Over the past few days the media has covered the end of two more rounds of Russian-US consultations on missile defense.

The Russian delegation to Washington was headed by Colonel-General Yuri Baluyevsky, Senior Deputy Chief of the General Staff. His counterpart was Douglas Feith, the under-secretary of defense for policy. As Baluyevsky noted at the close of his visit, he still hadn’t managed to find out from the Americans “exactly what they’re not satisfied with in the ABM treaty”. The Kommersant newspaper said this amounts to the failure of the first attempt at dialogue on this sensitive issue. “Washington turned out to be simply not ready for detailed negotiations,” said Kommersant. Moscow had spent so much time refusing to discuss any kind of changes to the ABM treaty and threatening the rest of the world with “‘asymmetric response measures’, that the Genoa agreement between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush to start consultations appeared to take the US completely by surprise.”

But it should be kept in mind that according to the ABM treaty itself, the Americans do have the right to withdraw from it without any consultations at all – all they have to do is give six months’ notice of their intentions. “However, this course of action would now be quite unseemly,” notes Kommersant, “since Russia has at long last agreed to discuss updating this treaty, which is the foundation of the entire contemporary structure of international security.”

In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, expresses his conviction that the Russian-US consultations are fundamentally pointless – they’re nothing more than a “diplomatic minuet” being danced by the United States around an issue which the Americans have no intention of discussing seriously.

Prime evidence for this, says Arbatov, is the format of interaction itself – consultations, not negotiations. He points out that negotiations would imply a real political bargaining process, a search for a balance of interests. But consultations are just an exchange of opinions, nothing binding: “I say that I don’t agree with you, you say that you don’t agree with me, and that’s the end of the consultations.”

According to Arbatov, the United States really has no demands to make of Russia at this stage, and Russia has no concessions to make, in order for each to achieve the goals that are important to them. “Everything they could have asked of Moscow, it has already decided to do, unilaterally, without any compensation – reduce its strategic forces to a fifth of their previous extent within a decade, cut back the main element of our strategic forces – the Strategic Missile Forces – which have always been our strongest card in negotiations.” So now the Americans are in no hurry – time is on their side.

In any case, the United States is unlikely to go through the formal process of withdrawing from the ABM treaty of 1972, with due notification sent out to the rest of the world; instead, the treaty will be “diluted, destabilized”, and the rest of the world will eventually get used to the fact that the treaty no longer exists.

Arbatov stresses that such an outcome is a real possibility, given what Russia intends to do, and what it has already done, with its capacities for nuclear deterrence: “If we reduce our arsenals to the level of a third-rate nuclear power, then the American missile shield – meant to defend them against China – will also be effective against Russia”, irrespective of any political declarations.

The Vremya Novostei newspaper presents some views on the US-Russian consultations from Alexander Pikaev, an analyst with the Carnegie Center: “I get the impression that the United States wants to get everything at no cost. Moscow made so many concessions to Washington in the 1990s that it seems the Americans are convinced that on the issue of missile defense, Russia will put up a bit of resistance and then back down once again.”

Vremya Novostei considers that the United States is consciously drawing out the negotiations, in order to “assess Moscow’s degree of obstinacy and avoid ‘paying too high a price’ for Moscow’s consent on the missile defense issue”.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, during his visit to Moscow, essentially delivered an ultimatum to President Putin from the US administration. Vremya Novostei notes: “For the first time in the years of disagreement over missile defense, a senior US official has told a Russian leader to his face that the United States is determined to withdraw from the treaty which Moscow persists in calling the cornerstone of strategic security.”

Vladimir Lukin, deputy Duma speaker and a former ambassador to the United States, says in an interview with Delovye Liudi magazine that it’s too early to make predictions about the results of the talks.

Lukin attributes current difficulties to the American style of negotiation: “At first, they always try to throw the other side off balance, indicating that no alternatives to Washington’s stance are to be discussed. So it’s important for the other side to be more resolute and composed than the Americans are. And right at the last moment, the Americans start to allow some possibility of a compromise.”

Lukin explains Rumsfeld’s radical approach to the missile defense issue as follows: the US defense secretary, “being a man of advanced years, greatly fears getting a reputation as a traditionalist, so he goes in for new doctrines.”

However, says Lukin, Rumsfeld’s idea of destroying the existing nuclear balance fails to take into account that “over the next few decades there will be no alternative to what is known as ‘the balance of fear’.” After all, the basis of this balance – each side’s capacity to deliver a devastating strike – hasn’t gone away just because some other countries may now pose a nuclear threat; “and the degree to which that threat is real still remains to be determined,” notes Lukin.

