Russia isn't what it used to be

Posted: May 31, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--At a dinner last year at the Russian Embassy, a senior Russian official expressed deep dismay that the Bush administration was preparing to eliminate large numbers of nuclear missiles without any coordination with Russia. I was astonished. ``Mr. Minister,'' I said, ``I never thought I would live to see the day when a representative of Moscow would complain that Washington is (BEG ITAL)reducing its nuclear arsenal.'' Most striking was the Russian's tone. It was not at all bellicose. It was plaintive. The fact that we were prepared to make unilateral arms cuts, whether or not Russia followed suit, was deeply disturbing to him. And everyone in the room understood why. It showed how little Russia mattered. In the heyday of Soviet power, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko once defined a superpower as a country that has a say in every corner of the globe and without whose say nothing substantial can be achieved in any corner. The Soviet Union met that definition. In the Congo, Cuba, Germany, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Angola, Czechoslovakia, the Middle East--everywhere--Russia had a say, often a decisive say. It was not only that it had the largest land army in the world or the largest nuclear arsenal. We tend to forget the kind of ``soft power'' the Soviets possessed. For decades, they offered the world an ideology that held extraordinary sway among the intellectual classes. Not just in the Third World. The power of the communist idea extended deep into the heart of the Western alliance, led by communist parties in France and Italy that had enormous followings. Today communism has about the same cachet as alchemy. Yet at the height of its power, communist and/or socialist governments ruled half the world. The wonder of the post-Cold War era is that Russia could have suffered a collapse to strategic irrelevance without revolution or revanchism. The Russians are not angry. They are simply hurt. And they were quite humiliated when we were preparing to unilaterally cut our nukes without even asking them for a quid pro quo. In the end, we acceded to Russia's paradoxical request and allowed it to give us that quid pro quo. Hence the Moscow treaty just signed by Presidents Bush and Putin. It was a wise concession to Russian sensibilities. The agreement was three pages, shorter than your average high school term paper. It cost us nothing. And it gave Putin a magnificent signing ceremony and a place at the table. Even better, Putin and Bush then traveled to Italy and signed an agreement creating a strong Russia-NATO Council--another milestone in easing Russia into the sphere of the West. But for this to succeed we must understand that our relations with Russia are less a form of power politics than psychotherapy. We are dealing with a country that has suffered the most cataclysmic loss of power by any country not defeated in battle. The goal of our Russia diplomacy is not strategic stability--strategic stability is only an issue when dealing with enemies, and Russia is no enemy--but the management of sensibilities. When the Bush administration announced that it would be withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the usual chorus of reactionary liberals warned that this would be dangerous. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said it could trigger ``Cold War II.'' Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger predicted a ``more paranoid environment with Russia.'' The ever-reliable New York Times warned of the dark possibility of ``a dangerous new arms race with Russia.'' What predictable nonsense. Russia does not threaten the United States. The United States does not threaten Russia. Russia is not in military competition with the United States. It would therefore have no reason to enter into a ruinous arms race that would in any event be rather one-sided. The critics were totally wrong. Russia's response to our withdrawal from the ABM Treaty was not to increase its nuclear weapons, but to decrease them. Why? Because, strategically speaking, the U.S.-Russian nuclear balance no longer matters, except psychologically. These nuclear weapons are not really military devices but tokens. During the Cold War, they were tokens of grandeur. Today they are tokens of parity--a phony parity to be sure, but one whose appearance is worth preserving. Hence the treaty, hence the ceremony, hence the seat at the NATO table--costless magnanimity in the service of the most important international realignment since the opening to China: strategic partnership with Russia.