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Slate Magazine
October 26, 2001
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Why is he on our side?

By David Plotz
David Plotz is Slate's Washington bureau chief. You can e-mail him at plotz@slate.com.

For the last several years, Russia has been the world’s troll—lonely, ugly, unloved, untrustworthy. It’s had hardly an ally in the world. It has been reduced to snuggling with Slobodan Milosevic and signing a “friendship” treaty with China, a country it detests and fears—all the while glaring enviously at the United States and Europe. (The West has responded with a fake smile—an “of course we’re pals, you have 6,000 nukes” kind of grin.)

But since Sept. 11, the troll is our new best friend. President Vladimir Putin, in the boldest gesture from Moscow since Mikhail Gorbachev, has robustly allied Russia with the United States in the war against terrorists. Putin has gone much further than anyone expected (or hoped). He was the first world leader to call President Bush to commiserate on Sept. 11. He has followed through by agreeing to share intelligence with the United States, fund and arm the Northern Alliance, and, most importantly, allow U.S. troops to operate from bases in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the first time in memory that Russia has welcomed foreign soldiers in its sphere of influence. Putin has defended U.S. strikes against the Taliban as “measured and adequate.”

The Russian president has been congenial to the United States in other matters too: He announced that Russia would shut Cold War bases in Vietnam and Cuba, another sign that he no longer considers the United States an enemy. And after an exceptionally chummy meeting with President Bush in Shanghai last weekend, he said that he and Bush “have an understanding we can reach agreement” about the ABM treaty. While hardly a champagne toast to missile defense, this comment was more accommodating than Bush officials had expected. The administration reciprocated Thursday when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that the United States would postpone planned missile-defense tests. Both sides seem to believe it's possible that Bush and Putin could find a missile-defense compromise when Putin visits Bush’s ranch on Nov. 12-14.

Putin’s sudden cooperation startled observers here and in Russia. He is allergic to such spur-of-the-moment sentiment. The ex-KGB agent is notoriously calculating and deliberate. He makes policy decisions only after “extremely careful assessments of strengths and weaknesses of his position,” says Princeton University’s Stephen Kotkin. Putin is highly deferential to his military and security elites. So it’s hard to imagine that he would assist the United States without wringing enormous concessions from us in advance.

But that’s what he seems to have done. For the first time anyone can recall, Putin has acted with his gut and without any guarantee of reward. A purely rational analysis would have convinced Putin to equivocate post-Sept. 11. The Russian public, after all, doesn’t care about helping the United States against al-Qaida. Polls find a majority of Russians believe they should remain neutral. And Putin’s generals and spooks hate the idea of American troops occupying old Soviet bases.

But Putin has ignored cold good sense because he seems to have a “visceral and psychological and bloodyminded feeling about terrorism and the Taliban.” says Andrew Weiss, the chief Russia hand for President Clinton’s National Security Council. Putin is from St. Petersburg, the most European Russian city, and has always been oriented west. Russians, including Putin, are infatuated with Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, and Putin thinks that Russia is the civilized world’s first line of defense against Muslim extremist hordes (“The Talibs at the gates,” as Weiss puts it). Putin loathes Islamic extremism and doesn’t much like any Muslims—even though they comprise one-sixth of the Russian population. He has waged war so brutally in Chechnya because he really believes—mostly incorrectly—that the Chechen rebellion is first and foremost an Islamist terror operation.

In the wake of Sept. 11, Putin saw a momentous choice for Russia: to embrace the West and civilization or to sink back into isolation and indifference. So Putin made an emotional decision that leaves him with a very practical problem. He needs tangible rewards to mollify his people and affirm Russia’s global importance. Putin has tallied a few small victories. For the first time in years, the Russian president is included among the world’s decisionmakers. “He wanted to belong to The Club, to sit down with his friends Tony and George and Gerhard. And now he does,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Ariel Cohen. That is surely psychologically satisfying for Putin. Another symbolic accomplishment: American and European leaders are now muting their criticism of the war in Chechnya (not that our criticism had ever restrained the Russians from slaughter and depredation).

And the United States seems to be deferring to Putin in arms negotiations. The Bush administration is a touch less adamant that the ABM treaty must be scrapped ASAP. Even before Rumsfeld announced that it was postponing missile-defense tests, Secretary of State Colin Powell had hinted that American and Russian negotiators might be able to bend the treaty in a way that would allow the United States to conduct more tests without withdrawing from the pact. The United States also seems amenable to the huge reductions in nuclear arms that Putin craves.

But none of these small triumphs really helps achieve Putin’s greater ambition. He is standing with the West because he thinks Russia should belong to the West. That means participating in the economic and political institutions of the West: European Union, NATO, the World Trade Organization. These are the rewards that Russians may expect, and these are precisely the goods Putin can’t deliver.

This is because neither Putin nor his people are ready to do what it takes to belong to these international bodies. “When you get to the nitty-gritty of bringing Russia closer, all the issues that divide us are still there,” says Stanford professor Michael McFaul. Russia has a decent opportunity to join the WTO, but Putin is loath to undertake the economic reforms needed for entry. He doesn’t dare alienate the bankers, farmers, and other interest groups who can’t stomach foreign competition. Russia wants to belong, but doesn’t want its economy pried open.

NATO and the EU are hopeless causes as well. NATO, an outfit designed to oppose the Soviet Union, isn’t ready to include Russia. And no one in the EU can imagine Russia meeting its incredibly strict criteria for membership. The rich European countries don’t have the faintest desire to be handcuffed to Russia’s disastrous economy.

Putin and the Russians have unrealistic expectations. “Putin would love to have an alliance with the West, but he doesn’t understand what kind of obligations Russia would incur,” says Weiss. “The Russians harbor a fantasy that they will get special treatment because they are Russian.”

Putin certainly will survive even if he can’t deliver real benefits from his Western alliance. He has immense popular support in Russia, with approval ratings in the 70s. Russians are ecstatic to have a president who shows up for work (unlike Yeltsin), is sober (unlike Yeltsin), and behaves sensibly (unlike Yeltsin). The economy grew last year, thanks to high oil prices. Putin’s reputation as a firm, incorruptible patriot is rock-solid. And he has gutted most potential sources of opposition, castrating the upper house of the legislature, undermining local governors, and scaring the oligarchs by taking down two of them.

But if Putin can’t succeed in his main goal and integrate Russia in the West, he risks pulling a Gorbachev: He could be perceived as having given everything to the West and received nothing but insults in return. An anti-Western opposition could bloom in that muck.

Putin made a relatively selfless gesture in rushing to America’s defense. But in Russia (as in most of the world), no good deed goes unpunished. He has come through for the United States, but unless he also comes through for Russians, we may find ourselves living with the troll once again.

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