However, according to Novoe Vremya magazine, the issue of missile defense has made the new US administration forsake its initial course of overt disregard for Russia’s opinion. Russia’s steady “bulldog grip on that cornerstone of strategic stability” has eventually led Washington to exchange its initial animosity toward Russia and become demonstratively benign.

“Thank you, missile defense!” exclaims Novoe Vremya, quoting The Washington Post’s words about “President Bush turning a former KGB agent into Mother Teresa, and Putin returning the compliment by raising Bush to the level of Einstein.”

Neither should we overlook the well-known fact that the United States doesn’t actually have a missile defense as yet. True, the Pentagon hopes to have the first missile interceptors in place in Alaska by 2006. But even this date is in doubt, according to a Defense Department report. Novoe Vremya quotes Condoleezza Rice as saying that the United States doesn’t have an off-the-shelf system which could be deployed right now.

Therefore, says Novoe Vremya, “a significant breathing space of several decades is opening up, which we ought to use to establish a stable, normal relationship with the United States.” Above all, this should focus on economic relations, the “business dialogue” recently mentioned by Commerce Secretary Don Evans.

In the opinion of Novoe Vremya, this would be the “best of our thirty options (according to Igor Sergeev’s count) for a response to US missile defense plans”.

Literaturnaya Gazeta says that “the United States has already withdrawn from the ABM treaty – technologically, morally, psychologically, and in practice.” Therefore, Russia’s opinion is of no interest to anyone in the US, de facto.

But the existing situation requires political legitimization, notes Literaturnaya Gazeta; and “a necessary and sufficient condition for this is Russia’s participation – or, more accurately, Russia’s presence – at negotiations.”

So what we’re seeing now is a typical example of “negotiations for the sake of negotiations”. What’s more, these are taking place in the political off-season, the “worldwide political vacation” – when almost all leading politicians are absent from Moscow, and so are the leading journalists and TV commentators, and the current affairs shows are taking a break. Literaturnaya Gazeta notes: “This strange coincidence seems to have been carefully planned by the United States, quite unacceptably so for Russia.”

According to Literaturnaya Gazeta, there is only one way out of this grim situation: since Russia has been comprehensively defeated in the military field, it should attempt a political counterstrike. The method proposed here is fairly simple: Russia should refuse to take part in any form of negotiations. It will be quite sufficient to let matters take their course. There were two signatures on the ABM treaty in 1972. Now there is only one – the signature of Russia – which makes clear “the status of the United States in terms of political ethics and international law: it is a violator of an international agreement.” So the Unites States “should now get used to living with that status, rather than hiding behind ‘negotiations’ with Russia.”

Many newspapers have presented Kim Jong Il’s visit to Russia, the timing of which is said to have been no coincidence, as an attempt by Russia to strengthen its position in the dispute with the United States.

The “Dear Leader” of North Korea apparently promised Putin once again to freeze North Korea’s missile program. Of course, opinions on this have been very diverse. In some newspapers, even articles on the same page contradict each other to a surprising extent.

For example, the Zavtra newspaper, known for its radical statements, published an interview with Marshal Dmitrii Yazov while Kim Jong Il was in Russia. Yazov had the honor of receiving an invitation to meet Kim Jong Il in Moscow. When asked about the North Korean nuclear threat, which is a serious concern for the West, Yazov responded with a soldier’s directness: “It’s a bluff. North Korea has no nuclear technologies, and never had. Even if North Korean missiles do manage to fly as far as the United States, they wouldn’t be able to deliver a nuclear bomb… And sending a missile over 10,000 kilometers with a conventional payload makes no sense at all. It would only destroy one building on the enemy’s territory, but it would take the entire annual budget of North Korea to build and launch such a missile.”

So on the one hand, it could be done – but on the other, it makes no sense to spend the whole annual budget on destroying one building. In truth, it’s hard to recall any instance when a government (by no means only the North Korean government) has been dissuaded from spending state funds for some purpose just because that purpose clearly doesn’t make sense. It is also somewhat surprising to see Yazov assert, on no apparent evidence, that North Korea has no nuclear technologies. After all, the East (and Russia is also at least half an Eastern country) is rather complex – how can he be so sure of anything?

As Zavtra says on the same page: “We are peaceful people, but our armored train has brought Kim Jong Il to Moscow.”

