Never one to mince words, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has laid down his views on national security policy. Like all his other articles in the Russian press of late -- articles that have to substitute for the absent presidential debates -- his recent piece in the newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta (and excerpted on Foreign Policy.com) was, above all, a campaign statement. Like any leader facing an election (and one need only to look to the U.S. Republican presidential nominees for confirmation), he sought to portray himself as a staunch patriot ready to defend his country's national interest. Appearing on the eve of Defender of the Fatherland Day, his long piece also made a pitch for the votes of military members and workers in the defense industry. "There is always a temptation to solve one's problems at somebody else's expense," Putin wrote. But, he continued, "We should not tempt anyone by our weakness." Yet, Putin's article is more than electoral rhetoric; it is a plan that is already being implemented. The problem with it is that it rests on the pessimistic conclusion that, in the 21st century, Russia's national security will need to be protected, above all, from the United States.
There is no question that, in today's Russia, official anti-Americanism serves a useful domestic purpose. It seeks to discredit not just a few Russian liberals but the much more numerous anti-government protesters by portraying them as America's fifth column. There is no doubt either that the view of the United States as Russia's adversary reflects the legacy of the Cold War and, perhaps even more than that, the disappointment that followed the end of the 40-year confrontation, when Russia, having withdrawn its forces from a score of countries and slashed its military equipment purchases by 68 times in just one year (1992), turned itself into an international supplicant, living from one International Monetary Fund tranche to another. But there is also the fact that, at the beginning of each post-Soviet Russian presidency, the Kremlin leader reached out to his counterpart at the White House in an effort to strike an alliance with the United States, only to be brushed off.
Boris Yeltsin, in 1992, sought a formal alliance with Washington, only to be told, by George H.W. Bush, that with the Cold War over there was no need for new alliances anymore. When, however, the existing alliance, NATO, started to expand eastward, under Bill Clinton, Russia was only told not to worry. Rhetorically, the door was left open for Russia, but in reality Moscow's accession was never seriously considered. No wonder that Yeltsin's parting message to Clinton, in late 1999, was "never to forget, not for a minute," that Russia was still a nuclear superpower.
It is little mentioned these days that when Putin became president in 2000, he was determined to do what had eluded Yeltsin. Privately but very directly, he aspired to Russia's membership in NATO -- not to destroy it from the inside, as many readily suspected, but to cement the relationship with the United States, whose primacy Putin then was prepared to implicitly recognize. In the crucial first stage of the Afghanistan operation, Russia de facto became an ally of the United States. In an effort to build a strong security relationship with Washington, Putin chose not to respond to George W. Bush's unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that Moscow had always regarded as a bedrock of strategic stability, and he tolerated a U.S. military presence in the former Soviet Central Asia and Georgia. From mid-2002, however, the Bush White House became focused on Iraq, and Russia was left lying by the wayside. Putin gave vent to his pent-up frustration five years later in his famous Munich speech in which he denounced the United States, whose power refused to "recognize any borders in this world."