Russia May Prove to Be Erstwhile Ally; George W. Bush's Upcoming Summit with Vladimir Putin Promises to Increase Cooperation between Washington and Moscow, but Kremlin-Watchers Warn the Path Is Full of Diplomatic and Policy Land Mines. (Special Report)

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The May 22-23 summit in the old imperial capital of St. Petersburg will be the last meeting between President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, before the United States drives the final stake into the heart of Cold War arms control. The presidents will agree formally to unilateral nuclear-arms reductions without resorting to another round of seemingly endless treaty negotiations. This well could be the last arms-control agreement before the United States ditches the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and unilaterally begins deployment and further testing of a limited defense against incoming ballistic missiles.

They probably will announce further cooperation against international terrorism. And they will continue hammering out an agreement to give Russia a greater voice in NATO without being able to veto alliance decisions.

But big obstacles remain. Senior U.S. officials are chafing at Russia's continued flagrant violations of major arms agreements, including illegal development, production and stockpiling of undeclared next-generation biological and chemical weapons. Moscow still ignores U.S. pressure to stop proliferating nuclear and ballistic-missile technology to Iran and other rogue regimes.

Top Pentagon officials have taken notice of Russia's apparently successful efforts to manipulate U.S. disarmament and nonproliferation aid to fund continued development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Also of concern is Putin's steady but incremental assault on political freedoms back home, including draconian press restrictions not seen since the late Soviet period, a resurgence of the old KGB and runaway government corruption and organized crime.

And then there's the hexogen problem--the explosive found in the Moscow apartment-building bombing that could have come only from closely held Russian military stores. Putin's political machine and secret police are trying to keep a lid on it, but the hexogen issue threatens to undermine the Russian leader's credibility and the very legitimacy of his presidency.

Scholar David Satter of the Hudson Institute crystallized the growing unease concerning Putin in a recent project for the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Satter notes: "In explaining his support for the American-led antiterrorist coalition after Sept. 11, 2001, Putin said that Russia had also been a victim of terrorism." Specifically, Putin referred to the apartment-building bombings two years earlier in Moscow and two other cities that killed 300 people. Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB)--the renamed KGB internal-security organs that he had headed--immediately blamed Islamic terrorists fighting for independence of the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

"There is compelling evidence that, contrary to claims that the bombings were the work of Chechen terrorists, they were, in fact, carried out by the Russian government itself," Satter says in his study. In his view, the bombings were "part of an effort to preserve the power and wealth of a criminal oligarchy" around then-president Boris Yeltsin.

This is an extremely serious allegation--and a warning shot to the Bush administration, which is building an intensely personal relationship with Putin. Satter is no armchair pundit or political hack. For two decades he was a reporter for the Financial Times, Reader's Digest and the Wall Street Journal and had unparalleled Russian contacts. He was one of the earliest Western observers to warn about what he called "the rise of the Russian criminal state."

President Bush's policy toward Russia is more hard-nosed than that of the predecessor Clinton-Gore team, but it welcomes deeper security relations with Russia and includes it more in NATO activity. It set out a decidedly unilateral course of action concerning nuclear weapons and missile defense, welcoming Moscow along but presenting as a fait accompli that the United States would go it alone if necessary. …