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U.S. Arms, Russian Controls

In what way do U.S-Russian relations resemble a chess game?

April 16, 2001

In what way do U.S-Russian relations resemble a chess game?

There was perhaps no better example of Russia’s chessboard mentality than the Kremlin’s clinging to the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic until the final hours in the fall of 2000. It was clear that Russia simply had no contingency plans for Yugoslavia — and no model for its own influence there without Milosevic.

But today ironically, the United States has, in effect, handed Russia the white piece. By reluctantly acquiescing in Congress’ wish to put ballistic missile defense (BMD) — formerly called National Missile Defense (or NMD) — at the center of the U.S. security agenda in 1999, President Clinton gave Russia a ticket back to the days of superpower prestige. And so has President George W. Bush, with his team’s increased ardor on the issue. What is troubling is that the benefits of their post-arms control strategy do not clearly outweigh the risks.

Suddenly, it matters again to talk about strategic stability, the ABM Treaty and “mutually assured destruction.” As President Bush will soon discover, all of these are favorite themes in Moscow. In fact, on the world’s diplomatic stage, no topic could have been better calculated to give Russia fresh rhetorical leverage. All other major global topics seemed to have passed it by in the 1990s. But that is not the case with arms control.

In this context, it is no wonder that after his election, Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly induced the Duma to ratify START II and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which has been rejected by the U.S. Senate).

These moves made Russia look like the good global citizen of arms control, while the United States pursued anew its dream of a high-tech shield. Indeed, even U.S. allies have tended to question the merits of striving for an extravagant and potentially destabilizing defense against a remote threat from rogue states.

Of course, U.S. proponents of missile defense strangely believe that arms control is successful when missiles become obsolete. And here they think that Russia is a spoiler too. In the end, they may be right. As former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott — otherwise a staunch admirer of traditional arms control — used to warn the Russians, the real question about BMD is not whether missile defense is in America’s future, but what kind of missile defense is in America’s future. To be sure, this was less an endorsement than an assessment of the powerful forces at work within the U.S. defense establishment.

At the same time, Russia is not really in a position to protest too much, as in the case of NATO enlargement. Russia could try to buy some time. But the argument may ultimately be about price, not principle.

Going forward, it will be important for the new U.S. administration not to confuse opportunity with wisdom. For it is as easy to overplay as to underplay one’s position on the chessboard. U.S. policy toward Russia will be most effective if it manages to plot a middle course through the wide gulf between what might be called the Versailles and Munich syndromes.

In other words, Americans should avoid hectoring and humiliation — and they should equally avoid appeasement and apathy. Americans should learn not to expect too much from the new Russia, but they should also not allow themselves to settle for too little.

A strategy of isolation is not a viable option either. U.S. engagement remains the only prudent path. U.S. engagement with Russia should continue to be centered on national interests and on respect for global norms. The dialogue should be active and frank, critical and constructive.

Like all countries, both Russia and the United States have their own demons. Russia’s are pride, suspicion and resentment. Russia is often too ready to believe conspiracy theories, too inclined to find offense. On the other hand, America’s demons are the arrogance of power, narcissism and a penchant for unilateralism.

As a high-ranking U.S. official once put it to Vladimir Putin, while sitting across a magnificent green table in one of the lavishly redecorated halls of the Kremlin, America and Russia must strive for a mode of dialogue that is neither patronizing nor paranoid. The alternatives are still dangerous for the world.

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