From Russia, with liking

Russia and the United States face numerous dangers and challenges that demand cooperation. Neither country wants to see the victory of extremism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or the intensification of regional conflicts spreading instability and violence. It is worth noting – especially this year, the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our countries – that we not only share common interests but, to a greater degree than some are willing to acknowledge, we share values.

There have been, to put it mildly, ups and downs in our relations over the past 200 years. Russia supported the American colonies in the Revolutionary War. During World War II, we were allies, though we later became bitter rivals in the cold war. Yet even in the darkest times, we managed to find pragmatic ways to avoid disaster for our countries and for mankind.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, US-Russian relations have been fundamentally transformed, and now we work closely together in ways that could not have been contemplated 15 or 20 years ago.

But at the moment, frankly, our relationship is not easy. Times were hard during the cold war, but paradoxically, it is no less difficult now to be partners and friends. Russians have a proud tradition of independence, and as much as we respect the United States and the American way of life, we cannot let others decide our domestic and foreign policies. Like every sovereign people, Russians want to make these decisions themselves – based on our own perceptions, interests, and priorities.

To tell the truth, it would trigger nothing but irritation in Moscow if the price of US friendship is that Russia must love everything the US loves and hate everything the US hates. The 1990s, when Russia was rather deferential to the US, are long over.

What is especially troubling now is a tendency in US public discourse to blame Russia first. Just recall how rapidly, without even examining the evidence, everybody began attacking Russia after the incident of polonium poisoning in London. In an instant, the image of a KGB-style Russia was recreated. A similar "accuse first, seek proof later" approach was displayed toward the assassinations of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and banker Andrei Kozlov. No one noticed that Russians were equally shocked by these tragedies.

Russia is frequently accused of "energy imperialism" – using its exports of oil and gas as a tool of its foreign policy. But the truth is that Russia and even, in the old days, the Soviet Union, never violated commitments to supply energy to customers who pay their bills in full. Indeed, we have supplied Europeans and other consumers with every cubic foot of natural gas and every barrel of oil that we contracted to provide. In regard to Ukraine and Belarus, we are moving to market prices, ending previous practices of subsidizing their economies. What's wrong with that?

American media and think tanks like to criticize Moscow for being out of step with the US on a number of important international matters – including, most acutely, the Iranian nuclear program. The essence of the Russian position is that we support the right of Iranians to pursue peaceful nuclear energy and oppose the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. Most important, we believe that the solution should be reached through negotiations with Tehran and not through isolation or confrontation. As for Iraq, I hope many still remember our advice to the US four years ago.

What offends us is the view shared by some in Washington that Russia can be used when it is needed and discarded or even abused when it is not relevant to American objectives. Russians do not need any special favors or assistance from the US, but we do require respect in order to build a two-way relationship. And we expect that our political interests will be recognized.

It has been many years since the US and Russia ceased to be enemies, yet we are not quite allies. Scolding and wrangling with each other is regrettably easier nowadays than doing something positive. We must learn to be friends and to cooperate in today's world. This requires give and take.

Both countries must leave aside old habits and stereotypes and, more important, not create new ones. We must work hand in hand for the security and prosperity of our citizens, Russians and Americans. The alternative – each going our separate ways in dealing with the great challenges of our time – is too dangerous to contemplate.

Yuri Ushakov is Russia's ambassador to the United States. ©2007 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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