Less Rhetoric, More Pragmatism in London

3 april 2009

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: The promise by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to "press the reset button" in its relations with Russia holds promise for rapid progress in the near future as well as for dealing with serious problems down the line.

The promise by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to "press the reset button" in its relations with Russia holds promise for rapid progress in the near future as well as for dealing with serious problems down the line.

By the end of President George W. Bush's last term in office, the level of mutual trust between Russia and the United States had fallen to a 30-year low. The meaningful communication needed for at least a modicum of mutual understanding had all but stopped between Moscow and Washington. The barbs they traded over the Russia-Georgia war in August demonstrated that a continuation of this state of affairs had the potential to escalate the verbal volley with Washington into an armed conflict.

Washington's restrained reaction to the announcement that Bishkek would cancel the lease on the U.S. military base in Manas was a sign that the Obama administration was taking a different approach to foreign policy. It isn't difficult to imagine what an uproar the same decision would have elicited from former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. We now hear far fewer of the unequivocal pronouncements about democracy and human rights that characterized the former occupants of the White House and State Department. It would seem that, in addition to pushing the "reset button," Obama has decided to turn down the volume as well.

Russia's anti-U.S. rhetoric has also decreased. Whatever residual criticisms we still hear are directed primarily at the back of the outgoing administration. It is worth noting that from the Kremlin's point of view, Washington should take the first step to improve relations because U.S. policies led relations to break down in the first place. So far, Russia seems to be satisfied with the quantity and quality of the signals that it is receiving from the Obama administration.

The meeting in London has shown that both parties understand that by starting discussions on issues where their interests either overlap or are at least compatible, progress is more likely. That is why, at the first stage, talks have begun on strategic nuclear weapons and Afghanistan.

It is possible to reach a mutually acceptable decision on the reduction of strategic armaments. Some level of reductions would be advantageous for all concerned. First, it would give both sides the opportunity to eliminate unnecessary surpluses. Second, it would become the first success for Moscow and Washington in many years and would exert a beneficial effect on the world as a whole. Last, negotiations on strategic arms is the only area in which Russia enjoys parity with the United States, and that is an important psychological factor for Moscow.

It would also be entirely logical for the two countries to reach an agreement on the transit of U.S. military supplies through Russian territory into Afghanistan. Both sides agree in principle on Afghanistan, and none of the leading world players -- including Iran -- wants to see a return of Taliban rule there. At the same time, such an agreement would not require any extra effort from Russia. Nobody is asking Russia to send in its troops, and it might even be advantageous for Moscow to play a supporting role. The long-term situation with Afghanistan remains uncertain because the goal of the coalition forces there is unclear. Obama's directives vary, but it seems that the current steps are a prelude to a large, decisive withdrawal of coalition forces in the future. Russia will face new problems with Afghanistan once the coalition leaves, but that is a question for the future.

And that is the point where the easy part ends: The remaining questions on the agenda are fraught with potential conflicts.

The question of joint protection against nuclear attack is very delicate. It will be discussed last, and only if the level of trust significantly improves. Resolving that issue should be a crowning achievement, not a starting point, in the process of "resetting" U.S-Russian relations.

The situation regarding Iran is extremely complex. Moscow and Washington have different understandings of the threat that Iran poses and the nature of its ruling regime. Both the United States and Israel suspect Tehran of being irrational and religiously fanatical. Russia is less concerned about Iran's bombs and missiles and probably pays more attention to Tehran's calculated efforts to earn the status of a regional power. No matter what happens, Iran, not the United States, will remain an important neighbor to Russia, and for that reason, Moscow wants to seize the opportunity to establish relations with Tehran that will pay dividends -- in both commercial and geopolitical terms.

But this is not the main problem. It is probably impossible to halt Iran's nuclear program through diplomacy alone. (Theoretically, it is possible to imagine a sharp turnabout in U.S. policy along the lines of its reconciliation with China in the early 1970s. But the likelihood of that is not great, because theocratic regimes make much more difficult partners than do communist regimes.) The United States considers a nuclear Iran to be an existential threat, inasmuch as it would lead to a breakdown in efforts to ensure the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This means that Obama, even more than Bush, will be forced to consider the military option as a means for containing Iran's nuclear ambitions. That would create a new situation with unpredictable consequences for Russia.

Finally, there is almost no hope for compromise regarding the former Soviet republics. Washington will never recognize that territory as Russia's rightful sphere of influence because it contradicts the spirit of U.S. policy. At the same time, Moscow will never step down from its claims over those territories. From Moscow's point of view, if Russia does not obtain special status throughout the republics of the former Soviet Union, it will be powerless to protect its vital security and economic interests as a result.

Even so, we can expect some improvement in U.S.-Russian relations. Obama has shown far less interest than Bush in bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and in deploying elements of U.S. missile defense batteries in Central Europe. These questions remain on the agenda, but they have been bumped from the top of the list. Washington is trying to "sell" that as a concession to Moscow and as a deal for some period in order to clear the path in other areas.

There is, however, a complicating factor -- namely, the asymmetry of their relationship. The United States is far more important to Russia than the other way around. Here, the Obama administration must be given credit for behaving tactfully and for trying to emphasize Moscow's importance in every possible way. But an objective imbalance exists.

On the positive side, the new Russian and U.S. presidents give the impression of being pragmatists trying to find a reasonable way to cope with the burdensome heritage of the previous years. Their predecessors were unable to manage it; too many high hopes turned into deep disappointments, and personal relations took precedence over relations between states. The first meeting between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in London offers hope that now common sense and cooler heads will prevail.

| "The Moscow Times"

Last updated 3 april 2009, 11:07

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