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Washington Post
November 10, 2001
Putin's Bold Steps . . .
By Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser is an associate editor of The Post.

Vladimir Putin is coming to Washington next week to try to do some big business. By all appearances, he wants, finally, to end the illusion that Russia is a strategic rival to the United States. If he finds a willing partner in Washington and Crawford, Tex., Putin and President Bush can remake the world in a way Bush's father and Mikhail Gorbachev tried but failed to do a decade ago.

This is the import of the words and signals emanating from Putin since Sept. 11. He has welcomed a new alliance with the United States to fight international terrorism, and welcomed American forces into his immediate neighborhood to conduct that fight. He has spoken seriously with the secretary general of NATO about Russia's joining the Atlantic Alliance. He has all but eliminated the possibility that Russia will make a fuss about the admission of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- once republics of the Soviet Union -- into NATO next year.

Putin has shut down the only Russian facility outside Russia whose existence implied that the United States was a potential military enemy: a giant listening station in Cuba that eavesdropped on American communications. And he continues a program of trimming and rationalizing the Russian military establishment, ending any pretense that it could pose a threat to the United States except by direct nuclear attack.

He seems willing to let the United States pursue its dream of missile defense without destroying a broad arms-control regime that is reassuring not only to Russians but to all of America's allies. He offers the United States the chance to bring down the number of strategic nuclear weapons to levels last seen in the 1960s.

In taking these steps, Putin has put Russia far ahead of the United States, which spends vast sums on the assumption that a war with Russia continues to be a distinct possibility. U.S. missiles aimed at Russia remain on alert; our eavesdropping on the Russians remains intense. Putin is actually offering the United States a chance to save a lot of money.

Why is he doing all this? Probably because it makes so much sense, and the alternatives make so little. What are Russia and the United States going to fight about? Even in the Cold War it was difficult for both to identify vital national interests that the other threatened; only ideology and pride provided a basis for hostility. Now, with Russia weakened and impoverished, its military already decimated by budget cuts and plummeting morale, the idea of Russia's taking on the United States is laughable. Putin understands this.

Russia and the United States actually have important common interests. As the leading nuclear powers, they share a great responsibility to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They're both interested in European stability, and, most urgently, in containing terrorism. They're actually neighbors across the Bering Strait, a proximity that could one day be turned to meaningful advantage by opening economic relations between Siberia and Alaska.

Why is it suddenly possible to bury the Cold War hatchets? Because Sept. 11 provided just the jolt needed to shatter the assumptions that had survived for the first 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, the "power ministries," the military and police, remained in the hands of Cold War veterans who could not abandon old instincts. The situation in Washington was not much different. People who had invested entire careers in one world view couldn't easily abandon it, on either side. Russians continued to pretend that NATO was a threat to them; Americans couldn't escape the anxiety that the Russians were still potentially the bad guys who could do us in.

After Sept. 11 that old picture looks, well, old. This is Putin's message. It's a surprise, not least because Putin's power base in Russia was those "power ministries" most wedded to old-think. This was clear right after Sept. 11, when Putin's defense minister and close ally, Sergei Ivanov, seemed to be totally at odds with his president. Ivanov (briefly) said he couldn't imagine American forces coming to Central Asia; Putin then welcomed them. Those who considered Putin an unimaginative captive of his KGB past have had to reevaluate the man.

Of course Putin's new view of Russia's strategic position and its relationship with the United States is a judgment about geopolitics, not a measure of his commitment to democracy. There is still good reason to wonder if Putin believes in, or even understands, the ideas of liberal democracy. Russia's future will be much brighter if he, or one of his successors, can come to appreciate those values and help Russia embrace them.

But we don't have to wait for that fine day to welcome Putin's latest initiatives. He has cast Russia's fate clearly with Europe and the West; he has found a way to say, finally, that the old Emperor Cold War has been walking around without any clothes on. These are big steps, creative and bold. By taking them, Putin has helped make Sept. 11 potentially the most important moment in world history since the collapse of communism. We missed the first big chance a dozen years ago; we can grasp this one.

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