Bush's Russian Gamble

Posted: May 29, 2002 12:00 AM
President Bush has just put some expensive additional chips on an extraordinary gamble. With his visits over the past week to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Rome in the company of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, Mr. Bush has greatly expanded his bid to recast relations between Washington and the Kremlin from Cold War enemies to "partners." For this gamble to pay the sorts of long-term returns the Bush Administration hopes for, however, it must be rooted in hard-headed realism, based on transparency and practical measures. In particular, it must amount to more than another spasm of American enthusiasm for the Kremlin-leader-du jour, the sort of "cult of personality" to which a succession of previous U.S. presidents have succumbed in the past. Consider a few of the steps that have already been taken by Mr. Bush or his predecessors in the hope of encouraging a systemic and irreversible transformation of Russia, steps that have entailed the dismantling of many of the instruments upon which the United States and its Western allies relied to check or counter their Cold War foe: o A new "Strategic Offensive Reductions" Treaty (SORT) has been signed, formalizing parallel, but unilateral, commitments by the Russian and American presidents to reduce their nuclear arsenals by roughly two-thirds -- reflecting Mr. Bush's view that mutual deterrence no longer is the governing principle between the two countries. o Russia has become a sort of guest member of the NATO alliance under an arrangement that will afford it considerable opportunity to influence that organization's deliberations but, in theory at least, no veto over decisions taken by the other, full-fledged members. o Various Cold War impediments to Russian economic growth have already been removed or shortly will be. The multilateral regime governing exports of high technology items with military applications, known as COCOM, is long gone. Obstacles to Western European dependence on Russian energy supplies have given way to a natural gas infrastructure that relies heavily on such sources. For its part, the United States is likely to import much more oil from Russia and the Caspian Basin in the years ahead. Mr. Bush has also promised to clear the way for permanent normal trade relations status for Russia by getting the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment formally repealed and to use his influence to secure membership for a free-market Russian economy. o Putin's refraining from strenuous objections to U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty appears likely to be rewarded with some sort of cooperative role in the American missile defense program. Like the sharing of sensitive intelligence in the interest of U.S-Russian collaboration in the war on terrorism, voluntarily affording Moscow access to such American secrets would have been most ill-advised, if not actually unthinkable, before now. Which brings us to the big question: Has Russia changed sufficiently to this point for these sorts of adjustments -- most of which will be politically, if not technically, irreversible -- to be in order? In the course of a hearing last Thursday of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Republican of Maryland, offered a cautionary note. He called attention to a vast underground facility deeply buried beneath Mt. Yamantau in the Ural Mountains, upon which some 20,000 workers continue to labor to this day. According to Congressman Bartlett, one of the few legislators with real scientific credentials: "In recent years, [the Russians] have had a ramp-up in activity [there] -- building soccer fields and accoutrements that they don't provide for anybody else in their society. This is more important to them than $200 million for the service module on the International Space Station. It's more important to them than paying the salaries of military personnel. It is as large [underground] as inside our [Capital] Beltway....And the only reasonable use of this [sort of facility] is either during or post-nuclear war. There's no other reason for a country as financially strapped as Russia that they should continue to pour enormous resources into an undertaking like Yamantau Mountain. "Now what does this tell us about the Russian psyche and what caution [should] it give us about presuming what Russian actions would be in the future? They apparently believe -- from this and other indications -- that nuclear war is inevitable and winnable, and they're preparing to win that war....I would submit that this kind of activity by Russia -- that we should be aware of that when making prognostications of what Russia may or may not do in any given circumstance." Mt. Yamantau is hardly the only worrisome indicator of Russian intentions. Others include the following: The Kremlin apparently is continuing covert manufacture of chemical and biological arms and has a "hot" production line for new nuclear weapons; the United States currently produces none of these. Putin's government continues to dissemble about the true nature of its supplier relationship -- read, proliferation -- to Iran's radical and terrorist-sponsoring Islamic regime. According to one of the most knowledgeable observers of the Soviet and Russian systems, Johns Hopkins' David Satter, Putin is also covering up the security services' complicity in apartment building bombings used to justify genocidal attacks in Chechnya. And Moscow is helping to arm China to the teeth, including with weapons expressly designed and built to kill Americans. None of these is, in and of itself, necessarily an argument for abandoning altogether President Bush's Russian gamble. They do, however -- particularly when taken together -- argue for an insistence on transparency concerning Kremlin behavior and a disciplined approach on the part of the West to ensure that measures taken from here on that are aimed at bringing Russia into the fold are predicated on tangible changes in that behavior, not just wishful thinking or a blind-faith investment in the likes of Vladimir Putin.