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By Lilia Shevtsova

Political Tweens on the World Stage

The Moscow Times, February 28, 2002

Try to solve this puzzle: Two world leaders that are behaving like political twins. Both have chosen security and order as their priorities and have used war to consolidate society. Both prefer to avoid coalition-building and are fascinated by military might. Neither thought much about the highest office in the country beforehand and both were amazed to find themselves ascending to it. Both were brought to power with a helping hand from the family -- in one case biological, in the other political. Finally, both are exploiting the threat of terrorism to resolve their respective country's problems and cement a new world order; while one talks of "the axis of evil," the other warns about "the arc of instability."

You've guessed it: Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. They are very different and preside over very different countries, but paradoxically they are also very much alike.

Their similarities, however, provoke mixed feelings. It cannot fail to cause concern that the president of a country that is seen as a model of democracy is acting the same way as the leader of a country considered to be an elected monarchy with imperial pretensions. Bush's conviction that he knows how to solve other countries' problems looks very Soviet.

It should be a shock to Bush that Russian statists hold him up as an example to be emulated and complain that Putin is too soft a leader and may repeat the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev. Most worrying, however, is the fact that both leaders seem to believe that a new world order can be created on the basis of a "new" common enemy.

It may seem paradoxical, but of the two leaders, Putin may have more incentive to develop a pattern of leadership more appropriate to tackling the challenges of the 21st century. For, if Putin doesn't want to preside over stagnation, the only way forward is to try to change the rules of the game.

Unfortunately, the Russian president has failed to capitalize on the opportunity created by joining the international coalition against terrorism. He has been bogged down with handling irritants such as the ABM Treaty, and instead of developing a new vision of his country's national interests he has been caught up in discussing relations with NATO -- an organization that may be out of picture sooner than we think.

Now Bush has unwittingly offered Putin a new chance to demonstrate innovative leadership. By announcing his doctrine of unilateralist overdrive, Bush has provoked dismay not only in Russia but also in the rest of the world. Now is a golden opportunity to propose an alternative to the Pax Americana. Russia could do this together with those European countries that have become increasingly critical of the United States.

Bush has done a great deed by stirring things up in the swamp of international relations and forcing the world to react. If Putin, French President Jacques Chirac and other concerned world leaders now limit themselves to expressing resentment, then they deserve nothing more than to live in a world structured by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and company, and they should stop complaining.

The world desperately needs a new way of thinking about foreign policy that addresses the core issues facing the global system. A key element of that system is the U.S.–Russian relationship. In order to strengthen European security, reform the UN and its Security Council, combat terrorism, prevent nuclear proliferation, stabilize the world economy, handle energy and environmental problems -- Russia cannot be ignored. However, in order to tackle these issues both leaders need to move beyond the traditional agenda of nukes, NATO, Jackson-Vanik etc. They need to stop thinking exclusively about contentious issues, and look also at areas where both can demonstrate that they have something new to offer the world.

Among such areas is military and economic cooperation in Central Asia. When Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that the U.S. presence in Central Asia "is a positive factor for Russia," he signaled that Russia is taking the unprecedented step of acknowledging that in this part of the world, the United States is solving security problems that Russia is unable to handle alone.

Another area is Russia's role in diversifying the sources of energy products available to the United States and the West. Recent tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia has underscored the importance of having a major backup energy supplier.

Sooner or later, Russia will have to recognize the necessity of cooperating with the United States and Europe in the Caucasus, not only in resolving the conflicts in Nagorny Karabakh and Abkhazia, but also in finding a solution for Chechnya.

One more area of cooperation where the United States could play the role of broker is in helping Russia and Japan break their stalemate over the Kuril Islands and open new opportunities for Western investments into the Far East and Siberia.

The litmus test for a new, upgraded U.S.-Russian relationship will be Putin's ability to play a constructive role on Iraq. He has to walk a tightrope: He must prove that Russia is capable of influencing Saddam Hussein but at the same time ready to join a U.S.-led campaign against Iraq, if one is launched. Putin should recall the humiliation that befell the Kremlin during the Kosovo crisis, when Moscow tried to save Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, even after the Yugoslav people had had enough of him.

Its behavior after Sept. 11 demonstrates that for the first time, Russia is playing the role of junior partner to another superpower. Washington has to show sufficient sensitivity and offer Russia a dignified framework for this role. This framework, however, will be effective only if it is based not on the "basis of mutual security interests" as Putin recently suggested, but on the basis of mutual values.

Do Bush and Putin have the imagination and courage necessary to make a breakthrough in the U.S.-Russian relationship -- a relationship that could become the nucleus of a new approach to international relations in general? They have an opportunity to give it a shot at least.

As the May summit approaches, however, we are witnessing the same old game. Both countries continue counting warheads -- an exercise that is taking up all their time and energy and will only leave both sides increasingly suspicious of each other. Moreover, the United States is concerned about demonstrating its hegemony and worries about cuddling up to Russia too much, while Russia is desperate to be treated as a great power, at least symbolically. It is hard to get over the impression of dĪjČ vu. If the U.S. and Russian presidents fail to make a breakthrough this time, nothing apocalyptic will happen. The world will simply continue on much the same as it did in the last century, while Bush and Putin will continue to look like political twins -- although of very different sizes.

However, this resemblance will most probably be the source of increasing concern. Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times. Most recently, she is co-editor with Professor Archie Brown of "Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin: Political Leadership in Russia's Transition."

See also:
Understanding Russia

The Moscow Times, February 28, 2002

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