Sunday, November 11, 2001

Months of talks with Russian officials are beginning to pay off. President Vladimir Putin has come a long way toward an accommodation with the U.S. and appears ready to go even further. The meeting at President Bush’s Texas ranch is a rare opportunity to change the course of history.

Despite unhappiness among the old guard, which still sees the U.S. as their Cold War enemy, Mr. Putin continues to win the approval of some 70 percent of the Russian people. He used that support to position Russia as a full supporter of the U.S. in the war on terrorism, overruled his own bureaucracy by allowing U.S. bases in the former Soviet republics, and is cozying up to the European Union and even NATO.

He says he will be “quite flexible” on the ABM treaty, which is a huge turnaround from just a few months ago, when Russian leaders were saying daily that they would never agree to abandon or even modify the agreement. Now it appears Mr. Putin is ready to cut a deal that will allow the U.S. to proceed with a vigorous national missile defense flight test and development program in exchange for deep cuts in strategic nuclear arsenals from some 6,000 warheads on each side to between 1,700 and 2,000.

That would be a significant achievement for President Bush in his first year in office. But more important is the prospect of a metamorphosis that would change Russia from a longtime adversary to an ally of the U.S. and NATO. As President Bush has pointed out, when Russia becomes a true ally there will be no need to target each other with nuclear missiles. After all, we do not target Britain and France and they do not target us.

It may take some time before Russian and American interests are sufficiently in agreement to call Moscow a major ally. Arms sales to Iran and China, the transfer of nuclear technology and other issues continue to fester between the two governments. But the administration’s promise to seek congressional removal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment and other Cold War economic sanctions, and to support Russia’s admission to the World Trade Organization, are steps in the right direction.

Collaboration between intelligence services in tracking terrorists, and military cooperation in the border regions near Afghanistan, is bringing the former adversaries together. Old antagonisms do not die easily, but working together will develop new relationships. It may be premature to consider Russia an ally, but a new special relationship with Moscow is certainly possible.

The relationship would be special in that the U.S. and Russia are the only countries with enough nuclear weapons and missiles to destroy each other. Their goals would be to reduce those nuclear arsenals to the lowest levels needed for self-defense, cooperate in fighting international terrorism, work together to secure and prevent the transfer of weapons of mass destruction, and increase trade and economic development.

The prospects for a new relationship are good, but President Putin’s critics are complaining that while he made major concessions by allowing U.S. troops into the former Soviet republics and by retreating from hard-line opposition to NATO expansion and ending the ABM treaty, the U.S. has given little in return. The Russian elites crave a return to international importance for their country. This can be dealt with at the ranch in Texas, where Mr. Putin surely will be treated as an equal on the world stage, Russia will be given economic concessions and cuts in nuclear weapons, and the U.S. will refrain from announcing its withdrawal from the ABM treaty.

But an effective national missile defense cannot be built unless the treaty is done away with. That is a fact. Still, there are different ways to achieve that goal and changing Russia from an enemy to a friend is one of them. The emerging agreement appears to be a compromise that would allow the U.S. to pursue missile flight tests and development within the framework of the ABM treaty.

The goal, however, is to deploy missile defenses for the American people as soon as technologically possible. That means putting the initial interceptors in silos in Alaska by 2004 or 2005. The ground in Alaska now is being cleared. The Bush team has made major progress in changing the attitudes of President Putin and the allies. It is smart now to seize the moment and cut the deal with Mr. Putin, continue flight tests and keep moving toward early deployment. Considering how much political progress has been made in the past 10 months, in 10 more we should be beyond the ABM treaty and well into a new special relationship with Russia.

James Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.

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