Washington Small in presence but overwhelming in their irony, Russian troops have traveled back to Kabul after a decade's absence along a path blasted by American bombs. Thus would Vladimir Putin rebuild Russia's position in Central Asia and ultimately its role in world affairs.
Putin accepts the strategic reality that Russia is no longer a great power. Moscow today can achieve its most significant ambitions only with the assistance or acquiescence of other nations mainly the United States. The piggyback ride American power has given Russia into Afghanistan is one small but evocative example of Putin's determination to use the strength of others to improve his position wherever he can.
At the same time, he demands that those others continue to treat Russia like a great power. This provides more than balm for injured national pride. It also gives Putin a way to manage stronger nations to apply what Charles de Gaulle called the strength of the weak. The Russian judo master converts style into substance.
The hallmarks of this strategic nimbleness have also emerged in Putin's negotiations with President Bush over missile defense, in Russia's advancing dialogue with NATO over a European security condominium and in Putin's patient, focused effort to weave a web of new influence or control over the former Soviet republics on Russia's frontier.
In each of these situations, bold initial strokes have been followed by Russian movement sideways or backward. That pattern has become more pronounced since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and Bush's decision to deploy U.S. troops into Central Asia in phase one of his war on global terrorism.
This is not necessarily a pattern of deception and deviousness on Putin's part. But Washington should recognize that Putin's decision to give enthusiastic support to America's military moves against the Taliban and al-Qaida was not primarily an exercise in altruism or friendship. He too has strategic fish to fry, sometimes at U.S. expense, sometimes not.
The arrival in Afghanistan Nov. 26 of a dozen Russian transport aircraft carrying scores of soldiers and medical experts came as a surprise to Washington, which has been happy to let the Northern Alliance, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan slow or block European deployments into the region while American soldiers continue the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
But Moscow's ties to the Northern Alliance are both older and deeper than those of Washington. Putin seemed to use this deployment to make the point that Russia has a say in Afghanistan's future.
This is the Putin corollary: His reassertion of traditional Russian interests in the region follows his initial bold decision to give the United States the use of air corridors over Russia and to smooth the way for temporary American bases in former Soviet republics.
On missile defense, the deal Putin and Bush almost closed in Shanghai in October floated away from resolution in Crawford, Tex., in November. Putin suddenly could not accept the kind of robust missile defense tests he had indicated earlier he would swallow. He came away from Crawford with Bush's warmest welcome in hand and without having given away anything on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Even on Russia's relationship with NATO, Putin has followed the pattern of plunging forward, skedaddling sideways and then stepping back as his interlocutors seek closure. NATO membership for the Baltic nations is not a problem for Putin at one meeting with Secretary-General George Robertson, but becomes a problem at their next session.
Earlier this autumn, Robertson, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair informally drew up an imaginative approach to give Russia a greater sense of involvement in European security while restricting NATO's core mission of collective defense to its American and European members.
The model was to be that of the Group of Seven industrial democracies, whose finance ministers meet periodically to discuss interest rates and other macroeconomic coordination. The G-7 is transformed into the Group of Eight once a year by adding the Russian leader for more broad-ranging discussions and the issuing of communiques.
But reports from Moscow say that Putin used his late November meeting with Robertson to emphasize that Russia had no interest in becoming a member of NATO in direct or indirect form. He will hold out for equal footing on decision-making with the organization as a whole, the reports suggested.
Indecision? Good-cop, bad-cop posturing? Pressure from the Russian military or other lobbies? Perhaps. But U.S. policy must now be flexible enough to accommodate the notion that the zigzag is an essential part of how Vladimir Putin does business, on the judo mat and in the Kremlin.