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Russia: U.S. May Pay Price For Unilateralism, Analysts Say

  • Jeffrey Donovan

President George W. Bush recently announced the U.S. would withdraw from the ABM Treaty, despite Russian opposition. Some analysts see that move as further evidence the Bush team is pursuing a 'unilateralist' foreign policy. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the approach could cool further warming in U.S.-Russian relations.

Washington, 19 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Much has been made of the "new relationship" between Russia and America, but the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty is raising doubts as to whether Washington really wants Moscow as a long-term friend.

Last week's announcement that the U.S. would pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was proclaimed by President George W. Bush as further evidence that the Cold War is indeed over and that America and Russia have entered a new era of friendly, cooperative relations.

Few analysts would disagree that relations have in fact improved. But observers in both countries see American intransigence on the treaty -- which Moscow viewed as the cornerstone of global security -- as confirmation that the U.S. is simply pursuing its own agenda, regardless of the interests of other nations.

And that "unilateralist" approach, analysts say, may bode ill for what has been called President Vladimir Putin's historic bid to align Russia with the West following the 11 September terrorist attacks on America. Analysts, who say Putin faces strong pressure at home not to trust Washington, point to an array of possible future problems -- on issues such as arms proliferation and cuts and NATO expansion -- that could still spoil the new U.S.-Russian relationship.

James Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, believes Bush's "go it alone" approach could backfire when he needs future help from Russia. Lindsay says that the ABM withdrawal, which Putin said was "mistaken" but would not harm U.S.-Russian relations, sent a clear signal that America no longer considers Moscow an equal.

"I would suggest that the dominant opinion in this administration is not that Russia is something we have to keep at an arm's length because it could be a threat, but rather Russia is irrelevant and unimportant and that we are powerful and the Russians have no choice but to follow us."

Russians, too, appear to perceive a new disregard from America. Alexei Arbatov, chairman of the Russian State Duma's Defense Committee, made this remark about U.S.-Russian relations to reporters in Moscow on 17 December.

"We [Russia and the U.S.] have many common interests. We have a common enemy. The problems that used to divide us could have been solved. Now I can't say that's true. The Americans [withdrawing] from this treaty -- that was very important for Russia from a military and political point of view. It demonstrated how they view our partnership and relations. It is like the relationship between a rider and a mule."

Prior to U.S. withdrawal, Putin appeared willing to amend the ABM Treaty to allow Washington to pursue development of a missile defense shield. And one notable American commentator, Thomas Friedman of "The New York Times," argued to keep the treaty, saying it would give Putin vital political cover at home while allowing him to complete Russia's Westward shift, a transformation he said was clearly in America's interests.

But analysts say the Bush team never seriously considered Putin's domestic political situation in making its ABM decision.

Frank Gaffney is head of the Center for Security Policy, a defense consultancy in Washington. A long-time advocate of missile defense, Gaffney says that Bush long ago decided to scrap the treaty to pursue a defense shield that he believes essential to protect America from attacks by terrorists or rogue nations.

"My guess is that there were people within it [the administration], most especially the State Department, who were very keen on emphasizing those issues [Putin's domestic opposition]. So I would guess that, yes, they were factored into the overall deliberations. I don't think they weighed terribly heavily."

Lindsay says most U.S. officials believe Putin's decision to move Russia toward the West is permanent and based on clear national interests. Lindsay says the Bush team simply assumed that Putin could handle any political fallout from its ABM move.

"There's certainly no evidence for anything they [the Bush team] have said publicly that they were particularly worried that the Duma or Russian public opinion will mess up or complicate U.S.-Russian relations after the ABM Treaty. I think they pretty much judged this was a doable thing and that the signal they had gotten from President Putin was that while he didn't like it, he could live with it and he could handle it politically."

But Fiona Hill, another Brookings fellow, sees possible pitfalls in the Bush administration's Russia strategy. Hill views the U.S. government as split between those who genuinely want to help Russia join the West -- the State Department -- and those at the Pentagon who want to keep Moscow at a distance.

Hill says that if this internal conflict is to be resolved, it will happen only after the two countries confront their next most pressing set of issues, such as NATO enlargement and weapons cuts.

"We've still got a lot of obstacles and the question is whether there are enough incentives within the Bush administration, whether enough of the principle players believe that Russia is a priority issue [and] will push along some major benefits or concessions toward Russia."

One possible incentive for Bush, however, lies in Moscow's dealings with Iran and Iraq, which the U.S. says are aided by Russian sales of nuclear materials and other commercial exchanges.

When and if Bush ever wants a Russian favor -- such as backing for a future war against Baghdad, or stopping nuclear sales to Teheran -- analysts say the likelihood that Bush will be rebuffed is greater now that he's denied Putin a favor on the ABM Treaty.

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