Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Wall Street Journal Europe
November 16, 2001
Putin's Progress

In January 1989, in his final speech on foreign policy, Ronald Reagan uttered his immortal dictum, "trust but verify." Less well-remembered are the words that followed: "It means keeping our military strong. It means remembering no treaty is better than a bad treaty. It means remembering the accords of Moscow and Washington summits followed many years of standing firm on our principles."

As the Crawford, Texas summit between President Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush unfolded, we were struck, like most observers, by how much has changed in Soviet- and now Russian-American relations. We have a Russia that has approved the stationing of U.S. troops on former Soviet territory and a spy-chief as president who has agreed to share Russian intelligence. Zero-sum is just another term consigned to the dustbin of Cold War relations.

Other presidents have included a social element with their summitry (recall Brezhnev's hunting expeditions with Nixon's entourage). But there is more to the barbecue and bonhomie -- indeed to the whole personal dynamic between Presidents Bush and Putin -- than simply showing that enemies can be civil. Past summitry was about circumscribing a global rivalry in formal arms-control agreements. Today's meetings are about exploring new common ground. Arms control treaties can no more advance that agenda than the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction can help confront the new terrorist threat.

And yet for all the Cold War detritus Vladimir Putin has helped sweep away in the past couple of months, the biggest tests for him lie ahead, namely in how he chooses to confront the entrenched interests in his own country that continue to block meaningful political change and economic reform.

The first test, though, and most critical for the fledgling Russian-American friendship, may come over Iraq. For all the symbolism it supplied, Moscow's support for America in its war in Afghanistan required no great expenditure of political capital from the Russian president. Russia's defense establishment could hardly have been happier about the ousting of Afghanistan's Taliban. Ditto Russia's foreign-policy and intelligence community, delighted about the vanquishing of a regime whose radical Islamic movement was regarded as a threat to Russian influence in the former Muslim republics in Central Asia. And the Kremlin got the added public-relations benefit of having its war in Chechnya recast as a battle against the terrorist cousins of Osama bin Laden.

Iraq, however, is a different story. President Putin may not have the close relationship with Baghdad that Yevgeni Primakov (another spy-master) had during the Gulf War, but he has repeatedly expressed support for Iraq and pressed demands that sanctions be ended. The Russian and Iraqi defense establishments enjoy close relations. Iraq owes Russia considerable debt and plenty of contracts are done and waiting only for the day when trade can flow openly again. As oil prices sink lower, those deals are looking more and more important. Should President Bush extend the war on terrorism to Iraq, Mr. Putin will be under considerable pressure to throw a spanner in the works.

Russia's military pooh-bahs are agitating against America's missile-defense plans and the possibility of enlarging NATO to the Baltics. Mr. Putin, however, while he has formally maintained Russia's opposition to abandoning the 1972 ABM treaty, has quietly moved toward acceptance of U.S. missile-defense testing -- or a de facto breach of that agreement -- as a way of avoiding an outright U.S. withdrawal. On NATO enlargement, the president has reiterated traditional Russian opposition while seeming to leave the door open to compromise.

So far, Mr. Putin's deft handling of these issues seems to have headed off serious opposition at home. The military establishment depends on the president for procurement and prestige and so he is not without considerable leverage in confronting them. But the real challenge the president does face -- and on which economic turnaround also somewhat depends -- is reducing and reforming Russia's military and defense industrial behemoth. As he seeks to wind down a war in Chechnya that costs Russia dearly while delivering no benefits, the (in all practical terms) defeated and underresourced Russian military brass will be looking for some kind of payback for its loyalty.

Much the same story applies with regard to the Russian economy. In pursuing a tax cut and a land-reform program that excludes the 97% of Russian land designated for agricultural use, Mr. Putin has tackled the least difficult jobs first. However commendable and important, these measures will not free Russia's economy from the straitjacket imposed by more serious structural problems. The real crunch issues -- banking reform, judiciary reform and a crackdown on massive corruption at all levels of the bureaucracy -- will force the president to confront powerful vested interests who have been among his most loyal supporters.

What President Putin has done since taking office, but particularly in the past few months, has been to seize the helm of this great, leaking vessel and give it a mighty rotational heave. The ship has begun to change course, avoiding some of the rocks of economic dissolution and political isolation that might otherwise have ripped at the hull.

Mr. Putin, no slow learner, seems to recognize that a new course is necessary if Russia is to assume its place among other great ships. He probably has little idea of where, ultimately, he is headed or what to do with a drunken and unruly crew. But he has shown a good deal of ingenuity that suggests he may just figure it out in time. To help him along that path, it is ironically to the two words that framed the vision put forth in President Reagan's 1989 speech that we return: trust and principles.

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