The Washington Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin has advanced by retreating. Since September 11, most of the old red lines Russia had drawn with regard to United States policies have been erased, some of them quite dramatically. Russia’s former determined opposition to the enlargement of NATO in general, and especially to the inclusion of states from the territory of the former Soviet Union (the Baltics), has all but dissipated. Similarly, opposition to U.S. missile defense efforts seems to have given way to a willingness to accommodate the United States by modifying the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Also, Mr. Putin’s Russia made it easy for the governments of Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union to say yes to U.S. requests to use their territory in staging the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan – something hard to imagine a year ago, or even six months ago.

The abandonment of these long-held positions has won Mr. Putin praise and Russia new respect internationally. He has cut through a Gordian knot, a tangle of policy legacies from the Cold War and the sensibility of embattled Russian powerlessness they reflect. While his moves are drawing opposition from some of the old guard at home – retrograde elements in the Duma and the military-industrial complex – he seems to have momentum, especially going into his summit meeting with President Bush in Texas next week. His central insight seems to have been that Russia has a lot more to gain by working with the United States and Western nations than by trying, with little success to show for the effort, to work against them.

It has been said that Mr. Putin, in acting as he has in recent weeks, has been seeking to lock in Russia’s orientation toward the West. I think that’s true, but it misses an important element of the shift that is under way. It is not “Russia and the West” that has warmed up. It is “Russia and the United States” in particular.

It is an article of faith in France, for example, that Russia prefers to pursue Western integration through European institutions, not in bilateral relations with the United States. There is much to this historically, but I think that the story is a little more complicated and in any event fails to capture the current moment. Russia’s European engagement occurred in the context of the old thinking described above, the positions Mr. Putin has rescinded. In truth, U.S. plans for missile defense have been no more popular in Paris and other European capitals than in Moscow. The question of NATO enlargement is more complicated, but for many Europeans, and again especially in Paris, enlargement was a U.S. enthusiasm that could not be prevented and therefore had to be acquiesced to. Russia’s European engagement was in some sense an asset for Europeans in their articulation of differences with (if not opposition to) the United States.

Yet all the action of the past couple months has been in the bilateral relationship between Russia and the United States. Speaking in Warsaw in the spring, Mr. Bush laid out his vision of the United States fully engaged with Europe, paving the way for a fairly robust round of NATO enlargement (including, that is, at least one Baltic state). The Bush administration also made clear it regarded the ABM treaty as a Cold War relic and was determined to go ahead on missile defense. Russia said no, but now Russia says OK – to U.S. priorities. Russia will get greater cooperation with NATO now that the United States, post-September 11, has said, and Russians have come to believe, that NATO enlargement is not directed against Russia, that Russia can work with NATO as an ally in the war against terror. Russia will also get to sign a new treaty on missile defense, rather than be faced with a unilateral U.S. abrogation of the ABM treaty – and in agreeing to such a treaty, Russia will be relieving the United States of the burdens of acting unilaterally. If the new treaty satisfies Moscow’s concerns, the United States will ask, how can it be deemed unsatisfactory in other capitals?

As to why this bilateral improvement is taking place now, the galvanizing effect of September 11 is obvious. But I think there is more to it than that. As George Washington University’s James M. Goldgeier has noted, the European Union presents a long-term problem for Russia, insofar as it is massive, increasingly integrated, and not exactly inviting to neighbors. EU officials have recently taken to stating bluntly that Russia has no prospect of membership. Thus maintaining Russia’s Western orientation primarily through European institutions would run the risk of putting Russia into a position of subservience – a Russia useful to the European Union, but forever held at arm’s length by the European Union. Hence, perhaps, this new intercontinental handshake, over Europe’s head, between Russia and the United States.

Russia has a long way to go, but Mr. Putin has taken a big step.