Reading Russia Right

The criticism by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, of the United States and NATO put one in mind of an alpha dog at the junkyard gate — tough, unrelenting, pugnacious. The trend started with his Feb. 10 speech in Munich, and in Moscow on April 26 his annual address to Parliament carried it forward. He railed against foreigners trying to change the economic and political system, even the culture, of the Russian Federation and called for a new law to prevent such imprecations. He also suspended Russian participation in a key arms control agreement, the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty.

Russians are clearly frustrated with what they perceive to be a lack of respect for their concerns, especially regarding the proposed deployment of American missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. But to insist that the United States and NATO are the enemy? The argument contradicts Russia’s own interests, never mind that it has little link to reality. The cold war is, in fact, over.

But Mr. Putin’s omissions are important clues to Russian tactics. He had little to say, for example, about the defense budget and procurement of high-technology weapon systems. Instead, he focused on providing apartments for the troops — a powerful issue during this election year.

What is interesting is how much this approach differs from the past. In the 2004 election year, Mr. Putin flew in fighter planes and went to sea on nuclear submarines, promising the armed forces a range of new weapons. It was his way of cementing his authority within the Ministry of Defense. Nowadays, with his authority well in place, he can afford to promise housing for the troops and say no more.

Another issue he left unaddressed was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Russian military spokesmen have been threatening to withdraw from this treaty, often as a response to United States missile defenses but sometimes to bring Russian missile deployments in line with those of neighboring countries.

Mr. Putin might have launched another attack on the missile treaty; he might even have announced Russia’s full withdrawal. Instead, he took a swipe at the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty but left the door open for talks to solve a long standoff with NATO, which wants Russia to withdraw its troops from Georgia and Moldova. This can be resolved without dealing a major blow to security in Europe. Not so withdrawal from the missile treaty: here Russia would begin a slide toward ruining the nuclear arms control system put in place in the closing decade of the cold war. This outcome would encourage countries eager to break out of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It would also ensure that Russia could post no claim to leadership in the world of international law and diplomacy.

Mr. Putin had good reason to stay silent on the matter, and the backing to do so. The Russian debate on the treaty is subtly shifting, with new attention to the missiles Russia will really need. Some Russians are arguing that the newest Russian intercontinental ballistic missile, the Topol, is already in production and could easily handle intermediate-range missile tasks as a kind of “universal missile,” while retooling defense plants to produce intermediate-range missiles would be expensive and the missiles could do only limited tasks. Other experts are arguing in favor of modern supersonic cruise missiles, claiming they are cheaper to produce and perfectly capable of responding to intermediate-range threats.

Mr. Putin thus has found a way to work the issue within his system, without sacrificing Russia’s option to lead on nonproliferation policy. The Kremlin has done so to good effect in recent months, working with its negotiating partners — even that “enemy” the United States — to advance issues with Iran and North Korea. Mr. Putin has left himself room to maneuver.

Washington and Moscow should be looking for new openings — difficult with both sides trading barbs. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had the right idea when he responded to Mr. Putin’s Munich diatribe with a light touch. A dose of that is needed now, along with a pact to re-engage quietly and stop publicly swatting at each other.

Topic No. 1 should be Russia’s concern about missile defenses in Europe. Washington has worked this issue well in recent weeks, offering Moscow a chance to participate in technical and operational aspects of the system. The fact that Russia is not ready to say yes should be no deterrent. Reversing a Russian policy so loudly declared will take time.

Washington can speed up the process by offering up some confidence-building measures that the Russian side would understand. One option would be to look again at measures the two countries have already negotiated, since the Russian system responds well to legal agreements. For example, in 1997 the United States and Russia negotiated the New York Protocols to improve Russia’s confidence in the nature of the United States national missile defense system. These measures should be re-examined to see whether they can be modified to assuage Russia’s concerns about defenses in Europe.

Relations between the United States and Russia are in a bad way, but we should not forget our long history of working through even the most sensitive problems. If we can get out of this junkyard, we should really be able to make progress.

Rose Gottemoeller, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.