wade tillett on Fri, 5 May 2000 17:24:57 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Putin's Game of Chess

Russia/United States
The Opening Moves in Putin?s Game of Chess
24 April 2000
Russia?s new president, Vladimir Putin, launched his foreign policy last
week. At first
blush it appears conciliatory toward the West in general and the United
States in
particular. But the new president is in fact pursuing a more complex,
dual-track foreign
policy. As his government moves nuclear arms control measures forward,
it also signals the
development of next generation nuclear weapons and helps set the
diplomatic stage for
deploying large Russian forces near Poland. Putin is playing a complex
game of chess:
making conciliatory gestures while setting the stage for confrontation
if conciliation
should fail.
Last week, Vladimir Putin launched Russia?s post-election foreign
policy. Now president in
his own right, Putin set in motion a series of policies, signals and
gestures that were
simultaneously blatant, subtle, contradictory and, above all,
Amidst the complex, mixed signals sent out last week, one fact was
clear: the new
president is moving to have his government speak with one coordinated
voice on foreign
policy, with that voice controlled by Putin himself. Inconsistencies in
former president
Boris Yeltsin?s foreign policy could best be ascribed to lack of
coordination and a
multiplicity of forces competing to shape policy. Putin?s policy is, we
think, coherent,
if deliberately subtle and ambiguous.
Dominating the news out of Moscow last week was the Duma?s vote on two
arms control
treaties. By wide margins, the Duma approved the START II arms reduction
agreement as well
as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Together, these events were
generally seen as
a comforting sign that Putin intended to follow a conciliatory policy
toward the West in
general and the United States in particular. Putin certainly intended
that it be seen this
way. From his point of view, nothing would be better than to have the
United States
reciprocate a more accommodating line from Russia.
The need for reciprocation is the kicker that Putin buried within arms
ratification. The United States wants to deploy an anti-ballistic
missile (ABM) system. An
expanded ABM system is banned under a U.S.-Soviet treaty signed in 1972.
The American
justification for the new system is that it is not directed against the
Russian arsenal,
which is too large to stop. Rather, it is directed against ?rogue?
states, like North
Korea or Libya, which might acquire a few missiles with nuclear warheads
and launch them
against the United States.
In no position financially or technically to deploy an equivalent
system, Russia has
consistently opposed an American national missile defense. Moreover, the
leadership fears that deployment would tilt an already lopsided balance
of power even
further in the American direction. Such a system would likely close off
the possibility of
limited nuclear exchanges; the United States, if it chose, could strike
a few targets in
Russia and leave Moscow with the choice of doing nothing or initiating
total nuclear war.
But the most important reason for Russian opposition is rooted in
symbolism. Moscow needs
Washington to acknowledge some degree of equality. The only area in
which any sort of
equality exists is in the arena of nuclear weapons. In this sphere the
two nations can
continue to negotiate as equals. But if that equality slips away, if the
United States
simply ignores its treaties with the Soviet successor state, then Russia
will have lost
all equality across the board.
Putin can?t afford to let that happen. He has therefore made it
consistently clear that he
will not renegotiate the ABM treaty. More important, he has made it
clear that if the
United States deploys its system in violation of that treaty, all arms
control agreements
will be in jeopardy. The United Nations will begin debate over the
extension of the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty next week, and a high-level Russian
delegation will be in
the United States for that discussion.
This series of ratifications on longstanding arms control measures now
puts Russia in a
perfect position to confront the United States - both on the ABM treaty
and on the test
ban treaty, which the U.S. Senate rejected last October. Thus, the
ratifications are
simultaneously conciliatory moves and traps for the United States. If
the United States
proceeds with a missile defense in the face of the Duma vote, Putin will
have created
precisely the record he wants: he reaches out to the United States and
is rebuffed.
Putin?s shrewd ratification of the two arms control treaties coincides
with the
formalization of a new Russian defense policy. Already widely discussed
in Russia, the new
policy was made official last Friday, the same day Russia ratified the
test ban treaty.
While the president?s security council has not yet released the document
to the public,
Putin on various occasions has made clear the premise and the
consequence of the policy.
The premise lies in NATO?s willingness last year to take military action
without prior
approval by the U.N. Security Council, where Russia wields a veto. For
Russia, this
creates a dangerous new situation in which NATO?s unpredictable behavior
cannot be
controlled by international organizations. Therefore the consequence -
and this is the
critical point - that Russia is prepared for the first use of nuclear
weapons in defending
fundamental national interests.
Russia is also signaling that it is pressing forward with a new
generation of nuclear and
conventionally-tipped munitions. The Russian media has reported that the
air force began
testing a new missile, designated X-55. The X-55 was originally designed
to be launched
from Russian bombers and to be armed with a nuclear warhead. In new
tests, however, the
X-55 will be used as a precision guided munitions using conventional
warheads. The point,
however, is not lost. Russia is carefully letting everyone know that it
continues its
weapons development program and is capable of fielding new generations
of nuclear and
non-nuclear munitions.
