- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2001

We may soon come to long for the good old days of bumbling Boris Yeltsin. The Russian leader tended to explode with the predictability of a Yellowstone geyser, displaying a range of tempers from dead drunk to cunning to hopping mad, and even at times to charmingly effusive. Soon we may not have old Boris to kick around anymore. According to reports, his health is going south again.

When it came to the crucial strategic issues of the first decade after the Cold War, Mr. Yeltsin did not always play his cards very well. In the areas where his wily foreign minister and later prime minister Yevgeny Primakov was expert, i.e., Iraq and the Middle East, the Russians quite successfully interfered with American plans. When it came to Europe, however, the revolving Yeltsin governments were unable to halt the progression of East and Central European countries seeking closer economic and military ties with the European Union and NATO.

In 1999, NATO accepted three new members for the first time in more than a decade, former Warsaw Pact members, over furious Russian objections. They were not even able to use the NATO-Russian Founding Act of 1994, which gave the Russians a consultative role in NATO, to their advantage. The Russian government, after much delay, only this month allowed NATO Secretary General George Robertson to preside over the opening of a NATO liaison office in Moscow, all of two rooms rented in the Belgian embassy.

Particularly the inclusion of Poland, a neighbor to the Russian military enclave of Kaliningrad, was humiliating. Should either Poland or Lithuania, Kaliningrad's neighbor to the north, join NATO, the Russians warned, consequences for the Baltic region would be devastating. And what happened? Nothing, actually except the Russians looked pretty silly.

As explained last week by former Russian Deputy Foreign Minster Andrei Federov at a conference of the Center for Security and International Studies, the Russians really do not want to find themselves in that situation again. While they know they cannot block NATO enlargement, the Russians very much want to influence its course and define their own place in European security architecture. A prime goal this time is to prevent the Baltic countries from joining NATO in the next round of enlargement, which may happen in 2002. According to Mr. Federov, the Russians would like to postpone any decision on the Baltics until 2005, which coincides with the timeline for the Russian currency union with Belarus. A union with Moldova will undoubtedly be the next aim, and beyond that Ukraine, creating a strong Eurasian power block.

An additional Russian concern is that we now have a U.S. administration determined to move ahead with missile defense, which worries the Russians almost as much as NATO expansion. In an even weaker position than his predecessor, Mr. Putin will have to rely on his wits and the tactics he learned in the KGB, and both of which he may desperately need.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty analyst Paul Goble, speaking to the Joint Baltic American National Committee this weekend, "Subversion is the weapon of the weak, just as it was for the Soviets in the 1930s." According to RFE/RL reports, Mr. Putin has asked the Russian Duma for $50 million to conduct a campaign against enlargement in the media in Europe and the United States. This certainly smacks of the Soviet disinformation campaigns of the 1980s, first against the intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe and later against Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

On missile defense, Mr. Putin is being quite creative, playing to the fears and concerns of Europeans opposed to American plans. Presumably with a straight face, he told Lord Robertson that the Russians now acknowledge the threat to their own security from rogue states like the Iranians perhaps, to whom Russians have been selling nuclear technology over bitter American objections.

According to Lord Robertson, who was in Washington last week fresh from his meeting with the Russian president, "Putin is moving along the same path as Europeans, away from Cold War perceptions. This presents opportunities for new enhanced regimes." In fact, Mr. Putin argued that since Europe and Russia are clearly much further down the road as far as local threats are concerned, they very much need theater missile defense. The United States, he blithely asserted, is at no risk from ballistic missiles yet from rogue states, so why not leave the Antiballistic Missile treaty alone? (This treaty being what stands in the way of U.S. National Missile Defense). Obviously, Lord Robertson was quite taken with Mr. Putin's very reasonable posture.

Under Mr. Putin, the Russians surely will find other ways to work on splits within the U.S.-European alliance. As they do so, we will have to recognize what they are doing and not allow ourselves to be deflected from legitimate and important goals.

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