March 12, 2001 | Commentary on Russia
Today's Russia is nothing like the Cold War-era Soviet Union that President Reagan confronted when he took office in 1981. But it's far from the hopeful, more open and democratic Russia President Clinton encountered in 1993, either.
In Vladimir Putin, President Bush faces an energetic, KGB-trained president intent on returning Russia to world-power status. He also faces a country that considers U.S. activism and influence on the global scene a threat to its security.
President Bush should know that his counterpart has a long record of saying starkly different things to different audiences. But he also needs to understand that though things have changed significantly in Russia in recent years, the firm-yet-pragmatic approach President Reagan used to transform the Soviet Union remains applicable.
To take the measure of the man, the Bush administration needs to study four documents-the production of which Putin supervised when he was prime minister and secretary of the Security Council-that have come to be known as the "Putin Doctrine." Each marks a significant change in Russia's outlook since Boris Yeltsin left office.
Take the Defense Doctrine. It states that Russia should work to build a "multi-polar" world with regional spheres of influence that will dilute American power. Yeltsin, by contrast, admitted that Russia's principal enemies-crime, corruption and extremism-lay within.
Then there's the National Security Doctrine. It warns that Russia will resort to "first use" of nuclear weapons if attacked by chemical or biological weapons or by an overwhelming conventional force. The Soviets of yore, on the other hand, enshrined the very idea of "no first use," as they relied on a massive conventional force.
Of concern, also, is the Foreign Policy Concept. In it, Russia openly declares that as the "strongest Eurasian power," it plans to dominate its neighbors and "create a belt of friendly nations around its borders."
And anyone familiar with the vital role free speech plays in a democracy will find the Information Security Concept troubling. It says free television, mass media and the Internet may represent threats to Russia's security and must be "managed." Putin has attempted to ensure state domination of all three national TV channels, and all Internet service providers must forward copies of all e-mail traffic to secret police databases.
Despite these signs, a new conflict between the United States and Russia is not a foregone conclusion. Much depends on whether the Bush administration is careful in the way it designs its Russia policy.
Take national missile defense. Putin has said he opposes the deployment of an American system and has invited U.S. allies in Europe to cooperate with Russia instead. But he's also said he'd like to join forces with the United States to produce a system that will cover Europe and Russia. President Bush should encourage the second option and stress that the missile defense he plans to construct will be designed to protect American citizens from missile attacks from rogue nations, not to eliminate Russia's need for deterrence.
President Bush also needs to convince Russia to limit sales of arms and military equipment to China and to rogue states such as Iran and Iraq. And he should insist that Russia halt nuclear and ballistic missile cooperation with Iran and cease helping Iraq block U.N.-ordered inspections. In return, Bush could offer lucrative incentives, such as allowing Russia to launch U.S. civilian satellites and helping it gain membership to the World Trade Organization. He could offer additional purchases of enriched uranium for civilian nuclear reactors from retired nuclear warheads, as well as preferential economic treatment in Iraq after Saddam Hussein is deposed.
President Putin knows his country faces enormous obstacles. Russia's economy has shrunk by 50 percent in the last 10 years. Corruption seems rampant and intractable, and full integration into the global economy seems extremely difficult. But Russia controls vast natural resources and significant stores of weapons, and the "Putin Doctrine" shows it has a clear vision of where it wishes to go.
By taking a balanced approach-vigorously defending American interests even as he offers a helping hand-President Bush can offer a break from the overly optimistic vision the Clinton administration entertained. A sensible mix of carrots and sticks is right way to handle the Russian bear.
Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Wire