When Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin get together at Bush’s Crawford Texas ranch this week, they will have the opportunity to launch a fundamentally new era in US-Russian relations. The Cold War, of course, has been over for more than a decade, but the period that followed it was little more than a Cold Peace. Throughout the 1990s Russian and American views diverged on the Balkans, NATO enlargement, Iraq, missile defense, Chechnya and more. Washington and Moscow may not have been enemies, but they weren’t friends either.
Bush and Putin have a chance to change that. Of course, 48 hours in Texas are not going to change the fundamental interests of the two sides, but Russia’s geopolitical calculations have changed dramatically since the September 11 terrorist attacks. And Putin?the most intelligent leader Russia has had in a long time?now seems willing and able to make hard choices as part of a new bargain with the US. If Bush doesn’t overplay his own hand, a Russian realignment with the West could be one of the few good things to emerge from the terrorist crisis.
Some of the key issues and possible ways ahead:
NATO enlargement. Only a few months ago, Russian officials were still warning of disaster should NATO proceed to enlarge to the Baltic states next year. Recently, however, Putin has softened his opposition, even musing out loud about whether Russia should consider joining the Alliance. Bush should not miss this opportunity. He should be clear that Washington will not drop its promises to enlarge the Alliance to democracies willing and able to contribute to it, but he should also embrace Russia’s new willingness to cooperate?for example by turning the currently moribund NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council into a real forum for dialogue. Bush should even express his openness to seeing Russia itself join NATO one day?there would be no better way than that to symbolize the real end of the Cold War.
Missile defense. America’s and Russia’s need for each other in the war on terrorism are also leading them toward compromise on the divisive issue of missile defense. Whereas the Russians had been warning that even the slightest amendment to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty could lead to a new nuclear arms race, now Putin says that he could imagine a new form of agreement. In turn, the Bush administration has gone from insisting that the treaty must go to suggesting that it might, after all, be able to amend it, at least for now. Bush should pledge to dramatically reduce American offensive nuclear forces, accept limits on space-based missile defenses, and agree to share technology with the Russians. By doing so he could take a major step toward a new relationship with Russia while preserving key American interests at the same time.
Chechnya. Many suspect the price of Russian concessions on issues like NATO or missile defense is a free hand to conduct their own war in Chechnya. And it is true that the Bush administration has ceased whatever meager criticism of that campaign it was making before September 11 and also begun to acknowledge links between Chechen fighters and global terrorists that it was never previously willing to acknowledge. But the need for Russian cooperation on terrorism need not, and should not, mean blind support for Moscow. The Western complaint there has never been that Russia had no right to fight terrorists, but simply that using indiscriminate military force, while refusing political dialogue, was counterproductive. Bush should continue to explain this to his new Russian friend.
Economic Aid. Prior to September 11, the Bush administration spoke with disdain about “wasted” economic assistance to Russia and some even suggested cutting the amounts of U.S. money allocated to the monitoring of Russian nuclear weapons. With Russia playing a key role in the anti-terrorism coalition, however?offering military aid to the anti-Taliban forces and supporting an American military presence in Central Asia?this view is likely to change. In the new climate, Bush should do more, not less, to help the Russians get control of their “loose nukes,” and support measures to help the Russian economy including its membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Putin’s real interest in the WTO may well be as much to control it as to use it to liberalize the Russian economy, but either way the opening of Russian markets will ultimately be a good thing, and Bush should support it.
We should not be naïve about the prospects for a new US-Russia relationship. Putin and Bush?among the most “realist” leaders on the planet?will not strike a new bargain because they like each other, but only if it is in their country’s perceived national interest. But that is precisely the point. After a decade of seeing things differently, the new common threat from terrorism is pushing both American and Russians to see their interest?and choose their friends and enemies?in a very new light. If they play it right this week, the end of the end of the Cold War might just be at hand.