Russia has been in the news often lately, with most of it having an odd Cold War flavor. Even the widely publicized (but otherwise harmless) expedition that planted a Russian flag under the North Pole generated stories about a potential arms race in icebreakers and reports of U.S. submarines shadowing Russian scientific underwater capsules.
On the surface, Russia provided plenty of reasons to wonder what it's up to. In July, President Vladimir Putin suspended the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and the new ballistic missile tests that Russia recently conducted set the stage for a minor buildup of land-based and sea-based strategic forces. At the beginning of August, the Russian Air Force conducted what appears to be the largest series of exercises since the Soviet era, which involved strategic bomber flights around Western Europe and the U.S. military installations in Guam. Given that all of this follows the unresolved dispute about U.S. plans to deploy missile interceptors in Eastern Europe, the future of U.S.-Russian relations and the prospect of nuclear disarmament doesn't seem particularly bright.
Fortunately, the reality is not so grim. Even though the Kremlin's rhetoric shouldn't be taken lightly, there are plenty of indicators that Russia is more than willing to cooperate with the United States on a range of strategic issues. The problem is that the Bush administration approaches Russia with a strange mix of fatalism and indifference. The administration seems to think that it's impossible to reach a meaningful agreement with Russia on anything and that such agreements are unnecessary anyway.
This is deeply flawed logic. I have said it before and will do so again: Even post-Cold War, U.S.-Russian arms control agreements are important, because they provide the framework that prevents misunderstanding and confrontation.
As for the possibility of meaningful agreements, lets look at what's on the table:
First, the Russian offer to let the United States use its early warning radars in a future missile defense system is still on the table. Not only would Russia give the United States access to the old radar in northeastern Azerbaijan, but it's also willing to make the new radar in southern Russia available. A technical analysis conducted by Ted Postol at MIT shows that the U.S. missile defense system would benefit greatly from the data provided by Russian radars. The United States, however, quickly dismissed this offer as a ploy to prevent the deployment of a missile defense radar in the Czech Republic. That was true to a certain extent, but it doesn't mean that the opening created by the Russian proposal shouldn't be seriously explored.
Another Russian proposal is to revive and expand the idea of establishing a joint data exchange center that facilitates sharing information provided by early warning systems. In addition to the already agreed upon (but nonexistent) center in Moscow, Russia suggested opening a similar center in Brussels. This could create an opportunity for Russia to more closely integrate with NATO. And who would object to that? Unfortunately, there isn't any U.S. interest in this proposal.
Finally, as the deadline for extending the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty draws near, more and more people in Russia are advocating for keeping the treaty alive. Although a simple extension of the treaty is hardly possible today, preserving most of its transparency and verification measures is certainly something that Russia would welcome. Instead, the Bush administration decided not to extend the treaty, and the only commitment that it's willing to make is a three-paragraph statement that doesn't commit either side to anything.
The saddest part is that it isn't clear if the Bush administration has either the necessary political will or skill to take advantage of the current (admittedly small) opening and bring U.S.-Russian relations back to a reasonably normal state. It should try to give serious consideration to the Russian proposals. Otherwise, we'll see more Cold War-flavored news items.