How to make U.S.-Russian relations meaningful

By Pavel Podvig | August 14, 2007

Russia seems amenable to working with the United States on arms control. But for any measures to succeed, Washington needs to be a willing partner.

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

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.

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