The recent arrest by Russian security agents of an American diplomat accused of recruiting spies may make it seem like the Cold War has returned. From the supposed case of espionage itself to the alleged use of shockingly outdated tools, all the elements of a classic East-versus-West confrontation (if not an episode of Get Smart) are present. But observers should not allow this sideshow to distract from the important work that needs to be done improving ties between Russia, Europe, and the United States.
High levels of tension between Vladimir Putin's Russia and the West are troubling, but not because it is likely that the Cold War will come back (it won't). They are troubling mainly because better Russian-Western relations could make it easier to resolve many of the world's most pressing security quandaries. From Iran's nuclear program to the ongoing civil war in Syria (where Russia is providing sophisticated weapons to the regime of Bashar al-Assad), if Moscow, Washington, and European capitals were all working together, peaceful resolution would be much more likely. Fortunately, there are two important steps the U.S. and its European friends can take to improve relations, even while Putin still reigns in the Kremlin.
Regarding the Middle East, the U.S. and its NATO allies should remain actively engaged with Moscow diplomatically to try to develop a unified approach to the Iranian and Syrian issues. Notwithstanding Putin's continued support for Assad, Russian interests must be taken into account when deciding the fate of a post-Assad Syria. Russia's naval base along the Mediterranean, for example, should be allowed to remain in Russian hands to help reassure the Kremlin that it need not fear damage to its interests after its ally falls. Even as the U.S. and its allies continue to rightly support the Syrian opposition, they would be wise to take Russia's point of view into account. As for Iran, Russia has previously shown some willingness to cooperate with Western pushes for international sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Washington should continue to solicit Russian support for the containment of Iran, the better to increase the likelihood of Iran giving up its quest for a nuclear weapon, or else face a united international front should it acquire the bomb.
The Obama administration should also continue efforts to reduce the size of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals. Despite some concerns voiced by the right, the New Start arms reduction treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2010 with strong bipartisan support. The next target of arms control efforts should be tactical nuclear weapons. John Nagl, a former army lieutenant colonel and a widely respected expert on U.S. national security strategy, has argued that the U.S. could deactivate all of its tactical nukes currently in Europe without any increased risk to its interests on the continent (despite the fears of some Europeans that doing so would encourage Russia to be more aggressive). If Washington were to propose a bilateral U.S.-Russia treaty banning such weapons, it would send a signal to Moscow that its former arch-rival does not wish to return to an age of hostility.
Dealing with a figure as stubborn and intolerant as Putin is never easy. Since he first came to power in 2000, he has shown a repeated willingness to be needlessly hostile to the U.S. and its allies (although the wrongheaded policy of expanding NATO after the end of the Cold War did not help the situation). To make things even worse, his regime has taken a very hard line against political dissent, greatly complicating American and European efforts to promote democracy and defend human rights in Russia. But while this is, to say the least, frustrating for those who champion freedom and openness, Putin is not going away any time soon, and the West must accept that simple truth.
This does not mean the West should give up on democratization efforts in Russia. It does mean, however, that Western officials should focus the bulk of their energies on things they can most likely accomplish, things that are in the interest of the international community as a whole: a gradual stabilization of the Middle East, and a reduced risk of nuclear proliferation. Whatever the truth in the supposed spy caper might be, there is far more serious work to be done.