On Thursday, President George W. Bush arrives in Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart and pal, President Vladimir Putin, and to "liquidate the legacy of the Cold War" by signing a new arms-control treaty that will reduce both countries' nuclear arsenals. Indeed, Bush -- who has made it clear that he is very proud of his close relationship with Putin -- seems to view the upcoming visit as a crowning moment for the two leaders.
Last year, Bush boasted that he had seen Putin's soul. And since the terrorist attacks on the United States, he has praised Putin repeatedly for supporting the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, pointing out many times that Putin was the first foreign leader to call after September 11. Bush has accepted the air corridors and intelligence that Putin has offered him with open arms.
But don't be fooled by Bush's bragging. The treaty he will sign in Moscow is high on symbolism and short on substance. So is Bush's half of the friendship with Putin. Since September 11, Bush has offered little in return for Putin's cooperation and support for the war on terrorism, repaying these overtures instead with moves that have caused the Russian president much embarrassment:
AWOL on AMB. Bush first embarrassed Putin in December by announcing his unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty at precisely the moment Putin was signaling greater flexibility on it.
After September 11, Putin continued to voice opposition to Bush's previously announced plan to withdraw from the treaty -- insisting, as he had in the past, that it was a cornerstone of global security. But the Russian president also suggested that he was open to experimentation with missile defense. In an ABC interview in November, for example, Putin said that U.S. plans to develop a national missile-defense shield might not violate the ABM Treaty at all. "You know, first of all, that the 1972 treaty already has certain possibilities for creating defense systems," Putin said. "It also has other provisions according to which we can find common approaches . Experts are certain that, guided by these approaches, we can fully formulate the conditions [for the systems] in the framework of the current treaty, without violating its essence."
But after negotiations between the two leaders on missile defense failed, Bush served formal notice to Putin that the United States would be withdrawing from the ABM Treaty (a move that is effective in June). Not only was this unnecessary, it was damaging to Putin's image in Russia because it made him look irrelevant.
Bush told Americans that he and Putin agreed that the "decision to withdraw from the treaty will not in any way undermine our new relationship or Russia security." And it's true that the treaty doesn't undermine Russia's security. (Both Russia and the United States acknowledge that Russia has the nuclear capability to break through a U.S. missile defense system.) Nevertheless, in an interview with The Financial Times published December 18, Putin showed his displeasure with Bush's abrupt action.
"We asked to be given the specific parameters that stood in the way of U.S. desire to develop defensive systems," Putin told the Times. "We were fully prepared to discuss those parameters. But nothing specific was given to us, no specific parameters to be negotiated. We heard only insistent request for bilateral withdrawal from the treaty. To this day, I fail to understand this insistence, given our position, which was fairly flexible."
And soon after he withdrew from ABM, Bush delivered another blow to Putin's pride:
The Nuclear Arms Cut Curveball. Although they were unable to successfully negotiate an agreement on missile defense, Putin and Bush did agree on concrete cuts to their countries' nuclear arsenals. When the two leaders met in November, Bush proudly announced that he would join Putin in slashing the number of American nuclear warheads by two-thirds; Putin had already announced his plans to do the same.
However, two months later, the Pentagon threw Russia a curveball by announcing its intentions to store, not destroy, its decommissioned nuclear warheads. Outlining the Pentagon's new security strategy at a press conference in January, U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary J.D. Crouch said that the United States planned to make the reductions but that it would "maintain the force structure and the warheads that we take off these systems as part of a responsive force." Russia's Foreign Ministry immediately protested by demanding that any agreement be "irreversible, so that strategic offensive weapons aren't just reduced on paper."
Russia understood that by retaining the right to store its nuclear weapons, the United States will sustain its current level of nuclear lethality. Russia, meanwhile cannot afford to keep its nuclear weapons on active duty. Yet despite Russia's concerns, the U.S. refused to alter course. And last Monday, Bush announced he will sign a nuclear arms treaty with Putin while visiting to Moscow. As promised by Crouch, the unusually short document (it's only three pages) allows the United States to store its warheads. It's no wonder that some military experts in Moscow are calling the treaty a worthless scrap of paper.
Reneging on NATO Promises. In addition to offering Putin a nuclear-arms agreement that does little to strengthen Russia's security, the Bush administration also helped foil plans to give Russia more power in NATO. Currently, Russia and NATO communicate through the Permanent Joint Council. Established in 1997, the council was designed to give Russia a voice instead of a veto. But Russia has long viewed it as a platform through which NATO simply announces its decisions. Consequently, since September 11, Russia has been vying for a new relationship with the organization that would give it more influence.
Initially, Bush supported calls for more cooperation. At their meeting in November, Bush and Putin released a joint statement saying that they would work to develop new, effective mechanisms for consultation, cooperation, and joint decision making and action between Russia and NATO. And right after the meeting, British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent a four-page proposal to Putin, Bush, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, and the heads of NATO-member governments calling for a new joint policy making body between Russia and NATO. Although Russia would still be denied veto power under the Blair plan, it would be allowed to sit down at the table of NATO members in an unrestricted manner and voice its opinion on many decisions the organization made.
This proposal initially had Bush's blessing, and there seemed to be few barriers to its passage. Later that month, during a visit to Moscow, Robertson said he would consider the proposal with "some urgency." But when NATO ministers convened for a meeting in December, they bagged the Blair proposal. In a surprise twist, the NATO ministers agreed to continue crafting a new forum for closer cooperation with Russia -- but one that would grant it much less power than the Blair plan. According to diplomats, pressure from the Pentagon and conservatives in Congress killed momentum for meaningful change. Putin tried to rally support for a more substantial role for Russia, but his attempts were unsuccessful.
Last week NATO ministers finalized a watered-down plan at their meeting in Iceland. It will replace the Permanent Joint Council with a new council that will "operate on the principle of consensus," allowing Russia and NATO members to act "as equal partners in areas of common interest." But those areas are very limited. And the agreement will "preserve NATO's prerogative to act independently" -- meaning that the 19 members of NATO can sidestep Russia on any issue they want, as they do now with the Permanent Joint Council. Bush plans to attend the inauguration of the agreement at a NATO-Russia summit on May 28 in Italy -- just after he finishes bonding with Putin in Moscow.
So there you have it. An embarrassment on the 1972 ABM Treaty. A hollow arms-control agreement. A useless joint council for cooperation. What is Bush going to offer his pal Putin next?