The End of the Romance

By Richard Holbrooke
Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Valdas Adamkus has a problem. The 79-year-old president of Lithuania has been invited -- personally, persistently, even threateningly -- by Russian President Vladimir Putin to an event that he really, really doesn't think he should attend: the May 9 celebrations in Moscow marking the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Adolf Hitler. It's a real A-list affair: President Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, Silvio Berlusconi, the presidents of other former Soviet republics, and a cast of thousands.

But Adamkus does not view May 9, 1945, as a day of liberation for his tiny country and its Baltic neighbors. "On that day we traded Hitler for Stalin, and we should not celebrate it," he tells visitors. Most Lithuanians, proud of their central role in breaking up the Soviet Union in 1991, agree. But Putin seems almost desperate to have all the former Soviet republics honor Russia on May 9; he has even used his most potent threat, hinting that if Adamkus does not go, it could affect Russia's shipments of oil and gas.

Of course, as U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Steve Mull has said, it does not matter to the United States whether Adamkus attends. What makes this more than a social problem is that it is symptomatic of a disturbing trend in Russian behavior toward the area where the Soviet Union once reigned supreme. And it poses to the Bush administration a dilemma far greater than the one Adamkus faces.

I am neither predicting nor advocating a return to the bad old Cold War days. Those are, thank God, gone forever. Russia, although much-diminished, is now an important and legitimate part of the international system. The new security architecture of Europe, worked out in the Clinton and Bush administrations with Boris Yeltsin and Putin, is no longer about containing Russia but about including it, and it has produced some historic achievements and cooperation.

But the continuation of those productive policies is endangered by events over the past year that the West can no longer ignore. Putin is rattled by the growing independence of some of the former Soviet republics, most notably Georgia and Ukraine. But his inept meddling, which failed to prevent democratic popular uprisings last year in both countries, has only weakened him.

One of Russia's most serious actions has been ignored by Washington and the European Union: the continued presence of Russian troops in neighboring countries without their permission. In 1999 Russia promised to gradually withdraw troops stationed in parts of Georgia and Moldova -- troops supporting destabilizing separatist movements.

Six years later Russian troops are still in these "frozen conflict" zones. At a conference in Munich last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that Moscow had never made such a commitment -- a view of recent history that Clinton and Bush administration officials firmly reject.

Simultaneously, Putin's internal performance has veered toward what one might call "soft authoritarianism": Provincial governors are now appointed by the Kremlin, not elected; press restrictions are growing; and the Yukos Oil affair amounts to state-sponsored theft. Meanwhile, the war in Chechnya defies solution and Chechnya has become a notorious sanctuary for terrorists.

So one must ask what the United States got for its "blank check" policy toward Russia in the past four years. Cooperation on terrorism would surely have happened anyway, and Russian acquiescence on the U.S. missile defense system has hardly strengthened our homeland security when the primary threat is from terrorists. In fact, Washington and the European Union have given Putin the impression that he can do almost anything he wants in his "near abroad."

Only George W. Bush knows what he saw when he famously looked into Putin's soul in 2001, but it was not worth the price. Russia also opposed us on Iraq, taking the same positions as France and Germany (indeed, openly coordinating with them). And now it is engaged in a little-noticed charm offensive to woo our all-important (but deeply alienated) ally Turkey into a new special relationship that would extend Russia's influence in that volatile region. Putin has also joined China in calling for the removal of all U.S. troops from the Central Asian republics. Now Moscow has vetoed the continuation of a small border monitoring team in Georgia from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and it seems intent on weakening that important organization.

The administration must reevaluate its Russian relationship. Ignoring Putin's behavior would make a mockery of Bush's inaugural rhetoric about freedom and democracy. But it will not be easy to restructure a relationship that has been so personal to two powerful and self-confident leaders.

Is Washington's romantic period with Moscow truly over? The first test comes next week, when Bush and Putin meet in Bratislava, Slovakia. Then, of course, there is that anniversary party on May 9, which Putin would like to expand into a NATO-Russia summit the next day -- an unthinkable event under present circumstances.

Russia suffers from what Strobe Talbott, the former deputy secretary of state and a Russia expert, calls the "Rodney Dangerfield" effect: It gets no respect. But Putin's way will not win it back. The United States and the European Union must set clear markers, starting with a new emphasis on honoring the 1999 troop withdrawal commitments. If this is not done, an issue ignored too long will move to the front burner soon. But by then it will be too late.

Richard Holbrooke, an ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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