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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Getting Off to a Good Start

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. and Russian leaders have always wanted successful summits, but have not always succeeded. Though Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin had good meetings in Ljubljana and Genoa last year, their previous encounter -- in Washington and Crawford -- was not particularly inspiring. The Moscow summit, in contrast, is a source of great hope.

This has less to do with the summit's achievements than with the new tone of the U.S.-Russia relationship. After all, as has been widely declared, the three- page arms reduction treaty does little apart from formalize each side's pre-existing plans and subject them to ratification and verification. The other "deliverables" unveiled on Friday were generally declarative rather than substantive.

Nevertheless, the United States and Russia seem finally to be developing the new agenda that has been lacking in their relationship for a decade. As a result, the war on terrorism, joint efforts at non-proliferation and missile defense, economic ties and even a cooperative approach to the perennially troubled Middle East peace process have the potential to shape a constructive and sustainable relationship between Washington and Moscow.

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Of course, notwithstanding the Kremlin's unprecedented assistance in the destruction of the Taliban (itself a long-standing Russian ambition), the proof of the pudding of the new agenda will be in its eating. And at the risk of metaphorical gluttony, while the appetizer was pretty good, we have been waiting a long, long time for the entree and our hopes have been repeatedly raised and dashed by the cooks in both countries.

In this context, major debates are under way in each country over whether our respective partners are acting on the basis of tactical or strategic calculations in seeking closer relations. In Russia, the center of gravity in this debate seems to reside with those who argue that the United States is pursuing only tactical cooperation with Russia, and that once Washington has extracted the concessions it needs -- in Central Asia, Iraq, Russia's energy sector and elsewhere -- the United States will move on. This perspective is bolstered by Russian perceptions that the United States obtained enormous concessions from Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin at almost no cost.

In the United States, those arguing over Putin's motives seem more evenly matched. Many have been impressed by Russian assistance in the war on terrorism, by Putin's clear interest in a constructive relationship with the United States and by Russia's new economic momentum, which conveys a determination for reform only rarely demonstrated by the erratic Yeltsin. The combination contributes to an impression of common values and a shared destiny.

At the same time, however, others are deeply concerned by the ongoing war in Chechnya, the Kremlin's weak interest in a free press and other human rights issues. This perspective -- outlined last week in a Washington Post editorial -- contends that Putin wants to use U.S. and Western assistance to rebuild Russia in a form that should concern us.

But the great strength of the new agenda is that neither side's motives really matter as much as many think. The core items of the new agenda -- terrorism, non-proliferation and economics --are win-win issues for the United States and Russia. As long as each side is able to advance its own pragmatic national interests, the relationship will succeed.

Moreover, to the degree that the relationship does succeed, Washington and Moscow will both be inclined to pursue long-term and strategic goals rather than short-term and tactical goals in dealing with one another. Nothing succeeds like success.

In the long run, this outcome should satisfy both sides in each country's debates. After all, close U.S. engagement with Russia that contributes to its tighter integration into the global economy will constrain Russian behavior both internationally and domestically. Russia cannot have the economic success that Putin seems to crave -- and will not achieve the sustained growth rates necessary to catch up to Portugal's per capita GDP, as he suggested it should -- without important changes in its governance. For its part, Russia could also have greater leverage over the United States, though the partnership is likely to remain an unequal one (to Russia's obvious disadvantage) for the foreseeable future.

It is a political fact that U.S. cooperation with Russia will be limited in some respects -- as long as there is uncertainty in America about the Russian government's commitment to democracy and human rights. It is similarly a political fact that Russian cooperation with the United States will be limited so long as many Russians worry that their leaders are being had. In the meantime, however, there is much that we can do together that will advance both countries' interests, and the Moscow summit gives us a good start on that long road.

Paul J. Saunders is director of The Nixon Center, a non-partisan Washington-based foreign policy institution. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.