- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Russian President Vladimir Putin was the star attendee of this weekend's summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries. Although he can't look to a booming economy to underpin his country's prominence, Mr. Putin has found a way to make Russia a player on the global stage.

By meeting with China's and North Korea's leaders right before arriving in Okinawa for the summit, Mr. Putin was able to make a dramatic entrance. Many heads of state were eager to speak to the Russian president to gain insights on China and the reclusive North Korean leader. By using Russia's eclectic connections, Mr. Putin is becoming a kind of power broker to rogue states.

On Wednesday, Mr. Putin announced that North Korea would abandon its missile program if only the West would supply the Asian country with rockets to explore space. Since these rockets would use similar technology as missiles that deploy nuclear, biological and conventional warheads, some experts wondered if the dry Mr. Putin was making an attempt at deadpan humor.

But Mr. Putin wasn't joking. "One should expect other countries, if they assert that [North Korea] poses a threat for them, would support this project. They can minimize the threat by supplying [North Korea] with their own rocket boosters," he said. The Russian president is posing as a mediator for peace, but his efforts are disingenuous, and transparently so. Giving North Korea advanced rocket capabilities would only serve to intensify tensions on the Korean peninsula.

By downplaying the threat that North Korea poses, Mr. Putin is also trying to undermine U.S. efforts to build a defensive shield to guard against a missile or nuclear attack. Mr. Putin fears Russia's geopolitical stature would be severely undermined if the United States were successful in developing this technology and he is right.

While in China, the Russian president reiterated his opposition to U.S. plans to build such a defense system. In a joint statement, the Russian and Chinese leaders accused Washington of using the shield "to seek unilateral military and security advantages that will pose the most grave, adverse consequences" to China, Russia and the United States itself. Mr. Putin added: "Our two countries presently share a common position on the global security balance."

In other words, Mr. Putin is seeking to undercut U.S. power by building informal alliances with some undistinguished company and blocking U.S. plans to build a national missile defense. He is not doing his country any good this way. Although Russia certainly doesn't have a stellar international image, it is still more respected than North Korea. Far better were it for his people, if Mr. Putin would instead concentrate on the arduous task of rebuilding his country's economy. The Russians deserve as much.

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