Kremlin spinmeisters will hail President Vladimir V. Putin's busy diplomatic schedule as proof that Russia is back among the great powers. Last week, he hugged and kissed Chinese President Jiang Zemin after the two signed a 20-year "friendship and cooperation" treaty. It was Putin's second summit with Jiang in two months. This weekend, the Russian leader will meet a second time in as many months with President Bush at the G-8 gathering in Genoa, Italy. Yet in the real world, Putin's summitry looks more like grasping at straws and can barely conceal the difficult choice facing Russia.
History has dealt a weak hand to Putin. Last year's 7% economic growth was not good enough to convince anyone that his attendance at the meeting of the world's major industrialized powers is little more than an act of charity. Putin's military is a shambles: With last year's procurement budget, it was able to buy one fighter aircraft, a handful of tanks and four missiles of the kind that Putin has said Russia could arm with multiple warheads in response to U.S. missile defense plans.
Putin's success in getting a meeting with Bush in Slovenia last month must have come as a big relief for the Kremlin. All the "Russia doesn't matter" talk emanating from Washington had Russia's foreign-policy elite worried. The problem was not that Moscow and Washington might be entering a period of bad relations, but that Russia would not get the attention major powers can count on.
The first Bush-Putin summit did produce better-than-expected atmospherics, but little beyond that. The two sides remain far apart on missile defense and on the future of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Russia has blocked U.S. efforts to devise a more effective sanctions regime against Iraq, and U.S. concerns about Russian assistance to Iran's weapons-of-mass-destruction and missile programs remain unanswered. Russia also continues to sell billions of dollars' worth of weapons to China with little regard for its effect on U.S.-Chinese tensions.
Russian-Chinese relations don't look promising, either, despite their treaty of friendship, arms sales, years of high-level meetings and shared resentment of the United States. Closer to the truth, Russia seems more and more China's junior partner. It can no longer afford to maintain its military presence in the Far East or its naval presence in the Pacific.
Some 7 million Russian citizens in the far eastern provinces live across the border from more than 125 million Chinese. Extremely limited and expensive transportation links to "mainland" Russia leave these provinces dependent on trade with China, Korea and Japan. As a result, many in Russia's political and foreign policy elite fear the Far East is slipping away from Moscow's grip, a view expressed by Putin himself on a visit to the region last year, when he predicted that, barring a major shift in current trends, Chinese, Japanese and Korean--not Russian--will be spoken there in 20 years.
The Russian-Chinese partnership thus looks like a short-term affair. No amount of summitry can compensate for the disparity in the two countries' strategic positions. The differences can be papered over by friendship treaties and declarations of partnership, but not resolved. The new treaty doesn't even patch the smaller cracks in the relationship. For example, the handful of border disputes remaining between Moscow and Beijing have not been settled.
Putin's photo-op diplomacy has to give way to real choices for Russia. To make progress, Putin will have to engage the Bush administration on amending the ABM Treaty to allow the United States to test, develop and eventually deploy a limited missile defense system, on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, on arms sales to China, on Iraq and on a domestic political environment consistent with Russia's obligations as a member of the international community. It is an agenda that will require Putin to rein in powerful interests at home--the military, the arms exporters. But it also promises Russia greater security, stability and respect in the long run.
Conversely, the Russian-Chinese relationship requires few trade-offs in the short run--no nagging about weapons exports or lectures on human rights. But it is fraught with unpredictable consequences in the long run. Will China resurrect its long-standing territorial claims against Siberia and the Russian Far East? Will it muscle Russia out of Central Asia? Will it demand of Russia preferential trade terms? Can China, whose interest in good relations with the United States is far greater than is its stake in Russia, be counted on as a reliable partner? Unlike Washington, Beijing has yet to make clear what price it will demand from Moscow in exchange for good relations.
Putin has come to a fork in the road. To choose the right path, he will need to look at the right issue, which is not whose side to take in the U.S.-Chinese dispute. Rather, it's whether the fundamental problems in Russian-Chinese relations can be redressed with short-term profits or whether the prospect of a long-term partnership with the United States is more promising.