Russian relations, in mid-November, were potentially on the verge of a sea-change, at the conclusion of two days of smiles, handshakes, bear hugs, and the usual feel-goodisms we have come to expect of “summit meetings,” especially from American presidents.  (President George W. Bush, for instance, insisted that “the more I get to see” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “heart and soul,” the more “I know we can work together.”)  Still, nothing concrete beyond cooperation in the “war on terror” had yet materialized.

Putin was friendly and warmer than his previous iceman image had indicated.  He graciously went through the motions of fielding schoolchildren’s questions during his visit to President Bush’s home state of Texas and even offered a wisecrack or two.  (When Bush told the former KGB operative that he should come to his ranch in summer to get to know the real Texas, Putin reportedly deadpanned, “So you want to come to Siberia in winter?”

Nevertheless, according to Russian observers, Putin and his entourage felt a bit uneasy at the end of the meetings.  The two sides agreed to continue talks on the related issues of National Missile Defense and nuclear-arms reductions, disappointing the expectations of those who expected Putin’s U.S. trip to yield a compromise allowing testing of certain missile-defense components together with deep cuts in nuclear weapons.  (Bush was prepared to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal to about 2,000 warheads, while Putin proposed 1,500.)  Bush characteristically noted that he still respected and liked Putin “as a person,” even though they had failed to make a breakthrough on the complex arms-reduction/NMD issue.  Putin was more reserved, merely stating that “we shall continue our discussions.”   The Russian president, not surprisingly, had wanted something in writing, while Bush, who apparently sees international negotiations as something like an extended episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, opined that “We have a new form of cooperation . . . there is no need for agreements.”

If Mr. Bush really wants to get in touch with President Putin’s feelings, he should take a look at this proposal from his close personal friend’s point of view: It is simply a matter of economics.  The Russian cupboard, despite claims to the contrary, is nearly bare.  Oil prices, the mainstay of the Russian budget, were falling in November, while Moscow was continuing its costly war in Chechnya and Putin was promising higher pay to military officers as part of his efforts to dampen the Defense Ministry’s opposition to his talks with Bush.  Already, the talk in Moscow was of debt relief, rather than the earlier Finance Ministry promises that Russia would pay down its substantial foreign debts on time.  Russia simply cannot afford to maintain the arsenal it now has—and it would be hard-pressed to react in kind if the United States decided to rebuild a reduced-on-a-handshake nuclear arsenal.  

But President Bush was all smiles, insisting that “We are writing history.”  That may be, but history, if he would bother to study it, has shown time and again that great powers cannot base their mutual relations on feelings or good intentions.  Time is short.  Russia desperately needs to be relieved of any threat of a new arms race.  The United States needs an ally to help in its Afghanistan campaign.  It is time for President Bush to send his inner Oprah to the green room and let the grown-ups make a deal.