Can the US really trust Russian President Putin to be a reliable strategic partner?

by David T. Pyne 

During the past several weeks, the world has seen the relationship between Russia and the West and particularly the US, radically transformed with a rapid succession of agreements including one to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 2200 or below, and another to allow Russia into NATO as a de-facto member with veto power over many of its decisions with an accompanying strategic framework agreement in which the US promises not merely to limit the scope of its planned missile defense system so as not to have a capability to repel a Russian nuclear attack, but to allow Russia to co-develop such a system jointly with the US.

 

The pressing question which arises then is whether or not Russia has transformed itself sufficiently over the past few years to be worthy of US trust to serve as its newest ally. In order to look further into the transformation of the Russian leadership symbolized by the elevation of former KGB spymaster Vladmir Putin to the Presidency of the Russian Federation on the last day of the last century, it is important to look at what Bush’s top advisors and what the President himself was saying only a few short years ago. According to a recent article in Time magazine entitled “Our New Best Friend?” written by James Carney, in January 2001 Mr. Bush’s National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, voiced her distrust of Russia’s leader in stating “there are a lot of bad things happening in Russia now. We don't have any reason to trust Putin." Only a couple of years earlier, Rice wrote a very critical article about Russia in Foreign Affairs, a quarterly journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations. President Bush, himself, stated during his campaign for the Presidency in early 2000, “Anyone who tells you they've figured Putin out is just blowing smoke." Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who led the opposition within the Administration to the signing of the Treaty of Moscow with Russia, declared as part of his Rumsfeld Commission report to Congress in 2000 that, “whether or not Russia is changing for the better remains a subject of hot debate. But there can be little doubt that the Russian nuclear threat remains undiminished."

 

It is evident then that President Bush and his some of his top advisors maintained a healthy skepticism about Russian intentions until recently. The question is what did Russian President Putin do to earn their trust? Mr. Carney concludes that Putin has done little more than put on a charm offensive vis a vis President Bush and that Russia’s internal human rights record has continued to worsen over the past year in terms of the continued genocide in Chechnya, the commencement of the final assault against the last independent outlets of Russia’s media and Putin’s unprecedented consolidation of autocratic power and conscious reduction of Russia’s parliament to rubber-stamp status. In fact, the only major concession by Russia to the US over the past year was President Putin’s approval of the use of some old Soviet military bases in Central Asia by limited US military contingents.

 

At a recent event honoring former President Ronald Reagan for his courageous stand against Soviet Communism during the Cold War, I asked former Senator Malcolm Wallop (R-WY), the author of a book called the Arms Control Delusion, what he thought about the Treaty of Moscow signed by President Bush and President Putin in late May. Senator Wallop said that he continued to oppose arms control with Russia because he remained skeptical over whether the Russians could be trusted and because the treaty would bind the US by limiting the size of its deployed arsenal. I raised the same question with Dr. John Lenczowski, who served as Director of Soviet and East European affairs at the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration. Dr. Lenczowski announced his opposition to the Bush-Putin treaty on similar grounds stating his fear that the treaty might result in the destruction, rather than the storage of large numbers of US warheads.  Frank Gaffney, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration, for whom I worked briefly at the Center for Security Policy which he directs, also had been adamant in his opposition to the treaty in published editorials and position papers although his verdict on the treaty as written was somewhat less harsh when he stated that he felt that it represented “the least bad result.”

 

There are several reasons why the Bush Administration should be skeptical about Mr. Putin’s intentions. During a hearing last month of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) called attention to a recent surge in work at Russia’s Yamantau Mountain underground nuclear war command center in the Urals, where 20,000 workers continue to work to add-on to the multi-billion dollar facility. Rep. Bartlett stated, “It is as large [underground] as inside our [Washington DC] Beltway. And the only reasonable use of this [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." President Bush should consider the implications of Russia’s continued multi-billion dollar expenditures to ensure Russia can win a nuclear war with the United States in the course of his deliberations whether to further broaden the burgeoning US “alliance” with Russia.

Western analysts have seriously misinterpreted Mr. Putin’s recently successful strategy of Russian outreach attempts and assume that Russia wants to be part of the West when in actuality Russia has rejected becoming part of the West. Instead, Russia merely wants to be a major player in Western affairs and regain her former great power status and prestige on the world stage so that she can better advance her own particular national interests, which will continue to clash with those of the United States and her western European allies more often than not.

© 2002 David T. Pyne

David T. Pyne, Esq. is a national security expert who works in the US defense establishment responsible for the countries of the former Soviet Union and the Middle East among others. Mr. Pyne has briefed Army transformation and related issues at the Pentagon. He is also a licensed attorney and former Army Reserve Officer. In addition, he holds an MA in National Security Studies from Georgetown University. Mr. Pyne currently serves as Executive Vice President of the Virginia Republican Assembly. He is also a member of the Center for Emerging National Security Affairs based in Washington, D.C.  

 

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