Memo to Washington: The Russians Are Back!

  • Share
  • Read Later
It's not as if missile defense is on the fast track following the latest test failure, but Russia's President Vladimir Putin is proving adept at outflanking Washington in the diplomatic battle over the scheme. And that should sound a warning to the next U.S. president that the free ride from Russia is over. Putin visited Pyongyang Wednesday, and got North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il to agree to scrap his missile program in exchange for help with civilian space exploration. The specifics of the plan — which include the somewhat unlikely scenario of the U.S. supplying North Korea with a civilian rocket program — are less important than the overall picture. Washington insisted it needed to build its National Missile Defense program by 2005 in order to counter a purported threat from North Korea; Putin's out to show that there is no North Korean threat. Not only that, earlier this week he visited Beijing, where he and President Jiang Zemin vowed to fight together against a U.S. missile program they believe undermines their security. And the energetic Russian leader has already sewn up much of Western Europe in his campaign to urge Washington to put the kibosh on the system.

Of course, National Missile Defense is driven primarily by domestic political concerns, and it is quite conceivable that those might prompt this White House, or the next, to go ahead with the system despite the opposition of pretty much everyone else in the world. Then again, the system's poor performance and the growing clamor of scientific criticism may militate against rushing it into production. Either way, Putin's diplomatic offensive to create a consensus among traditionally divergent states may be a portent of things to come: Boris Yeltsin may have occasionally grumbled, but he mostly allowed the U.S. free rein to unilaterally shape the international agenda. But Putin clearly plans to put up a fight where Russian interests are concerned. And so far, on the missile defense issue, he's comprehensively outmaneuvered Washington on the diplomatic front. It should be noted, of course, that this was a game for which Washington hadn't bothered to show up, focusing primarily on the Middle East and the forthcoming election instead. But Putin's campaign contains a message for the next U.S. leadership: Moscow plans to aggressively assert its interests on the global stage, and that will test Washington's geopolitical skills in ways the Clinton administration was mostly spared.