Usa-Bashing Works For Putin

For many Americans, the forthcoming movie "Thirteen Days" will evoke, as entertainment, an event that has long since faded into history: the Cuban missile crisis. For many Russians, Vladimir Putin's recent trip to Cuba evoked an event that is still a raw wound: the loss of the Soviet imperium.

Putin didn't take any missiles with him on his trip to Havana, the first by a Russian leader since the fall of the Soviet Union, but he did go bearing a civilian nuclear agreement and arms contracts. Just as important, Putin brought a message of sympathy to Fidel Castro and other Latin American leaders who dislike Washington's blustery ways as the world's lone superpower. "Similar attempts at world domination were made numerous times throughout the course of history--and it is well known how they ended," Putin declared in a speech in Havana. Then he flew on to Canada--over U.S. territory--without stopping in Washington.

For the president of a nation that can't pay its bills--$157 billion in foreign debt and counting--Putin is traveling the world these days like a potentate. In his nearly 12 months in power, Putin has journeyed to Western Europe, where he trashed Washington's nuclear-missile-defense plan; to Beijing, where he pledged to bolster an anti-hegemonic (read anti-U.S.) partnership with China, and to Pyongyang, where he swooped in ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's historic visit in late October to negotiate with the reclusive Kim Jong Il. Along the way the poker-faced Putin developed a cordial if distinctly chilly relationship with Bill Clinton, who, until Putin, never met a foreign leader he couldn't charm. But Putin has also missed no opportunity to tweak the most powerful man on earth over foreign-policy issues critical to Washington--which, by the way, he's never visited as president.

What's with all this diplomatic diddling? Many observers believe that while Putin recognizes Russia's deep limitations as a power, he's seeking to recapture a little of the Soviet Union's old stature as America's chief rival. So he's playing kibitzer in chief to American hegemony: flirting ostentatiously with U.S. rivals like Iraq and Iran; buddying up to members of the former Soviet bloc; seeking to drive a wedge between Washington and its European allies over national missile defense. Putin's main aim, in fact, may be to consolidate his power base at home. Many Russians blame their country's dire economic state and reduced geopolitical position on the United States, and the more Putin shows up Washington, the more points he scores with voters. "Some of it is just Putin being the un-Yeltsin," says Stephen Sestanovich, U.S. ambassador at large to the former Soviet states. Putin wants a "healthy distancing" from Russia's ex-superpower rival, a corrective to the Boris Yeltsin years, when Washington was Moscow's only lodestar, adds Aleksei Pushkov, a Moscow foreign-policy commentator. "America will cease to be a criterion for our foreign policy," says Pushkov. "The European and Asian directions will be strengthened."

Still, the 48-year-old Russian president remains something of a puzzle to Washington. On the one hand, Putin has reinvigorated the Kremlin. He's done this both literally, by cultivating the image of a judo buff to Yeltsin's stumbling drunk, and politically, by injecting a ringing note of reality into the discussion of Russia's problems. Putin has bluntly conceded that Russia's devastated economy has 15 years to go before it can reach even the level of Portugal, and he has targeted internal corruption and tax cheating. On the other hand, Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, clearly laments the loss of the U.S.S.R. He has mercilessly attacked Chechnya and cracked down on press freedoms, and cynically exploited Russians' age-old attraction to strong, authoritarian leadership. Putin has also vowed to do whatever he can to restore Russia to its former "greatness," even while saying he wants to be part of the West.

U.S. officials admit that the halcyon days of Boris and Bill, when it seemed Washington and Moscow could be allies--like Japan and Germany after World War II--are over. But for the moment, they profess not to worry too much about Putin's global ambitions. "The truth is, nobody takes him very seriously because there isn't that much the Russians bring to the table," says James Steinberg, who retired this year as Clinton's deputy national-security adviser. "These things don't have much of a follow-up. I think it's mostly done for domestic politics."

Yet some diplomats admit the trend could be troublesome if it continues. A few weeks ago Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov blindsided U.S. policymakers by renouncing a hitherto confidential Russian pledge to the United States not to sell high-tech weapons to Iran. Just as in old Soviet days, the announcement was timed for delivery at the peak of the U.S. presidential campaign.

To some Russians, the case for continued flirting with Saddam Hussein is even stronger. Iraq still owes Russia $8 billion in Soviet-era debt, and Russian oil companies have been opening offices in Baghdad in hopes of getting access to Iraqi oil on favorable terms once U.N. sanctions against Saddam are lifted. "We can use our political connections to compensate for our lack of competitiveness," says Pushkov. Moreover, he adds, Russia has every incentive to push its way back into the Soviet Union's old alliances and client states. Why? Because leaving them free of charge was a mistake. "Experience shows that as soon as Russia left some regions, it was gone forever and we didn't get anything in return," says Pushkov.

And those are the moderates in Moscow talking. Indeed, it would be hard to overestimate the level of anti-Western suspicion circulating these days among Moscow policymakers. The new Russian foreign-policy doctrine, published last summer, bristles with talk of "threat" and "risks" whenever it comes to Russia's relations with the West. And the Russian military has recently returned to old Soviet habits by tweaking its Western rivals. In October, Russian naval planes buzzed the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk during maneuvers in the Pacific; an elated general in Moscow announced that the fliers would be decorated for "heroism."

Putin will also pounce on President-elect George W. Bush's plans to develop a national missile defense. Lately Russia has been sending weapons to the Chinese as fast as it can--everything from Sovremenny-class destroyers to SU-27 fighters, advanced MiG jet fighters and an AWACS plane, presumably for use over Taiwan. Steinberg insists that U.S. officials don't worry too much about a Moscow-Beijing axis. The Chinese "actually have gotten kind of sour on the Russians," says Steinberg. "I think they feel like the Russians are trying to use them against the United States." Putin clearly is trying to do just that. The question is whether a nation with an economy that can't keep pace with Portugal's--and friends like Fidel Castro--can hope to take on the world's only superpower.