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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saving the Relationship

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After President Vladimir Putin said last month that Russia would not allow other countries "to poke their snotty noses into our affairs," we should face the fact that security relations with the West are in a shambles. Putin, who is fond of tough-guy slang, used the colorful phrase when he accused the United States of pushing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to decide against sending observers to the State Duma elections on Dec. 2. Never mind that the OSCE did not receive visas in time. In Putin's view, the United States must be behind the decision, and it should be told to get out of Russia's business.

Now Russia has suspended its obligations under the` Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. The government-controlled television channel Rossia announced the news at exactly four minutes past midnight on Dec. 12. This issue had long been on the table. Putin first explicitly attacked the treaty in his February Munich speech, which criticized the United States for pushing the enlargement of NATO and making plans to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. According to Putin's script, the United States had for years failed to take into account Russian security concerns in Europe.

Washington of course has its own script, which stresses that Russia is included in Europe through the NATO-Russia Council and European Union organizations. The problem is that now the Kremlin team is fed up with these methods. From their perspective, when they raise an issue, the United States and Europe acknowledge it and then ignore them.

There are several reasons why Putin may have chosen this moment to turn on his erstwhile partners. One is that he is simply being tough for the election season. This explanation is the easiest case to address in policy terms, but it still creates a crisis of confidence in the midst of presidential transitions in both countries. The successors to U.S. President George W. Bush and Putin -- or Putin himself if he is behind the scenes -- will have to reverse a serious negative dynamic, and that will require precious political capital.

A second option is that the Russian military may simply have taken the Bush administration at its word. It is claiming the same flexibility for military development that the Pentagon claimed for the U.S. armed forces when it began rejecting legally binding treaties to regulate the bilateral security relationship. This problem is more serious because Moscow may be disconnecting from the Cold War arms control agreements at precisely the point when the United States is deciding that legally binding treaties are needed after all.

The current White House is unlikely to embrace this approach, but a prominent bipartisan group has been working to re-energize the nuclear arms reduction agenda. The Reykjavik II Project, named for the summit at which Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev first stated that the world should be free of nuclear weapons, is working to achieve that goal. Treaties would have a definite role in the effort, but the United States may lack a dance partner if Russia no longer wants to engage.

A third option is that the Kremlin will pick and choose what it believes works best for them and discard the rest -- including the CFE Treaty and possibly the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which is a global ban on missiles from 500 to 5,500 kilometers in range. Moscow would continue to work with Washington on the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and important nonproliferation negotiations, such as those under way with Iran and North Korea. In that case, the United States and Europe can probably thread through the process with Russia, but here too there will be a crisis of confidence and much less predictability in the relationship.

With both Washington and Moscow in the grip of elections, what can we do about this shambles? Now does not seem the time to pursue fancy, headline-grabbing initiatives.

The best way to proceed with our troubled security relationship is through a quieter model. We should focus on tightly defining a few policy goals that are clearly in our mutual interests. Right now, the best options are:

• work through a step-by-step approach to address both sides' concerns about the CFE Treaty

• define a follow-on agreement to START that includes legally binding verification mechanisms

• create a joint work plan to explore missile defense cooperation

• develop a program to speed the denuclearization process in North Korea.

Iran also deserves attention, although it is a difficult case. High-level defiance in Tehran continues to block engagement. Nevertheless, the recent U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran is not focusing on a weapons program creates a new environment for working with the Iranians on nuclear energy development. In particular, Moscow's proposal to invite Tehran to join its international fuel services center at Angarsk deserves a new look, and Washington should participate in it.

Discrete, tightly defined projects are the last refuge of discouraged policymakers, and sadly, this is the stage that the United States and Russia are at right now.

Washington is not ready for grand schemes of cooperation, partnership initiatives, summitry and news conferences. It must simply press to make progress in a few key areas while the crisis between the two countries continues.

Rose Gottemoeller is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.