officials argued that the Administration should pay more attention to European criticism of U.S. policy, while a State Dept. policy review concluded that the Administration ought to deal more with Russia on issues ranging from Caspian oil to Iraqi sanctions. "The Administration realized that while Russia is not a central player in everything, it still is an important country," says Angela E. Stent, an expert in the State Dept.'s policy planning office until July. In a May 1 speech at the National Defense University, Bush decided to reach out, declaring that "Russia and the United States should work together to develop a new foundation for world peace."

When Bush finally met Putin for the first time on June 16 in Slovenia, the ice not only thawed--it evaporated. Overriding skeptical advisers, Bush decided to build a rapport with Putin and persuade him his Administration truly wanted to leave the cold war behind. That effort paid off after September 11, when Putin called Bush and offered his support in battling Osama bin Laden.

TENSION AT HOME. So where could the U.S.-Russia relationship go from here? The possibilities include not just nuclear cutbacks and business deals, but the chance to replace onetime superpower rivalry with a lasting alliance to fight terrorism or other global problems. Of course, tensions will arise. At home, Putin must face down hardliners wary of his new friendship with the West. And Washington's conservatives will have to accept the fact that Putin could still do things they don't like--such as sell arms and technology to China or Iran.

In the short term, though, there is reason to be upbeat. As the U.S. and Russia become allies determined to defeat the same foe, their political and economic interests are starting to converge. That's entirely different from the climate when the two nations joined forces in World War II. Maybe, after the war on terrorists, Russia and the U.S. can enjoy a kind of peace that will finally banish the memories of cold war.

By Stan Crock in Washington

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