Vladimir Putin of Russia may not be the paragon of democracy that the world hoped he would be - but there's no denying he isn't a foolish or incompetent man.
Today, he showed that he's a foreign affairs chessmaster in comparison to the tic-tac-toe playing folks at the White House.
Both CNN and the New York Times are reporting Putin's offer to "defuse" the recent harsh rhetoric over Bush's missile defense systems in Europe.
CNN explains the basics of Putin's offer:
While the United States wants to install missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic -- a plan that has severely irritated the Russians -- Putin said he suggested using an existing radar station that Russia rents in neighboring Azerbaijan. (Watch Bush and Putin in cooperative mood at news conference)While the NYT takes on some of the possible problems:
That way, all of Europe would be protected, he said at a joint news conference.
"The existing agreement makes it possible for us to do this. And the president of Azerbaijan stressed he would be glad to contribute to world security and stability," Putin said.
Experts say that Mr. Putin’s proposal faces a number of daunting, and possibly insurmountable, hurdles. Russia leases but does not own the radar station in Azerbaijan, for instance, and the facility is an early warning system, not the X-band radar that is used to guide anti-missile interceptors, and which the Bush administration wants to build in the Czech Republic.Still, the general tone of US media coverage is positive, with the NYT writing that this offer was "was a far cry from what some had expected from the two presidents, given Mr. Putin’s recent harsh statements." The Bush administration and some pundits are spinning this as a foreign policy success and as Putin backing down from ridiculous posturing - as if Bush and his team had anything to do with it or as if in fact Putin wasn't out-playing them still.
Trust between the two nations is also an issue. The plan would require the kind of intense cooperation in which only the closest allies can engage. With the two sides already embroiled in disputes over the future of Kosovo, the state of democratic institutions in Russia and how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, some experts raised questions about whether Mr. Putin was serious — and, if he was, whether the White House would ever accept the offer.
“For that kind of cooperation, to be treated seriously by the United States and NATO, they would have to have more trust than people really do now toward the Russian military,” said Stephen Sestanovich, an expert on Russia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The question is can you one day have the Russians acting in such a way as to advertise their lack of trust in the United States, and the next day insist that the United States trust them?”
The UK's London Times, however, was paying attention and therefore noticed some of the fine print.
Dmitri Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, insisted that a radar base in Azerbaijan would be sufficient to cover the whole of western Europe and that the use of Poland for interceptor rockets should be reconsidered. “The two sides could completely share the technological data of that station with equal control of the station . . . It would lead to a substantial easing of tension and it will solve the problem.”An earlier report from Reuters that has since disappeared from their site suggested that Putin would want full access to the US ABM system and its technology in return for not targeting weapons at Europe.
I expect the US to refuse Putin's offer on the basis that it would hand dual control to Russia - what American President could get away with that politically, let alone a lame-duck one supported only by a very hawkish base? At that point, Putin will ignore American domestic political reality and announce that obviously the US system is a threat to Russia, otherwise they wouldn't worry about giving Russia access. And it will play credibly to many in a world already worried by neocon aggression. Putin is aiming to deftly deflect world opinion away from his threat to re-target missiles at Europe and focussed it on American military aggressiveness. The White House is helping him along in his first moves in that plan, all unaware of the consequences.