By some accounts, Russia and the United States are on the brink of a new Cold War. That probably overstates the state of that bilateral relationship, but there is no mistaking the chill that dominates relations between the two countries. In an attempt to end the downward spiral, U.S. President George W. Bush hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin at his family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, for fishing and a lobster summit. The hospitality did not end the rancor, but it has provided an opportunity for the two men to resume cooperation.
Relations between Russia and the U.S. have worsened since Mr. Bush looked into the soul of Mr. Putin in Llubljana, Slovenia, in 2001 and saw a man with whom he could do business. The two men have disagreed over just about every major foreign-policy issue: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, NATO expansion and Kosovo are just the most glaring differences. Russians feel increasingly slighted: Their offer of partnership has been spurned while the U.S. makes decisions that damage Russian national interests. Many Americans see Moscow as ready to oppose the U.S. for opposition’s sake and prepared to back unsavory regimes even if such actions undermine international norms. Mr. Putin, empowered by surging oil revenues, is eager to flex his international muscle and reassert Russia’s claim to great power status.
Mr. Putin’s language has been increasingly brusque. Several months ago, he likened the U.S. to Hitler’s government and called it a threat to world peace. His bete noir these days is the U.S. plan to install a missile defense system with some 10 interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic. Despite U.S. assurances that this program is aimed at protecting against attacks from Iran and poses no threat to Russia’s huge missile arsenal, Russian officials have condemned the proposal, threatened to target missiles at countries that host the facilities, and to move missiles as far west as possible.
At last month’s G8 summit, Mr. Putin surprised Mr. Bush by offering to share a radar facility in Azerbaijan, which would eliminate the need for the European bases. Mr. Bush promised to study the proposal, but some experts dismissed the plan, saying the facility was poorly placed and outdated. Mr. Putin upped the ante at Kennebunkport, offering to modernize the facilities in Azerbaijan, linking the system to a yet-to-be built facility in southern Russia, setting up joint early warning centers in Moscow and Europe, and putting the entire system under the NATO-Russia partnership.
Mr. Bush is considering the new proposal too, but he is reported to view it as an add-on to the original plan. That ambivalence is not what Russians want to hear. Mr. Putin and his First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov repeated threats to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad, Russia’s western enclave that borders Poland, if the U.S. goes ahead with the European deployments.
Mr. Putin’s offer is a shrewd one: It is designed to drive wedges between European capitals and Washington, making the U.S. look like it is stoking tensions. With European publics looking skeptically at anything the U.S. does, it may succeed.
While both presidents maneuver for advantage, they both understand that a new Cold War serves neither country. They also recognize that they have shared interests that behoove them to cooperation. One such issue is Iran. While Russia and the U.S. differ over how to handle Iran’s seeming determination to develop a nuclear-weapons capacity, they agree that Tehran should be stopped. They have worked together to pass resolutions in the United Nations Security Council and last week a Russian official suggested that his country will not supply fuel to the nuclear reactor in Bushehr until questions surrounding the program are cleared up. That move permitted the two presidents to agree in Maine to begin U.S.-Russian cooperation on civilian nuclear power, which will allow them to secure a big piece of a market expected to expand dramatically as oil prices soar, while simultaneously protecting against proliferation.
One of the most important steps the two countries can take to help stop the spread of nuclear weapons is continuing cutting their own huge arsenals. Both governments have cut stockpiles to 6,000 warheads as called for by the START 1 treaty. That agreement expires in 2009, however, and there are concerns about what happens after. In a joint statement by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the two countries promised to keep reducing those stockpiles to “the lowest possible level” after 2009.
That goal is laudable, but a lot depends on the specifics that are agreed. The Moscow Treaty of 2002 obliged the two governments to cut stockpiles further, but there was no requirement to destroy fissile material or inspection and verification procedures. Such “toothless treaties” may be diplomatic successes, but they are proliferation nightmares, signaling that Washington and Moscow are not serious about nuclear-weapons cuts. The world needs the U.S. and Russia to cooperate, but not at any price.
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