The U.S.-Russia Agenda

American President Bill Clinton's decision to participate in commemorations of the 50th anniversary of victory in World War II in Moscow this May is a significant gesture of good will toward Russia. In making this decision, Clinton has again demonstrated his support for Russian reforms despite a number of real and imaginary Russian actions that many in the West -- and many democrats in Russia -- have interpreted as anti-reform.

Over the last three or four months, several conflicts have arisen between the two countries, leading many observers to characterize the relationship as a "cold peace" that could at any moment cross the line into another cold war. However, it is certainly too early to write off the relationship.

In fact, I see only two clear trends in Russian-American relations and both of them are extremely positive developments. The first is that both sides are finally returning to normalcy. The essence of this normalcy is that both sides have adopted a sober, practical approach to the formation of bilateral relations.

For the American side, this transition is simpler. Essentially, all the United States need do is adapt the pragmatic approach that already characterizes the country's other foreign relations. This means moving beyond the highly ideologized, essentially abnormal atmosphere that characterized its relations with the Soviet Union. America must also get over the abnormally ideologized (albeit in a positive way) stage of relations with Russia that lasted from 1989 to 1993. During this phase, Russia was transformed from an enemy into an ally, a view that was stubbornly held even though there was often little objective reason for it.

Now the United States must work out a new way of dealing with Russia, but one which preserves its already defined interests. And it must decide whether Russia is an ally, a partner, a competitor or any enemy.

This has been the main debate in Washington, especially since last November's elections which saw a sharp increase in the number of politicians who are convinced that Russia is at least a competitor, if not an enemy. The reasons for this shift, though, are largely connected with domestic factors in the United States. Also, naturally, there has been a certain backlash after the euphoria of the early 1990s. After such a sharp shift in one direction, it is impossible for the pendulum just to swing back to neutral: A certain period is required for Americans to be angry with themselves for their naivet? and idealism toward Russia.

Clinton's decision to come to Moscow shows unambiguously that the United States, or at least the current administration, does not want to see Russia as an enemy. And this is closely connected with what I see as the second positive aspect of recent Russian-American relations: Russia has been indirectly acknowledged as "the first among equals," with its own special status, whether as a superpower or just as a regional power. Regardless, "special status" is extremely important in Russia's current domestic crisis, and it appears that they understand this in Washington.

The problems facing Moscow are considerably more complicated, beginning with the creation of an entirely new, pragmatic model of dealing with foreign powers. Moreover, such a model is impossible until the country clearly formulates its national interests and defines its national security. The lack of these conceptions, both for domestic and for international use, leads to situations such as we see in Chechnya and to the general cacophony that has dominated our foreign policies up until the last couple of months.

Faced with these tasks, many Moscow politicians find a return to pre-perestroika Russian-American relations a far simpler and more attractive alternative. Public opinion is also pushing in this direction since, just as in the United States, people are badly disillusioned and frustrated because of the unrealized hopes of the last few years.

The second problem facing Russia, the one which must be resolved before we can confront the issues mentioned above, is the absolute necessity of determining once and for all exactly what kind of "new Russia" we are building. Ultimately, this will answer the question of whether Russia will be America's ally, partner, competitor or enemy.

Of course, neither Russia nor the United States can afford to wait until Russia has sorted out its domestic problems before moving ahead with their relations. The current year will be crucial in the long, torturous process of creating both European and global arms control systems. The extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is by no means assured, and the chances that START-2 will make it through the Russian parliament are looking slim. In November, the issue of the Conventional Forces in Europe Agreement will come to a head.

Even more difficult than any of these issues is the matter of expanding NATO. If the West decides to destroy the current fragile balance of power in Europe by rapidly expanding NATO, many in Moscow will take this as a sign that Russia need not adhere to a number of arms control agreements in the name of national security. It is impossible to tell exactly how far such changes might go in terms of Russia's defense posture.

The bottom line is that the maintenance and perfection of the present arms control system cannot continue without the good will of both the United States and Russia. It is likely that arms control matters will continue to dominate the Russian-American agenda for the foreseeable future. And this is as it should be, since this area is where the two country's interests are most clearly defined and most closely coincide.

Irina Kobrinskaya is a senior researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Academy of Sciences' Institute of the United States and Canada. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.