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Listening to Putin

Bush should pay more than lip service to Russia's proposal to put a missile defense shield in Azerbaijan.

June 14, 2007

THERE ARE A hundred reasons to dislike and distrust Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Three of the best are his domestic repression, his paranoid view of Western intentions and his attempts to reassert Russia's influence over its neighbors in often unpleasant ways. Yet there are also a hundred ways in which Russia can thwart U.S. ambitions. And Moscow grows richer and more powerful even as Washington struggles with Iraq, Afghanistan and other global crises.

In its headlong rush to expand NATO, to cultivate the former Soviet states on Russia's periphery and, now, to place anti-Iranian missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, the United States has fed Russia's mistrust. The Russian public is wildly anti-American, and the Kremlin is of the bitter opinion that the U.S. demands Russian cooperation on issues such as Iran and terrorism, yet refuses to acknowledge that Russia too has national interests. Kremlin watchers warn of the ascendance of hard-liners who favor rapprochement with China and expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to include Iran and add a security treaty. That would be an ominous step toward a new Cold War.

President Bush took a welcome step toward easing tensions last week by pledging to give due consideration to Putin's proposal to base missile defenses in Azerbaijan. (Bush was also smart to invite "Vladimir -- I call him Vladimir" -- to his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, over the Fourth of July holiday.) Putin's gambit could be a cynical ploy to try to split the U.S. from its Czech and Polish allies. Still, that offer and other moves signal an important change in Moscow's position on Iran, which it has never considered an enemy. International sanctions against Iran's nuclear program cannot succeed without Russia, so Putin's change of heart is well-timed.

But U.S. missile defense hawks already are trashing the Azerbaijan idea. Apparently, Azerbaijan is close enough to provide a helpful early warning of an Iranian missile launch, but too close for the midrange interceptor missiles planned for the Czech and Polish sites. If so, the technicians should figure out how to make Putin a more feasible counterproposal.

The hawks have missed the point. The missile defense they so ardently defend doesn't work yet, and no one knows when it might. The Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles it intends to intercept also don't exist yet, and no one knows when they will. But the window for a healthier, cooperative relationship with Russia is open now, and perhaps not for long. It would be immoral to appease Putin, but to spurn him would be foolish.

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