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US-Russia: The new entente

J. Srinivasan

GEO-POLITICS brings together the strangest of countries. By that yardstick, the new bonhomie between the US and Russia is not at all surprising. It was bound to happen. But what is surprising is that the US President, Mr George W. Bush, who began his tenure not fully trustful of his Russian counterpart, Mr Vladimir Putin, should now see him as a close ally. The catalyst was obviously September 11 that has completely changed perceptions in capitals the world over. Ergo, Mr Bush's change of heart.

To appreciate the shift, one has but to look at the non-nuclear part of the agenda of the Bush-Putin summit last week in Moscow. It covered everything from combating global terrorism, improving energy security, and deepening economic ties to promoting regional stability.

A new spirit of shared values permeates the document which covers the emerging strategic equation between the US and Russia in almost all aspects, including the economic dimension and the importance of people-to-people contacts.

In fact, if anything the document is weak on the nuclear part — committing both nations to slash their strategic nuclear arsenals from 6,000 warheads to a maximum of 2,200 by 2012. There is no timetable for the reduction of warheads, just a promise to have it all done by 2012, and no formula for establishing compliance.

It does not require any warheads to be dismantled or destroyed; they can be stored for possible use in the future. While Mr Putin did not favour this arrangement, favoured by the US, the Russian leader agreed simply because in any case he cannot afford to maintain a large strategic arsenal. Still the treaty is testimony to the distance the two nations have travelled.

For, in the US and Europe the fear was that the Bush Administration's policies would start off another arms race and launch a new Cold War. These warnings seemed justified especially when the US decided to withdraw unilaterally from the 1972 US-Soviet Antiballistic Missile Treaty to build a national missile defence system.

But various strategic compulsions appear to have changed Mr Bush's view of Mr Putin, perceived to be very different from Boris Yeltsin, the West-oriented Russian leader who really ushered in the era of post-Soviet politics and diplomacy in Moscow. With Mr Bush taking on terrorism worldwide, he needs the support of Russia. Especially, if he does crack down on Iraq — or rather its leader, Mr Saddam Hussein — as he has promised to do. Mr Putin would have to be sounded out about a potential war with Iraq as Moscow has been Baghdad's main ally in the UN Security Council debates about Iraq over the last decade, and Moscow has considerable monetary stakes, with Baghdad owing it $8 billion. With the Russian-Iraqi economic ties worth some $40 billion, the US has tried to soften Mr Putin with promises that a "regime change" in Baghdad would not affect Russian oil contracts in Iraq. And Moscow's change of heart was evident when at the UN Security Council meeting Russia voted with the US for new sanctions against Iraq. Thus, so long as its economic interests are protected and it has a say in the new regime that might replace Mr Saddam Hussein, Moscow might support a US attack on the Iraqi dictator.

The other area of concern for Mr Bush is Iran, which he identified as a member of the "axis of evil". Mr Bush may pressure Mr Putin to stop Russian transfer of nuclear know-how and ballistic missile technology to Iran. Moscow has so far refused to stop supplying Iran with know-how that Washington fears may be used by Teheran to develop weapons of mass destruction. The Russians, who have been helping Iran build a civilian reactor, insist they have imposed strict controls on their exports that rule out sharing any sensitive technology. In all this Mr Putin has not disappointed. In fact, he was willing to go the extra mile to be in the good books of the West (read the US) even earlier. For not only was he the first world leader to offer solidarity to Mr Bush, on September 11, he also stood down his forces when American forces were put on high alert — in sharp contrast to the Cold War days. And when the US started its offensive in Afghanistan, the Russians shared prime intelligence about the separatists they had once fought.

Most important, Mr Putin allowed the US use of many of the former Soviet republics as staging areas for raids on the al-Qaeda and Taliban. American troops are now stationed at a new air base in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. One mountain division operates out of a base in Uzbekistan. More forces are deployed in Tajikistan, where Russian troops are also still stationed. And to think that just two decades ago, Soviet troops were fighting a war in Afghanistan against militants supported by the US. Though American forces are stationed all over Central Asia temporarily, they may stay on permanently if Mr Bush manages to get Mr Putin's blessing.

After all, Central Asia is quite central to Washington's calculations. Considering the untapped oil potential of the Caspian Sea, the US would want more than a toehold in the region. Especially if the confrontation with Iraq gets serious enough to affect crude flows from West Asia, the US would want Russia to keep oil supplies open; the White House is reportedly working on an initiative to reduce the US dependence on West Asia for oil. Where American oil companies seemed ranged against Russian outfits to develop Central Asia's crude reserves, there could emerge an understanding and, if the US has its way, even integrate the region into the world's markets.

If Mr Bush had an agenda, so did Mr Putin. Faced with a severe economic crisis, Mr Putin realised he has no choice but to quickly integrate into the world economy, or risk isolation and ruin. Russia desperately wants recognition as a market economy by the US, which would bring greater trade privileges for Russian companies the world over. With Moscow still hungry for cash and owing large debts to Western countries, Mr Putin would want Mr Bush on his side for debt renegotiations. Mr Putin knows that his success, ultimately, will depend on the Russian economy.

And he cannot modernise and make it work without Western aid and investment. His strategy is thus predicated on his appreciation of the inherent weaknesses of his country. Lacking the resources and economic power to act on its own, Mr Putin realises he has little choice but to be friendly with the US and Europe.

For Russia too oil, and Central Asia, is crucial as its recent upswing is predicated on that, and will continue to be so till other sectors revive. But for the latter to happen Mr Putin must make changes to the nation's commerce laws that remain complex and, worse, arbitrarily enforced. Merely allowing foreign access to Russia's vast petroleum reserves will be flogging just one sector. Mr Putin also wants Washington's blessings for his campaign in Chechnya. He would like to legitimise what is happening in Chechnya as a war on terrorism; perhaps, even get a helping hand from Mr Bush, who has vowed to take on terrorism anywhere in the world.

Perhaps, as a reward for all this, and as a recognition of Russia's Westward turn under Mr Putin, Moscow was co-opted as a partner of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; the NATO-Russia Council was formally launched in Rome on May 28. Even if full membership in NATO remains, as a Bush Administration official puts it, "a long way off" for Russia, the new accord gives Moscow a seat at the table with the alliance's 19 full-fledged members for discussions on fighting terrorism and arms control. Mr Putin also declared that Russia would not oppose the next round of NATO's expansion, which looks likely to include not only the three Baltic republics but also, possibly, Ukraine, all once part of the Soviet territory.

The Russian change-over appears complete. But this may itself sabotage the new Russian-American entente. For, though Mr Putin is very popular with the people, they are equally sceptical about the US' intentions. Mr Putin, the people feel, has given plenty of concessions to the US but received little in return. Russia's military and diplomatic establishment is still locked into a Soviet-era mentality of superpower competition.

The die-hards oppose Mr Putin's efforts at governmental reform, seeing it as a threat to their power, and they are very suspicious of his foreign policy.

Mr Bush apparently read Dostoevsky to better understand the Russian mind, and Mr Putin, the ex-KGB officer, may have pored over dossiers on the American.

This has surely helped, for the two leaders have struck a chord. So much so that Mr Putin and Mr Bush have asserted that they "reject the failed model of `Great Power' rivalry" that characterised the Cold War. They have also committed themselves to a strategy of "proactive non-proliferation" across the world. Surely, a new era is born in US-Russia relations.

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