U.S. relations with Russia: Glass half full or empty?

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, December 15, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Russians were asked in a recent poll to choose the foreign nations they consider their best allies and their worst enemies. The United States came out No. 1 on both lists, as 42 percent said friend and 43 percent responded foe.

The Russians are not alone in having a split strategic vision in this moment of vast global change. President Bush treats Moscow as a valued ally in America’s war in Central Asia one day, only to announce the next that he will withdraw from an arms control treaty that Russia says must be preserved. Bush showers tender praise on President Vladimir Putin in Crawford, but offers Putin no strategic comfort on NATO or missile defense.

This spate of seeing double can be prevented from destabilizing U.S.-Russian relations. The task now is to construct a new working partnership that will make differences over NATO, missile defense and other divisive questions manageable as they become secondary to broader political and economic forces. That optimistic result will require a strong, counterintuitive commitment from Bush.

Bush rides high in public approval at home as the war in Afghanistan goes well. Citizens crave strong homeland defense — the global era’s label for the issue Richard Nixon called law and order. Why would Bush see a need to compromise on fundamental issues now?

His recent deeds say loudly that Sept. 11 did not change him or America, as Russia and Europe might initially have hoped. Sept. 11 changed the world, this White House argues, by making it essential for both friends and foes to become more responsive to Bush’s agenda. This is the true essence of the Bush Doctrine.

"Bush seems now to be practicing multilateral unilateralism," says Russian political scientist Vyacheslav Nikonov, who reported the split-vision poll results.

Bush’s decision to withdraw — six months from now — from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty would seem to undermine his coalition-building efforts. But the initial muted reactions from Moscow suggest that Putin is willing to take an arrow in the chest at home, where he is accused of selling out to Bush, while they work together against Central Asian-based terrorism.

One week before the ABM announcement, Washington also turned good intentions into hurt feelings in Moscow by abruptly pulling back from a far-reaching effort by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to wrap Russia into NATO decision-making on peacekeeping, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and counterterrorism.

Blair’s intent was to soften the blow of a new round of NATO expansion next year that could include the Baltic states. Unable to resolve its internal conflicts over Russia and NATO, Washington blocked meaningful consideration of the Blair proposal by NATO’s foreign ministers. The Bush administration in effect called a timeout at the line of scrimmage and told Blair to come back in June for Washington’s final answer.

American arrogance? Hegemony riding high? The 43 percent in the poll are likely to see Bush’s moves in that light. But four opportunities exist for Washington and Moscow to create a broad bilateral relationship that can resolve the ally-enemy conundrum positively:

n Washington should get serious about joint development of missile defenses with Russia. As Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has testified to Congress, it is in U.S. interests for a friendly Russia to be able to shoot down an incoming missile launched accidentally or by a rogue state. Only a serious offer of joint development can remove the sting of ABM Treaty withdrawal.

n The NATO issues Blair has identified for joint decision-making with Russia are points on which Russian and U.S. interests converge. Washington should not be the main obstacle to a clearly defined NATO-Russia council.

n Russia’s growing importance as an oil power provides Bush and Putin with a common business language. Both Texas and Russia gain from oil prices stabilized in the $20-$22 per barrel range rather than OPEC’s $22-$28 target.

n To pursue Bush’s converging campaigns against terror and weapons of mass destruction, the United States should strike commercial bargains with Russia over Iraq and Iran. Buying out Russia’s $7-billion claim in back debts from Iraq is a cheap step in clearing the way for the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein that is needed.

Inherent optimism tends me toward this glass-half-full vision of what is possible in U.S.-Russian relations beyond the ABM Treaty. But it will require a coherent worldview and integrated staff work by the Bush administration, two elements still often missing. Unless that changes, the world will quickly join Russia’s 43 percenters in seeing the glass as half-empty, and draining rapidly.

Jim Hoagland can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or hoaglandj@washpost.com.

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