His Big Gamble

Vladimir Putin has been enjoying the limelight. He's been lionized by NATO and feted by Tony Blair. His speech to the German Parliament got raves. Even President George W. Bush seems to be taking a softer line on Moscow's military campaign in Chechnya. But outsiders don't always understand a blunt fact of Russian political life: popularity abroad can be dangerous at home.

Like Blair, Putin sees his world at a turning point. The international war against terror offered a choice: traditional go-it-alone Russian isolation, or fully embracing the West. He chose the latter, to the cheers of the United States and its allies--and the consternation of both allies and enemies at home. Putin's new thinking is far ahead of the average Russian's. (Polls show nearly half think the attacks "served the Americans right.") And it's light-years beyond the military and intelligence circles that he depends on for power. A backlash could compromise his leadership--and prompt him to pull back from the new alliance with the West. In backing U.S. action against the Taliban, in other words, Putin has taken an enormous personal gamble.

His many critics expect a payoff, a geopolitical quid pro quo, even if he himself might not. Without it, Putin's good times could sour. By rights, Russia's elite should be thrilled at the chance of winning Western backing for a crackdown on terrorists in Chechnya and Central Asia. Indeed, high-ranking officials admit that they see Islamic fundamentalism as a threat even greater than Bush's plans for a national missile defense. So what's the problem?

In Russian eyes, the last decade has been a series of unfulfilled promises and slaps in the face by the West. Mikhail Gorbachev thought that Soviet acceptance of a unified Germany meant that NATO would not expand eastward. Just a few years later, the alliance took in three former Warsaw Pact countries. Boris Yeltsin disavowed Russian imperial ambitions in the former Soviet Union, only to watch U.S. companies and governments squeeze in. Yeltsin-era reformers felt betrayed by the IMF and the World Bank, which they saw as failing to adequately support reforms that Moscow undertook under their direction. And then came the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Milosevic's Yugoslavia. Russia helped persuade its old ally to surrender, yet has had little say in its affairs since.

Call it the Gorbachev-Yeltsin syndrome. Being the West's darling brings little but pain. Will Putin's abrupt embrace of the antiterrorism coalition represent a fall into the same old trap? "Very few really believe that Russia's true lot is with the West," says Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "If there is a misstep, or the perception that the West has fooled Putin, it could seriously weaken his position at home." Russia's regional governors, ever eager to enhance their dwindling power at the expense of his, have been grudging in their support of Putin's pro-Western policy. His military and intelligence see it as downright dangerous, leading not only to an expansion of NATO and the abrogation of the ABM treaty but also to the projection of American military power within the borders of Rus-sia's last remaining sphere of influence, Central Asia and the Caucusus. Russia's ingrained "anti-Americanism" will inevitably trump cooperation, predicts Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a former KGB official. Fiery nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky speaks for many Russians in lamenting the potential calamities: "In time Putin will realize he's made a mistake. We'll lose our influence in the Third World."

Much, then, depends on whether Putin's gamble is perceived to pay off. Certain benefits are already surfacing. He has received something of a bye from the West on Chechnya. Membership in NATO may be unrealistic for a variety of reasons, but Putin has won assurances in Europe that Russia will have an important voice in the alliance's deliberations concerning the former Soviet zone. Putin would like Russia to win most- favored-nation status from the United States, as well as admission to the World Trade Organization. The wish list is long. But the question is not whether he should get everything on it--but some of it.

So far, the West's response to Putin has been largely words. That's to be expected, given the press of events. But sooner or later, many experts believe, Putin must have something to show for his partnership. "He's gone way, way out there for us," says John Mroz, president of the EastWest Institute. "And he's got nothing for it. Nada." The danger is that, under domestic pressure, Putin could be forced to retreat from his bold effort to change Russia's world and let it, at long last, take its place in the West.

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