- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2001

By Jan NowakIs Russia a friend or a threat? When Barbara Walters posed this question to George W. Bush, the president hesitated a long while before he replied: I don't know yet.

I hope Russia is a friend. The choice between these two ways of understanding Russian policy will be a momentous decision.

Russia is no longer a superpower, its economy is in tatters and its armed forces are deteriorating, but it is still a giant country with huge national and human resources and has one of the two largest nuclear arsenals. It has the power to damage or help the cause of world peace.

The administration should therefore place Russia at the top of its priorities. Every effort should be undertaken to make Russia a fully cooperative and equal partner of the Euro-Atlantic community. Former-President Bill Clinton was trying to achieve this goal and failed. U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated visibly since 1993, particularly in the last 18 months under Vladimir Putin's rule.

The United States has pumped more then $20 billion of taxpayers' money into the Russian economy and worked hard to provide further assistance to Russia from international financial institutions. After seven years of this uninterrupted American economic assistance, anti-American and anti-NATO feelings in Russia are growing rapidly. Favorable opinion of the United States has shrunk from 75 percent in 1993 to 37 percent in 2000. Mr. Clinton is considered the most unpopular foreign leader, next only to Saddam Hussein.

The new administration must determine why Mr. Clinton's policy backfired and draw the proper conclusions. The public claim by Mr. Putin that all former Soviet territory should be recognized by NATO as an exclusive sphere of Russian interest and control brought no response from the United States. Mr. Clinton twice publicly displayed a lack of concern over the criminal war against the civilian population in Chechnya. Attempts to obtain explicit or silent Russian consent for NATO enlargement slowed down the process and stopped it halfway.

The Kremlin was led to believe that it can delay indefinitely the admission of the Baltic States and other aspirants to membership in NATO. The protracted process of phased enlargement created a source of lingering discord.

The Clinton administration inadvertently encouraged Russia's ambitions to expand its sphere of influence and control. Mr. Putin was encouraged to believe that he could pursue an adversarial policy toward the United States without any cost or consequence.

Russia is too weak today to launch a military attack on NATO. But is has retained considerable potential to undermine U.S. policy and to become an aggressor by proxy. It accomplishes this by supplying sophisticated offensive and defensive weaponry to China, Iran and India, and by attempts to remove or ignore sanctions against Iraq, Libya and Cuba. By seeking alliances with potential aggressors, Mr. Putin is dangerously raising their hopes of success. He may well be trying to emulate Stalin's maneuvers in 1939 when the Soviet dictator pushed Hitler into war with the Western allies, hoping that the Soviet Union would not be involved, and again in 1950, when he tried to press China into war with the United States over Korea.

Take China. According to a recent study, Russia is delivering its most sophisticated weaponry to China, specifically designated for an attack on Taiwan. Destroyers with Moskit surface-to-surface missiles will pose a lethal threat to U.S. aircraft carriers and their escort vessels. TU-22 M bombers, SU long range attack aircraft, MiG-31s, as well as the Russian components of the attack submarine Song, delivered to China, represent the latest in Soviet technology. These weapons could seriously impair America's ability to defend Taiwan. Further, Russia is providing China with technology to build intercontinental ballistic missiles, with the clear purpose of intimidating the United States and overwhelming any defense of Taiwan.

Similarly, Russia is selling submarines to Iran and helping it build the longer-range missiles, Shakab 4 and 5. Arming Iran increases the threat in the Persian Gulf and to Israel.

What can be done to reverse this dangerous trend? Changing Russia's expansionist mentality cannot be achieved by accommodation, only by effectively blocking any realistic prospects for Russian expansion. NATO prevented the outbreak of World War III. The present purpose of NATO should be to prevent an outbreak of Cold War II. NATO enlargement should not be halted or slowed down out of fear of Russia's reaction. Admission of new members should not be subject to negotiations with the Kremlin. The defensive potential of new members should not be used as a criterion for membership. The Baltic countries can be occupied within hours whether they belong to NATO or not. Extending NATO's protective umbrella over the Baltic States would effectively discourage attempts to subjugate them by force.

Russia should not be put in a position of having nothing to gain and nothing to lose in its dealings with the Euro-Atlantic community. A standing offer of economic support should be made even more significant, but it has to be subject to conditions and rules implemented under strict supervision.

The reality is that former Mr. Clinton pursued a policy of offering a carrot without a stick. Mr. Bush should use both. If Russia is allowed to continue to escalate its present adversarial policy, a major crisis may well occur during the first term of Mr. Bush's presidency.

Jan Nowak is a former consultant to the National Security Council on Central and Eastern European affairs.

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