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
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.