The Kursk incident was the latest indication that something is seriously awry in relations between the U.S. and Russia. In Washington, the first reaction focused on the human tragedy, followed quickly by a widespread assumption that the submarine's destruction was a metaphor for the collapse of Russia's military. Whether that's fair is another matter, and there was no "It-can't-happen-here" talk in the U.S. because it already has. In 1963, the nuclear-powered U.S.S. Thresher sank off Massachusetts, killing all 129 aboard, and in 1968 another American nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Scorpion, was similarly lost with 99 on board. An investigation found the Thresher's welds had been improperly tested: the Scorpion's sinking is believed to have been caused by a faulty torpedo. So each nation has had reason to mourn.
What's important is that tragedy does not escalate into catastrophe — which could happen if the Russian military did collapse. With Russia's economy already a shambles, a military implosion could lead to loss of control over Russia's nuclear, chemical and biological arsenals. No responsible state wants to face that nightmare, certainly not the U.S., for which engagement, not isolation, is by far the best course for dealing with post-communist Russia.
Washington has done some things right in that regard. The Clinton administration worked hard to reduce nuclear warhead numbers on both sides and to denuclearize Belarus and Ukraine. U.S. ties to the independent states in Central Asia and the Caucasus have improved. nato protection was extended to Eastern Europe in a nonthreatening fashion.
But there have also been serious policy failures. Progress on strategic arms agreements has ceased. Ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty failed. Our approach to missile defense and amending the Antiballistic Missile Treaty pays insufficient regard to Russia's concerns. Congress needs to invest more money in the Nunn-Lugar program which funds the dismantling of Russia's eroding reactors and nuclear stockpiles. Too much financial aid was dispensed to corrupt "reformers." Relations with the Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin governments were overpersonalized. Expectations were inflated: Russia is not democratic, does not have healthy markets and is not a "strategic partner" of the West. Making excuses for Russia's wars against Chechnya was a travesty.
Any healthy relationship is a two-way street, and plenty of work is needed on Moscow's lane. Concerns about Russia's tendency toward authoritarianism and endemic corruption are well-founded. For Russia to modernize, an honest dialogue with the West, and especially the U.S., is imperative. Had one existed last week, and had Putin put aside his cold suspicions and picked up his phone earlier, something positive for both countries might have emerged from the terrible tragedy of the Kursk.