Friday, October 12, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are in Moscow today on a repair mission. Their goal: to shore up deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations. Each side is frustrated and disappointed with the other.

Americans are unhappy with the increasingly autocratic tenor of Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s rule and how he treats his neighbors. Russians think Americans don’t understand, or care, how difficult the post-Soviet transition has been, and they don’t like our lecturing. They believe we don’t really mean it when we say we welcome Russia’s re-emergence as a major power.

With elections coming up in both countries, it is tempting to leave this deteriorating situation for the next leaders to fix. In my view, that would be the wrong course. Presidents Bush and Putin could establish their legacies if they make important strategic choices now that will shape U.S.-Russian relations for years to come.

They can do so by launching new initiatives in arms control and nonproliferation, where cooperation is essential and our interests coincide. I have suggested several specifics, including a nuclear fuel bank to prevent spread of uranium enrichment facilities, working together on proliferation threats outside the former Soviet states (including in North Korea) under the Nunn-Lugar program, and extending the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START I), which underpins the 2003 Moscow Treaty that committed each side to cut its nuclear missiles below 2,200.

Another area where progress is possible is missile defense, even though this has been a source of the current malaise in the relationship.

Until now, the U.S. proposal for a limited, regional missile defense system in Central Europe, directed at rogue states, has sparked anger in Russia and anxiety among many Europeans. However, bold and enlightened leaders can turn this into productive discussions over a more global approach to defenses against nuclear attacks.

I agree with Henry Kissinger’s insight that President Putin’s initiative to link NATO and Russian warning systems was an initiative easy to disparage on technical grounds, but one that allows us to “imagine a genuinely global approach to the specter of nuclear proliferation, which has until now been treated largely through national policies. … If the countries involved link their strategies on the nonproliferation issue — a new framework for a host of other issues will come about.” The Russian missile defense proposal provides an important strategic opening for further discussion.

Mr. Putin’s proposition is surprisingly similar to the strategic vision President Ronald Reagan laid out more than two decades ago. I am pleased the administration is seriously studying his offer. Using former Soviet radar stations may or may not assist in tracking missiles fired from rogue states. But sharing information gathered by U.S. and NATO systems with Russia, and possibly linking radar and early warning systems, would be useful in ensuring transparency and reaffirming our cooperative approach.

The United States and Russia could start with jointly manned radar facilities and exchanges of early-warning data. They might also consider joint threat assessments and bilateral discussions on options for missile defense cooperation.

Lastly, we might consider placing Russian liaison officers at U.S. missile defense tracking sites in exchange for U.S. officers in Russian strategic command centers. The transparency gained from such steps would be useful in offering reassurances that these radars are not meant for spying on Russia.

Missile defense cooperation could be conducted on a bilateral or multilateral level through the NATO-Russia Council. Some have expressed skepticism in using NATO because of the need for unanimity under NATO rules. Such a view is shortsighted.

The United States will not succeed in developing an effective missile defense system in Europe without the full support of NATO members. In many cases, this will require a good-faith effort to engage Russia. While securing broad support is time-consuming and difficult, a policy based upon avoiding unreceptive European capitals, and Russia, will surely fail.

To date, missile defense has been a divisive issue in U.S.-Russian relations. It has the potential to cause similar damage to the U.S.-European relationship. This need not continue. The U.S. will need to build support in Europe for missile defense and this will require patient diplomacy and a willingness to consider other options and opinions.

I am hopeful Secretaries Rice and Gates bring to Moscow a forward-looking agenda aimed at constructing agreements on nonproliferation, arms control and missile defense. Arriving at such accords would reverse the current downward trend in U.S.-Russian relations and send a critical message to the international community.

Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, is ranking member of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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