The Mood in Moscow

May 28, 2003

The Mood in Moscow

 On the eve of the St.


 On the eve of the St. Petersburg summit--with its much-anticipated meeting between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, the first after the American-led victory in Iraq --the attitude in Moscow toward the United States may best be described as "hopeful anxiety."  

Certainly there is an uneasiness in the run-up to the meeting, almost bordering on embarrassment.  After all, Russia found itself, once again, on the losing side, supporting a nasty dictator against the United States .  However, the fact that Moscow found itself in the company of two of the West's leading democracies-- France and Germany --and that most nations expressed sympathy with Russia 's position, has helped to cushion the blow.  


Nonetheless, in their current pragmatic mood, most Russian officials and centrist politicians admit that they misread President Bush's steely determination to remove Saddam Hussein.  They underestimated U.S. military capabilities and wildly overestimated Iraq 's ability to offer a credible defense against coalition forces.  The United States did not become bogged down in a military quagmire; there was no need for Russia to offer its services as an "honest broker" to procure a settlement between Washington and Baghdad .  

For the first time, Russian politicians and commentators are publicly acknowledging that, whether they like it or not, the United States is the only remaining superpower in the world.  They are questioning whether it makes any sense to be on the wrong side over a peripheral issue like Iraq .  

At the same time, however, there is a sly satisfaction that Russia 's opposition to the war has not extracted a high cost.  After all, President Bush is still coming to St. Petersburg .  In recent weeks, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell both came to Moscow to conduct what Russia considers to be fairly successful negotiations. (One outcome has been the establishment of a new "direct channel" between the White House and Putin's personal staff--at the suggestion of the United States--to avoid any future misunderstandings.)  The Russians believe that the principal American anger over Iraq has been directly mainly against France (and to a lesser extent, against Germany ).  It seems that Russia got a "pass"--meaning that there can be a rapid return to "business as usual"--the construction of a new and more substantial partnership between Moscow and Washington .  

Yet, there remains a strong apprehension that even with Iraq out of the picture, and with Russian interests strongly favoring partnership with the United States (especially in the business sector), major difficulties lie ahead.  The Russian political mainstream learned an important lesson from the recent Iraq unpleasantness.  They failed to effectively calculate their interests and the best way to promote them during a crisis when their views differed from the American hegemon.  (What they still have not accepted is that the hegemon was right.)  And there is no inclination to accept America 's leadership in the future, particularly in instances when their own important national interests are at stake.  

For now, the Putin Administration will seek to avoid confrontations with the United States whenever possible.  Russia is reviewing its ongoing nuclear cooperation with Iran in light of reports that Iran has constructed secret uranium enrichment facilities.  Yesterday, Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov met with the Iranian ambassador to ask Tehran to provide substantial guarantees that Russian assistance in the construction of a reactor at Bushehr--ostensibly to generate electrical power--is not being diverted for a crash nuclear weapons program.  In the case of North Korea , Russia , in both private and public demarches, has made it clear that a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable to Moscow .  Yesterday's unprecedented joint Sino-Russian declaration reaffirming the nuclear-free status of the Korean peninsula and calling on Pyonyang to observe its non-proliferation commitments are an encouraging step.  

At the same time, however, Moscow prefers to defuse potential crises such as North Korea or Iran , not resolve them on American terms.  There remains strong opposition to any attempts to destabilize the Iranian regime.  Moscow is prepared to pressure North Korea but is against the imposition of sanctions, to say nothing about the outright use of force, to ensure compliance.   

In the end, the Putin government is uncertain about the direction of American foreign policy and what it perceives as the mixed messages emanating from the Bush Administration.  Officials and politicians alike argue that if the U.S. objective is to lead a broad-based fight against international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (combined with support for the extension of democratic principles across the globe), then Russia should be prepared to extend the necessary cooperation and to function as America 's junior partner.  

Yet, there is a palpable suspicion in the corridors of the Kremlin that American ambitions go far beyond this program--that the neo-conservative faction in the Bush Administration wants to establish American global dominance which under the guise of promoting security and democracy would actually allow the United States to unilaterally act as the arbiter of international politics.  There is real concern that what the administration wants is not allies and partners, but followers expected to blindly implement Washington 's directives (in turn viewed as often expressing the preferences of the current Likud government in Israel ).  One Russian commentator said that what Russia is being offered is the chance to act as America 's jackal.  Is the United States really proposing a genuine partnership to Russia , one in which Russia 's interests will seriously be taken into account?  The debate goes on.  

And while it does, Russia --even as it continues to express interest in closer cooperation with the United States --keeps its options open.  The flirtation earlier this year with Paris and Berlin is one sign.  Putin continues to quietly strengthen Russia 's nuclear deterrent and to work on the production of a new generation of nuclear weapons--all of this in keeping with a concept adopted by the Russian Security Council two years ago to pursue "technical and technological modernization" of Russia 's military in a timely and efficient manner.  And while Chinese President Hu Jintao joined Putin to publicly castigate North Korea , they also managed to sign a far-reaching agreement on military cooperation between the two nations.  (The Chinese, after all, are reportedly interested in Russian efforts to develop glide- and maneuverable-reentry vehicles capable of evading interception by any of the proposed missile-defense systems that could be deployed by the United States .)  

What Washington does in the days and months following the Petersburg summit will have a major impact in determining to what extent Russia explores these other options.  Now is the time for Washington not only to demonstrate to the Russians the costs of further defiance, but to spell out the advantages and benefits of acting as a partner.


Dimtri K. Simes is president of The Nixon Center .  Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.