[main page][map of the server][news of the server][forums][guestbook][publications][hot issues]
William Safire

Comment. How China and Russia Are Reacting to NMD

St Peterburg Times № 640, Tuesday, January 30, 2001

While the U.S. State Department warned Americans about traveling to the World Economic Forum in dangerous Davos, intrepid opinion-mongers trekked into the Alps to learn how Chinese and Russian leaders react to Bush administration plans for missile defense.

At Davos, a Chinese position is being explored to agree to a level of U.S. missile defense that would counter blackmail from rogue states - but, in return for inspection rights given to the U.S., would not be overly effective against what China likes to think of as its own nuclear deterrent.

In Russia, a similarly happy outcome is possible, but the impetus is different from China's, because the Russian regime is supremely confident of its political stability, whereas China is not.

Vladimir Putin is building a corporate state along Peron-Pinochet lines. The KGB, the army and a selection of oligarchs rule through an elected president who maintains popularity by tight control of the mass media. This command combination will maintain power so long as the people have bread.

Bread is now on Russian tables mainly because OPEC has nearly tripled the price of energy, Russia's major export. Add this to the delayed effect of the pre-Putin ruble devaluation, which killed imports and revived local industry, and Russians have a sense of not-so-hard times. The Chechen War can never be won, but casualties are down and international pressure is weakening. Even Russia's democratic reformers have taken to differentiating between Chechen "bandits" and suffering Chechen people.

Those reformers are dispirited because they represent less than a fifth of the Russian electorate. The only two democratic leaders left standing - Grigory Yavlinsky and Boris Nemtsov - are the best long-term hope for a peaceful and prosperous nation, but they grind their teeth as Putin visits a monument to the Stalinist Andropov in the morning and honors the dissenter Sakharov in the afternoon.

As the KGB-military-oligarch clique consolidates power behind Putin, it faces a new U.S. president with firm ideas about a national missile defense. Putin will now have to deal with an inexorable Bush decision, not a forlorn Clinton hope.

And his current stability means Putin will be able to negotiate a major revision of the ABM treaty or its replacement with little internal dissent. Russia's president can gain points with Americans by deploying reformers, thereby jump-starting arms control, or he can string out negotiations by demanding the U.S. abandon NATO coverage of the Baltics, which we won't buy.

In any case, insecure leaders in Beijing and too-secure leaders in Moscow will have to adjust their policies to America's missile defense - the new fact on the strategic ground.

William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times, where this comment originally appeared.

St Peterburg Times № 640, Tuesday, January 30, 2001