Dealing with Russia: The Wrong Priorities

With tensions bubbling over at the G-8 between the United States and Russia, we have to wonder if Washington has any leverage left over Moscow on crucial security issues. Missile defense might provide some.

With tensions bubbling over at the G-8 between the United States and Russia, we have to wonder if Washington has any leverage left over Moscow on crucial security issues. When I expressed outrage that the Nunn-Lugar progress budget remains at about the same size it was before 9/11, one of its strongest supporters in the Senate explained to me that Russia has shown little interest in more money since the price of oil has increased. Few question the importance of blending down the material from which terrorists could make nuclear bombs, most of which is found in Russia (and the United States). The same holds true for better securing the 10,000, give or take a few, tactical nuclear arms that are floating around Russia's insecure borders. If dollars could not motivate Russia, what could?

The answer is found in an old Jewish joke that is not particularly funny, but useful. A villager asked his rabbi for help; his home was so crowded he could not stand it any more. The rabbi told him to add a goat. The villager was incredulous, but the rabbi persisted. A few weeks later the same man came back to the rabbi in complete despair. The rabbi told him, "Take out the goat." The villager lived happily ever after.

The "goat" in this case is the missile defense system we are installing in Russia's neighboring republics, which Russia sees as threatening. Whether Russia is merely paranoid or the missile defense system truly undermines its security is beside the point. What matters is that most experts don't expect it to work, it tests poorly, is expensive and unnecessary. We could take it out and lose little. Russia may not live happily ever after, but given the importance it attributes to this matter, it may be willing to allow major increases in the Nunn-Lugar program in return.

Such increases are more likely to find receptive ears in Russia than many other policy changes the United States is advocating because it will directly serve Russian interests. True, Putin and his advisers tend to scoff at the idea of nuclear terrorism, especially scenarios involving the Chechens. There is, however, a world of difference between considering a program of limited national interest and viewing a program as antithetical to one's interest. There is nothing in Nunn-Lugar to agitate the Russians comparable to placing our missile systems on their borders. Hence, giving up the second is likely to buy us more leg room for the first.

If a still larger incentive is needed, we may even scale back our drumbeat for Russia to democratize, because-the record shows-it falls on deaf ears. Despite numerous public and private presentations by the United States, in favor of freedom of the press, allowing NGOs to do their thing, competitive political parties, and other elements of democracy, the Putin regime has been moving in the opposite direction. Berating him may have caused him some embarrassment in the West and even in some circles at home, but has brought us nothing concrete.

In contrast, over the last six years the United States has used little of whatever leverage it has over Russia to encourage the introduction of stronger measures to curb the danger of nuclear terrorism. President Bush and President Putin did issue one joint statement to this effect following a 2005 meeting in Bratislava. But there has been little follow-through.

Russia is a failing state. The central government is not in control. Various generals, tycoons and crooks wheel and deal on their own in an atmosphere akin to the Wild West. The troops that guard the so-called "closed cities", in which much of the dangerous material is found, are very poorly paid. Only removing or neutralizing the fissile materials can, in the long run, underpin our security, Russia's security and global security. Here is where our first, second and third priorities of dealing with Russia ought to lie.

Amitai Etzioni is professor of sociology and international relations at The George Washington University. This article draws on his new book, Security First: For a Moral, Muscular Foreign Policy, just published by Yale University Press.