A bigger rumble for a ruble

The two weeks since the election of Vladimir Putin has been a time for Washington think tanks. The Heritage Foundation, Nixon Center, and Carnegie Endowment have all trotted out their best scholars to speculate on whether Putin will be more authoritarian than Boris Yeltsin, rein in the rip-off artists called "oligarchs," crack down on the press, get more assertive with the United States.

But the scholars have to do a lot of guessing because Mr. Putin has kept his cards so close to his chest. Indeed, some think he has no grand design beyond establishing order. With so little hard information, anybody can play pundit. And on the strength of having been a Moscow correspondent once, let me get into the game.

We Moscow correspondents used to ask first what the regime was trying to signal by its actions. For example, how many tanks and missiles Nikita Khrushchev paraded through Red Square on May Day as an indicator of whether he wanted to look peaceable or bellicose. So I found the most significant event of the immediate post-election period the announcement, within hours after the polls closed, that the Russian navy had launched a ballistic missile from a nuclear-powered submarine, which hit its target 4,000 miles away, and a second one which was successfully detected by Russia's antimissile early-warning system.

The announcement said the navy crew dedicated the launch to President-elect Putin, "who has called for restoring the military's dignity and strengthening its capabilities." Next came the announcement that Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, although approaching retirement age, had been asked to stay on. That makes him the first member of Putin's new Cabinet to be selected.

What does all this military emphasis mean? The military, whose war in Chechnya helped Putin get elected, appears to be flexing its muscle. Putin, a KGB alumnus, has said he wants to bring more KGB people into government. Back in Stalin days, the military establishment traditionally competed for power with the KGB. And the military is making itself felt now.

The military seems also to be signaling that it will have to be consulted on any change in the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) that would permit the US to develop a national antimissile system. It will want assurances of no larger ABM system.

The Defense Ministry has already written a new military doctrine that would permit the use of nuclear weapons in case of a conventional attack.

Foreign minister Igor Ivanov seized his first opportunity to announce that changes will be made in Russian foreign policy in accordance with the "new concept" discussed in the Russian Security Council. That "new concept" presumably includes the general-staff decision that Russia, too poor to match America in conventional forces, will have to use at least tactical nuclear weapons to fend off an attack.

That sounds like the Eisenhower-Dulles doctrine of "massive retaliation" in case of conventional attack on American forces. What was called then "a bigger bang for a buck" could be called today "a bigger rumble for a ruble."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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