March 27, 2001

March 27, 2001 | Commentary on Russia

Putin's Choice

The expulsion of Russian intelligence officers and diplomats by the Bush administration did not kick off a new Cold War, but it is a symptom of deteriorating U.S.-Russian relations.

Moscow stands to lose much more than Washington if the relationship goes sour. Senior Russian officials believe that the expulsions are intended either to provoke Russia into a new confrontation, or to offend it deliberately by treating it as a second-class power.

However, the Putin administration is conveniently ignoring the national security challenges Moscow has posed to Washington over the last six years. The worsening of U.S.-Russian relations did not start with President Bush's assumption of office. Nor did it begin with Vladimir Putin's election a year ago.

Russia's attempts to build an anti-American coalition to include China, India, Iran, Iraq and other rogue states started during the tenure of Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian spymaster, foreign minister and premier during Boris Yeltsin's tenure. Mr. Primakov coated his anti-American policy in "multi-polar world" rhetoric, but the fact is that since the mid-1990s, Moscow has been back in the business of challenging the United States through an indirect strategy aimed at building up the strength of America's adversaries. Mr. Putin's foreign policy is mostly a continuation of the Primakov doctrine.

The Clinton administration swept Russia's misdeeds under the rug. Washington ignored the massive military technology transfer to China, which included ballistic missile systems, anti-ship supersonic missiles, and modern aircraft. The White House failed to stop Russian missile and nuclear cooperation with Iran. Under a confidential 1995 Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, the Clinton administration waived congressionally-mandated sanctions against Russia for selling missile technology to Iran, in exchange for vague promises from Russia to refrain from selling advanced weapons systems to Tehran.

According to a prominent congressman, the Clinton administration intentionally misled the Congress, until Moscow publicly reneged on its promises in October 2000. Recent visits by Russian Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev to Tehran and Iranian President Mohammad Khatemi to Moscow boosted the Russian-Iranian military cooperation, pushing the price tag to $4 billion over five years.

Moscow supported Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Iraq's Saddam Hussein because of their anti-American stance. Russia threw a diplomatic temper-tantrum over the NATO air campaign in Kosovo. Leading Russian politicians compared NATO enlargement to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, to Hitler's Operation Barbarossa -- the 1941 attack against the Soviet Union. And since his ascendancy, Mr. Putin has visited China and Vietnam, as well as Cuba and North Korea.

Russia also tried to provoke a row between the United States and its European allies by attacking the U.S. ballistic missile defense initiative, and suggesting Russian membership in a future joint European military force. It threatened a massive missile build up and further proliferation steps -- specifically, ICBM modernization of the Chinese force.

Russian cold warriors are looking for a fight. In a recent BBC broadcast in which we both participated, Alexei Mitrofanov, a Duma ally of the extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, went so far as to threaten playing the Bin Laden card against the United States and inviting Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to visit Moscow.

Still, Vladimir Putin is not ready to challenge the Bush administration directly. A trusted associate of Mr. Putin's told me recently that the Russian president supposedly warned his senior staff against officially calling the United States as a "main adversary" -- a Soviet-era military and intelligence designation.

The trouble with Mr. Putin's Russia is that it has not made up its mind. Does it want to belong to the Euro-Atlantic world and to the democratic West, or does it want to build an anti-American "Eurasia?" Does it want to become an investment magnet, or be a toy store for the ayatollahs? Will it play a second fiddle to a rising China, whose economy is seven times bigger than Russia's?

These are very hard questions, because while the post-communist Russian economic players transitioned to market -- warts and all -- the national security elite has not evolved. Today's Kremlin foreign policy decision-makers would be in power if the Soviet collapse had never occurred. The consequences of this unfinished transformation are truly historic.

If Russia wants to integrate into the global markets and attract foreign investors, Mr. Putin should grant the reformist economists a full mandate for change. But he must also revolutionize Russia's foreign and security policy. Mr. Putin should scale down advanced military cooperation with China, stop the transfer of sensitive technologies to Iran, cooperate in removing Saddam, and boost interaction with NATO.

As for other European allies, he should engage on ballistic missile defense, not try to undermine it. In exchange, he could expect a rescheduling of the gigantic Russian debt and guarantees of the full repayment of Iraq's old Soviet debt once Saddam is removed. Russia should also receive adequate compensation for stopping weapons sales and technology transfer to Iran.

However, if Mr. Putin wants to isolate Russia, he should give his ex-KGB officers from St. Petersburg and the general staff top brass carte blanche, turn the clock back, mobilize and re-nationalize the economy, coddle dictators, and annoy America. This approach will almost guarantee that Russia will face economic stagnation, no foreign investments, and no Paris Club debt rescheduling.

This is the choice Mr. Putin -- and Russia -- are facing.

Ariel Cohen is a research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at The Heritage Foundation (

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally published in The Washington Times