The approval of arms control treaties coincides, therefore, with the
implementation of a
new nuclear policy that explicitly permits a Russian first strike. This
duality was
repeated elsewhere. For example, Russia made very public overtures
toward Chechnya last
week, while other reports said that the Russians were sending in more
troops. Putin,
meanwhile, said last week that Russia has fundamental interests in the
Caspian region and
that Western interests seemed ready to pounce on the area.
Putin?s views seemed coordinated with the Communist speaker of the Duma,
Seleznyov. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited several
Central Asian
countries last week and Seleznyov blasted the visit, saying, ?As soon as
links weaken,
they (the Americans) show up. Their principle is to divide and rule. And
that's how it
will be in the 21st century.'' In Moscow, as well, interior ministers of
the Shanghai Five
- Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - met on Friday.
ITAR-TASS reported
that the meeting focused on suppressing terrorists and separatists. Both
Russia and China
have an interest in suppressing militant Islamic movements in the region
and the Friday
meetings were intended to set the stage for a summit of the Shanghai
Five in May. Thus, at
the same time that Moscow made a gesture toward Chechnya, it is gearing
up to assert
itself in Central Asia.
Similarly ambivalent behavior could be seen to the west, in Russia?s
relationship with
Belarus. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced last week
that an agreement
had been struck to create a joint military organization between Belarus
and Russia.
Lukashenka said he expected the agreement to be signed by early June and
that it would
rate a joint force of about 300,000 troops. The agreement would place
Russian troops
directly on the Polish border in large numbers. The Russians did not
deny that the
agreement had been reached, though they tried to downplay the size of
the force or its
strategic significance.
The Western media has chosen to focus on Moscow?s conciliatory gestures
and is missing the
wild crosscurrents in Russian foreign policy. Those crosscurrents are
far from random. To
the contrary, they make a great deal of sense. Putin would certainly
like to achieve some
sort of solid reconciliation with the United States. He understands two
things. First, he
understands that he will get nothing from the United States unless he
positions himself to
bargain. Yeltsin could not deal effectively with the United States
because he neither
controlled his negotiating apparatus nor created levers for effective
Yeltsin?s successor does not plan to repeat that error.
Second, Putin understands that no reconciliation may be possible with
the United States;
American interests and Russian ones might simply be too far apart. The
United States does
not want to have its military operations limited by the U.N. Security
Council. Russia does
not want to be frozen out of decisions. The United States has major
financial stakes in
the Caspian region and wants a degree of political influence to
guarantee those interests.
Russia does not want to see U.S. client states created within what it
regards as its
sphere of influence. Russia does not want an American national missile
defense deployed.
Therefore, if Putin?s first priority is to create a firm relationship
with the United
States, his second goal - if his first fails - is to position Russia
effectively in the
event of a collapse of relations. Putin does not want to recreate the
situation from
1946-49 in which the United States was able to portray the Soviet Union
as the prime
culprit for the Cold War and use that perception of Soviet aggression
and duplicity to
create a hostile alliance. If U.S.-Russian relations collapse, Putin
wants to create a
clear record of American responsibility.
Putin is trying to reach three audiences. First, domestically, he will
be in a position to
further undercut liberal, pro-American elements. Second, and more
important, he will
position himself for the inevitable attempt to drive a wedge between
Europe and the United
States, by showing that Washington, in pursuing its narrow strategic
interest, jeopardizes
Europe?s interest in good relations with Russia. Finally, Putin is
addressing an American
audience, which to the extent that it is cognizant of foreign policy at
all, does not want
to see a return to the Cold War.
>From the Russian point of view, the same policy must be pursued whether
the goal is
reconciliation with the Americans or preparation for a breach. The best
hope of
reconciliation - on terms acceptable to the Russians - is to convince
the United States
that Russia is capable of threatening American interests. Therefore, it
is necessary to
make conciliatory gestures while simultaneously undertaking diplomatic
initiatives that
lay the groundwork for challenging the Americans. This may persuade the
United States to
be conciliatory. Should that fail, it positions the Russians to pursue
their national
The ultimate audience is in Europe and, to a lesser extent, Japan.
Leaders there do not
want to see a return to even a mini-Cold War. The Germans in particular,
with their heavy
financial exposure in Russia, do not want to see this happen. More than
anyone, Putin
understands the Germans. He is now carefully laying out, very publicly,
both his
willingness to work with the United States, and the consequences should
that fail. Putin
wants to have a neutral Europe or, at the very least, a neutral Germany.
The new
president?s conciliatory moves are quite real. They are also crafting
the structure of the
world, if conciliation fails.

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