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Remains of the cold war melting

Russia deepens its integration with former rival NATO, as President Carter tries to pry open US doors to Cuba.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2002



WASHINGTON

The cold war has been over for years. But it may be only now – after a decade of false starts, tentative handshakes, and bruised feelings on both sides of the old Iron Curtain – that the lukewarm peace that will replace it is finally developing.

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Since the Berlin Wall fell during the administration of the first President Bush, some of the greatest strategic issues of modern European history have been resolved. Germany is one nation again, and has been integrated into the political structure of the continent. Eastern Europe is free from domination by any neighboring great power. There's even some progress toward stability in the Balkans – albeit progress made in the wake of brutal regional wars.

Still, the integration of Russia with the West continues. And this week, that grand, uncertain enterprise was boosted by two remarkable events – the US-Russian nuclear-arms deal, and NATO's acceptance of Russia in a closer partnership.

To see how far relations between the nations formerly known as superpower rivals have come, consider two scenes that played out on opposite sides of the world this week.

In Cuba, former President Jimmy Carter met dissidents. He lectured Fidel Castro – a living icon of the cold war – about human rights. He called for an end to the 40-year-old US embargo on Cuban trade.

All-in-all, Mr. Carter focused on issues that have been central to US – Cuban relations (such as they are) since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

Meanwhile, at a meeting of foreign ministers in Reykjavik, Iceland, US Secretary of State Colin Powell smiled broadly as he shook hands with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov.

Mr. Powell noted that one of the hottest US-Russian issues was frozen chicken parts. Cheap American poultry – mainly the dark meat – has flooded Russia, hurting domestic producers. In response, Russian authorities slapped an embargo on the imports last month. They've loosened a bit since, but new shipments have not yet begun to move.

"I'm more worried about chickens going back and forth then missiles going back and forth," said Powell. "This is good."

This week's sense of a page turning in the book of world geopolitics began with President Bush's surprise announcement of an agreement between the US and Russia on a deal to slash their remaining nuclear arsenals by two-thirds. In terms of pure numbers, that's more progress than a generation of arms negotiators made during innumerable trips to Geneva.

Despite the fact that the Bush administration hadn't initially wanted a formal treaty, officials now believe the pact makes sense.

"It helps further codify and establish predictability in the long-term US-Russian relations in a way which will go beyond [Bush] and President Putin," said a senior official at a briefing for reporters.

The NATO deal, meanwhile, will allow Russia to become a full discussion partner with the 19 alliance members for a variety of issues – though not core military decisions.

For Russia, the move represented a significant improvement over its former looser consultant relationship with NATO.

Experts noted that Moscow likely sees benefit in this week's moves because Mr. Putin's main foreign-policy goal appears to be a predictable relationship with the US.

"International stability is a critical element for Putin and the Russian government to enable them to tackle [their] overwhelming array of domestic challenges, especially economic challenges," says Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution here.

IN that context, what Putin most wants from his US counterpart is not acceptance of particular Russian positions, but assurance that the US will act in a multilateral fashion, with the rest of the international community, says Ms. Hill.

That's because, given its volatile neighborhood, encompassing the Middle East, Central Asia, China, even North Korea, Russia could find itself dealing with negative fallout from unilateral US actions in, say, the war against terrorism.

Russia also wants to have a seat at the table when Europe discusses issues such as openness to trade, free transit of people across borders, and expansion of NATO and the continent's other defining club, the European Union.

"The real concern for the Russians is that they're going to get closed out, that there's gong to be a new 'Iron Curtain' .... for European expansion and all of its institutional forms," says Hill.

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