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Although the Cold War has been over for more than a decade, Russia continues to befuddle Western diplomats. Moscow’s international influence is a fraction of that of the Soviet Union, its economy is a basket case and it is beset by one domestic political crisis after another, yet the country maintains the world’s second-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and is more than capable of frustrating Western diplomatic initiatives. That is why the West must maintain ties to Russia, and why last week’s resumption of talks between Moscow and NATO is long overdue.

The break was triggered last March by NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Moscow cut almost all ties with NATO, including its participation in the Permanent Joint Council, which had been established in 1997 precisely to give the 19 members of the Western alliance a chance to confer with Moscow on security and other issues. Russia condemned the attack for several reasons. Yugoslavia, or at least Serbia, is a traditional ally. NATO’s willingness to act without approval from the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has a veto, undercut Moscow’s diplomatic leverage. And violating Yugoslav sovereignty to protect an ethnic group set a worrisome precedent at a time when Moscow faced its own insurgencies — in Chechnya, for example. At the same time, the West has its own complaints about Russian behavior, notably the savage campaign against those Chechen rebels.

Yet no one wants relations to enter a deep freeze. Foreign ministers of NATO governments have been visiting Moscow to consult with the new prime minister and acting president, Mr. Vladimir Putin. Japan has been conducting its own talks in an effort to keep negotiations for a final peace treaty on track. U.S. President Bill Clinton went out of his way last week to say that Mr. Putin was a man with whom he could do business. Still, it took two months of difficult negotiations to work out a visit by NATO Secretary General George Robinson. That call, which came last week, concluded with an agreement to resume discussions.

They will be difficult. While the particular irritants are sure to change — Chechnya, Kosovo, relations with Iran, Iraq, or whoever the bad guy of the week may be — diverging long-term interests are going to create clashes.

The most obvious problem is the yawning gap between Russia’s self-image and reality. Apart from its nuclear arsenal, Moscow has precious few grounds for demanding that its views be respected in international councils. Yet its diplomats and the Russian public maintain their pretensions. Rightly or wrongly, Russia demands that its opinions be taken into account. The world ignores them at its peril.

Russia is also concerned about NATO’s continued expansion eastward. The addition of former Soviet satellites Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to its membership rolls sharpens Moscow’s fears about international isolation and facing a world of enemies. Unfortunately, NATO’s expansion is driven as much by U.S. electoral considerations as security. There is little chance the Russian concerns will influence that decision-making calculus.

Those worries, in combination with the deterioration of the Russian armed forces, prompted Moscow to adopt a new national-security doctrine earlier this year. The new policy effectively lowers the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. That change came after NATO altered its own doctrine last April. The alliance is now authorized to undertake military missions beyond its borders. This policy justified the Yugoslav intervention. Taken together, the two changes make conflict easier and raise the stakes. Throw in worries about the impact of U.S. revisions to the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the resumption of military talks between Brussels and Moscow takes on even greater urgency.

Ironically, the Chechen campaign, despite being heavily criticized by the West, has facilitated the resumption of talks. Having demonstrated his strength, Mr. Putin can talk to the West without looking weak. The West’s willingness to talk to Mr. Putin, in spite of their condemnation, only reinforces his image as a man of substance.

The resignation of former President Boris Yeltsin marks the end of an era for Russia. During his reign, the West was guilty of investing too much in the man, and not enough in Russian democracy. The West looked away when Mr. Yeltsin abused the system. That was a mistake. Although Mr. Putin is an unknown quantity, he may prove to be a man with whom the West can work. The resumption of the dialogue with NATO is a promising first sign.

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