- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Americans and Russians should buckle up. A collision between the two nations looms larger and larger. The good news is that a collision is not inevitable. The bad news is that the mistrust between both sides is approaching the level of enmity and hostility of 25 years ago.

The current grievances and complaints of both sides are no secret. America sees the Putin regime turning autocratic and anti-democratic. Russia sees America as engaging in misguided wars and provocatively expanding its influence through NATO eastward, impinging on Russian security. Hence, left unchecked, Russian-American relations will only be exacerbated by these harsh attitudes and misperceptions. Both sides will suffer.

Rather than dissect why many of the prevailing attitudes and views of Russians toward America and vice versa are inaccurate, we have a better idea. Beyond current, ongoing bilateral talks, why not determine specific issues where the United States and Russia can act together collaboratively to solve common problems and resolve divisive issues? One of the most explosive issues in Russian-American relations is ballistic missile defense. The need for sensible bassile missiles is self-evident. The means for achieving that are not.

Russia objected to the Bush administration’s unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty five years ago. The decision to deploy to limited ballistic missile defense in former Soviet satellites Poland and the Czech Republic against a potential Iranian threat that doesn’t exist today is seen by Moscow as an unnecessary, final provocation. Consequently, senior Russian officials are considering unilateral abrogation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty of 1987 that eliminated all medium range American and Soviet missiles. Moscow argues that it needs these weapons to counter Iran, North Korea and some other Russian neighbors who already possess medium range missiles.

In 1992, Moscow and Washington held serious negotiations on joint ballistic missile defenses. Instead of lapsing into a new arms competition, as a first step. Russia and the United States should return to this process and quickly. Agenda items could include how and whether efforts on both sides could be integrated into a common system or coordinated with parallel deployment of complimentary systems so that neither side felt threatened. Forums such as the Russia-NATO Council can play an important role in preventing an offensive-defensive arms race.

American and Russian talks on ballistic missile defense could have a powerful impact elsewhere. Both Washington and Moscow have a common and crucial interest in keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons state. Cooperative efforts appeared to work with North Korea’s agreement to abandon its weapons programs. Hence, a breakthrough in convincing Tehran to follow suit could also lead to greater Iranian and Russian cooperation aimed at preventing a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, despite the unhappy history of the failed Soviet occupation. More about that shortly.

One key to controlling Iran’s nuclear ambitions is through the fuel cycle. Iran rightly demands complete and secure access to nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes. Hence, self-sufficiency, meaning production and reprocessing at home, is the preferred if not only acceptable choice for Tehran. We should also begin high-level bilateral talks on how Russian nuclear fuel might be provided to Iran beyond the other ongoing EU-3 discussions over Iran’s determination to enrich its own Uranium. These talks could be expanded to include China, the EU, of course Iran and other interested parties.

If guarantees can be made and kept about providing nuclear fuel to Tehran for strictly peaceful uses, Iranian refusal to accept such a deal would be an incontrovertible signal of intentions to the international community. Such a message would be a foundation for subsequent action whether for tougher, smarter sanctions or for a deterrent scheme, including ballistic-missile defense, should Iran build nuclear weapons. As important, talks between Russia and America on this vital issue could help to clean the atmosphere of much of the poison that exists.

Afghanistan could be the next topic. The Afghan government has voiced no opposition to Russian support or to Russian provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) being assigned. Russian security forces may be more problematic but can be discussed.

One place for a Russian PRT is in the southwest in Nimroz Province, which abuts Iran. The advantages are several. The province needs help, and proximity to Iran might permit a better strategic dialogue. Russia could be the facilitator.

America and Russia have many shared interests. There are also too many points of disagreement and misunderstanding. Cooperation best starts with talks. Ballistic missile defense is the right issue at the right place and at the right time. Talks are not guaranteed to solve any of these issues dividing America and Russia. But they are a first step toward avoiding a collision.

Both sides lose if a new Cold War is allowed to break out, bringing the added danger of even greater instability and chaos in a post-Iraq world.

Harlan Ullman is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Atlantic Council. Sergey Rogov head’s the Moscow Institute for the Study of the U.S. and Canada.

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