Can the United States Trust Russia’s Putin?

In the days when the Bush administration was most worried about Russia helping to spread nukes to rogue nations, White House officials would often despair at their lack of leverage over Moscow. There seemed little they could do to alter the former superpower’s behavior, especially when it came to Iran.

Now, on the verge of this week’s G8 summit in Russia, the White House believes it has discovered a new way to win the day: more nuclear carrots. Instead of trying to convince Russia to give up billions of dollars in contracts to build Iran’s nuclear power, the White House wants to offer Moscow even bigger contracts to become the world’s nuclear dump.

For now, the White House says its talks with Vladimir Putin’s government are at a very early stage. But the Russian nuke talks (first revealed by the Washington Post) mark an important opening in at least three areas: Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the U.S.-Russian relationship and the world’s growing appetite for nuclear energy.

If the talks proceed smoothly, Russia would be paid to import and store spent nuclear fuel from reactors around the world. That’s an expanding business opportunity for Russia: many countries are prepared to expand their use of nuclear power in the face of historically high oil prices and Russia needs Washington’s agreement to take fuel from reactors supplied with uranium by the United States.

What does that mean for Russia’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program? In public, Putin agrees that Iran should not be armed with a nuclear weapon. Yet he also stands as a roadblock to sanctions against Iran inside the United Nations Security Council. Putin’s double-edged approach will come under new pressure as the nuclear talks with the United States move ahead. “We have made clear to the Russians that for an agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation with the United States to go forward, we will need Russia’s active cooperation in blocking Iran’s attempts to obtain nuclear weapons,” says Frederick Jones, spokesman for the National Security Council inside the White House.

Underlying the whole notion of a new deal is the idea that any greater engagement with Russia is a good thing, no matter how the two nations disagree on foreign policy elsewhere. In the words of a recent Council on Foreign Relations report (called “Russia’s Wrong Direction”), the approach to Iran cannot be based on simple “side-deals and payoffs.” “If Russian and American policies are not based on the same strategic assessment, no deal between Moscow and Washington is likely to last,” the report says.

The early response to news of the talks focused on a simple question: what’s in it for the United States? Setting the Iranian question to one side, there are already extensive benefits from nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia. Around half of the fuel for America’s nuclear plants comes from Russia’s dismantled nuclear weapons under the so-called “Megatons to Megawatts” program. Any new deal would also help allies such as South Korea and Taiwan, who want to deal with their own spent nuclear fuel.

Putin and Bush have more than nukes to talk about in their session before the G8 summit begins. Russian officials have made no secret of their desire to conclude talks to allow them entry into the World Trade Organization, though White House officials say there’s still a long way to go on agricultural issues and counterfeiting problems.

But underlying any discussion with be a single subtext: Can Russia be trusted? Will it stick to its position against an Iranian nuclear weapon? Can it physically secure the world’s nuclear waste?

That’s where the psycho-drama of the Bush-Putin relationship is so important. Bush faced extensive criticism for bonding so closely with Putin after their first meeting in 2001, when he declared he had gotten a “sense of his soul.”

While both leaders still say they are friends, their relationship has come under increasing strain over the state of Russia’s democracy. At its worst, those strains led to an extraordinary exchange between Bush and Putin when they met in Bratislava, Slovakia, last year. When Bush pressed Putin on his control of broadcasting media in Russia, Putin accused Bush of having fired Dan Rather of CBS.

Such strange comparisons have become commonplace between officials from both sides, even as Bush and Putin say they want to keep their conversations private. When the G8 foreign ministers met in Moscow last month, there was a similar exchange between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Rice told reporters how she had seen big changes in Russia’s democracy since her first visit to the Soviet Union in 1979. “But we won’t hesitate to talk about our concerns about non-governmental organizations or freedom of the press, and we do so in a spirit of candor and cooperation,” she added. Lavrov was not amused and proceeded to question America’s democracy. “I also first visited the USA in 1979 and I have been taking note of changes, many of which we strive to discuss with our American counterparts,” he said sharply.

Those sentiments are a common theme among Russian officials. Igor Shuvalov, Russia’s lead official behind the G8, told reporters that Putin was more than ready for the democracy question. “My president would be ready to speak about political freedoms with his partners, but only if it is an equal dialogue,” he said last week. “Those bodies who will raise the issue should understand that they have, in general, the same problems, but maybe not at the same scale.”

Given that kind of diplomatic “candor” it’s easy to question why the Bush administration would feel a high degree of trust in Russia’s deal-making. Sometimes you don’t need to look into a leader’s soul to get an idea of how they really feel.

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