One thing hasn't changed since the cold war: The top priority in US-Russian relations remains negotiating reductions in the two countries' vast nuclear arsenals.
That priority isn't easy to concentrate on these days, with financial scandals in Moscow that may involve international aid dollars, lingering tensions over the Kosovo crisis, and the onrush of presidential politics in both nations.
But high-level negotiators are making the effort. They're meeting to push the nuclear agenda forward. And none too soon: For maximum impact their work needs to succeed within the next year, before the political decks are reshuffled.
The task has two major parts. First, arriving at a much lower limit on the nuclear weapons allowed each side. Second, altering the existing treaty governing antiballistic-missile (ABM) defenses to take into account the threat posed by so-called rogue states like North Korea or Iran.
The two parts are closely intermeshed. Progress on the first should mean increased Russian willingness to move on the second. In line with that, Washington should quickly move to a START III treaty, with warhead limits between 1,000 and 2,000 - thus leapfrogging the START II treaty (3,000 to 3,500 warheads), which the Russian parliament still hasn't ratified. Moscow, beset by economic woes, favors the smaller START III limits because it has a much better possibility of maintaining that number of weapons.
Above all, Washington wants changes in the ABM agreement. The Russians have been stubborn on this, arguing that weakening the current treaty would undermine strategic parity between the countries. They have a point, but they face a reality: Given the momentum in Congress, the US is likely to build missile defenses with or without Moscow's consent.
Russia also has to recognize that if it goes along with ABM changes, it will have some say, at least, in a final pact, and should benefit from probable provisions to share the missile-defense technology the US develops.
The biggest question mark in all of this is the willingness of partisans in Congress to let the negotiating process move ahead unhindered, since relations with Russia are shaping up as a campaign issue. Successful arms-control talks take far-reaching vision. Few things matter more than reducing the threat of nuclear war.
Wise negotiators - and the political leaders that must implement their work - will fit both limits on warheads and the development of credible defenses within that goal.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society