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#2 - JRL 7126
Moscow Times
April 1, 2003
Resilient Lines of Communication
By Ivan Safranchuk
Ivan Safranchuk is director of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information, based in Washington. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

The dissonance of the Russian and U.S. positions on the Iraqi war has dominated conversations on both sides of the Atlantic since the military campaign was launched on March 19.

Over the last week, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer have been positive in their claims that bilateral relations will survive their conflicting views on actions in Iraq, giving the impression that the two countries are willing to look beyond this short-term turbulence. For Russia and the United States, that's good news. But this is not the end of the story.

The U.S.- and British-led operation in Iraq, without UN Security council support, is probably the first event for decades to have so deeply undermined the picture of unity and solidarity in the Western world. The Bush administration is angry that old friends have proven unreliable. This does not fit into the simple formula the Bush administration keeps trying to promote: You are with us or against us. Germany, France and Russia resisted an armed campaign but maintain diplomatic cooperation, meaning they are both with the United States and against it at the same time. While the temptation toward a black and white worldview is understandable given the pressure of the moment, it is nonetheless an oversimplified and inapplicable formula for this world, this complicated world, which is in a state of flux and crisis.

I do not doubt the wisdom of the Bush and Putin administrations. I believe in their personal bond and their common wish to build better relations. Both of them are struggling against a lack of creative thinking among their subordinates, internal debates, hardliners' sabotage, bureaucratic routines and cold warriors who smartly disguise their true positions under the veneer of new phraseology. Yet their vision for new relations goes far beyond anti-terror rhetoric. And neither of them is ready to give up and admit to themselves: We lost another chance. Thus, the two presidents will find a common language.

What is in question now is the paradigm of bilateral relations -- not how to preserve U.S.-Russian ties. The two countries have been working to build these bonds for two years already. I cannot help but ask when we will see more tangible benefits of these relations.

This is not the old mournful story about endless concessions on Russia's part with zero return, a story Russian leftist-opposition and pragmatic patriots repeat time and time again. Relations between the United States and Russia are strong enough to stop sacrificing whatever disagreements may appear for the sake of preserving close ties.

We should stop treating bilateral ties as a fragile infant to be sheltered from all winds and bad weather. New winds are blowing in the world. We must, absolutely must, open communication channels for open, frank, sometimes unpleasant and painful debates. They will not undermine our relations; they can only prove their strength if we really trust and respect each other in these debates instead of bluffing with zero-sum rhetoric, which ends in the meaningless and humiliating attitudes of "take it or leave it" or "you're with us or against us." The use of these formulas is a sign of weakness rather than one of strength.

It may be rather difficult to believe in a peace-oriented Moscow, given the government's experience in the bloody conflict in Chechnya, which has very little in common with any of the myriad interpretations of humanitarian law. Yet I do believe that Russia, in this case, has held to the principles of international law.

Moscow has always wanted an open dialog with Washington. There is absolutely no evidence to show that Moscow's criticism of the Iraq campaign is underpinned by a cynical wish to put obstacles in the United States' way. This is a key feature distinguishing Russia's stance from the French and German opposition.

The message Moscow got from Washington varied between "Follow our lead!" and "You want to bargain? All right, what's your bid?" Despite attempts at nuance, the U.S. position ended up as a primitive trade-off, reflected in recent claims by senior U.S. officials that Washington would defend Russian interests in Iraq in proportion to the support it got from Russia on the UN Security Council. So, too, have top diplomats hinted that Russia's long-sought accession to the World Trade Organization hangs in the balance, along with Washington's soft-spoken criticism on Chechnya -- rhetoric that is likely to become increasingly harsh.

This is not the feedback Moscow anticipated from Washington. In contrast to Schrder, Putin did not jump on the bandwagon of anti-American sentiment for the sake of preserving his popularity. Thus he has proven a reliable and fair partner, even in times of disagreement and public controversy, he has found a middle ground between being critical, but still behaving as a partner. Much as he did when the United States unilaterally left the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Putin has resisted adopting the anti-American rhetoric common among average Russians and even the political elite. Instead, he tends to speak in balanced tones on the question at hand.

It seems like U.S. diplomacy is trapped within the habit among political elites in Russia during the 1990s to see all bilateral disagreements as trade-offs where principles are sold out for a good price.

Instead of thinking that Putin's pragmatism is just way to angle for a better price from Washington, the U.S. government should finally understand that the sale is really over. Russia is surprisingly democratic and as a partner with a young president and changing elites, it has become a bigger challenge for Washington than paranoid Soviet leadership or the rough-and-tumble country under Boris Yeltsin's tenure ever were. The Soviets and Yeltsin were less complex in their thinking and, therefore, easier to manipulate for a desired result, whereas Putin is more stubbornly independent. Intense, persuasive debates are required to change his mind, and the U.S. government cannot be bothered to engage him substantively.

It seems the Bush administration has forgotten all about its commitment to sharing its political rationale with the rest of the world, which was well laid out in its National Security Strategy, passed last September: "We will also wage a war of ideas to win the battle against international terrorism."

Willingness to talk through arguments for and against different policies is lacking in Washington, where superficial catch-phrases and buzz words are used to solicit support.

Russia, however, has not been so quick to forget about this obligation. Debates are necessary in this complicated world, and Russia is right to press for them.

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