Putin's Moves

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The result was that Clinton had no grand moment like Nixon's in China or Reagan's at the Brandenburg Gate?but there were no administration-shredding moments like Iran-Contra or the Iranian hostage crisis, either. In the main, Clinton turned out to be a global mechanic, the man performing seemingly endless and exceedingly thankless small tasks that mentally fatigued the citizens who foot the bill for them.

In contrast, the maestros of Reagan/
Bush Realpolitik?the Dick Cheneys and Condoleezza Rices and Paul Wolfowitzes?are big-picture folks. They like their nation-states and their problems hefty. They're going to pay more attention to Latin America than anyone here has in a long time (it's a "hemispheric" concern), and they are already pounding their drums busily on the Big Two, China and Russia, with the beat of failed Clinton policy and a return to previous certainties amid the world's perpetual uncertainty.

Russia's pervasive economic chaos, and China's massive societal dislocation, offers opportunities for that expansive rhetoric?and some genuine initiatives to boot. It's a mantle that the restored Reagan/Bush team is eager to pick up. They're too smart to be mired in the past, but they do find continued utility in old paradigms. So forget small-time concerns like the Kosovars and the East Timorese; W's America deals with big players like Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Jiang's the more likely to ruin Bush's honeymoon. He is busily razing churches and temples in the Zhejiang province and waving a stick at Taiwan as his pockets groan with the weight of pirated American videos and computer software. That bizarre sit-down with CBS' Mike Wallace in August before his visit to the U.S. didn't soften the image much either. Jiang leered nervously: What religious persecution? We are only trying to protect members of Falun Gong from irritating muscle pulls and the ennui that results from their excessive meditation.

As much as the incoming Bush administration would like to make Quemoy and Matsu household words for the first time since the Nixon/Kennedy debates, however, there's a subtlety and weight to Sino-American relations that defy any quickie dialectic. As brazen as China's manifold human rights violations are today, an examination of its Hong Kong policy since the 1997 turnover (and its sublime management of the spin surrounding it) is a testament to the force of Chinese diplomacy when cash and national prestige are on the line. Besides, there are too many commercial tentacles binding China and the U.S. together. The President-Elect's father realized this way back in June 1989, after the provocation of Tiananmen Square. The kinder and gentler George Bush had National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger in Beijing less than a month after the blood of the students who'd fashioned that crude Statue of Liberty was washed from Beijing's streets.

In Russia, the new administration has a more willing partner for its back-to-the-future scenario. President Vladimir Putin has spent much of the last six months rattling the U.S. foreign policy cage and wooing a who's who of America's bogeymen: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, North Korea's Kim Jong Il and Cuba's Fidel Castro. (If Putin could have visited deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in jail, he might have done that, too.) Top that off with a bit of wedge politics with Europe and China over the U.S. military's missile shield and the first Russian espionage trial of an American in 40 years, and it's not hard to see a pattern emerging. Putin even reinstated the music to the old Soviet anthem as Russia's national anthem, though he did abandon the words.

With the exception of the Kosovo war, Clinton and Boris Yelstin had a warm friendship. Yeltsin didn't even complain overly when the U.S. shoved NATO expansion to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary down his throat. It was a marriage of backslapping and back-scratching.

Clinton was hoping that Putin would be the same kind of undemanding fellow. He didn't fret over events in Russia that would have driven other administrations to the bully pulpit, whether it was the flattening of Chechnya, the arrest of media mogul and Putin opponent Vladimir Gusinsky in June, or sly public insinuations that something other than a self-inflicted disaster sank the doomed nuclear sub Kursk in August. Any of the above would have provoked a hectoring public lecture to China, and how many lucrative business deals are U.S. companies signing in Russia these days?

On Putin's end, he's been busy signaling that the days of Yeltsin are over. At least until someone notices him. It's a shame, considering all the effort that Putin has put in, that our own electoral campaign and postelection farce kept the Russian President off the front pages. Some of the stunts that Putin has been pulling have been quite witty, not to mention a blatant cry for attention: "Hey, we still matter!"

One Putin gambit that did break through the electoral haze was his dangling of hapless former Navy intelligence officer Edmond Pope through a full trial and a conviction before cutting him loose. It was a very old-school cloak-and-dagger move that's not surprising from a former KGB man. Other recent provocations have, alas, made less of a ripple on the public consciousness. You have to like the chutzpah Putin showed, for instance, in visiting Castro recently, a poke in the eye to whomever was elected in the U.S.?and then dunning the Cubans for the $20 billion they owe him.

His visiting Jiang Zemin this past July so they could lambaste the U.S. missile defense plan together was a neat China/Russia touch straight out of the novels of Allen Drury. Star Wars is becoming somewhat of a Putin theme. The Europeans aren't crazy about it either (even when George W. says that he'll stretch that umbrella right over to them), and when Putin saw Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on his way back from Cuba, the Russian President asked Chretien to bug the U.S. about it.

Much of Putin's recent maneuvering is so clever that it's transparent. Canada and Cuba in a flanking motion. Stoking the dying embers of a Moscow/Beijing fire. Spy vs. spy. The anthem change. Some of it is a bit more unnerving, particularly his decision in June to loosen Russia's export restrictions on nuclear material, and the greedy eye that he's casting on oil-rich Central Asia. Keep an eye on those stealthier moves. But a Bush administration that wants to talk tough on foreign policy from the outset has to like Putin better than the jovial drunk Yeltsin. Putin's slightly sinister, but with a dash of wit and ruthlessness. He's a good target for talk of busting nuclear treaties, arming space and pushing the economic black hole that Russia's become out of the IMF. He's playing into the paradigm. For Putin and Bush, this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Richard Byrne is a Washington, DC, freelance journalist and former Pew Fellow in International Journalism.

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