Nothing's Free in Dealing with Putin


Aug 1, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on August 1, 2001.

At the Genoa G-8 summit, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin gave President Bush a priceless going-away present: implicit acceptance that Moscow will not let the Antiballistic Missile Treaty stand in the way of building a missile defense shield around the United States. But little in this world is free, especially in dealing with the Russians. Putin expects to be paid. And, within limits, Bush should do so.

Unlike his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, Putin seems to know what he wants for Russia and, as an old KGB operative, has a good sense of tactics in dealing with the West. Blocking all U.S. work on national missile defense is not high on his wish list. Why should it be? Following the May visit to Moscow of a high-level Washington team to describe the U.S. program, Putin obviously concluded that, as of yet, "there is no there there"—that the U.S. is technically incapable of deploying a robust defense system that could seriously affect the Russian offensive nuclear arsenal for a decade or more.

So Putin surely asked himself, should I continue playing the role of "bad cop," thus letting old Cold Warriors in the U.S. use Russian obduracy to quiet the opposition to missile defenses? Indeed, by embracing joint U.S.-Russia discussion of both offensive and defense nuclear arms, he cedes leadership in questioning the U.S. antimissile program to the allies, the Chinese and members of Congress. And now the price. That derives from what Putin really wants to achieve as Russian president, about which he has made no secret.

He wants to keep the Russian Federation together and to convince the West, especially the U.S., to do no more about Moscow's war in Chechnya—an "object lesson" to other minorities in Russia thinking about independence—than to hector him from time to time. He wants to re-centralize as much authority as possible in Moscow and in himself as a latter-day czar, and he is making significant progress. He wants to set the Russian economy firmly on an upward path—the prerequisite for his other goals and his own political survival. And, for good measure, he would like Russia to be seen as a significant player on the world scene, when today it is, at best, a medium-sized power.

Putin gains such added stature simply by the United States paying court to him over the ABM Treaty. But why does it do so? After all, the administration has a point: With today's relatively benign U.S.-Russia relationship, nobody would think of negotiating such a treaty afresh. Further, there is almost nothing Russia could do if the U.S. simply walked away from the ABM Treaty. Yet doing so would cause a rumpus with most of the civilized world. Thus the Bush administration has chosen to negotiate with Putin, and he is playing it for all it's worth. He will, no doubt, also try to gain slackening of U.S. interest in inviting the three Baltic states to join NATO at the November 2002 Prague summit.

What the Russian leader really wants from the U.S. and the West is support for Russia's still-flagging economy. It has had a bump with today's high world oil prices, but oligarchs, including those in charge of natural resources, continue to wield inordinate power. Economic problems are not Russia's only ones: Disease, notably once-defunct killers like tuberculosis, is on the rise; and Russia is the only non-African country that is depopulating, at a rapid clip.

It was no accident that Putin first showed Bush some flexibility on the ABM Treaty at their June meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and in exchange the U.S. president endorsed Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization; or that the only tangible bilateral agreement at Genoa was to start a Russian-U.S. business dialogue.

Given that U.S. missile defenses are a long way off—and probably even then no real strategic challenge to Russia—it was not rocket science for Putin to trade flexibility on the ABM Treaty for economic benefits. Even so, he can be expected to bargain hard on the details, to remind the European allies about his concerns over NATO's expansion and role in the Balkans and to get as much as he can of the benefits of trade, investment and inclusion in the global economy.

Likewise, given that the U.S. does want the Russian economy to succeed, paying just this part of Putin's price is not a bad deal for Bush. What would remain is for the U.S. to decide whether it really wants national missile defenses and at what cost in money and relations with countries besides Russia.

Robert E. Hunter, a senior advisor at the RAND Corp., was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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