A series of irritants threatens to bring US-Russian relations to their lowest point since the cold war:
• The United States says Russian companies sold Iraq electronic jamming equipment, night-vision goggles, and antitank missiles that Baghdad is using against US forces. President Putin denied it in a tense phone call with President Bush. Russia counters that an Anglo-Dutch company sold Iran centrifuges for enriching uranium. The firm rejects the charge.
• Russia has protested US U-2 spy-plane flights over the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Washington says the flights are looking for terrorists in remote areas. Moscow claims they are spying on Russia.
• Congress's General Accounting Office says in a recent report that two-thirds of Russian nuclear material and many bioweapons sites are unprotected. Despite a US-funded bilateral program to secure the sites, Russian officials continue to deny US experts access to the facilities.
• Russia's lower house of parliament has postponed ratification of a bilateral arms-control treaty that calls for deep cuts in both sides' nuclear arsenals. The upper house, however, is continuing debate.
Russia's denials of military equipment sales to Iraq may be cover for the Kremlin's acute embarrassment over sales it didn't prevent. But Moscow may have allowed the transfers, which violate UN sanctions, to signal its displeasure over US policy toward Iraq. Fortunately, US generals say the electronic equipment is having little effect and coalition forces have destroyed several jammers.
Good US-Russian relations are in everyone's interest. Washington could do more to show sensitivity to Russian concerns over US troops on its borders. Moscow is also deeply concerned about instability in the Middle East spilling into former Soviet republics and Russia itself.
But Moscow must leave behind its traditional distrust of the West, in which it sees every move as hostile. Once again, Russia seems unprepared to make that mental leap.