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How to warm US-Russia relations

The US should drop its schoolmarmish attitude and cooperate.

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Such a record could include:

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•Healthcare. Russia's population is both graying and shrinking – and it's vulnerable to potential epidemics such as multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis and Avian flu. The US is well-equipped to help improve the capacity of Russia's healthcare system.

•Space. This is critical since the US will depend on Russian spacecraft to reach the International Space Station from 2010 to 2014, when the shuttles are decommissioned.

•Shared expertise on similar domestic challenges, such as migration. A deeper exchange of ideas and professional contacts would signal respect while yielding valuable insights.

Integrating European partners into areas of joint concern would also help. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism is running at an all-time high these days. Nongovernmental organizations are afraid that receiving American grants is akin to inviting the tax police in for an audit.

European countries, on the other hand, are not blamed by Putin for the global economic crisis, and are not seen as harboring hostile aspirations.

Involving other countries in programs we care about neutralizes the irritation and suspicion that Russians feel when Americans self-importantly march into Moscow, proclaiming they are ready to "teach" the Russians everything they need to know.

Leading by example will also help. Barack Obama's groundbreaking election has not been overlooked by Russians limited to artificial elections, rubber-stamp legislatures, and a compliant official media.

Soviet citizens once learned English with clandestine Beatles tapes and longed for Montana-brand jeans. Today, Russians absorb American (and global) culture through the Web, despite Moscow's attempts to control information.

In the end, countries cannot democratize others. The desire to have greater freedom of expression or association must come from within, and the institutions that develop to nurture and protect these desires must be home grown. The best we can do is to openly show what democracy looks like, warts and all.

Increasing opportunities for students and professionals to visit the US thus remains one of the best means of sharing and spreading our values. Cross-national networks of people and organizations have a strong incentive to resist the chills of isolationism or nationalism. These are the ties that have provided enduring warmth in even the grimmest of political seasons.

We need not endorse the semi-authoritarian regime to search for a common language and common ground.

We may hope for a different Russia in the future, but US policy must be predicated on improving relations now.

Alexandra Vacroux is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.