- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

U.S.-Russia relations are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. While Russia is no longer the tractable ally it was under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, it is premature to conclude that Vladimir Putin is leading Russia on a path toward inevitable animosity. With Russia neither avowed friend nor enemy, Washington needs a solid understanding of what kind of relationship it can realistically expect with the Kremlin, and how to work toward that relationship.

One view is that what the United States can expect and should work for with Russia is “narrowly defined strategic cooperation, not full partnership, not close and intimate friendship, but meaningful strategic cooperation on key issues which the United States needs to address,” Dmitri Simes, the founding president of the Nixon Center and a respected expert on Russian relations, told The Washington Times in an interview last week. Washington needs to understand that it is dealing with a more nationalist and resurgent Russia — a Russia “that is not interested in anybody’s guidance regarding domestic affairs,” said Mr. Simes.

Washington should focus on enhancing cooperation on two key security fronts: countering radical Islamist terrorism and checking the Iranian nuclear program. Russia, Mr. Simes noted, “is afraid of Islamic extremism no less than the United States.” The prospects for cooperation against radical Islam are, like the general state of relations, less auspicious now than in 2001. The challenging task of restarting those efforts can begin with information sharing between intelligence and counterintelligence agencies. While a difficult undertaking, the information sharing that began in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks can be started again, according to Mr. Simes.

Russia now accepts that the Iranian nuclear program has a military dimension, Mr. Simes said, and “exactly like the United States, Russians wonder what will be the immediate purpose of the Iranian enrichment program.” Russians also come to the conclusion that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are deeply troubling, and this provides the basis for Russian cooperation, even though it may not be to the extent that Washington wants. The success of President Bush’s stop in Moscow in November will be measured in terms of Russia’s support for Security Council action against Iran.

Russia feels entitled to have some special influence in the post-Soviet sphere, according to Mr. Simes, but “Russians pretty much have accepted that whatever they think, they cannot stop independent nations in the region joining the European Union or NATO.” Georgia poses a unique case, however, and to avoid potential friction, it’s important for the United States to not “identify too closely with Georgian positions” on the two disputed enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — a dispute which does not involve U.S. interests anyway.

“If we did not have serious external threats like nonproliferation, like terrorism, an argument could be made for a kind of normal but distant relationship with Russia,” said Mr. Simes. But like Mr. Simes, we believe the United States does not have this luxury.

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