Friday, October 26, 2001

Recent dramatic moves by Russian President Vladimir Putin towards a rapprochement with the United States and NATO in our opinion can be compared on a geopolitical scale with the far-reaching impact that the collapse of communism had in 1991.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is talking about seismic changes in U.S. - Russian relations while in Moscow a communist newspaper denounced Mr. Putin as an enemy who was a thousand times worse than Boris Yeltsin.

This is hardly disputable for any die-hard communist if you look at Mr. Putin’s deeds, not just his words. He has demonstrated real leadership, pulling Russia to support the United States and providing more help than many traditional American allies in what seems to be the most important international battle of the 21st century. Mr. Putin delivered Central Asian republics to the antiterrorist coalition, closed the massive eavesdropping facility at Lourdes in Cuba and a similar one in Vietnam, and has made strong overtures to NATO. This is what is known publicly, but we are sure that there are many other classified matters, which will make the above list even more impressive. One could say without exaggeration that Russia under Mr. Putin has become a de facto American ally, as it had been during World War II.

Well, this is great and Americans are applauding, but what about Russians? So far we do not hear too much about any comparable American moves and this is terribly wrong because in the world of politics you cannot have a one-way street all the time. Mr. Putin is popular in Russia and he has a strong majority in the Duma, unlike Mr. Yeltsin, whose popularity quickly waned after l993. Mr. Putin’s move toward the West, however, is not without risk for him, especially if oil prices remain depressed for much longer. The Russians are a very patient people but there is a limit to their patience. There are demagogic elements inside Russia ready and willing to blame Mr. Putin’s shift to the West on any problems which may come up. One headline in a Russian newspaper said: “Putin joins the West, Russia may follow later.”

May or may not depends on our reciprocity and the United States needs to look at things we can do which will give Mr. Putin some breathing room. Clearly it is in the American national interest to keep Russia on its side not only in the fight against radical Islamic fundamentalists but on a more permanent basis. And the Russian people must understand that being an American ally brings substantial dividends.

One could start with the matter of the foreign debt, which Russia inherited from the Soviet Union. This debt goes back many decades and most of it is owed to Europe and not the United States. The country and its European allies should either write it off or restructure it in such a way that it is not a burden for Russia, or follow the example of Spain, which agreed to turn its portion of the Soviet debt into investment.

Second, we should find a more positive approach to one of the most controversial issues, which is America’s intended development and deployment of the ballistic missile defense system (BMD). We are strong supporters of this initiative but from our point of view, the best way to deal with it is by engaging Russia in the BMD development. It is no secret that there are still serious and widespread doubts about the effectiveness of the present U.S. version of BMD. It is also broadly understood that, despite all the difficulties of the last ten years, Russia’s scientific potential, especially in the area of pioneering research in physics (such as laser technologies that can be used in missile defenses), is among the best in the world. Therefore, we believe that cooperation between Russian and American scientists, with appropriate financial support from the American side, would not only ensure the workability of the new defense system, but also certify that this system would not pose a threat to the national security of Russia.

Our preliminary contacts with the Russian Academy of Sciences and some Duma deputies indicate that such an idea will have wide support in Russian society, and once Congress and the U.S. government come up publicly with such an initiative, this support will be much stronger.

Third, we should start serious discussions and negotiations on close NATO Russia collaboration. This would include working out a joint threat analysis and a joint NATO-Russia strategic concept and developing joint contingency planning between the Western and Russian militaries. We should also seriously consider taking Mr. Putin up on his comment about Russia joining NATO, in order to see if there is any chance of agreement with him on practical terms and in any case, taking the onus off NATO for having previously dismissed the idea out of hand.

We have mentioned only three starting proposals to the Bush administration but this list should be much longer and we invite the White House, Congress, as well as experts and American public to come up with other good ideas.

Many undertakings in the history of the U.S.-Russian relations did not seem viable when they were just beginning, but they were the ones that eventually brought the most serious changes into world politics. In the past, the United States has sought alliances with nations and used their leaders only to leave them high and dry at the moment of truth. The Shah of Iran comes immediately to mind. We cannot let this happen to Mr. Putin. The man is taking remarkable risks these days. He even invited the pope to visit Russia, which if you have followed the issue, makes the Russian Orthodox patriarch foam at the mouth. Mr. Putin is day by day proving himself to Mr. Bush and other Western leaders and we must take advantage of this remarkable development.

Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow. Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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