International Papers

Russia Loses the Cold War (Again)

Monday’s surprise announcement that the United States and Russia will reduce their combined nuclear stockpiles from about 12,000 strategic warheads to about 4,000 was followed Tuesday by news that a new NATO-Russia Council will bring Russia closer to the West’s military alliance. Nevertheless, several papers complained that the arms cuts don’t go far enough. The Financial Times said that both sides could have offered more drastic reductions “without any real change in the strategic balance” and that the United States’ insistence that putting warheads into storage be counted as a reduction was “baffling. … Surely it would be better to destroy these arms once and for all? Leaving them in existence is tempting fate.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin won few concessions from the Americans—the only Russian victory was that the agreement will take the form of a binding treaty rather than an executive agreement as the Bush administration wanted—but commentators said he played his weak hand well. The Guardian said, “The first binding international treaty signed by Mr Bush allows Mr Putin to parade as his equal.” Russia can’t afford to maintain its nuclear arsenal, so it needs an arms-reduction treaty, even one that favors the United States. The Russian business daily Vedomosti declared: “In reality, this agreement binds nobody to anything and does not reduce anything. Russia has simply reconciled itself to the impossibility of changing the United States’ new nuclear strategy, while the treaty allows Vladimir Putin to save face.” (Russian translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

France’s Le Monde concluded that “like a good judoka,” Putin had “transformed his weaknesses into strengths.” In theory, the treaty places Russia on an equal footing with the United States, and the new NATO-Russia Council will give Russia more of a voice in European security. According to the Times of London, the council will give Moscow a joint decision-making role with NATO in areas such as arms proliferation, “new threats,” and cooperation over terrorism. A Financial Times op-ed suggested that Putin has “made a strategic choice to put his cards in [the] western box.” With the European Union likely to expand eastward later this year—Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Slovakia are potential new members—Putin is determined to minimize Russia’s economic isolation. Similarly, the London Times observed, “For Putin, the new council is the sweetener that allows him to argue to the old-guard military that Russia has, indeed, got something from its courtship of the US. … Russia has accepted membership of the council … as the reward for not causing more trouble over [NATO] expansion.” (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia are all candidates for NATO membership.)

The St. Petersburg Times offered three explanations for President Putin’s increasingly cooperative relations with the West: 1) “Positioning Russia as a trusted friend of the West would give Moscow much more leverage on Western and U.S. policy.” 2) As a veteran of Gorbachev’s Perestroika initiative, Putin is intensely aware that international prestige is useless if domestic economics are bad. 3) Putin learned from the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras “not to beg the West for petty rewards. He is after something more important and priceless—reputation and respect.”