Putin's risky westward turn

In supporting President Bush and the war on terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin made the boldest decision of his short tenure.

Above all, Mr. Putin's acquiescence to American troops in Central Asia marks a fundamental change in Russian foreign policy. In the long run, his decision to side with the United States - a partnership that will be on display at next week's US summit - could be the turning point that anchors Russia in Europe and the West. But in the short run, the upside of Putin's gambit is not clear to all Russians.

Publicly, direct criticism of Putin is limited. After all, Putin still has a 70 percent approval rating, faces no serious political opposition, and controls most national TV networks. But below the surface are subtle signs of discontent.

The military, first and foremost, cannot be happy about NATO troops in Central Asia. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has hinted he would like to see US forces stay in Uzbekistan for an indefinite period to help protect Uzbekistan from "terrorists" and, though never stated publicly, the Russians.

For Russian military officers still fighting the cold war, the thought of permanent US troops in a former Soviet republic must be horrifying, especially in a place as strategic and anti-Russian as Uzbekistan. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's trip last week to Tajikistan, a Russian ally, must be even more troubling to Russia's military.

Second, the intelligence services, including Putin's alma mater, the KGB (now called the FSB), do not welcome the new alliance. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB general, had to reverse remarks of caution about the US effort and pledged support for Putin's position. Still, many analysts in Russia believe Mr. Ivanov could become the focal point of opposition to Putin within the government, should the pro-American policy not yield results.

Third, the military industrial complex does not welcome the new Western orientation. These companies enjoy contracts with US enemies, such as Iran and Syria, and hope to develop even further relations with other American foes in the Mideast, such as Iraq. For them, a Russian shift in the Mideast means fewer hard-cash contracts.

Fourth, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia have spoken openly against Russia's new orientation, arguing that Putin's strategy represents a sell-out of Russian security interests. Fortunately, these two groups matter less than ever. Yet, their public statements are shared by many more privately.

Fifth, even pro-West liberals are divided. Publicly, the Union of Right Forces headed by Boris Nemtsov and the Yabloko party headed by Grigory Yavlinsky have endorsed Putin's Western turn. Mr. Nemtsov and his associates believe Putin has decided, at least temporarily, to align with the liberals. Less publicly, voices within both organizations worry that Putin will use the war to roll back democratic practices in Russia even further.

Likewise, in a strange paradox, many human rights leaders also lament the new Bush-Putin relationship. Since Sept. 11, Putin loyalists have further restricted TV-6, the last independent TV station with a national reach, while the Russian military continues its inhumane tactics in Chechnya at a time when few in the West are watching.

Finally, Russian society is divided. A recent national poll conducted by ROMIR showed that only 39.8 percent of respondents favored US access to air bases in Central Asia, while 63.5 percent were against it. A solid 88.8 percent opposed Russian military involvement in Afghanistan.

Does this long list of opponents to Russia's new American tilt mean that Putin might change course? Not yet. Russia's next presidential election is three years away, and the US-led war in Afghanistan is not the most important issue for Russian voters. However, in a different domestic context - say an economic downturn, which some foresee in 2003 - Putin's enthusiasm for the American war could sour.

To help with his domestic opponents, Putin needs some tangible deliverables from the US, such as an agreement on missile defense or support for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. Most important, however, Putin needs the Bush administration to win the Afghan war. Victory would vindicate Putin's policy and quiet critics, especially in the military.

An American victory would demonstrate to Russia the benefits of being part of the powerful West and the negative consequences of being an enemy of the West. Liberals within Russia also would be politically strengthened, and communists and nationalists weakened. Ironically, rather than a different policy on NATO expansion or Russian debt relief, the best strategy for improving US-Russian ties is to win the war in Afghanistan.

Michael McFaul is a Hoover fellow and professor of political science at Stanford University. His latest book is 'Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin' (Cornell University Press, 2001).

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