- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2005

Despite a productive meeting earlier this year between President Bush and President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava, Russian-American relations are far from healthy. Indeed, negative sentiments toward the other are surfacing in both states.

The reasons are well known, stemming in part from American concern about the erosion of democracy in Russia and Russian worries about American policies in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics where a string of U.S. bases have been constructed.

With Mr. Bush’s visit to Russia in May to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, we believe the time is right for an important step that can improve the political and military relationships between Russia and the United States, and send a strong, positive signal about our mutual intent to combat terrorism along with the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Kyrgyzstan is the point of leverage and joint U.S.-Russian military exercises are the means. The present crisis in Kyrgyzstan is both a challenge and a further opportunity to prevent destabilization in Central Asia by radical fundamentalist groups connected to al Qaeda.

Everyone is aware of the “revolution” that ousted Kyrgyzstani President Askar Akayev. But many people do not know that both Russia and the United States have military bases in Kyrgyzstan in or close to the capital of Biskek. The Russian base at Kant is 20 kilometers away, where no more than a few dozen aircraft and several hundred troops are stationed. The United States has plans for a 37-acre base as well as a small facility at Manas Airport. Its presence is purposely low key but provides the United States the ability to stage forces and material to Afghanistan and nearby hot spots should they arise.

Given that both Russia and America have military forces in relative proximity, it makes sense to establish liaison and communications’ links and run joint training operations. Exercises focused on counterterror and counterproliferation missions should be conducted in concert with local forces and possibly under the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace. This will also help to stabilize a fragile situation in Kyrgyzstan and ensure its territorial integrity.

An additional step could be expanded cooperation in Afghanistan in the fight against narcotics production and traffic. Afghan drug production has been a major concern for Russia since Taliban rule ended and Afghanistan became the main source for narcotrafficking through the Central Asian states. Hence, this is another opportunity for Russian, U.S. and NATO forces to deal withthe dual threat of terrorism and drugs.

Timing is often everything. The NATO partnership was created in 1994. Beginning in 1995, all of the now 30-nation members, less Russia, signed the so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), meaning that each nation kept legal jurisdiction over its troops no matter where they were stationed within the NATO partnership. Now, Russia may be ready to ratify the SOFA. Thus, Russian territory could be used to supply American and NATO forces in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. This cooperation may have profound consequence for the entire greater Middle East.

Some very positive political effects could be achieved. First, such joint operations would improve mutual trust and confidence and demonstrate that Russia and the United States are not playing zero-sum games against each other. There are important precedents for that. Indeed, in the 1990s when U.S. Army Gen. George Joulwan was supreme NATO commander, he directed his staff that there were to be no “secrets” between him and his Russian counterpart stationed in Mons, Belgium and that “he [the Russian general] sees what I see.”

Second, other former Soviet republics in the region, such as Georgia and Ukraine, would take note. Perhaps this action would check some of the animosity that is building in Russia and America toward each other.

Third, it can also open the way for expanding Russian participation in NATO should that be desired by all parties. Some will argue this means Russia someday could join NATO, while others suggest that this means NATO could ultimately join Russia.

There are cautions. Americans who view human rights and democratic leanings as more important than cooperative engagement and joint military training will object. Russians who fear that this would simply be a ploy to disguise continuing American encirclement and encroachment on Russian sovereignty will not be automatically supportive. And, of course, there is China.

Some will argue that a Bush-Putin agreement to this suggestion would be a “Nixon in reverse” — that is, instead of going to China as means of leveraging the Soviet Union, Bush is using Russia to affect China. While untrue, harming relations with China must be avoided.

A decision for joint exercises in Kyrgyzstan will not fundamentally alter U.S.-Russian relations. However, they are one means of at least setting them on a more positive trajectory.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times. Sergei Rogov is director of the Institute of the United States and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

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