Time for Putin to Take the Initiative

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In response to the expulsion of Russian diplomats and the recent meeting between U.S. State Department officials and the Chechen "foreign minister," President Vladimir Putin wisely resisted the temptation to echo the chattering classes in both Washington and Moscow, which declared a return of the Cold War. Putin rightly rejected this false analogy, perhaps because he understands that the ideological divide and the perceived symmetry of power between the two superpowers Ч two factors central to Cold War dynamics Ч are now gone.

Putin may also understand that the Bush team cannot possibly have a "Cold War" policy toward Russia, simply because the Bush team does not yet have any policy toward Russia. To be sure, the Bush team did little to dampen the confrontational casting in the media of the diplomatic expulsions or the meeting with the Chechen envoy. Similar events, after all, took place during the Clinton administration, but with much less attention: Which administration do you think drafted the list of diplomats to be expelled? Nonetheless, the spinning of these two events should not be construed as policy statements. Such statements, we are told, will come later.

But why is Putin waiting for them to be announced? He and his government were wise to resist a symbolic war of words with the Bush administration, but wrong to sit idly by waiting for Washington to set the new agenda in U.S.-Russian relations, especially since the policy review that is being conducted is unlikely to generate many new positive agenda items. Instead, as was the theme of U.S.-Russian relations throughout Bill Clinton's second term, the new Bush agenda will consist primarily of policies to which the United States will want Russia to acquiesce. For instance, the new Bush agenda will look for Russia to agree to national missile defense, to go along with NATO expansion and to discontinue Russian arms sales to Iran.

In the 1990s, Russian leaders believed that they were to be compensated for their cooperation. They sometimes were, but usually were not. With the Bush team, however, bribes for good behavior are unlikely. Even more fanciful is the idea (floated by some Russian politicians and analysts) of linkages between issues Ч i.e. "we will not expand NATO if you allow us to do missile defense." Such deals are not going to happen.

Instead of waiting, Putin should be initiating. Indirectly, Putin has been aggressively seeking to change the dynamics of Russia's relations with the West by pursuing an active international travel schedule that has featured the presentation of many innovative policy ideas. To date, however, the targets of most of the initiatives have been the Europeans, the Chinese or the Koreans. Now, it is time for Putin to set out a new agenda for U.S.-Russian relations, which (1) removes difficult issues before they become more inflammatory, (2) realistically avoids looking for trades or deals on issues that cannot be linked and (3) clears the way for a more positive, if also modest agenda. Here are a few suggestions.

First, Putin could announce Ч tomorrow Ч a more concrete plan for reducing Russian strategic nuclear weapons than the one he announced last year. Russia could begin the START-III process unilaterally. Candidate George W. Bush pledged to do exactly that during the presidential campaign. If Putin moved first, the international credit for jump-starting the process would be his. By announcing concrete numbers Ч which are likely to be below those that the Americans will propose Ч Putin could put real pressure on Washington to embrace drastic cuts.

Second, Putin could declare Russia's readiness to annul the 1972 ABM Treaty on the condition that a new round of negotiations leading to a new treaty limiting missile defenses begins immediately. At the same time, he could announce Russia's readiness to cooperate with the United States in developing boost-phase missile defense systems. Putin has hinted at this idea already in his meetings with Europeans leaders. But Russia must recognize that a European missile defense system without American participation is a fantasy.

Third, Putin should state clearly that Russia recognizes the right of all countries to defend their borders as they see fit. This includes not only Romania and Estonia, but also Latvia. Russia will fight another losing battle if it tries to stop NATO expansion. Instead, Putin should try to alter the dynamics of this policy debate by demonstrating that Russia is too strong and self-confident to worry about the ascension of the tiny Baltic states to the NATO alliance. If Russian foreign policy-makers were really bold, they also would apply for NATO membership as a way of putting the West on the defensive.

Of course, Russia would not be ready to qualify for years if not decades. Yet, pursuing membership and taking more seriously the Permanent Joint Council between Russia and NATO already in place would expose whether the real mission of NATO is collective security or the West's hedge against a possible Russian threat. Moreover, while ignoring the NATO expansion debate, Putin could simultaneously aggressively engage in the European Union's expansion debate Ч a set of issues of much greater consequence for Russia's future development as a European country.

Finally, Russian foreign policy would be well served by ending the Kremlin's irrational and overzealous repression of democratic institutions at home. Putin seems to think that the present assault against NTV has no bearing on the country's foreign policy. If so, he is wrong. If Putin called off the dogs and Russia began to resemble a quasi-democracy, then Russian foes in Washington and other Western capitals would be robbed of their best argument for developing a hostile containment strategy toward Russia. This change in policy would do more to improve Russia's image abroad than any multimillion-dollar public relations campaign in the West.

In the wake of these policy initiatives, Putin would set the stage for a more productive relationship that would compel the new Bush team to be more responsive to Russian interests. A first Bush-Putin summit that included the codification of unilateral nuclear-arms reductions and the setting of parameters of a new missile defense regime (moving beyond merely amending the existing ABM Treaty) would most certainly move the bilateral relationship in a direction that is both more positive and more substantive for Russia than the current course. A more cooperative trajectory eventually might produce more far-reaching achievements, such as Russian debt restructuring, increased cooperation in space and even (someday) joint missile defense projects.

Are these ideas "out of the box?" Most certainly. Far-fetched? Maybe. But does merely thinking inside the box really advance Russia's foreign-policy interests? It might make Russian politicians feel better to get boisterous about NATO expansion or outraged by missile defense, but does this really advance the welfare of Russian citizens? Putin is too pragmatic not to know the right answer to this rhetorical question. He may even be visionary enough to realize that he has the opportunity to radically change Russia's place in the world. Why wait for the Bush team to get their act together? The ball is in Russia's court already.

Michael McFaul is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and teaches politics at Stanford University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.