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Jewish World Review April 13, 2000 / 8 Nissan, 5760

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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A paranoid power -- MANY AMERICANS would like to forget about Russia, but we cannot afford to. The Cold War may be over, but Russia's nuclear arsenal is more threatening because the command and control system is crumbling. Russians simmer with resentment about America and the Western alliance. They believe they saved the world from fascism and got little in return. They spent the last decade Westernizing their society and then, as they see it, the West turned its back on them when the going got rough. What we have to deal with, in short, is a still proud giant that feels poorer, weaker, misunderstood, humiliated, neglected, and betrayed. A dangerous mix.

Recent Marttila polls provide a snapshot of national paranoia. Some 69 percent of Russians believe that the West is hoping their economy will completely collapse; 87 percent believe that the United States is taking advantage of Russia's economic decline to strengthen its own influence in the world. Russians think Belarus and Ukraine are their only true allies. Only 13 percent of Russians described America as a friend or an ally; only 10 percent described Bill Clinton as a true friend; 28 percent described the United States as their enemy.

It is some consolation that a weakened Russia will not be the archrival that the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. But it is not likely to become the strategic partner the United States once hoped for. The new president, Vladimir Putin, faces the challenge of managing a superpower in decline. That is why he so frequently invokes patriotism as a way to stabilize the political foundation of his regime. Putin is trying to create the sense that he is dedicated to returning Russia to its international eminence. But Russian nationalism may well provoke a backlash against the West, a backlash abetted by Western moralizing over Chechnya.

Whatever was necessary. The Russians have a very different view of their war with Chechnya. They signed military agreements with the Chechens in 1996 that effectively handed over control to the warlords. Their record of crime, abuses, kidnapping, slave trading, drug trafficking, and murder since the 1996 agreement rightly enraged the Russians. I was told by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov that the leader of Chechnya told him that he wanted an independent Chechnya and that his chief deputy wanted a separate Muslim country made up of all the Muslim areas of Russia. The chief deputy then led an invasion of a neighboring Muslim state, Dagastan. Given that and the outrage over the bombing of apartments that killed some 300 people in Moscow and other cities, the Russian response, which the West perceived as a brutal overreaction, was deemed by the Russians as doing whatever was necessary to end Chechnya's insurgency and terrorism. The war was so popular that when Putin publicly announced that Russia would bury the Chechens in "their own crap," his popularity rose dramatically.

The chief point of tension between Russia and the United States will now be over American plans for a national missile defense (NMD) to be decided by the administration this summer. In theory, NMD would protect most of the United States from limited ballistic missile threats emerging from rogue states like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. It means amending the 1972 ABM Treaty so the United States and Russia can each have more than 100 interceptors and one ABM site. The Russians are resisting. They fear that this new missile-defense system would threaten the deterrent value of Russia's nuclear forces. So we must reassure Russia that we do not want to throw our basic nuclear relationship out of balance.

One approach would be to significantly reduce our nuclear arsenal. By doing so, we would acknowledge Russia's status and reassure the Russians that we do not seek to eliminate their nuclear deterrent and transform the United States into a world hegemon. Reducing the negotiated ceiling on the number of nuclear warheads from upward of 3,000 to 2,000 or less would still leave us with a more than adequate deterrent.

The political consensus in the United States, which includes both presidential candidates, favors a limited missile defense. George W. Bush has indicated that he would proceed come what may. Given the need to protect against rogue states, it might come to that, but given the need to dissipate Russian paranoia, it will be best if a treaty modification can be worked out. It will be a test of American diplomacy and a mark of Putin's qualities of leadership.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Mortimer Zuckerman