- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Perhaps it helps to have an 80 percent or 85 percent approval rating at home. Perhaps the prospect of an unwanted, mini-Cold War clears the mind. Or perhaps the guy is quite shrewd despite how unsavory his style of rule may be viewed in the West.

But, for whatever reasons, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered, in President Bush’s words, “an interesting” idea for preventing missile defense in Europe from wrecking relations between Moscow and its neighbors to the west. The Bush plan to station ballistic missile detection radars in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptors in Poland against a very putative threat from Iran or North Korea clearly provoked the Kremlin. After Washington and Moscow exchanged rhetorical broadsides over that initiative at last week’s G-8 meeting in Germany, Mr. Putin proposed advancing a long-discussed joint Russian-American approach to missile defense (once the subject of this column) by substituting the Soviet-era radar site in Gabala, Azerbaijan for the one to be constructed in the Czech Republic.

Both leaders agreed to have the matter carefully studied and reviewed. Critics have already noted that the location of the Gabala radar has, at best, limited capacity for missile detection and tracking over bordering Iran and the distance from interceptor missiles in Poland is probably too great for a workable system. However, it is also true that it will take years for Iran to deploy operationally capable nuclear missiles, if at all, and it seems that in the equally unlikely case North Korea fielded a usable nuclear arsenal, Europe would be a priority target.

It is too early to know whether Mr. Putin’s gambit is a ploy or a potential strategic and political breakthrough that could benefit Russia, America and Europe. However, with the Bush administration reeling over issues from Iraq to immigration, the White House would be well advised to view this as an opportunity not to be strangled in its infancy by extremist opponents from both left and right. Despite the enormous imbalance between American and Russian economic and military power, as well as Moscow’s relative isolation in Europe, Bush may need this initiative more than Mr. Putin does.

Before proceeding with ideas of how both sides might proceed, recalling past obstacles to U.S.-Soviet/Russian relations is important. The most significant has been mutual misunderstanding. From Franklin Roosevelt to Mr. Bush, presidents have largely and understandably viewed Russia in American terms, often believing that “friendship” could trump political differences and overcome conflicting national issues. Looking into Mr. Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul may sound persuasive. But actions count more. And Russia too has suffered from similar misperceptions of America.

The first step should be a determined effort to put in place a joint U.S.-Russian approach to missile defense in the context of NATO/Europe, including the NATO-Russia Council as part of this process. Whether the Gabala site will work or not is secondary. There may be better options. And each should include stationing both Russian and U.S./NATO military officers at future anti-ballistic missile facilities irrespective of location.

Second, Azerbaijan offers a geostrategic opportunity that goes beyond missile defense. For the past several years, the U.S. European Command headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany and with responsibility for much of the Eurasian region (and Africa) has proposed a “Caspian Guard” initiative in part for the purpose of protecting oil and gas facilities in and around the Caspian basin. Joint missile defense could offer an indirect means of approaching Iran, as interlocutor or partner, and opening up another avenue for dialogue, possibly through Moscow’s good offices.

Third, as NATO has expanded east (and potential new members could include Georgia and even Ukraine) the long-deferred question of whether Russia in NATO could be explored by expanding this missile defense dialogue. The models are strategic arms talks — SALT and START — that became de facto means of improving U.S.-Soviet relations and making conflict less likely during the Cold War. There is no reason that anti-ballistic missile talks in Europe, once again, could not accelerate broader initiatives if we allow ourselves to think boldly.

Certain Bush administration and other anti-Russian hardliners will oppose such steps. The intellectual and psychological challenge is for the White House to understand that in many ways, the United States needs partners more than Russia does. Overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and with debate swirling over whether Mr. Bush might, before he leaves office, strike Iranian nuclear capabilities to reduce that potential threat, new and innovative American initiatives are needed more than ever.

While it is seductive to read more into Mr. Putin’s gambit than may exist, U.S. foreign and security policy is in crisis. With U.S. standing, credibility, influence and authority internationally at subterranean levels, this opening may be more than an artful dodge. The watchwords are Ronald Reagan’s not Mr. Bush‘s. It is time to “trust but verify.”

Tony Blankley is away.