It is also explained that Comrade Kim preferred to travel by rail not because he has a fear of flying, but simply “as a gesture of respect for the Trans-Siberian railway, which is about to celebrate its centenary.” Unlike Russian leaders, who haven’t considered giving this historic transport route a due share of attention (except for Nikolai Aksenenko, understandably enough, who had no choice but to do so in connection with the movements of the “Dear Leader”).

Most other newspapers published far less flattering articles about Kim Jong Il’s visit to Russia. The Argumenty i Fakty weekly posed the question directly: “Why have we cancelled local and long-distance train schedules all along his route, why have we closed off Red Square to the public, why have we been cleaning Lenin statues, closing railway stations, sweeping the paths where the mysterious leader’s feet will tread? Why has he been lodged in the Kremlin? If our president visits England, would he be lodged at Buckingham Palace?” Obviously not.

Of course, says Vyacheslav Kostikov in this article, each government has “its own villains” who have to be cultivated for the sake of national interests. But the West tries to do this as unobtrusively as possible – for example, they are given money but not usually invited to dine at the same table. “But in Russia,” notes Kostikov with regret, “a number of television channels were in such bliss over Comrade Kim’s visit that it seemed we were greeting a living Buddha.”

As Alexei Arbatov noted in the aforementioned interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “in this case we’ve clearly overdone it.” Kim Jong Il’s reception in Moscow left many people with the impression that this was more than just a diplomatic game aimed at the Americans – that there was “some sort of sincere emotion here”. And this could lead Western nations to recollect their own versions of the saying: “You are known by the company you keep.” Not to mention the fact that Comrade Kim will lose no time in playing the Russia card in his relations with the United States, China, and South Korea. Arbatov concludes: “The tail is wagging the dog. That’s what we’ve come to.”

However, as Maxim Sokolov philosophically points out in an article for Izvestia, every cloud has a silver lining. According to Sokolov, the story of Comrade Kim’s visit “has shaken Russians so much that it may be viewed as a sui generis surrogate for the major disturbances everyone expects each August in Russia – like cowpox used for inoculation against smallpox.” If all goes well, and August remains at least relatively calm, it will mean the inoculation has worked. Sokolov adds that no one would object to having the “Dear Leader” travel across the Trans-Siberian railway each July, if this fine tradition could be “used to vaccinate Russia against August misfortunes”.

It has to be said that there’s no shortage of gloomy predictions, including some for August. For example, in an interview with the Political News Agency at leading economis Tatiana Koriagina has once again predicted the crash of the dollar, a financial meltdown in the United States, and a global default.

Koriagina explains that the amount of dollars in circulation around the world is now $450 trillion, while the global GDP is $30 trillion. Koriagina predicts that the dollar will nosedive in late August – maybe as early as August 20. “It will be a worldwide Black Monday.”

But Koriagina believes Russia is self-sufficient, so all it has to do to safeguard itself against the consequences of a global default is “break free of dependence on the dollar”.

Only the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper reported Koriagina’s predictions (other publications apparently decided to avoid speaking of the devil). Krasnaya Zvezda comments: “It would be sad to think that the authority of a respectable analytical center has been used for a common political provocation.” It adds that the editorial council of the Political News Agency is headed by “the well-known Sergei Dorenko” – so there could hardly fail to be some link here with the “noble news-maker” and oligarch in exile, Boris Berezovsky.

The very mention of Berezovsky’s name, in even the most commonplace news report – for instance, the election campaign in the Rostov region – gives readers a feeling of being in the know about breathtaking political intrigues.

For example, the Vremya Novostei newspaper recently reported that the Communist Party intents to build on its success in the Nizhny Novgorod region, where the election was won by the communist candidate, Khodyrev. Incumbent Rostov Governor Vladimir Chub will be opposed in the September election by Leonid Ivanchenko, Communist Party secretary in the Rostov region; party leader Gennadii Zyuganov has declared the Rostov election to be “a priority” and a “signal” for the Communist Party. All this is quite as expected. However, the regional media recently reported that “chief oppositionist” Boris Berezovsky is also prepared to support Ivanchenko, since “he wants to prevent the re-election of Chub, a faithful Putin supporter”. Thus, the campaign intrigues gained a much-needed edge.

Meanwhile, the Rossiya newspaper reported that Berezovsky has set about carrying out his promise to bring Putin down by the end of this year.

