Putin's tilt toward West raises suspicion at home

A three-day US-Russia summit begins today, and could include agreement on reducing nuclear arsenals.

As President Vladimir Putin heads for a Washington summit today amid warming US-Russia relations, a chilly undercurrent is forming at home.

Public opinion polls suggest Russian popular support for the US-led war in Afghanistan may be waning, and some politicians suggest that Mr. Putin is yielding too much, too fast to Western aims.

Since Sept. 11, Putin has maneuvered Russia into a previously unthinkable alignment with the West. He has opened Russian airspace to US overflights, allowed coalition access to ex-Soviet bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and closed Moscow's last cold war-era military outposts in Vietnam and Cuba.

The Russian president arrives in Washington today with an agenda that may include sweeping compromise on missile defense and possible deep reductions in US and Russian offensive nuclear arsenals. Russia sees the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as vital to strategic stability, but Putin has signaled that, as long as Bush agrees to preserve the accord, Russia would agree to US testing of an antimissile shield. Such a deal could remove the main source of strategic animosity between the two former superpower rivals.

But the Kremlin's westward tilt has unsettled many in Russia's military and political elite, and triggered the first major foreign-policy controversy of the Putin era. Some experts warn that Putin risks sharing the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev, who in the late '80s rode a wave of anti-cold war euphoria to abandon the USSR's positions in eastern Europe, unilaterally disband the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military bloc, and stand by benignly as Germany reunified. Disillusionment followed, as former Soviet allies joined the NATO alliance, and Russia found itself economically and politically isolated.

"This fresh wave of unilateral concessions Putin is making to the US looks like déjà vu, and is very disconcerting to a lot of people," says Anatoly Korobaynikov, a member of the foreign affairs committee of Russia's upper house of parliament.

Mr. Korobaynikov says Putin has swung into this foreign policy revolution without consulting parliament or other national institutions. "There needs to be broader debate in order to protect the state from bad improvisations," he says.

Still, Putin's popularity continues to soar, with at least two-thirds of Russians backing him, according to most polls.

Russians may be starting to sour on the US-led war in Afghanistan, however. According to a November survey by the independent ROMIR research center, half of Russians oppose US use of Russian air corridors, almost two-thirds think American military power should not be allowed into former Soviet Central Asia, and 90 percent categorically oppose any use of Russian forces in the conflict.

Moreover, Putin, an ex-KGB agent, may be straining his own bureaucratic power base, which in Russia can be far more crucial to political survival than public popularity. "Putin built his present position with support from the military and security services," says Viktor Kremeniuk, a leading expert with the Institute of Canada-USA Studies in Moscow. "To many of them, these concessions on the ABM treaty, letting the US into Central Asia, and closing Russia's overseas bases have the smell of treason about them."

At street demonstrations to mark the Nov. 7 anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Russia's powerful Communist Party began openly accusing Putin of selling out to the West. "The Communists are calling him a traitor, but it's more worrisome that many others who were silent before are now starting to criticize," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent security expert. "The military and security establishments in this country cannot easily accept these changes, and they are beginning to stir."

Like Mr. Gorbachev before him, Putin may find that popularity in the West is of little help if the political crunch comes at home, says Mr. Konovalov. "Putin urgently needs to build his support among the traditionally pro-Western sectors of our society, such as business and the intelligentsia," he says. "But many of these people remain very suspicious of Putin for his past authoritarian actions, such as limiting freedom of the press, inciting spy mania, and adopting the old Soviet national anthem."

Despite the possibility of a strategic deal on the ABM treaty and deep nuclear cuts, underlying frictions in the US-Russian relationship will likely remain, such as Moscow's continued friendship with Iraq, Libya, and Cuba, and its recent agreement to sell $7 billion in modern weaponry to Iran. "Our relationship with the US remains very fragile," says Sergei Kazyonnov, an expert with the independent Institute for National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. "Sept. 11 has created an opening for a new approach, but we shouldn't exaggerate the basis for full partnership between the US and Russia. Neither the political nor the economic conditions are really there."

But optimists say Russia's transition to a Western-type state is finally taking hold.

"The world has changed, and the US understands that Russia is a necessary building block in any new security architecture," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the Institute for Strategic Assessments, an independent Moscow-based think tank. "This means we both have no choice but to settle those old disputes and move forward together."

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