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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Right on a Few Points, Dead Wrong on Others

Russia is turning up the volume of its criticism of the arms control framework that has underpinned the international order since the end of the Cold War. First the chief of the General Staff said Moscow was contemplating unilaterally withdrawing from the INF treaty -- signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 -- that scrapped U.S. and Russian medium-range nuclear missiles. Then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested the same about the CFE treaty, saying the pact to cut back conventional forces in Europe is "meaningless."

Coming hard on the heels of President Vladimir Putin's diatribe about U.S. unilateralism and the dangers of a "unipolar" world a week ago in Munich, this starts to look like a co-ordinated push, in worrying Cold War language. But Russian officials insist it is simply the start of a "more candid dialogue that has been long overdue."

The immediate issue that has irked the Kremlin is the revival of U.S. plans for its ballistic missile defense system to include radar installations in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland. Russia sees the move as offensive. But there is more. The Russian president feels much more self-confident, thanks to the healthy performance of his economy and the reimposition of "order" on his political system. Now he wants proper (U.S.) recognition of his international role.

Putin is both right and wrong. He is right that the unipolar world that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has proved unstable and is already disappearing. Last week's deal to persuade North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program relied on Chinese muscle as much as U.S. pressure. Washington cannot deliver a deal on its own with Iran, either. And its plight in Iraq has greatly undermined its influence throughout the Middle East.

The Russian president also knows that, to many, his words do not sound truculent, but perfectly reasonable.

Yet he is wrong on two counts. In the first place, his criticism of the instability of a unipolar world can be applied as much to the system of "managed democracy" he has established in Russia as to the wider international setting. The only real power in Putin's Russia resides in the Kremlin. There is no transparent system to ensure his succession next year because political parties are a sham. Russia's democracy is very limited.

He is also wrong to try to promote a new international arms control order by threatening to tear up the old treaties first. That sort of saber rattling will simply raise hackles. He is right to raise the question, because the treaties have been overtaken by events, but wrong to do it so aggressively.

This comment appeared as an editorial in the Financial Times.