As usual, Berezovsky has decided on a roundabout approach – seizing power in St. Petersburg. Why St. Petersburg? Because there’s a well-known link in the public mind between St. Petersburg and Putin. If the situation in St. Petersburg can be destabilized, this will have a very negative impact on Putin’s approval rating. Not to mention that the transformation of Putin’s home town into the fiefdom of “the odious Berezovsky” would undoubtedly be a blow for Putin himself.

This is why there have been so many criminal and political scandals of late in St. Petersburg: someone is deliberately rocking the boat. The goal, as mentioned above, is to destabilize the situation there: “So that everyone in the city government will become suspicious of each other, so that state officials will tremble in fear of losing their jobs, so that ordinary residents will grow weary and discontented, concluding that the present municipal leaders are useless and that fresh, new forces are required.” Then these forces – Berezovsky’s proteges – can be brought out of the shadows at the appropriate moment, to take power in St. Petersburg.

Berezovsky himself is still biding his time in the shadows, says Rossiya; he has others to do his dirty work (one of those named as being a Berezovsky man is Denis Volchek, a St. Petersburg entrepreneur and member of one of the city legislatures).

Rossiya considers that the “march on St. Petersburg” is Berezovsky’s “last chance at making a counterattack” and strengthening his position in the battle for power in Russia. Therefore, as Rossiya notes reproachfully, it’s a serious error on the part of the presidential envoy for the North-Western federal district and the St. Petersburg city government to underestimate the danger posed by Berezovsky’s plans for St. Petersburg.

Actually, the media has enough pretexts for its forebodings, even without Berezovsky’s intrigues. For example, Novaya Gazeta considers that the federal government has spent 15 months pursuing policies which are leading to social upheaval.

All the recent decisions of the executive branch are cited as examples. There are the housing and utilities reforms (“at least 30 million Russian citizens simply can’t afford to pay their utilities bills in full”), and restructuring of the electricity sector (the aluminum giants want to shift the financial burden onto ordinary citizens, half of whom are already living below the poverty line), and the Transport Ministry reforms (aimed at compensating the railways for losses due to restrictions on freight tariffs – primarily in favor of those same aluminum magnates), and much more. According to Novaya Gazeta, all these examples illustrate a simple truth: the Kasianov Cabinet is defending the interests of “big business and its leaders – not all of them, only those on a special VIP list”.

But the Cabinet strategists are making a big mistake: the public can’t shoulder all financial burdens on behalf of the magnates – the people simply don’t have the resources to do so. “Blackouts, skyrocketing rail fares, widespread heating disruptions, and evictions won’t just result in business leaders building themselves new villas in the Azores – there will be social upheaval in Russia. Mass demonstrations in the regions.”

And it will be the president, not the Cabinet, who will have to answer for the consequences, since in the eyes of the people he is held responsible for everything that happens in Russia. So President Putin will face a choice between social upheaval and moving toward a new, truly liberal economic policy. (Liberalism, according to Novaya Gazeta, means an open society with equal opportunity for all; not just for “a dozen magnates who earned their present position solely through the goodwill of the former president’s family”.)

Novaya Gazeta is sure that the president is aware of the need to change the Cabinet and bring in a team of real specialists, those who presently don’t fit in with the plan for “oligarchic management” of the national economy.

Media opinion is divided on the question of who will head this “Cabinet of the future”. (For example, Vedomosti has mentioned Boris Gryzlov.) But Novaya Gazeta continues to favor Mikhail Prusak for prime minister – “young, but an experienced politician and effective manager with a good reputation and international profile.”

Izvestia observer Semyon Novoprudsky also considers that the executive branch is entering a very tense period, but the reasons he gives are somewhat different from those presented by Mikhail Zimin in Novaya Gazeta.

The problem, says Novoprudsky, is that the word “perestroika”, first mentioned 16 years ago, “still remains just a plan of action”. The Russian economy has reached the stage where it needs “real perestroika”, since most of the government’s intended reforms still remain just words on paper. And the Cabinet’s “macroeconomic bliss” of the past 18 months doesn’t change the facts: “The degree of Russia’s decay – lack of roads, a crumbling heating delivery system, worn-out industrial infrastructure – is so great that even record high oil prices won’t help Russia achieve decent living standards.”

Against this backdrop, Alexei Arbatov’s opinion sounds fairly convincing: he says real negotiations with the United States are impossible, because Russia lacks the resources to back them up. We can only take some consolation from the fact that the US administration has, after all, considered it necessary to at least begin a dialogue. As Vladimir Vysotsky once put it, “it’s nice to think that we’re respected here”. Observers note that this is the small satisfaction Russia can get from the present situation.

For August, it’s not that bad.