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Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 2001 / 2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Paul J. Saunders

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Welcome Russia's help --- with reservations


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE WAR on terrorism offers a unique opportunity for President George W. Bush to transform America's relations with Russia. But, as the last decade has demonstrated, his administration must keep its priorities clear and its expectations in check if it is to make the best of that opportunity.

The last big chance for improving relations between Washington and Moscow began with the unprecedented cooperation between President George Herbert Walker Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during the Persian Gulf war. The collapse of the USSR shortly thereafter created further openings with a rhetorically friendly Russia under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin.

The contrast in conduct toward the Soviet Union and then Russia by the previous Bush administration and its successor, the Clinton administration, is useful to recall in today's context. Despite cultivating personal relationships with their Soviet counterparts, Bush administration officials remained cautious in dealing with the USSR - never taking Gorbachev's political survival for granted or allowing their sympathy for his predicament to cloud their judgment.

As a result, the first Bush administration was able to end the Cold War on more or less American terms - for example, through the reunification of Germany within NATO - while maintaining constructive relations with Moscow.

On the contrary, the Clinton administration entered office determined to befriend Moscow and to save Russians from themselves. At the same time, the Clinton team seemed to expect everything from the Russian government all at once - from political and economic reform, to social transformation, acquiescence to NATO enlargement and to military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. Rapid disillusionment was the predictable result.

The greatest danger to the creation of a stronger, more stable relationship between Russia and the United States today could be the revival of boundless expectations. This does not mean that there may not be much for the United States to gain in a stronger relationship. Already, Russia has taken meaningful steps to support the American war on Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Concrete actions such as sharing intelligence, increasing shipments of weapons and supplies to the opposition Northern Alliance, and accepting a U.S. military presence in Central Asia make a significant difference to our forces in the field.

But the fact that Moscow is on board now does not mean that it will remain so indefinitely and unconditionally. Russia perceives the Taliban regime as a considerable threat to its own security due to the regime's reported links to some groups of Chechen rebels in southern Russia and the danger Taliban's brand of Islamic extremism poses to generally friendly governments in Central Asia.

But, if the United States includes military targets in Iraq, the Russian government is likely to be considerably less accommodating. Russia has long-standing ties with the Iraqi government as well as a substantial financial interest in Baghdad's eventual re-entry into the international economy.

Moscow would take a similarly dim view of new U.S. pressure on Iran. The Russians view Iran as a responsible neighbor, which has avoided contributing to Islamic extremism along Russia's volatile and vulnerable southern border. It just closed a five-year $300 million deal to provide Iran air defense missiles, Su-27 fighter jets and other military hardware.

Russia's cooperation in the war on terrorism should not imply that the Kremlin is prepared to accept U.S. positions on other issues. Missile defense - the most contentious issue before Sept. 11 - has moved to the back-burner as a result of Washington's effort to secure Moscow's cooperation in that war. Serious Russian objections will remain when bilateral discussions of the administration's missile defense plan are revived. Differences still exist on NATO enlargement as well.

Changing Russian behavior constructively will come at a cost. This is already evident in the Bush administration's weakening position on Russia's ongoing intervention in Chechnya. The lack of an administration response to Moscow's arms sales to Tehran, a topic of considerable concern to the Bush presidential campaign, may fall into the same category. Understanding that there will be a price - and being prepared to pay it when necessary - is essential.

Our priorities must be clear. Though the Bush administration has expressed concern about both Chechnya and Russian-Iranian arms deals, senior administration officials appear to have decided, correctly, that Russian help in the war on terrorism is more important than criticizing its policies in these two areas. An extended campaign against international terrorism will require countless such judgments.

A successful relationship with Russia is unlikely to result in an alliance or even necessarily a friendship. But a stable and mutually beneficial relationship is by no means beyond our reach. In fact, the Bush administration has a chance to build it on the metaphorical rubble of the last 10 years of ties between Washington and Moscow - and the all-too-real rubble of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. This new opportunity must not be lost.



Paul J. Saunders is the director of the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Paul J. Saunders