Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
December 24, 2000

A New Look at Russia


WASHINGTON ó VLADIMIR V. PUTIN, the Russian president, has found little to talk to the Clinton administration about of late. And so there he was this month, circling the United States with visits to Cuba and Canada and seeming to say: Please take notice, Russia is still a power.

Mr. Putin is said to be eager to come to Washington to meet President-elect George W. Bush in the spring. If he does, he may find the new Bush administration taking notice of his country in an entirely new ó but perhaps unwelcome ó way.

That was the clear implication in the two key choices Mr. Bush made public last week of officials to lead his foreign policy ó Gen. Colin L. Powell as secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser.

"The watchword for the Bush administration will be pragmatism," said Thomas E. Graham, Jr., an expert on Russia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who, having served in the American embassy in Moscow, has studied the Bush policy as it has emerged for a year. "Gone will be the romanticism of the early Clinton years and the pretense of the later years."

In the 1990's, Russia was treated as the 500-pound gorilla of foreign policy problems ó a country whose nuclear arsenal, strategic position and imploding economy made its success or failure of immense interest to the United States, even though Washington ultimately had little real control over events there.

Now comes the Bush team, with plans to signal different treatment. Speaking bluntly, Ms. Rice said in the fall, Russia is now a challenge not because of the might it once had as the center of the Soviet Union but because it is a "declining power."

For starters, Russia policy is likely to be folded back into the European bureau at the State Department, a move that would suggest that Russia is not going to get all the special attention it had in the last eight years. Instead, Ms. Rice has said that America needs to re-cement relations with its allies in Europe and Asia. Mr. Bush promptly acted on that premise by dropping by to see a visiting President Jacques Chirac at the French Embassy here Monday night.

"They will seek relations with Russia that are a combination of cooperation, competition and indifference ó similar to relations the United States enjoys with most countries around the world," Mr. Graham said.

Ms. Rice has been Mr. Bush's tutor in foreign affairs, and now she will run the Russia policy from a desk just down the corridor from the Oval Office.

But Mr. Bush will also have a powerful and experienced secretary of state, General Powell, and that leaves a question of how the two will mesh their ideas, and how the Russians will react to them.

In his first statement as secretary of state designate, General Powell set a firm tone, saying that Russia would not be a strategic partner, an approach the Clinton administration used in the early going with its favorite Russian leader, Boris N. Yeltsin. General Powell, like Ms. Rice in the past year, spoke unambiguously about forging ahead with national missile defense, a clear-cut Bush foreign policy goal.

If missile defense is, indeed, the first issue to come up in relations with Russia next year, it is highly likely to enrage many Russian leaders, Mr. Putin among them. After Mr. Clinton failed to persuade Mr. Putin to agree to an amendment to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 and thus to allow deployment of a limited missile defense, the two leaders had little to talk about on the four occasions when they met face to face.

The Bush notion for national missile defense, as outlined by the governor in a speech last spring, calls for abrogation of the ABM treaty, a prospect that Russia and the European allies have fiercely opposed. Whether Ms. Rice and General Powell want to tear up the treaty right away is not clear. But they are intent on forging a new strategic concept with Moscow, and Ms. Rice has hinted she knows this is likely to introduce a new animus.

"Whether or not the Russians are fully ready to accept ballistic missile defense as a part of that strategic concept, I can't judge," she said in the fall.

Ms. Rice has chosen as her deputy at the security council Stephen J. Hadley, an assistant secretary of defense in the administration of Mr. Bush's father and a big promoter of national missile defense. Mr. Hadley is also an active member of the U.S. Committee to Expand NATO, a group that is aggressively seeking to bring into the alliance more nations that were part of the Soviet empire, a goal Moscow detests.

The Bush approach to Russia will focus much less than the Clinton team did on what the Russians are doing at home. Ms. Rice, whose basic expertise is in the Soviet system and its security arrangements, believes that the Clinton administration spent too much time and money trying to transform Russia into a Western look-alike democracy and market economy.

It was good news, she said in her fall speech, that Mr. Putin had stopped making frequent calls for international financial assistance and had placed more emphasis on tax reform that would allow entrepreneurship to develop. "If we can rebalance the agenda with the Russians to one that deals more with the security challenges that we both face, I think we will have both a more realistic and a more fruitful relationship with Russia," she said.

Is this the kind of music Mr. Putin wants to hear? During the campaign, Russian officials suggested they preferred Mr. Bush to Mr. Gore for the next four years.

They suggested they liked the sound of hard power as opposed to the soft power of coddling Russia into imitating Western models of democracy and capitalism.

Indeed, on a Russian Web site that reflects the government point of view, a commentator wrote last week under the headline "Condoleezza Rice upholds Putin's policy" that Ms. Rice was their kind of hard- headed Russia expert. This was so, the writer said, because she would refuse to spoon-feed the "infant" with I.M.F. "baby food."

But given the content of the hard power agenda, a departing Clinton Russia expert asked: "I wonder if the Russians will like the meat and potatoes when they eat it."