Paradigm Lost

Thirty-five years after the ABM Treaty, balistic missiles remain crucial the U.S.-Russian ties. But the relationship has changed dramatically over the years in ways both sides should recognize.

In 1972 Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, jumpstarting détente and laying the groundwork for a new era in U.S.-Soviet relations. Thirty-five years later, missiles and missile defense continue to play a crucial role in the U.S.-Russia relationship, but rather than forming the foundation for future cooperation, they are now exacerbating the discord between Moscow and Washington.

"For the first time in the history, systems of American nuclear strategic complex appear on the European continent", Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday. "For us it is the same as the deployment of ‘Pershings'-the threat is absolutely the same."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's attempts to assuage Russian fears-she described the notion that these installations will threaten Russia's strategic deterrent as "ludicrous"-have failed thus far.

The death of Boris Yeltsin in many ways symbolized the incontrovertible passing of the era in U.S.-Russian affairs that succeeded the collapse of the Soviet Union. That paradigm has collapsed, Dimitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment said at a panel discussion on the U.S.-Russian nuclear dialogue at The Nixon Center on April 27.

"Russia is essentially saying that the old agreements no longer apply because there's a different balance of forces than existed in the early 1990s", Trenin added.

Andrew Kuchins of CSIS and Thomas Moore of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee joined Trenin on a panel moderated by Nixon Center Executive Director Paul Saunders.

Kuchins outlined the progression of America-Russian relations since the 1990s, emphasizing miscalculations and missed opportunities on both sides. During the Bush Administration, the United States has not codified many of its agreements with Russia, operating with a "friends don't need treaties" mentality. But from a Russian perspective, American policy has seemed predicated on "Now we [Russia] are weak, there's not much we can do about it, and they [the United States] know it." The distrust that characterized the U.S.-Soviet relationship in the past persists to this day; Kuchins specifically mentioned comments by Vice President Richard Cheney that he said illustrate this climate and also contribute to it.

While bilateral ties might be nearing a post-Soviet nadir, cooperation on nuclear issues is a floor-an area where Moscow and Washington's interests will always overlap-that Kuchins described as "low-hanging fruit" for the U.S. and Russia in improving their ties. Even on non-proliferation, where much has been made of Russian cooperation with Iran at Bushehr, the goals are similar, even if the two countries differ on priorities and means to shared ends.

Beyond nuclear weapons, there are a slew of other critical issues that ideally would be grounds for cooperation, such as joint missile defense projects. But, Kuchins said, many of these matters are highly politicized and difficult to address pragmatically. "It's not low-hanging, and it's not ripe," he said.

Thomas Moore explored Congressional frustrations with Russia. President Putin has linked Russia's suspension of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) to planned U.S. deployments of radar installations and interceptor missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland. Moore noted that Russia is not even in compliance with the treaty now, however, according to State Department certifications sent to Capitol Hill.

But Moore, like the other panelists and many in the audience, stressed the importance of looking towards the future and seeking cooperation in new areas, like civilian nuclear cooperation. Still, Moore said, whether or not funding and cooperation are linked to verification mechanisms legally, they will always be politically linked, which is what counts in Congress.

Dimitri Trenin spoke of Russia's sense of global friendlessness, which its focus on its own interests reflects. Oil wealth has helped bring Russia back from the depths of its impotence. A $200 billion military modernization project over the next eight years indicates a sense of heightened power. But, Trenin said, "The Russian leadership is not seeking confrontation with the West but is seeking a basis for remaking the relationship."

That new paradigm has yet to be found.

Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest