- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

Though President George W. Bushs commitment to national missile defense will doubtless provoke controversy in both the United States and Russia, his administrations clarity on this issue may well contribute to a new beginning in relations between Washington and Moscow.

There is no doubt that a new beginning is necessary. The international environment has changed dramatically since 1992. Russia is no longer a superpower and did not evolve into a Western-style democracy.

Critics who argued that the Bush administration was inviting trouble with Moscow by failing to give the Kremlin sufficient attention in its first three months in office have been proven wrong. Ending the pretense that a diminished Russia deserved special treatment because of its former glory was an essential precondition of renewed and realistic dialogue. The administration´s expulsion of 50 Russian diplomats in the wake of the Hanssen spy affair was a timely demonstration that the United States would not be deterred from taking steps to protect American security.

In fact, while some commentators especially former Clinton administration officials decried the Bush team´s "mismanagement" of ties with Russia, reaction in Moscow suggests that the new administration´s calculated diplomatic gamble is starting to pay off. The White House succeeded in getting Russia´s attention and after provoking predictable anger in communicating new realities with which Russian President Vladimir Putin must come to terms. Whatever his preferences, Mr. Putin seems to be a pragmatist capable of understanding the dynamics of the U.S.-Russian relationship.

The Bush administration is right to reach out to Moscow now that new parameters for the relationship are beginning to take shape. Though its economy remains troubled, Russia is not as irrelevant as is often assumed. In fact, the Russian economy is growing while inflation remains under control. And while Russia´s official GDP remains on the level of Holland´s, up to 40 percent of the economy may be hidden as a result of deliberate underreporting. Statistics could also change quickly if Mr. Putin succeeds in implementing the changes he has promised in corporate governance, banking, and judicial reform. Though the seriousness of his intent is not yet clear, simply reducing the risks of investment in Russia could sharply increase the market capitalization of many key firms, especially in the energy sector, by cutting the de facto penalties applied to their share prices by investors.

Internationally, America´s rocky relationship with China should remind us of the dangerous role Russia could play in any of a number of anti-U.S. coalitions. Fortunately, most Russian officials and politicians realize that Moscow needs Washington more than it needs Beijing. They also recognize that potentially China may well be a greater danger to Russia than to the United States and that Russia cannot hope to rejoin Europe, and regain international influence, if it is locked in conflict with America.

Nevertheless, Russia´s willingness to accommodate the United States is not bottomless. If pushed too hard, the Kremlin could turn to Beijing despite the costs to its own long-term interests. Moscow is, after all, strapped for cash that China can still provide in return for advanced weapons that could do harm to U.S. interests. Even a short-lived tactical alliance between Russia and China could have unpredictable and undesirable consequences.

If America is willing to become the "humble nation" President Bush has described and gives up on trying to turn Russians into Jeffersonian democrats overnight, the United States can probably deal with Russia on reasonably favorable terms. Importantly, Russian officials appear more flexible on many key issues in private conversations than their public statements imply. On missile defense, for example, so long as Moscow continues to believe that deployment is inevitable and that attempts to split the United States and Europe will not succeed, Washington should be able to modify or even abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty without serious damage to the relationship. NATO enlargement is probably also achievable without confrontation, especially if NATO shows restraint in moving forces and infrastructure into the Baltic States. As one senior American diplomat in Moscow put it to us, the United States can probably have both missile defense and NATO enlargement without trouble from Russia, just not at the same time.

Movement on these two issues is possible in part because the Bush administration´s new approach to Russia has contributed to a russian appreciation that Moscow is not the center of the universe and that many American decisions are driven by other considerations. As a result, Moscow is more able to accept even what it does not like because U.S. actions are not seen as inherently hostile. Dispensing with sentimentality clears the air.

The problem of proliferation will be harder to solve, especially since Russia so desperately needs the money raised by its arms and technology sales. Still, if Washington is prepared to be tough but discriminating by reacting severely to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or other sensitive technologies (especially to China and Iran), and being more flexible in our approach to Russian sales of older weapons systems cooperation is likely possible here as well. Discussions will be difficult, however.

Russia cannot be a strategic partner of the United States for the foreseeable future. Its national interests not to mention the status of its democracy and its economy preclude an intimate friendship. But Russia remains an important country and the Bush administration is correct to explore areas of possible cooperation while firmly promoting American interests and values.

Dimitri K. Simes is president of the Nixon Center; Paul J. Saunders is its director. They have just returned from meetings with senior Russian officials in Moscow as participants in a Nixon Center delegation.

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