MOSCOW — The Senate's passage this week of New Start, the latest U.S.-Russian arms-control treaty, was greeted with some jeers in Washington, where worries over its technical deficiencies persist in spite of White House reassurances. Here in Russia's capital, however, news of New Start's ratification was met overwhelmingly with cheers of approval from officials and experts alike.
It's easy to see why. The accord carries concrete strategic advantages for Moscow. Chief among them is the possibility that it will chill American enthusiasm for further development of missile-defense capabilities. That's because of, among other things, the Kremlin's opposition to U.S. missile defense and the Obama administration's interest in keeping Russia engaged as an arms-control partner.
More than anything else, however, Russian leaders see New Start as a political victory confirming that their country still matters to Washington and on the international stage writ large. Some Russian officials also have taken it as affirmation that, under President Obama, the United States has adopted a hands-off approach to Russia's interests and political system.
All this, at a time when the Russian government has been charting an increasingly aggressive foreign policy course. Its invasion of neighboring Georgia two years ago, ostensibly to defend the sovereignty of the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, revived a taste for territorial expansion among some in the Kremlin—and fanned fears of the same throughout former Russian holdings like Ukraine and Belarus.
Elsewhere, the Kremlin has diligently used its state-controlled energy titans to deepen its grip on European energy markets and thereby dilute the political independence of European Union member states. Moscow is even making increasingly adversarial claims to the Arctic and its vast hydrocarbon reserves, challenging the sovereignty of its regional neighbors in the process.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has enshrined ever-greater lawlessness at home. According to a recent study by the Russian Association of Lawyers for Human Rights, the cost of corruption by government officials and state agencies (payoffs, bribes and the like) may amount to as much as one-half of the country's national GDP. Based on similar calculations, Transparency International recently ranked Russia among the world's 25 most corrupt countries—on a par with Tajikistan, Papua New Guinea and a number of African nations. This rampant graft continues to stifle businesses and drive scientific innovation out of the country.
The Kremlin's anticorruption measures remain cosmetic, and President Dmitry Medvedev's planned "modernization" of Russia's economy has proven mostly notional and ill-defined. At the same time, for Russians and observers world-wide, the latest batch of trumped-up charges against jailed former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky have underscored the high costs of opposing the Kremlin.
Russia has recently seen civil unrest in the form of mass protests in Moscow's Manezh Square, and popular conspiracy theories hold that it's all just a pretext for still-deeper official repression. For their part, opponents of the Russian government are increasingly cautious about publicly airing criticisms of their government. In the words of one longtime watcher of Russian politics, "the fear is back."
Viewed in this context, New Start is an exercise in arms control as psychiatry, a sort of grand state therapy for a country that, more than two decades after the Soviet collapse, still suffers from an acute post-imperial hangover. Unfortunately, it could also turn out to be an exceedingly costly enterprise for Washington: The appearance of acquiescence to Russia's great-power aspirations and domestic repression is likely to whet the Kremlin's appetite for more of both.
Since taking office, the Obama administration has sought to improve the tenor of U.S.-Russian ties and set relations between the two countries on a more constructive and substantive path. But hanging hopes of a qualitative improvement in bilateral ties on an arms-control accord that legitimizes the Kremlin's worst impulses may make it harder to achieve any real change in Moscow's attitudes. That would make the treaty, for all its atmospherics, anything but a new start.