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Icy Moscow visit underscores need for dialogue

By
Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu speaks during the Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow. Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu speaks during the Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow. Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE

MOSCOW, April 29 (UPI) -- For the handful of Americans attending this year's Moscow International Security Conference, unsurprisingly, the Kremlin's attitude toward Washington and, of course, NATO was icy, confrontational and accusatory.

Russian participants made abundantly clear to the 700 or so participants from some 55 states that the major dangers to international security are the United States and NATO. The United States and NATO were accused of encircling Russia and creating a new arms race in Europe. Further, U.S. President Donald Trump's unilateral abrogation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty has placed New Start at risk.

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Perhaps to counter the West's condemnation of Russia's illegal Ukraine incursion and annexation of Crimea, Russian spokesmen spun the highly creative and profoundly specious tale that the international order had been first disrupted not by Russia but by NATO's unlawful intervention in Serbia dating back to 1999 and the 78-day bombing campaign to end the genocide being waged against Kosovar Muslims.

To reinforce this fiction, the Serbian defense minister was given a prime speaking slot to rant about NATO's alleged war crimes in that campaign. Conveniently neglected were the atrocities ordered by former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, causing the murder of thousands. Nor was any mention made of the war crimes trials in the Hague that convicted Milosevic and others.

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Then speakers cited the 2003 Iraq War and the Libyan strikes in 2011 that set both regions afire as further evidence of how America had threatened global stability. Denying any interference in the U.S. elections or in the chemical weapons assassination attempts against a former GRU officer and his daughter in England, speakers expressed great outrage over the subsequent and unfair sanctions and boycotts imposed on Russia.

With this as background, in my two presentations, I asked the audiences to accept for a moment that I was a man from Mars sent to Earth in a Soyuz spaceship directed by my superiors to evaluate the state of U.S.-Russian relations. After listening to the litany of complaints, accusations and vituperations made by both sides, it was easy to characterize Washington and Moscow as two petulant children engaged in an angry schoolyard shouting match. The childlike comparisons did, I think, register.

Dialogue and a substantial presidential summit lasting more than a few hours to give both leaders the time for serious talks is needed. Given the sorry state of relations, with Russian animosity toward Washington and congressional anger directed at Moscow, overcoming antibodies opposed to such a meeting would be non trivial. Resisting these negative forces will take courage, leadership and statesmanship, all visibly missing in action.

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But overcome they must be.

Because of prior friendships, sidebar conversations with senior Russian military and diplomatic officials were cordial. In private, each appreciated the man from Mars analogy finding it baffling how both sides could become so estranged over mutual misperceptions and misunderstandings that led to unwanted consequences. Nor were these officials optimistic about the interest of Congress on both sides of the aisle in reversing this state of affairs. Several also mocked Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again," cynically observing that it may be too late.

In discussing INF, Russians repeatedly complained that its written offer to the U.S. State Department to allow American inspection of the controversial 9M927 missile Washington believes violates the treaty has been ignored. There is precedence. Several years ago, MISC invited NATO's secretary general. No response was received.

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When Russia's ambassador to NATO described this situation, I expressed disbelief.

But our NATO ambassador confirmed that the Russians were indeed correct over the absence of a response. We cannot repeat that foolishness, even if it takes the president to accept the Russian offer of inspection to determine whether or not the INF Treaty is being violated by this missile.

I suggested that Russia could make a goodwill gesture by returning the Ukrainian sailors captured in attempting free passage through the Kerch Straight as a means of advancing negotiations to end the Ukraine crisis.

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Trump has taken a first step in commending President Vladimir Putin for his meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Un on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps more such measures will follow.

Both Russia and America bear (unequal) responsibility for causing this deterioration in relations. Failing to act to prevent further disintegration defies common sense. Yet, it is tragic and probable that Washington and Moscow may continue to behave as two recalcitrant children throwing schoolyard tantrums and trading insults at the other. But without applying a modicum of common sense, this icy relationship could lead to another frozen conflict. Some dialogue is vital.

Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.

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