The view from Russia

In the wake of a new nuclear arms control treaty between their country and the US, many Russians are feeling an undertow of doubt.

Ordinary citizens here often express confusion and sometimes outright suspicion about American intentions toward Russia. Some members of the policy elite complain that the summit – and the sweeping agreements to be signed today – are little more than smoke-and-mirrors designed to conceal Russia's descent into strategic irrelevance.

"What partnership?" asks Andranik Migranyan, vice-chair of the Reforma Foundation, an independent Moscow-based think tank.

"Americans understand partnership as the complete subordination of Russia to American interests," he says. "The agreements to be signed at this summit are meaningless window dressing, designed to keep Russia in its orbit."

Opinion polls on Russian attitudes toward the US are mixed, but tend to show a population deeply divided and dubious about the prospects for the strategic partnership championed by the Kremlin.

One survey, conducted this month among 1,000 adults in the 10 largest Russian cities by the independent ROMIR agency, asked people what they thought of American designs toward Russia. Almost 29 percent answered that the US was a "friendly" power; 28 percent said the US is "neutral" in its attitude; and 40 percent described the US as having "hostile" intentions.

Vladimir Fayer, a young information technician says he doesn't expect anything worthwhile from the summit. "I wish Russia would stop following the West and speak more independently," he says. "All these years of following the American path has done no good at all."

Housewife Svetlana Lapichkina is more sanguine. "The summit won't change anything," she says, "but the mere fact that it's taking place gives hope that Russia and the US can find common language and stop interfering in each other's business."

Putin has been steering Russia Westward since Sept. 11, when he phoned Bush to offer full support in the war against terrorism. Since then, the Kremlin has turned the other cheek as US forces entrenched in several former Soviet Central Asian republics and the troubled Caucasus nation of Georgia. Putin barely winced when Bush unilaterally pulled the US out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Russia still regards as the keystone of strategic stability.

"Putin is far ahead of the Russian public and elite in his pro-Western policies," says Sergei Kolmakov, an expert with the independent Center for the Development of Parliamentarism in Moscow. "It is a traditional position for a Russian reformer to be in, but it's not a comfortable one."

Today the two presidents will seal a treaty to radically slash the offensive nuclear arsenals of both sides from the current levels of around 6,000 warheads each to about 2,000 each by the year 2012. While the deal is more far-reaching than even the wildest cold war-era hopes for disarmament, it is clouded by US insistence on storing its own decommissioned warheads rather than destroying them.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense expert, says this could leave the US with a vast preponderance of near-ready strategic arms within 10 years, since Russia will be forced by economic reasons to destroy most of its delivery systems.

The presidents also will sign a non-binding declaration of strategic partnership that optimists say could remove the single greatest obstacle to better security relations between the two nuclear powers by granting Russia a partnership role in the US "Star Wars" anti-missile defense project. But, according to Mr. Felgenhauer, "Washington has never managed to run a major defense production and procurement program in cooperation with its closest European allies, let alone Moscow."

In addition, Putin agreed last week to join a historic NATO-Russia Council that will, for the first time, give Moscow a limited say over the Western alliance's policies in fighting terrorism, curbing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and peacekeeping operations.

In exchange the Kremlin has dropped its objections to NATO plans to induct three former-Soviet Baltic states into the alliance. "Basically, Russia is giving up substantive things by allowing the penetration of US power into the former USSR, where we definitely would not want the Americans to be," says Mr. Migranyan. "In return, we are given treaties of little or no importance."

Optimists counter that the summit is just the start of an essentially fresh US-Russia dialogue that will lead to a new model of problem-solving between the two states. They point out that Bush spent less than 24 hours in Germany, but plans to stay in Russia for three days.

Where he was greeted by crowds of furious anti-globalist protesters in Berlin, only a handful of elderly communists were picketing the US Embassy in Moscow yesterday. "Anti-Americanism is stronger in Europe than it is in Russia," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "I don't believe there are any lasting anti-American moods in Russia."

The cold war-era strategic calculus is no longer the crucial measure of relations, optimists say, but rather economic and more mundane political issues have come to the fore. "That is a major, and probably permanent, shift from the past," says Anatoly Bursov, a professor at the Diplomatic Academy.

One question hanging over the summit is whether Bush will officially declare Russia to be a "market economy." Before leaving the US, he had urged Congress to lift trade restrictions against Russia imposed by the Jackson-Vanik amendment that ties Moscow's trade privileges to its policies on human rights. Senators refused, but signaled future willingness to remove the restrictions if Moscow fully lifts a ban on poultry imports from the US.

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