- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

PALO ALTO, Calif. — You have to grant this to Vladimir Putin he knows how to take defeat like a man. One might not be inclined to grant the former KGB spy and current Russian president much else, of course. But the moderate way Mr. Putin last week handled President Bush's announcement of the end of the outdated Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty has taken a lot of people by complete surprise, particularly the treaty-huggers who never saw a piece of paper they didn't like.
Despite widespread predictions that the sky will fall, Mr. Putin does not seem to think so. He called Mr. Bush's decision "an erroneous one," and in a televised address to the Russian people had this to say: "Today, when the world has confronted new threats, one should not allow a legal vacuum in the sphere of strategic stability. One should not undermine the regime of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction." Hardly fighting words.
The fact is that the Russians will continue to have enough nuclear warheads to overwhelm any missile defense system the United States might put in place, now and for the foreseeable future even with the proposed reduction of their arsenal to 1,200 to 2,200 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Mr. Putin knows this and has decided that other assets of the U.S.-Russian relationship are too valuable to sacrifice in the name of a lost cause.
This is just one of the extraordinary steps the Russian leader has taken in the aftermath of September 11 to align his country more closely with the United States. Mr. Putin's stated eagerness to join the fight against terrorism and his toned-down rhetoric on NATO expansion come to mind.
The intriguing, if somewhat obvious, question remains, "why?" An informal survey of the scholars at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University the mother of all think-tanks and a place where the Soviet Union and Russia has been studied for the better part of a century suggests that Mr. Putin has not fundamentally changed, but is simply acting in what he believes to be Russia's long-term interest. Says Russia scholar and former U.S. arms control negotiator Richard Starr, "Look at his KGB background. It provides the prism through which he sees the world."
Carte blanche on how to deal with Russia's own domestic uprising in Chechnya is a trade-off, and the Bush administration for now seems to give Russia that. The prospect of a proposed Russian pact with NATO, which may give the Russians effective veto rights over decisions on European security, is no doubt a motivating factor. Another is membership in the World Trade Organization, with the potential for foreign investment it brings. Indeed, Russia stands to gain much from a closer relationship with the United States.
Just don't call Mr. Putin a convert to American values. Says John Dunlop, who among other things writes a weekly newsletter on Chechnya: "Everything he does is pretense. He is a virtual democrat, a virtual Christian. It is all rhetoric."
"My guess is that we're moving into a period of sustained economic growth coupled with Potemkin-like democracy," says Michael McFaul, author of "Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin." "Still, pseudo-democracy is better than none at all." Mr. Putin is moving his economic agenda forward at great speed, and at the same time as dividing his political opposition and cracking down on dissent. Barely a ripple was caused by the recent closing of Russia's last independent television station, NTV.
Still, re-establishing Russia as a great power is a gargantuan task. In the ambition to achieve national greatness, Mr. Putin can look to Peter the Great the man who made Mr. Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg the capital of the Russian empire. With a dramatically declining birth rate, Russia will have to rely on immigration for its work force. Its basic infrastructure is in an advanced state of decay; likewise, its education and health care systems.
As for Mr. Putin's decision to allow the United States the use of Russian airfields (if only for humanitarian relief) and to give his blessing to the Central Asian republics to cooperate as well, Mr. McFaul believes that he simply had to go with his gut instinct, as opposed to advice from his military planners. To see Russia as a reliable American ally, in other words, is greatly premature. Says Mr. McFaul, "They are moving in the right direction, but they are France, not Britain."

Helle Bering Dale is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. Her column appears on Wednesdays.

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