3: What Is Moscow's New Role?

The former superpower finds itself a junior partner to the U.S.

Take this. Now take that. Over the past six weeks, the Bush Administration has made Russia feel the back of its hand. First, Washington told Moscow of its plans to withdraw unilaterally from the Soviet-era Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Then the White House scolded the Kremlin for using excessive force in Chechnya and for seeking to stifle freedom of the press. Finally, the Administration said that rather than destroy nuclear weapons, as sought by Moscow as part of a proposed new arms-reduction pact, the U.S. might simply put warheads in long-term storage.

How has Moscow responded? With barely a peep. The invitation is still on for George W. Bush to visit Moscow at midyear to sign, the Kremlin ardently hopes, that new weapons-cut agreement. Thus does Russian President Vladimir V. Putin seem determined to preserve at almost all costs his bid for a close strategic partnership with the U.S. While it would be political suicide for him to say so openly, Putin appears to be tacitly accepting a post-September 11 arrangement in which a humbled Moscow plays a subservient role in a global order dominated by the U.S. "Russia is demonstrating complete solidarity and loyalty with the U.S.," says a German diplomat in Moscow.

The Bush Administration is calculating that Putin's Russia has no better choice than to accept this decidedly junior partnership. That's a cold-eyed view and probably right. Even as the lesser partner, Russia stands to gain from U.S. efforts to speed its entry into the World Trade Organization, possibly as early as 2003, and to acquire a weightier consultative role in NATO, if not actual membership anytime soon. Meanwhile, U.S. troops stationed in Central Asia are protecting Russia from Islamic militants--an enemy Russia's tattered military lacks the resources to combat on its own.

No other world power with whom Russia could possibly link up as a long-term strategic alternative to the U.S.--such as China or India--could offer such a range of benefits. And despite the abrupt behavior of the White House, the U.S. isn't asking for all that much in return: It wants Russia to be a secure supplier of non-OPEC oil to the West, a role that earns Russia tens of billions of dollars annually, and to share intelligence on Islamic militant groups that threaten the U.S., Western Europe, and Russia alike.

No doubt, subservience does not come easy to the proud former KGB colonel. "He must feel a little bit, if not betrayed, then disappointed by the American moves," says Moscow defense analyst Alexander Savelyev of the Russian Academy of Sciences. But Putin is a realist. A native of St. Petersburg, Russia's most westward-looking city, he has a long-term vision of Russia being a full-fledged part of Europe, taking its rightful place alongside Germany, France, and Britain. Being firmly in the western, U.S.-dominated camp will increase Russia's attractiveness as a partner for Europe.

Putin's vision cannot be fulfilled overnight, but it seems within reach. After all, for two centuries, before the Bolshevik revolution isolated it from the West, Russia was an integral part of a Europe run by monarchies. Even now, Russia's economic ties with Europe far exceed links to the U.S. In 2001, some 42% of Russia's $53 billion in imports came from the European Union, compared with only 8.5% from the U.S.

The end of the imperial dream is not proving easy for Moscow's political and military elite to swallow. A decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of yesterday's cold warriors are still in denial: In an unusual public criticism of Putin, more than 20 retired generals recently signed a letter protesting his declared plan to shut down Soviet-era bases in Cuba and Vietnam. While duly noted, the protest is unlikely to have any impact.

Yet ordinary Russians, weary of grand causes, appear to be following their President's lead. In Russian schools, a new generation is busily learning English, the lingua franca of the new global order. And nostalgia for Russia's lost superpower status seems to be diminishing. Legislator Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the loudmouth who used to rant against U.S. officials as "hooligans," is now urging Russian cooperation with American policies.

It's possible that cocky Bush Administration hardliners will overplay their hand. The big test may prove to be Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a likely eventual target of Washington hawks. Russian oil outfits have important interests in Iraq, and Putin has said many times that he's against a major military strike. If the U.S. decides to launch one without finding some way to get Russia onboard, then Putin may have no choice but to retreat from closer ties with the U.S. But even on this issue, it may be possible to reduce Putin's opposition if Bush offers guarantees that Russian oil companies will get a prime slice of the business in a post-Saddam Iraqi regime, says Moscow defense analyst Andrei A. Piontkovsky. For now, Putin's Russia is content to suffer the lectures of its senior partner.

By Paul Starobin in Moscow

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