- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Back in the early 1990s, as Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union, many prominent Americans sought to justify their desire to spend the "peace dividend" by declaring the absolute and irreversible end of the Cold War.

Some more responsible U.S. legislators, notably then-Senator Sam Nunn, Georgia Democrat, hedged their bets a bit. Even as they presided over the rapid downsizing of the U.S. military, these leaders acknowledged there was a possibility the Kremlin might revert to form at some point. We were confidently and repeatedly assured, however, that before anything so untoward occurred, there would be "years of warning" by some estimates as much as a full decade.

This blithe formulation always begged the question: What would the early years of such "warning" look like? It can reasonably be argued they would feature just the sorts of behavior now taking place under the leadership of the man elected last weekend to become the new president of Russia, career KGB operative Vladimir Putin. Consider the following bill of particulars:

• Mr. Putin's election is an ominous sign in its own right. His formative years were spent as a spy in Russia and East Germany actively working against and otherwise trying to subvert Western interests. Since he emerged from the shadows as Boris Yeltsin's last prime minister and heir apparent, he has made a point of demonstrating his continuing loyalties to the institutions of the old Soviet Union, most especially the "power ministries" of the former KGB internal security and intelligence apparatuses and what's left of the Soviet Union's military.

Unfortunately, the fact the communists polled as well as they did in Sunday's balloting suggests that Mr. Putin will feel free, if not actually obliged, to go beyond rhetorical support and symbolic gestures toward these instruments of state power. Having run on a platform (if that term can be applied to something so imprecisely defined) of restoring strong central control, chances are Russian civil liberties are going to suffer.

• The press in Russia has already begun to experience Mr. Putin's tightening grip. State-owned media and those controlled by pro-government oligarchs (upon whose corrupt support he seems every bit as dependent as Mr. Yeltsin) were indispensable handmaidens to the Kremlin's election strategy. The acting president was given endless and uncritical air time, often featured in clips emphasizing where his loyalties lie.

Those press organs that are not in Mr. Putin's pocket have also been put on notice. The silencing of a courageous Radio Liberty correspondent whose broadcasts from Chechnya did not conform to the party line about low casualties and the combatant nature of those being mercilessly shelled by Russian forces represented an unmistakable warning: A free press will be tolerated only insofar as it suits the new ruler of the Kremlin.

• Then there is the matter of the war against the Chechens. The ruthlessness of that conflict, the fact its pretext the bombing of several Moscow housing complexes and the attendant deaths of some 300 occupants may have been a KGB provocation, and the cynical exploitation of this military campaign for domestic political consumption all signals the arrival in power in Russia of a very dangerous man.

• This danger is particularly acute since Mr. Putin has embarked upon a program of rebuilding Russia's military, with special emphasis on modernizing its nuclear forces. He is defraying the associated costs with the sale of vast quantities of advanced weaponry to Moscow's ominous new strategic partner, Communist China, in an alliance explicitly hostile to the United States. Among the other beneficiaries of this fire-sale approach to Russian technology relevant to weaponry of mass destruction are rogue states like Iran, Syria, North Korea and Libya.

What makes Vladimir Putin especially worrisome is that he seems likely to try to pull off the hat-trick envisioned by another, very dangerous career KGB officer, Yuri Andropov, who briefly ruled the Soviet Union after Leonid Brezhnev's death: Securing vital economic and political support from the West, even as the Kremlin pursues domestic and foreign policies that are antithetical to our values and strategic equities.

An early application of this sort of jujitsu may come if Mr. Putin agrees to sign on to the so-called "Grand Compromise" being proposed by the Clinton-Gore administration. This arms control agreement would trade the evisceration of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and an affirmation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty's ban on effective territorial missile defenses for Russian permission to build a very limited anti-missile system in Alaska. By itself, the latter will be insufficient to defend the country even from future rogue state threats. Republicans and American voters more generally should understand that is not its principal purpose, though. Rather such a stratagem is primarily intended to protect Al Gore from legitimate attack in connection with his role in leaving the United States vulnerable to ballistic missile-backed blackmail, or worse.

Unfortunately, the Clinton-Gore administration's hapless stewardship of international affairs over the past seven years have afforded Mr. Putin options of which Mr. Andropov could only have dreamed. For example, if China succeeds in penetrating the U.S. capital markets, enabling American investors to be unwittingly tapped to underwrite odious and/or malevolent activities via the sale of shares of government-owned or -affiliated entities like PetroChina, Russia will be sure to follow suit in a big way.

Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering told the New York Times yesterday that he hoped Mr. Putin's victory read, the opportunities thus afforded for Mr. Clinton to purchase a "legacy" with new, inequitable and unverifiable bilateral arms control deals and increasingly problematic economic relations will end the argument over "who lost Russia." In fact, the answer is already clear: Bill Clinton and Al Gore did, by blowing the extraordinary opportunity to encourage real, systemic change in the former Soviet Union. The really bad news is that Russia may just have been won by Andropov redux.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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