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On Point

"Cool Hand" Putin


by Austin Bay

With great public fire and dire, China and Russia sign a treaty intended to blunt "American unilateralism" and crimp the schemes of a dim-bulb U.S. president who French intellectuals and American liberals swear is hell-bent on global hegemony.

But what a difference in Muscovite grand strategy three or four days make.

Less than a week after inking a "Treaty on Good Neighborly Friendship and Cooperation" with Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin discovers U.S. President George W. Bush isn't quite so IQ-deficient. Moreover, Putin no longer categorically rejects U.S. missile defense. Why, (wink) the United States and Russia might develop a "new strategic framework" that includes missile defenses and counter-terror cooperation.

Mixed signals from Moscow?

No, pretty sharp Russian play of a poker hand filled with rotten cards.

Call him "Cool Hand" Putin. To paraphrase Paul Newman's "Cool Hand Luke," sometimes almost nuthin' isn't a real cool hand, but even when you're cash-poor and chaos-stricken, smart guys hang tough when they know how to bluff.

Newman didn't win the Oscar for that film role, though everyone knows he deserved it.

For Putin, winning is staying in the game, keeping a G-8 seat at the table, shucking and jiving over nukes and China and Iraq just enough so that Bush will flip him a couple of useful political and economic chips when he folds.

The Chinese player knows what's up. He can't wait until he's a "G-9" high-roller, or "G-8-and-a-half" (almost a Fellini title), since the Moscow chumps really don't have the money for serious stud.

At the moment, however, the Chinese are short, too. To play catch-up, China needs the perception of Russian political support and the promise of Russian military technology. Thus the Russian relationship with China and Russia's aging nuclear weapons become the "almost somethin'" of Putin's thin hand.

Why "almost?" Weakness (when compared to the United States) marks the Russian-Chinese relationship. It isn't simply that American hyper-power aces the Russia card and China card combination. We've seen their combo before, and it's a bad bet. Moscow knows militarily beefing Beijing creates long-term risks along its eastern front. Beijing still thinks the czars pinched Siberia.

As for Russia's nukes, they're no longer trumps, and when they're decaying, they're about as potent as one-eyed jacks (a fine Brando flick). Moscow can't afford to maintain its atom arsenal, much less buy new weapons, though that didn't stop Putin from announcing on June 18 that Russia would counter a U.S. ABM deployment by building new strategic systems.

Hey, Cool Hand can bluff, though only American peaceniks, fossilized in the Cold War amber, bought it. However, (wink) they were Cool Hand's target audience.

The Bush administration says it will size America's nuclear arsenal based on its own estimate of U.S. needs. Russia's decaying offensive megatons are no longer the key determinant, hence unilateral U.S. nuclear cuts (a unilateral Bush action drawing no ire from the peaceniks). The Bush administration has made missile defense a priority. Putin realizes that in the international arena, the United States has the power and purpose to achieve that goal with or without Moscow's nod.

So Putin's nukes are poor trade bait and his China deal a house of cards. What's Cool Hand do? He folds -- but the art lies in how he folds while extracting the maximum in Bush administration concessions for his pro-missile defense nod.

Signing a pact with China and lip-synching French-inspired anti-American show tunes sufficiently burnish Putin's tough guy credentials so that the fold isn't so transparent. The tough bluff also keeps Bush's domestic opponents snapping about "new Cold War." Putin knows that Bush -- unable to act "unilaterally" in U.S. domestic politics -- would dearly love to trap Sen. Tom Daschle and those other missile defense naysayers who've gambled their domestic political capital on portraying Bush as chronically inept and his missile defense agenda "isolating" the United States in world affairs.

If the Russians support a missile shield, Republicans will ask: "How can liberal Democrats oppose it? And (wink) aren't these guys fools on Social Security, too?"

Cool Hand Putin knows he can't take the pot, but that in U.S. domestic politics his missile defense nod is worth a stack of blue chips.

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